Science Fiction Studies

#71 = Volume 24, Part 1 = March 1997

Frederik Pohl

The Study of Science Fiction: A Modest Proposal

There are well understood terms of engagement between the people who write for publication, on one hand, and the academics and critics who discuss it, on the other. Writers write. Then the academics explain what the writer has written and the critics explain how it could have been written so much better. Thus parity is conserved and everybody is, more or less, happy. Only a reckless member of either team would attempt to usurp the functions of the other.

Nevertheless, that’s what I mean to do. I would like to persuade the scholars who read SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES, and particularly the scholars who contribute to it, that science fiction is not entirely adequately served by the present sort of scholarly study and that Something Should Be Done About It.

I know this is presumptuous of me. I can only ask you to bear with me while I try to develop my argument.

To discuss this sensibly it would be very useful to have an agreed definition of what science fiction is, exactly. That boon is denied us. Heaven knows there have been any number of attempts at a definition. They haven’t done the job. I have yet to hear one that did not define into the field works that didn’t belong there or define out of it works that did.

Tom Shippey once considered the question of definition in a talk delivered to a World SF meeting in Dublin.1 After describing a good many failed attempts, he concluded by saying that the task was impossible. He said that, as science fiction is the literature of change, it changes even as one tries to define it.

It is relatively easy, on the other hand, to demonstrate what science fiction is not. It isn’t, for instance, fiction about science; some fine science fiction contains no detectable science at all. It isn’t a form of prophecy, though no less an authority than Hugo Gernsback seems to have thought it was—thus the slogan on the masthead of his first science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, "Extravagant Fiction Today, Cold Fact Tomorrow."

Above all, science fiction is not, is positively not, fantasy.

I stress this because there is a tendency, lamentable in my view, to lump the two genres together. Bookstore proprietors, librarians, and casual readers have long blurred the differences in their own minds. What is worse is that in recent years the distinction has been made fuzzier still, even by some of the very institutions that were originally set up to defend sf against all other kinds of writing. For example—

1. The trade union of the people who write the stuff, the Science Fiction Writers of America, has changed its name to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

2. The Science Fiction Research Association, the academic wing of the field, hasn’t changed its name, but it now routinely gives to works of fantasy the same attention once given only to science fiction.

3. Science-fiction cons, even the World Science Fiction Convention, habitually give comparably equal time to the other genre (though the World Fantasy Convention conspicuously does not).

Because such things trouble me I have sometimes been accused of being a fantasy-trashing bigot who hates the field and wishes to do it harm. Honestly, I’m not. I’ve read a great deal of fantasy, often with considerable admiration. I’ve even written some of it from time to time, and perhaps would have written more except that I don’t seem to be particularly good at it. In short, I do not believe that writing fantasy is necessarily worse or lesser than writing science fiction.

I do believe, though, that the two genres are quite different. In fact, I believe that science fiction is different from all other kinds of literature, fantasy included, in significant ways, and that these differences suggest that the study of science fiction requires a broader approach than that given to literature in general . . . and, specifically, than the critical approach usually given to science fiction.

Perhaps we cannot satisfactorily say what science fiction is, but still we may be able to identify some of its distinctive traits by trying to assess what it is that science fiction uniquely does.

In order to do that we may set aside for the moment the question of what the writers of science fiction write and instead examine what the readers of science fiction read, and what comes of that reading.

We might begin this behaviorist approach to science fiction by looking back at some of the history of the field, starting with the 1930s in America.

The 1930s were a seminal period for science fiction in many ways. Among other things, that was the decade that marked the beginning of the body of organized science-fiction fandom. One major development occurred in 1934, when that same Hugo Gernsback, fretting over the unsatisfactory sales figures for his other magazine, Wonder Stories, sought a way of building reader loyalty and circulation. He had tried many stratagems for accomplishing this in the past (including writing editorials exhorting the readers to buy the magazine at the same newsstand every month). Now he essayed something new. He started a correspondence club for the magazine’s readers. He called it the Science Fiction League.

This was not a particularly innovative idea. Other magazines, particularly the air-war and love pulps, had offered pen-pal organizations of their own for the same reason. But something unusual happened with the Science Fiction League. The members who flocked in weren’t satisfied with seeing their names and addresses listed in the monthly section of the magazine devoted to the SFL, or even with exchanging letters with other fans listed there. They wanted more. They wanted to meet each other in the flesh, and so Gernsback took the next step. He chartered SFL chapters in Brooklyn, New York (that was Chapter No. 1, of which I was a member), and in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities all over America and even in other countries like Australia and the United Kingdom. (The Science Fiction League is long gone, and the magazine with it; but the clubs survive. Some of them, notably the former chapters in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have changed their names but are still holding regular meetings to this day.)

This was unprecedented. No other magazine clubs did that; and stranger events still were to follow. Even meetings of local clubs did not satisfy the science-fiction fans’ appetite for in-person contact, and so they soon went on to invent the science-fiction con.

