One of the things that I love about science fiction is its myriad sub-genres. Alien invasion, cyberpunk, alternate history, post-apocalyptic, afro-futurism, time travel, space opera, LGBTQ, the ultra-unreal, and many more: there is something for everyone! And of these many sub-genres, the two largest ones divide the entire sci-fi world. Providing endless material for debate, they get to the heart of what sci-fi does as a literary genre. The sub-genres of which I speak are none other than hard and soft science fiction.
What Is Soft Science Fiction Vs. Hard Sci-Fi?
Sci-fi writers take current scientific knowledge and extrapolate forward, imagining what the future or an alternate world will look like. In general, hard sci-fi is closer to current science, whereas science fiction that gets further away from what is presently known is considered soft. Consequently, hard science fiction is rooted in the physical and natural sciences, and considered to be more realistic. For more info on hard sci-fi, see Rioter’s Mya Nunnally’s excellent take here.
In contrast, soft science fiction tends to focus more on the social sciences and be more outwardly philosophical in approach. The Star Trek franchise is a good example of soft sci-fi. The series is well-known for exploring social and political issues within a futuristic, space-opera setting. However, less explored is the science behind how most of the alien races on Star Trek are humanoid in appearance, which would be hard sci-fi territory.
Soft sci-fi sometimes gets a bad rap, because it is erroneously seen as lacking science and rigor. However, its ability to diagnose and explore the important social issues of our time is uncanny. Below are some examples of classic and contemporary of soft science fiction. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but one to get you started on your soft sci-fi journey. Happy reading, and enjoy!
Classic Soft Science Fiction
Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
Lilith’s Brood collects Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. A sprawling and mind-bending work, it features the Oankali, an alien species that saves the remnants of humanity after nuclear war destroys Earth. However, the Oankali’s terms for doing humanity a solid is to merge with them genetically, thus forming a new species. Along the way, Butler explores sexuality, gender, race, and colonialism, as the drama between the humans and the Oankali unfolds. This soft sci-fi classic is not to be missed!
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness cemented her career and reputation as a science fiction writer. In the novel, human envoy Genly Ai travels to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the Ekumen, a group of confederated plants. However, Ai struggles to understand Gethen society. Its individuals are androgynous and do not have a fixed notions of sex and gender. Through Ai’s initial difficulties, Le Guin intricately examines how concepts of sex and gender influence culture and society.
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg
Superhuman abilities are mainstay of soft science fiction. But what if those abilities unexpectedly faded over time? In Dying Inside, Robert Silverberg tells the story of David Selig, a telepath who has the ability to read minds. However, as he gets older, his telepathic abilities become unreliable and start to fade. In response, Selig finds it difficult to cope and struggles with losing such a significant part of himself. Dying Inside presents a unique and moving look at ability and aging.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
Joanna Russ pioneered feminist sci-fi writing and scholarship, and The Female Man is her magnum opus. The novel tells the story of four women who live in very different parallel timelines. As they start crossing over into each other’s times, their respective ideas about sex and gender roles begin to radically change. Check this one out; The Female Man does not disappoint and is a second-wave feminist classic.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever collects the short stories of Alice Sheldon, better known by her pseudonym, James Tiptree, Jr. Sheldon’s short stories are electrifying and masterfully composed. In them, she discusses a wide range of social and political issues, with an emphasis on sex and gender. And as a bonus, this collection includes Sheldon’s amazing novella Houston, Houston, Do You Read?, in which a spaceship with an all-male crew unexpectedly travels into the future to find an Earth exclusively populated by women. This is short soft sci-fi at its best.
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is hard to describe. Basically, the action centers around Kid (sometimes “Kidd”) as he wanders around the fictional city of Bellona. The city has been severely damaged by an unknown catastrophe and has lost contact with the world outside it. It is unclear whether the rest of the world has also faced a similar apocalypse, or whether Bellona has simply been ignored or forgotten. Delany is at the height of his powers, and Dhalgren is his epic.
