Science Fiction? No Thank You.

Yesterday, The Guardian published this article about how science fiction triggers poorer reading. Utter bollocks. Or is it?

Ever ask a non-science fiction reader to read a science fiction book? It’s like trying to get a four year old to try a new food. Here, try this. I don’t like it. Why? Because. Have you ever tried it before? No. Then how do you know you don’t like it? Because I know I don’t.’How do you compete with that sort of logic?

The article is based on a study conducted by Washington and Lee University professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson in the U.S., who were inspired by the 2013 study that found people who read literary fiction are more empathetic than people that don’t. The study, called The Genre Effect, used a generic text of 1,000 words that was altered in form so that one is ‘literary’ and the other is ‘science fiction’. In each case the story was the same except for setting and technical words such as changing ‘door’ for ‘airlock’ and the like.

After reading each story the participants answered questions about each story and how each made them feel. Overwhelmingly the readers identified more readily with the literary story than the science fiction version of the story. Why is that?

Where does this bias against science fiction and other ‘genre’ fiction stem from? It seems rather irrational. I mean, as children we readily read fairy tales and stories about magicians, swords in stones, ghosts and monsters. We accepted then that these things were possible. But for so many people this overall sense of acceptance in the ‘what if?’ fades to the point where they actively deride those of us that still have the ability to accept and enjoy these types of stories.

The Genre Effect shows that when people encounter a science fiction setting they turn off that part of themselves that would allow them to fully engage and enjoy the story, and thus find the deeper and fuller experience of the story. This is sad. When you aren’t open to new experiences you close avenues of experience that will lead to what could be a richer and more fulfilling life.

Kurt Vonnegut was a great science fiction writer that denied he wrote science fiction.
Kurt Vonnegut was a great science fiction writer that denied he wrote science fiction.

Kurt Vonnegut was perhaps one of the finest science fiction writers the U.S. ever produced. He railed against the anti-science fiction bias and the sentiment that “no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works.” 1 But even he was keen on shedding the science fiction label so, according to Frederik Pohl, he could achieve greater commercial success.

Author Margaret Atwood actively denies that her writing is science fiction, classifying it as speculative fiction. She claims, “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” 2 A funny sort of stance to take from someone that accepted the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was nominated for both the Nebula and Prometheus Awards for The Handmaid’s Tale. Isn’t all fiction speculative, science or not?

Cover of The Handmaid's Tale. Science fiction? (c) 1985 Bantam Publishing
Cover of The Handmaid’s Tale. Science fiction? (c) 1985 Bantam Publishing

When authors who are clearly writing science fiction, deny what they are writing is science fiction, how can we expect readers to accept science fiction as a legitimate form of literature? How are we, as science fiction (and fantasy and genre) readers to educate the typical ‘literary’ reader to the marvels that science fiction has to offer?

Fantasy has made great inroads in this already. With the success of the Harry Potter franchise in the mainstream, people were ready to accept The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film franchises. In turn the Game of Thrones series has gone a long way to legitimize fantasy as a whole among the literary reader. Yet science fiction hasn’t had that spark that has allowed it to propel itself into the imaginations of the mainstream reader.

When science fiction is discussed among the literary readers I know they immediately say it’s childish, and technical, and geeky/nerdy. They seem to feel science fiction is about science and not about great storytelling. We know that is simply not the case. The science in science fiction is there just to allow a greater range of unique and interesting options in telling the story. It doesn’t matter how lasers or warp drive technologies work, just that they do and that they have an impact on the story.

Much of this anti-science fiction bias, to me, stems from fear. Fear that the reader won’t understand what they’re reading. Fear that the writer is somehow trying to patronize them. Fear that other people will see them reading science fiction and scoff. This fear allows them to dismiss hundreds of extremely well thought out and well written pieces of literature. Yes, literature. It also offers them a sort of comforting solidarity with other literary readers. They can sneer down at science fiction together and congratulate themselves on hating science fiction.

If this is what happens when an unfounded bias towards something occurs, then I guess the authors of The Genre Effect are absolutely right. Science fiction can trigger poorer reading. But this is a bad way to put it too. It makes it seem like reading science fiction makes you somehow dumber. It should be more properly stated, I think, that reading science fiction with a bias makes you read science fiction poorly. No matter what you read, genre or literature, if you read it in a half-hearted or sloppy manner you won’t get much out of it.

Well, to those of you that think you hate science fiction I say you’re the ones losing out. There are so many worlds that you’ll never discover and experience. You’ll never stand on the dunes of Arrakis, or live under the domes of Mars, or travel to giant rings and orbitals to wander on their strange and wonderful surfaces. For that loss, I feel sorry for you. Truly.

  1. Boomhower 1999; Farrell 2009, pp. 8–9; Marvin 2002, p. 25
  2. Potts, Robert (April 26, 2003). “Light in the wilderness”. The Guardian.

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