I tried perusing TvTropes to see if they had a Sliding Scale to describe exactly what I was thinking of, but alas, they do not. So it falls on me to write this blog post!
Originally, this article was going to be about a phenomenon within Horror and Fantasy, but I think that Sci Fi fits as well.
This started with the idea of Soft vs Hard Fiction. Hard Fiction operates under the guise that everything in the world can be explained or operates on known rules or rules that can be figured out by the end of the book. Mistborn is Hard Fantasy. The Martian is Hard Sci Fi. The Ring is Hard Horror.
Soft Fiction is the opposite. The rules (or laws of physics) are not treated as important. Powers may be inconsistent or hand-waved away. Lord of the Rings is a Soft Fantasy. The Matrix is a Soft Sci Fi. Event Horizon is Soft Horror.
As I was categorizing media like this, I realized that these terms are not what I wanted to use. For one, the idea of Hard Sci Fi already exists, and both fits and doesn’t quite fit… So, back to the drawing board.
This all started from trying to explain a story I was working on for Tales from Another World, Volume 3 (coming sometime late 2021). In the story, The Faceless Man, an eldritch being torments a village and it is up to the village elder to convince it to leave them alone. I was trying to describe two sides of a sliding scale, on one end lay the familiar and the easily explained. On the opposite end lay the unexplainable.
From now on, I’m going to refer to this scale as the Sliding Scale of Explainability vs. Wonder.
So let’s try our dichotomies again: Hard Fiction fits on the Explainability side of the scale. These stories are operating on the laws of the known universe or by rules that are explained within the scope of the story. Many times, figuring out the governing laws of a story is one of the driving factors (like in Progression Fantasy).
But the other end is where things get weird, and this is ultimately what started me down this thought experiment. Eldritch Horror and stories that focus on Wonder are ultimately one in the same thing. These types of stories tap into our childhood wonder and fear—that sense of not knowing what is going on is super important.
For this side of the scale, I want to compare the vibe of HP Lovecraft’s Eldritch Horror Stories and that of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Let’s do this.
First, let’s acknowledge how important perspective is to The Lord of the Rings. The vibe of the story would be completely different if it had focused on and followed Gandalf. Gandalf would know all the lore, have all the answers, and probably not fear most creatures he came up against. Gandalf would be able to explain almost everything. By following the hobbits, we’re given much less information. Everything is magical and wondrous precisely because of the hobbit’s perspective. By the end of the story, sure, they’ve seen a lot, but it’s not like Vin from Mistborn learning all the ways that Allomancy works.
This is remarkably similar to the principles of Eldritch Horror and why it’s so different from the usual haunted house stories. In a haunted house story, everyone knows what ghosts are and what they can do. Hell, sometimes by the end of the story the main characters have found the disturbed bones and given the dead a proper burial, ultimately putting the spirit to rest. In HP Lovecraft’s stories, very little is known or explained—let alone resolved—invoking that same element of wonder, albeit through the lens of Horror. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that stories on either side can’t have awesome moments or even Rule of Cool moments. I’m merely speaking in terms of how important knowing the rules is to a story. In Explainable/Hard Fiction, knowing the rules is paramount—if the reader/characters don’t know the rules at the onset, then we will learn them by the end. Conversely, in Wonder/Soft Fiction, not knowing the rules is even more important—the readers/characters are not meant to know the rules, and finding out the rules would completely change the tone of the story.