Why science fiction matters for people who don't read science fiction

By Razib Khan | May 13, 2010 4:39 pm

Mythologist of Our Age: Why Ray Bradbury’s stories have seeped into the culture:

Science fiction dates as quickly as any genre, and Bradbury is not entirely immune to this. The futuristic rocket ships he wrote about in 1950 look a lot like the first-generation NASA rockets; the music of the future is Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington; and in the terrifying “Mars is Heaven,” the planet bears an eerie resemblance to Green Bluff, Ill., right down to Victorian houses “covered with scrolls and rococo.” But the reason Bradbury’s stories still sing on the page is that, despite all his humanoid robots, automated houses, and rocket men, his interest is not in future technologies but in people as they live now—and how the proliferation of convenient technology alters the way we think and the way we treat each other.

savionoOne of the aspects of science fiction as a genre is that the masters of the field when viewed from outside of the core science fiction reading audience are often not necessarily dominant within the subculture. The core science fiction readership, those who immerse themselves in the genre, and might actually show up at a science fiction convention, are not the typical casual readers who might pick something up at the airport bookstore. They’re disproportionately male, disproportionately virgin, disproportionately young, and disproportionately nerdy, with a strong technical bent. For a quantitative overview of the reality of the demographic assertions I’m making, I point you to William Sims Bainbridge’s Dimensions of Science Fiction. For a more impressionistic “insider” view, you might check out Isaac Asimov’s memoirs. For examples of the “literature” which confirm that the audience for science fiction is really peculiar, I point you to Hal Clement’s oeuvre. His stories and novels would simply be unpublishable outside of the confines of the genre, they’re difficult to read for the typical person. Certainly there is action-packed space opera galore, socially conscious works of Ursula K. Le Guin, and authors who can be called literary stylists, such as Gene Wolfe. But these are in some ways deviations from type (notably, Le Guin and Wolfe are more fantasists than science fiction authors).

The heart of science fiction as a genre is “hard science fiction,” the other variants are to a great extent dilutions or modifications on the elements which you find within hard sf, with its outward focus on space, future orientation, and its embeddedness in a world where engineering is paramount. It is also notable that authors who become prominent outside of science fiction are not necessarily thought of as science fiction authors once they’ve achieved mainstream success. Sometimes this is due to the author’s own wishes, case in point being Kurt Vonnegut, who in his early years published in genre pulp magazines before becoming a literary sensation. Vonnegut pulled off the equivalent of going from working in porn to being a mainstream actor.

This weirdness of science fiction is due, I think, to the psychological diversity of mankind. Socially awkward teenage men with minimal interpersonal skills and no sexual experience with the opposite or same sex, but great fluency in the language of technology and science, are going to produce fiction which reflects their experiences, priorities and biases. They will consume fiction which reflects their experiences, priorities and biases. One reason that science fiction has traditionally been weak on character development is that many of the writers and readers are themselves tone deaf to the textured reality of most human social experiences (reading Isaac Asimov’s memoirs it seems clear that many of the early science fiction writers and fans were nerdy types who lacked social skills but made up for it with their raw intelligence).

All this makes it comprehensible why Ray Bradbury’s work has seeped into our culture; his works are only superficially science fiction. They have the exterior of science fiction, but at their heart they speak to the typical man on the street, not the nerds who form the genre’s core. Bradbury shrugged off his technical blunders without much self-consciousness. His errors were so numerous and blatant that fans, editors and critics such as Damon Knight took to mocking him in print. This is not to say that most science fiction is very technically coherent or thought out. Obviously it isn’t, else the authors wouldn’t be writers, they’d be NASA engineers designing FTL space ships. But Bradbury’s errors were often embarrassing howlers which went beyond the pale. But that’s fine for the general public, their focus would be on Bradbury’s abilities to write compelling characters and weave narrative which speaks to non-scientific issues. Which is why Ray Bradbury matters to the general public, and Larry Niven does not, and someone who considers themself a “crunchy conservative” and traditionalist Christian was intrigued by the possibilities in his fiction. Reality check: if someone who is enamored with St. Benedict and the Church Fathers thinks your literature might speak to him, you probably aren’t producing very good science fiction (as opposed to fiction).

