Hard Historical Fiction vs Soft Historical Fiction

I had a conversation on Twitter recently with a writer of historical fiction. He had a dilemma and was looking for advice. He desperately wanted to use a specific word, but it hadn’t been coined until one year after his story took place.

I suggested that he follow the lead of bestselling historical fiction writer Conn Iggulden and simply note in an appendix anywhere in which he was knowingly historically inaccurate and why he had made that decision. I’ve found Iggulden’s notes to be interesting and revealing about the writing process, as well as giving me some history.

This writer replied that he would not do such because he writes historical fiction, not historical fantasy.

And that’s fair, power to him. I’m not in any way criticizing that decision. I respect it.

For me this was the revelation that there’s “hard” and “soft” historical fiction genres much the same way there are hard and soft science fiction genres (with soft science fiction often being called science fantasy by fans of hard science fiction).

Although I’m hard-pressed to name a hard scifi story (pun, huh), other than The Martian, soft sicfi is easy to point out: Star Wars. The ‘soft’ aspects include faster-than-light travel, death stars… the actual fantasy aspects are easy to see, too: Monks with flaming swords, telekinesis, and mind controlling abilities.

Hard scifi only uses established science in its story. Most science fiction is not ‘hard’, even stories that strive to be often fail at some point. Even The Martian failed, as the inciting event, a devastating sand storm, isn’t actually possible on Mars (The movie adaptation also fails in depicting Martian gravity – hard scifi is hard to write).

Oddly, stories that are not science fiction tend to be truer to science that hard scifi simply because they generally don’t touch on it at all. YouTube keeps trying to get me to watch a video called “The most scientifically accurate movies” and of course its default image is The Martian. But I bet that When Harry Met Sally is 100% scientifically accurate. In fact any RomCom that doesn’t involve some kind of magic is probably more accurate than almost any scifi movie.

This would hold true for books, too. Your basic romance novel, that doesn’t delve into things like firefighters at work, probably has less scientific inaccuracies than The Martian. I’d bet that The Kite Runner has less scientific inaccuracies than The Expanse.

Many hard science fiction enthusiasts claim that any use of aliens breaks the code. The Expanse does this. It also uses those aliens to allow for interstellar travel by having them gift us their abandoned wormholes. But it fails much earlier anyway. The astronauts travel from planet to planet in our solar system using a high velocity engine that defies current physics and survive the gee forces by consuming magical serums.

Some science fiction writers try to hold themselves to a standard that is almost impossible to keep and still tell the story. Which is fine, that’s their choice. But you’ve got to be at peace when the needs of the story conflict with current scientific understanding, and not see it as you failing, because by that standard, you’re going to fail.

Now I know someone trying to do the same in historical fiction, to the point of obsessing about whether one single word’s origin within 12 months of the setting of the events destroys the accuracy of his story. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. I’d be worried that there’s some other word I’d used without realizing that it was modern, or that its meaning had shifted.

Not to be either too pedantic or obvious, but words shift meaning quite rapidly. An example from within my own lifetime is the word ‘gay.’ When I was young, it meant ‘joyful’. Here are two examples of it used in that context.

The second verse of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the Yule-tide gay
From now on
Our troubles will be miles away

The ending of the theme song to the TV cartoon The Flintstones:

When you’re with the Flintstones
Have a yabba dabba doo time, a dabba doo time
We’ll have a gay old time
We’ll have a gay old time

I guess my point is it’s almost impossible to be one hundred percent correct in either historical or scientific accuracy. If you do achieve that, you’ve truly achieved something, but if you fail, and you probably will, don’t tie too much of your identity in success that failure hurts you.