As it happens, it was almost exactly sixty years ago (as I write this) that the first sf con ever came to pass. By comparison with what we know of science-fiction cons today it didn’t amount to much. That 1936 convention was numerically tiny, geographically trivial, and temporally brief. Only a little over a dozen fans were involved; they came from only two cities; and the con itself lasted only a couple of hours. All that happened was that half a dozen of us fans from New York City got on the train to Philadelphia one Sunday afternoon. We were met at the station by half a dozen Philly fans. We repaired to a room, where we sat and talked for a while. (What we talked about is lost to history. Minutes were taken, but the secretary lost the minutes—I know this, because I was that secretary.) Then we got back on the train and went home, and that was it.

But the consequences were remarkable.

Within a few months some English fans caught the fever and had a con of their own in Birmingham. Three years later New York City held its first "World" Convention (the name a gross exaggeration, to be sure). World War II slowed things for a bit with its restrictions on travel, not to mention the relocation of so many of the largely young and mainly male fans to military service, but in 1946 the expansion picked up where it had left off. Now there are literally hundreds of sf cons every year. The World Convention isn’t a misnomer any more, since routinely there are attendees from places like China and Japan, from Australia and New Zealand, from Latin America as well as North America, and of course from nearly every country in Europe, both East and West. Indeed, many of those countries now host their own local, national, or regional conventions as well. And it all began in Philadelphia in 1936.

It might be argued that this phenomenon of periodically flocking together, readers and writers and all, is not unique to science fiction, since other literature-oriented interest groups have cons of their own. The Mystery Writers of America and the Western Writers of America, for instance, have a tradition of annual meetings; but these are different in kind, since they amount to little more than a yearly award dinner and are generally limited to the professional writers and editors in their fields. There are also such things as Pulpcon, the proliferating host of TV- and comics-cons, Star Trek cons, the World Fantasy Convention itself, and even the Society for Creative Anachronism; but in every case these were inspired by, and in fact hived off from, science-fiction cons.

There are still more sf cons than all the others combined. Moreover, it was the sf con which set the example for the others. And if we want to know what science fiction does that is done by no other kind of literature, we need to try to understand why this is so.

I submit that the reason for this phenomenon lies in the nature of science fiction itself.

Sf is a literature of ideas. Ideas are discussable. In fact, they demand discussion; and the sorts of ideas that arise from a reading of science fiction demand that the discussions be with others who share an interest in them. Thus the yearning for the company of those others . . . and thus the unique, but inevitable, evolution of the clubs and the cons and the ultimate emergence of a world-wide science-fiction community.

But that’s only the beginning. To see some of the other significant things that science fiction does we need to look outside our own community. For one example, science fiction has played an important role in the emerging scientific discipline of futurology.

Futurology (sometimes called futuristics, or simply future studies) has nothing to do with tea-leaf reading or trading astrological signs. In its first stages as a distinct area of scientific research it began with attempts to devise formal methodologies for predicting future events, including both technological and social changes. In the early days its leading practitioners were in government agencies facing the requirement of advance planning for future needs (i.e., beginning construction of infrastructure projects which required a long lead time such as urban water supplies, utilities, and transportation) and in "think tanks" like the Rand Corporation and the Hudson Institute. The methodologies they invented for the purpose included DELPHI, scenario-writing, morphological mapping, trend-line extrapolation, relevance-tree forecasting and many others. Whatever methodology was employed, what the results invariably looked like, more than anything else, was a sort of "bible" for some science-fiction story: that is, a description of all the background elements, but without characters or plot.

These early attempts at futurology had one other thing in common: they rarely yielded accurate predictions of the future. This was not because of flaws in the methodologies themselves so much as in the unpleasant fact that the future is inherently unpredictable in that way. As the leading futurologist, Dennis Gabor, pointed out, it is impossible to predict the future; all we can do is to invent it. Whatever specific "future" we will one day have to live in will be determined by events in the present; decisions made today foreclose certain possible futures and encourage others.2 So futurologists have turned to what is called "normative forecasting," in which one generates a list of possible future events, assigns "desirability" values to them and attempts to discover what sorts of current acts and decisions might enhance the probability of the desirable futures and decrease the probability of the others.

Of course, there is no more complete ready-made list of possible futures than the corpus of science fiction. Some futurologists have made formal use of it—Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute once assigned a post-doc researcher named Pat Gunkel to read the entire works of A.E. van Vogt and tabulate his specific predictions. Others have done so less overtly, but there is no question that science-fiction writings have greatly influenced this entire field.