Note: I’m focusing here on people who have read science fiction in book form. Not people who like Star Trek films. Science fiction films are generally space opera for obvious reasons, and some such as Star Wars really have more fantasy than science fiction elements (though there is good evidence that Star Wars took many of its ideas from 1930s space opera, especially E. E. Smith’s stories).

Image Credit: IMDB

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Comments (17)

  1. Telek

    Star Wars works because of Joseph Campbell.

  2. trajan23

    Good post, Razib. I still remember the shock that I felt when I was 10 and read THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES. It was labelled science fiction, but it was totally unlike the authors that I had been reading (Verne, Wells, Asimov, Clarke, etc.). It was not merely the bad or antiquated science (Verne and Wells were just as antiquated, not to mention prone to error) which jarred me, but his tone.It just did not feel like SF. Needless to say, I did not go on to read more Bradbury,at least not of my own volition.

    Didn’t THE SIMPSONS comment on this non science fictional tone when Martin (the smart, nerdy kid) was running for student council and promised to build a science fiction library built on the ABCS of the genre:Asimov, Bester, Clarke? When a kid asks about Bradbury, Marin dismissively states that he is “familiar with his work.”

  3. Paracelsus

    Some hard SF esoteric knowledge elitism going on here?

    What about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land or any Philip K. Dick novel or even Frank Herbert’s Dune? I would hardly categorize Heinlein and Dick as hard SF so by your definition they cannot constitute the “heart of SF”. And I don’t really feel Dune fits the hard SF mold very well either. But since many SF fans do consider them to be a core part of science fiction I would say the premise of your argument is wrong so your conclusions also must be wrong.

    I think you really need to make a distinction between science FICTION and futurism, one is involved in writing stories the other in making predictions about the future. I would say futurism’s track record is dismal, for proof just watch Back to the Future II or the Jetsons.

    Hard SF that tries too hard to be super rigorous on every little detail ends up falling short in other areas or into the futurism trap. So I would argue that Bradbury is a core part of SF despite his many technical faults. Not because he “is fine for the general public” but because of his imaginative and poetic writings.

    In Breakfast of Champions Kurt Vonnegut points out that most SF writers know little about science and I would say the key ingredient of the more timeless science fiction writers is imagination. It is hard to incorporate hard science facts into yet to be discovered technology and have a story be relevant in even ten years time.

    Anything less than perfect rigor is often disappointing in hard SF stories lacking decent writing. For hard SF writers there is often some flagrant science flaw at a different level than the unique one that is central to the plot of the novel that destroys the whole premise of the novel, just look at the biology and in particular evolution ideas in some of Greg Bear’s books. So what do you get when you take out the often erroneous and short lived technical details and novelties? Imagination and writing style.

    So a certain subset of the population finds these hard SF books to be entertaining but to the scientists in the field of study specific to any hard SF book the science often comes off as hyperbole, mundane, wrong or no longer relevant. And on the other side of the spectrum you have the subset of the population that has difficulty grasping what the premise of the book is even about. So outside of an early SF writer like Jules Verne, any way you look at it today a writer like Bradbury just has to be the “core” of what SF is really about even though it drives hard SF guys nutty.

  4. jesus christ dude, did you you google translate? that was one big ramble. anyway

    What about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land or any Philip K. Dick novel or even Frank Herbert’s Dune?

