The Sciences

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

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 14, 2010 1:39 AM


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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.

One 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'soeuvre. 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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