Contemporary Masters Of Soft Sci-Fi
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
There have been plenty of soft sci-fi featuring generation ships, and plenty touching upon slavery, but none that have combined the two in such a spellbinding way as Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts. Seriously, this book is awesome. Solomon’s novel follows the adventures of Aster, who is trying to find out the truth about her mother’s death 25 years ago. By placing forced labor aboard a seemingly directionless ship, Solomon makes clear the terror and hopelessness of oppression in a fresh way. Read this book!
Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod
This book is the first installment of Ken Macleod’s Engines of Light trilogy. The action is divided into two separate story lines, one taking place on a near-future Earth amidst a revived Cold War, and the second taking place roughly 250 years later across the galaxy. Macleod takes his time building the connection between these narratives. Yet, as a reader, I found that the back-and-forth between the two was fun to parse out and solve. Awesome world-building and socio-political intrigue.
The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters
If you want to read detective fiction mixed with some end-is-nigh apocalypse action, then look no further than The Last Policeman. In Winters’s novel an asteroid is bearing down upon Earth, spelling certain doom for the planet. Society has fallen apart, but Detective Hank Palace is still trying to solve murder cases. Winters is good at infusing large philosophical questions into his soft sci-fi murder mystery. The Last Policeman is the first installment of a trilogy dealing with Earth before the asteroid apocalypse.
Destroyer by Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle, author of The Ballad of Black Tom and The Changeling, delves into the graphic format with the excellent Destroyer. A modern retelling of Frankenstein, LaValle sets the action in 21st century America and its legacy of violence towards Black Americans and people of color. LaValle brilliantly uses the Frankenstein story to investigate how the larger society can be complicit in racial violence and the rage that boils over afterward. Especially given the events following the murder of George Floyd, LaValle’s Destroyer is timely soft science fiction.
Blackout by Connie Willis
Imagine a world in which historians conducted their research via time travel. That premise forms the basis for Connie Willis’s pair of novels, Blackout and All Clear. The year is 2060, and Oxford University is the main hub for time-travel historical research. In the first installment, Blackout, time travel is becoming increasingly chaotic, and that chaos seems to center around World War II. You will find out the thrilling reason why in the second book, All Clear. Which is to say: if you read one, you have to read the other.
Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
If you liked Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, do yourself a favor and check out Borne. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic city destroyed by a biotech firm simply known as the Company. Rachel scavenges the city for a living when she comes across a small, jelly-like piece of biotech named Borne. At first, things seem alright, but Borne quickly grows and learns how to speak. Also, it seems to have emotional control over Rachel. She cannot seem to let Borne go, despite very clear warning signs to do so. Then things get really weird. VanderMeer explores how our desires for comfort and nostalgia can be deadly in a radically changed world. This is awesome and thrilling soft science fiction.
Falling in Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson
In the introduction to Falling in Love with Hominids, Nalo Hopkinson explains that she once hated the human species, but has now learned to see the beauty in people, despite their propensity for violence and shocking evil. The wonderful stories in this most recent collection of Hopkinson showcase the highs and abject lows of humankind. Throughout, she blends soft sci-fi with fantasy and Afro-Caribbean folklore. These stories are excellent and highly recommended.
This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
There is so much packed into Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s novella This is How You Lose the Time War. Time travel, war, treachery, and sweeping vistas of time all form the backdrop for a romance between two unlikely protagonists. Red and Blue are agents of rival warring parties, the Agency and the Garden. Initially sent to sabotage each other, they fall in love over a series of letters sent from different times. As the romance picks up, the looming question becomes what winning the war will mean, when it involves the destruction of the other. A highly engaging and lushly poetic soft sci-fi read.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang
The stories in Ted Chiang’s second collection, Exhalation, will linger with you. They crackle with philosophical profundities, moral and ethical quandaries, and ingenious devices that open their protagonists onto new vistas of experience. Yes, all of that! However, what I really appreciate about Chiang’s work in Exhalation is his ability to present well-worn sci-fi themes—such as AI, time-travel, alternate selves, and free will vs. determinism—and make them fresh and meaningful for the 21st century. This is great and philosophical soft science fiction.
Want to read more about science fiction? Check out other Rioters’ excellent work here. Also, if you are looking for your next great read, let Book Riot’s Tailored Book Recommendations service help you out! Ask our book recommenders to find uniquely specific sub-genres and you’ll get recs right to your email or door!