    1) dick is a classic case of the sf master who is more of a master to those in the non-sf literary world than within

    2) stranger in a strange land is kind of a weird novel for heinlein. so think that you selected that to prove your point, when heinlein is a much more diverse writer than that, usually spanning hard sf to space opera

    3) dune is a good example. though that’s space opera + philosophy + some attempt at xenobiology. so not sure what it proves at the end

    as for all the stuff about how hard sf isn’t really accurate. well, yeah, it’s science fiction. but then again, somehow it isn’t fantasy. there’s obviously a difference, which i could spell out, but you know what i mean when FTL is fake but not too annoying, or when it’s totally bizarre and implausible. and also, a disproportionate number of hard sf readers and writers are scientists themselves, or have science backgrounds (benford, brin, asimov, clarke, baxter, etc.). so the stuff about how hard sf writers don’t know science because of what kurt vonnegut said is retarded in my opinion. i mean, people like robert l. forward wrote hard sf which directly applied their scientific knowledge, which isn’t uncommon. yeah, there’s a lot of bullshitting involved. but there’s a fake science feel which has more verisimilitude than what bradbury or le guin might produce. le guin has stated she’s not too interested in natural science or technology, and finds it kind of boring, and it really shows in some of her stories IMO (the contrast in exposition of the technology or science vs. the social stuff).

    and i’m not a hard sf snob, so chill out. i’m just saying that for the literary public the awesome science fiction is the stuff with deeper characters and social commentary and all that. it’s never the weird ideas, tech and all that, where the writing is flat and the characters are one-dimensional. that’s the part that’s distinctive about the genre.

  5. JMW

    razib, I highly recommend you look up a volume called “Asimov on Science Fiction.” It’s a collection of his essays/editorials that he wrote for Astounding. In these essays, he touched on many different subjects; but the ones he wrote on science fiction, he collected for this volume.

    I think you will find that many of your theses are contradicted by Asimov’s opinions – which, as a professional SF writer and scientist, I’m more inclined to accept than yours. I find your opinions about SF rooted in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Print science fiction has moved on from that.

    To substantiate this argument, in one of the essays in “Asimov on Science Fiction”, Asimov states that when he was in his teens, he read every science fiction story published in the United States, because the market was so small. Yet in the 70s, he wouldn’t have time to do this because the market had grown so much. So, is it possible that your attitudes towards science fiction are coloured by the fact that you read the sf you enjoy, and ignore the rest? And that you discuss sf with those who enjoy the same things you do?

    As for crunchy conservatives liking, or not liking, Bradbury or Niven…appreciation of art is subjective. People are going to take from something what they will. If that is positive, they will like it. I’ve heard (retreating into film-based science fiction) that George W. Bush and many of his inner circle loved Babylon 5 (which I’ve also heard drove Joe Straczynski nuts)…because they never saw themselves as President Clark and the Nightwatch, which is what I saw them tending towards.

  6. So, is it possible that your attitudes towards science fiction are coloured by the fact that you read the sf you enjoy, and ignore the rest?

    sure.

    but let’s get clear on an issue here: what’s distinctive about sf? my argument is that what’s distinctive about sf as a genre is starkest in hard sf. the vast majority of sf today is not hard sf. the vast majority in the 30s and 40s wasn’t. quantity isn’t the point. my point is that the qualities in literature valued by the mainstream literary community are not exemplified by the exemplars of sf. instead, you have people like bradbury, le guin, dick, etc., being appreciated, because they can write, develop great characters, and often have incisive social commentary. that’s all great, but that’s general to many genre’s, not sf. it would be like the best mystery novels being the least wedded to the basic form of mystery and such.

    to be more explicit i’m saying that hard sf is the prototype of sf.

  7. and i guess i need to head off comments on this post, as it’s really hard to make out what some of you are saying. so i’ll reiterate what i’m trying to get it.

