There has for some time been a movement in the Science Fiction genre called “Hard Science Fiction”, which wikipedia defines as:
“Hard science fiction is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both.” Source.
(I’ve also heard it described as “solving the problems of tomorrow with the technology of today”, which is equally silly.)
Now the key words there are emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, which is where everything goes horribly wrong. For you see, the problem with science is that it’s not set in stone, like everything related to human knowledge it’s constantly evolving, and what we know as “fact” today may be thrown out tomorrow. If I wrote “Hard SF” during the 1950’s, almost everything I wrote then would look horribly wrong and antiquated by today’s standards because it would be based on 1950’s scientific and technological understanding of things. Why do people seem to think that things are any different now? Are we really that much more “knowledgeable” because we have fancier computers now?
The moment you leave the present, and try to project yourself into the future in any way, you’re leaving reality as we know it behind. The future can and will be stranger than we can even guess at, and with the slightest little twist everything can be turned upside down. (“Oh, so that’s how you control gravity!”- bing! Instant potential for space colonies and space travel to other worlds.) It’s pure temporal arrogance that makes us think that “now” is the best time and that somehow it will be what we know and can do now that will be the template for the future. Rubbish! Even trying to extrapolate from what we know and can do now is a joke, for in 25 years (or less) everything will be so radically different we can’t even predict the outcome.
So, if that’s the case for 25 years, how do you write stories that take place in 250 years and claim they’re “hard science fiction”? Unless, by some weird quirk of fate, we really are the pinnacle of civilization (in which case we’re screwed!), anything you write is pretty much pure Fantasy. (Or “Soft Sci-Fi”, as the nerds like to call it.)
So the obvious question is- where did the Hard Sci-Fi/Soft Sci-Fi dichotomy come from? If most Sci-Fi is really just forms of fantasy, why did these ideas and movements appear? As usual, the answer is human nature. Even if you’re a nerd, you want to differentiated from other nerds, and you want some label you can associate yourself with so that you can look cool in your social circles. (“Science Fiction? I’m not into the stupid stuff- I only read HARD science fiction man.” ) And to take it the logical step further, there’s now a movement called Mundane Science Fiction for the people who felt Hard Sci-Fi wasn’t “hardcore” enough. It’s like a bunch of nerds trying to compare street cred! (“Yeah, well my sci-fi is so mundane, I only read stories about technologies that were invented a decade ago!)
Now I understand the desire for them to differentiate styles of science fiction from each other, and to try to come up with labels like Hard SF to get the non-fans to try and respect what they were reading. (“There’s no aliens in this, it’s hard SF! Based on real science!”) But in the end, it’s just smoke and mirrors, the truth is Science Fiction, like Fantasy, is the realm of dreams and hopes, and trying to label dreams is just like like catching clouds- even if you catch them, they vanish in a puff of smoke.
This doesn’t just apply to Science Fiction, by the way. There is now “Hard Fantasy” and “Soft Fantasy” as well, which basically represent Fantasy settings with and without magic, respectively. At least there the label makes sense, after all, life in a medieval Fantasy setting without magic is indeed pretty darn hard!