Indeed, some of the ideas in science-fiction stories have led to actual research in "harder" science. SETI—the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence—certainly came out of science fiction. Perhaps the whole space program did as well; one of its earliest proponents, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, wrote science fiction as well as papers on rocketry, and Werner von Braun, who as much as any one individual made it happen, was enough of a science-fiction fan that all through World War II he maintained his subscription to Astounding through a mail drop in neutral Sweden. Even Leo Szilard credits the H.G. Wells science-fiction novel, The World Set Free, with some of the inspiration that led him to conceive of self-sustained nuclear fission.3

It is sometimes claimed that reading science fiction helps teach science to persons not otherwise exposed to a scientific education. That is probably true, but what is more certain is that the reading of science fiction does interest many young people in science, and at least now and then inclines them to the pursuit of a scientific career. Many working scientists are known to have been teen-age fans, including some of the best of them: for example, Stephen Hawking, perhaps the world’s most famous living scientist, as well as at least two Nobel laureates in physics. Marvin Minsky, perhaps the central figure in artificial-intelligence research, not only read science fiction avidly in his youth but, as soon as he had become a graduate student at MIT’s computer laboratory (which he ultimately headed), made a serious attempt to program Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics into a computer. (The attempt failed, but in the process clarified much about the hierarchical nature of computer programming.)

It even appears that science fiction has had effects on actual developments in the real world. (I have discussed this, along with the evidence for other claims, at some length elsewhere.)4 For example, there are reports, not very well confirmed, that the stories of Robert A. Heinlein have led to at least two real-world events. One was the emergence of Charles Manson’s group of anti-establishment thrill killers, the original impetus for which was said to have come from Manson’s reading of Stranger in a Strange Land. The other derived from the "line marriage" described in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. According to news reports, precisely that sort of domestic arrangement was tried by some people in one of the Scandinavian countries (as I remember, Denmark). The news stories did not mention the Heinlein novel as a source, but the parallels seemed exact.

Even larger claims may be justified. The environmental movement was certainly helped along by sf stories that depicted a despoiled planet; Nevil Shute’s science-fiction novel and film On the Beach may have played a part in avoiding nuclear war (so far at least); and it has even been argued (though not by me) that the novel 1984 might have contributed to keeping the real year of 1984 from being the dreary, world-wide tyranny that George Orwell described. When academia discovered the world of science fiction a lot of old sf hands greeted the news with trepidation. I confess that I was one such. What we were mostly afraid of was that the people who taught the courses in science fiction that were beginning to pop up in colleges would know nothing of the field, would give their students a false impression of what it was about, might even turn them off science fiction forever. The vision in my own mind was of the English professor who, no longer able to fill her classes in John Bunyan or Beowulf, cast about for another subject and imagined that science fiction would be the easiest to learn by the beginning of the next semester, and thus to teach. (Nor was this vision entirely false. One of my own least enjoyable classroom visits was to a school in New Jersey where the teacher proudly displayed his science-fiction library. It consisted entirely of the works of Sam Moskowitz on 19th Century authors—worthwhile books, to be sure, but surely not likely to provide a full contemporary understanding of the field.)

I no longer have that fear of the English professors who choose to teach science fiction. (Indeed, I’m married to one.) Most of those I know began as science-fiction readers, sometimes even science-fiction writers. When the opportunity to teach it arose they brought to the task a familiarity with and even an enthusiasm for the subject, and so over the last couple of decades there has arisen a substantial and generally valuable body of published scholarship about science fiction.

However . . . it seems to me, nevertheless, that this critical body of work is inadequate, because it is almost always the product of scholars whose degrees are in the humanities. If they are on a college faculty they are most likely to be in the English department. They tend thus to examine science-fiction in much the way they would any other kind of literature.

I don’t propose studies of this sort be abolished. Science fiction is, after all, a kind of literature, and it is entirely fair to apply to a science-fiction story all the standards that apply to any literary work. But what I would like to see is more scholarship devoted to the qualities which make science fiction unique.

So that is what I would modestly propose: not that the literary criticism of sf be abandoned, but only that it be supplemented by an examination of those elements in science fiction which make it truly unique. Historians of science, for example, to look into the ways in which science-fiction stories may have influenced actual research. Geneticists and molecular biologists to assay the validity of some of our wilder speculations about the future shaping of human beings. Economists, political scientists, physicists—persons with a specialty in one or more of the themes of science fiction—to look at how well their subjects are portrayed in the stories and at what effect, if any, the stories had on the outside world.

Would all this effort be worth while? I think so. If nothing else, it would represent a serious attempt to examine the basic elements of what science fiction, uniquely, is all about.


1. Personal communication. Shippey has not published the text of this 1979 talk.

2. Paper delivered to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, January 1994. I have also discussed the subject in articles for MIT Technology Review and New Scientist.

3. Szilard talk, "The Sensitive Minority Among Men of Science," reprinted in Leo Szilard, His Version of the Facts, ed. Spencer Weart and Gertrud Weiss Szilard, MIT Press.

4. For a more complete discussion of this subject, see my article in Futurevision: Ideas, Insights and Strategies, ed. Howard F. Dinsbury, Jr., The World Future Society (in press).

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