GUEST POST: An Alternative to Science Fiction’s Axis by Alexander Macris

Tuesday , 28, March 2017 5 Comments

I recently read an essay by Jeffro Johnson about the term “hard sf” and it prompted me to think through whether or not I agreed with the use of that term. I concluded I don’t.

So I propose that the “hardness/softness” axis be replaced with a pair of axes, “internal consistency” and “level of imagination.”

“Internal consistency” is the extent to which the story follows whatever its universe’s rules are with consistence. Stories with high internal consistency have a “canon” or “story bible” that they adhere to in consistently.

“Level of imagination” (or “Left to the Imagination”) measures how the story presents the rules of the universe. Low level of imagination means that the rules of the universe are spelled out to the reader in concrete detail. High level of imagination means the rules of the universe are left vague in the story (regardless of the extent to which the author has worked them out.)

HIGH SF: High IC, High LOI. Consistent, Imaginative. The universe makes sense given its author’s assumptions, but the story is driven by action and plot. The rules and science are in the background, not the foreground. Since they are consistent, a careful reader could “reverse-engineer” what’s going on or what the “laws” are at work if desired, but enjoyment of the story does not typically depend on the reader or protagonist caring about the rules.

CONCRETE SF: High IC, Low LOI: Consistent, Concrete. The universe makes sense given its author’s assumptions, and the enjoyment of the story arises in part from seeing how the universe works, or watching the protagonist use the rules to win (e.g. 3 Laws of Robotics gimmicks). The best “hard SF” falls into this genre. Note that it is irrelevant whether the science is compatible with our real-world science, only that it is internally consistent for the world.

POP SF. Low IC, High LOI: Inconsistent, Imaginative. The basic rules of the universe are routinely ignored or violated (e.g. Star Trek ships that move at the speed of plot, wildly inconsistent hyperspace travel times). This type of sci-fi often emerges in comics and cinema where joint authorship of a shared world across multiple media leads to inconsistency.

TRASH SF: Low IC, Low LOI: Inconsistent, Concrete. The basic rules of the universe are provided in detail, yet nevertheless are inconsistent. This is the sort of pablum that aspires to be “hard science-fiction” but cannot be taken seriously or enjoyed because it either makes gross errors in attempts to be consistent with real science, or has inconsistent or absurd universal rules, or has its protagonist act in ways that make no sense given the rules.

Assuming a 1-10 scale where 10 is consistent/imaginative, I’d rate some popular franchises as follows:

Star Wars: Consistency 4, Imagination 9. It’s pure Pop SF. It doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, but it’s fun.

Star Trek: Consistency 4-6, Imagination 4-6. Good Star Trek episodes tend to be Pop SF (with lots of action) or Concrete SF, with intelligent characters solving problems through science. Bad Star Trek episodes that combine technobabble with warp speed of plot shade into Trash SF (low consistency, low imagination).

Princess of Mars: Consistency 7, Imagination 8. High SF.


  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    Hmm…I like this notion. Certainly more useful than talking about “genre.”

  • Dan Wolfgang says:

    It occurs to me that Jurassic Park would be an example of Concrete SF, while Westworld would be High SF. In Jurassic Park, they explain pretty well how they bought back the dinosaurs, but the inner workings of the robots in Westworld are left more or less to the viewer’s imagination.

  • deuce says:

    This certainly has at least as much validity/utility as the “Mohs Scale” we’ve been told about.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    It’s a Pournelle Axes for SF. More specific and descriptive and ultimately fruitless. The Pournelle Axes failed because no one uses them. No politician wants to admit to being a statist or an anarchist, nor do they ever want to admit that what they advocate isn’t strictly rational but, based on intuition. Same thing will happen here as a lot of authors will not want to admit their story has inconsistencies or isn’t very imaginative.

    And, second, fails because, the second degree of freedom eliminates black/white argument. People want either/or arguments. It just shuts down argument if you can just place a particular work in a general area of the chart. “This story sits about here.”; “Well, yeah, but, I would slide it a bit down and to the left.” This sort of discussion just doesn’t have the verve of: this isn’t this/is too. We are simple minded creatures.

    So, totally great approach and a tool set a clever author can use to calibrate where he wants to place his fiction. Kudos to Mr. Macris, it really is an excellent approach but, way too rational for “reasoned” debate.

  • Brian, that’s the kindest criticism of failure I’ve ever received – thank you! As an enormous fan of Pournelle I can only accept the critique with a grin.

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