    1) i’m not saying author X is better than author Y in an objective sense

    2) i’m not saying that author X is read by more people than author Y

    3) i’m saying that author X may produce work closer to the “prototype” of what sf is than author Y

    3) all things equal, the mainstream will take more interest in, and appreciate, author Y more than author X

    4) that is because the aesthetic of works of author Y are invariably more comprehensible to the mainstream than author X

    5) i have in mind a particular exemplar or prototype of what makes sf as a category distinctive. you might disagree on the prototype, which is fine. no need to argue over it, i just don’t think that prototypes besides the one i’m pointing to are that useful

  8. Ikram

    Is Margaret Atwoood a science fiction author? Atwood does a lot of research (see Oryx and Crake), like “hard sf” in its military and engineering focus, but she produces literature, not genre-fiction. Other than the prestige of the author and the dorkiness of the readership, what is the difference between Atwood’s “SpecFic” and Clements “hard sf”?

    As an aside, pushing this “prototype” SF stuff is very Salafi. Who’s the purest of them all?

  9. Chris T

    Sci Fi has the inherent problem that it, to varying extents, is focused on the objects within a world. The technology itself is a character, if not the de facto main character. Fahrenheit 451 is not really thought of as Sci Fi, even though it has advanced (for the time) technologies, because the technology is ancillary to the plot and is simply there as metaphor. You could replace the massive wall screen TVs with almost anything else and the plot would be unaffected. Whereas in anything with hyperdrive or other forms of faster than light travel, it becomes difficult to prevent the very fact of its existence from taking over the narrative (it’s no coincidence that the Star Wars movie that is best regarded, The Empire Strikes Back, is also the one that featured an inoperable hyperdrive). Since most people are people oriented, having an object as the center of attention is a turn off.

    As a side note, one thing I’ve found is that the more I know about the current state of science and technology research and development, the harder it is for me to read most science fiction. I often find that, rather than being too imaginative, it’s not imaginative enough.

  10. SpaceManSpiff

    It’s odd that you single out book readers as being exemplars of what you consider the most retrograde element of science fiction — generally the literary wing of science fiction is the most experimental and progressive, with ideas playing out there years before they surface in movies or TV shows (in fact, many of the issues you raise were debated back in the 1970’s, with the rise of the New Wave movement in science fiction). It’s seems to be that you’re making your argument work by carefully framing what you consider to be core and non-core science fiction, with the tautology that anything which contradicts your argument is not core science fiction (e.g. “space opera…socially conscious works…literary stylists… But these are in some ways deviations from type”) This is the logical fallacy known as “No true Scostman.”

    For examples of, say, stylish space operas which are still utterly dependent on compelling characterizations and narratives you need look no further than the works of Iain M. Banks or Alastair Reynolds. Or leaf through the recent anthology “The New Space Opera.” and its sequel. Another excellent anthology series which gives a good slice through where contemporary science fiction is actually at is “Fast Forward.” Not to mention Gardner Dozois’ annual “Year’s Best Science Fiction.” I think these would provide a better picture of the state of mind of modern science fiction than relying on Bainbridge’s work, published a quarter of a century ago, (ironically, Bainbridge’s recent ethnographic book on World of Warcraft often reads like the most nerdy fan fic around) or the memoir of an author who died nearly 20 years ago. And Hal Clement died seven years ago. There’s no dispute that the classic science fiction era was often long on gadgets and short on characters — I would argue with you though that this is a fair generalization of today’s output, given the famous caveat from another old science writer, Theodore Sturgeon: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.”

  11. As an aside, pushing this “prototype” SF stuff is very Salafi. Who’s the purest of them all?

    sort of. but i’m using a cognitive psychological term.

    as for atwood, i’ve only read handmaid’s tale, so can’t speak to the other stuff.

  12. dave chamberlin

    Not to bad mouth science fiction, there are a lot of writers and books I can give high praise to, but real cutting edge science has become so accessable via the internet and a lot of books you recommend, I don’t have enough time for it. Now we even have science friction, science that pisses off the politically correct, which makes it amusing as well as fascinating.

  13. arosko

    “many of the writers and readers are themselves tone deaf to the textured reality of most human social experiences”

    I like this phrasing.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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