THE STIGMA OF SCIENCE FICTION
By Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson (2,780 words)
(published in Green Tentacles, June 2002)

For those of us who love Science Fiction, it just doesn’t seem fair. We are treated like second-class citizens or intellectual degenerates, if we admit publicly that we enjoy or prefer reading science fiction. Indeed, public admission of such preferences inevitably results in sighs, eye-rolls, and smirks. We are treated with passive disdain as if we had just confessed to some bizarre fetish, incontinence, or uncontrollable flatulence.

What is it about Science Fiction that has earned the contempt and scorn of other literary genres?

While it is true that other categories of literature share similar disparagement, these other genres never quite shared the esteem SF once held, perhaps because of their sheer predictability. Gothic novels have never been deemed serious, principally because they use images of death and ghostly survival toward no more responsible end than special effects and cheap thrills. Similarly, in Westerns, the good people always win. In Romance novels, love conquers all. In Mysteries, the bad guys are always “found out”. We know the world isn’t like that and these genres, by insisting on what is contrary to fact, fail to be serious enough, and so they get red-lined under the label ''escapist fare.''

Science Fiction, however, is a fallen angel. While its images were once considered prophetic visions of the future and imagination at its best, it too has been relegated to escapist trash. This is especially unfortunate, since in the decade after Hiroshima, SF saw one of the most remarkable flowerings of literary talent and, quite often, genius, in our history, particularly during an era when mainstream fiction, for the most part, was paralyzed by the political climate of the Cold War and McCarthy years.

Since WWII, Science Fiction has lost its bid to become “real literature”, even when it strives to be realistic and serious. Those who read or, God-forbid, write science fiction are labeled accordingly and ostracized from serious literary circles. At best, fans of SF are tolerated by the rest of the literary community. For the most part literary society reluctantly suffers our presence, as if we were whores attending church services, with the hopes that we might grow up, repent, and mend our ways.

Think about it. If you scan the courses in literature in any major college or university, you can find classes specializing in Shakespeare, the American Romance period, Chaucer, Victorian poetry, Children’s literature, the Southern novel, Women’s literature, and more, but rarely do you find an offering in Science Fiction. Even if you do, it is an undergraduate elective that is not taken seriously and won’t count toward your major.

It wasn’t always like this. When Science Fiction first emerged in the late nineteenth century it was considered serious literature. Early Science Fiction emerged from Europe, England and France. Authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were held in the highest regard. Even in the heyday of pulp magazines of the 1920’s and 1930’s, science fiction enjoyed greater popularity and esteem than horror, mystery, and adventure stories, without any hint of the stigma it has earned since then.

Today, however, science fiction seems to have earned a lower status than other genres. True fiction is valued and revered. Science fiction is always assumed to be the stuff of paperbacks and pulp novels. (Hardbound science fiction somehow seems an inappropriate waste of paper to most people.) While the other genres grew up and gained respectability, science fiction for some reason did not. Why?

This problem has been a topic of popular discussion at science fiction conventions for at least two decades. The change, it seems, occurred after World War II. Before then, Science Fiction had a neutral reputation. It was not high literature, but it was at least on par with Horror, Adventure, Mystery, and Westerns. After the war, however, SF’s reputation began to decline.

Some feel the popularity of science after the war was so great that virtually anything was publishable and that so much bad SF was printed that it forever “poisoned the well” against any serious consideration as a viable genre of literature. Others feel that the reason reflects deeper underlying social issues about the role of science in human affairs.

In any case, by 1959 the dichotomy between the scientific and literary communities was formally acknowledged in a landmark lecture at the annual Rede lectures in Cambridge. That year Lord Charles Percy Snow declared that there existed two distinct “cultures”, which clashed with one another. He characterized the scientific and literary communities as proponents of opposing, mutually exclusive, and incompatible philosophies.

Lord Snow considered literary intellectuals to be natural Luddites, afraid of technology and merely interested in preserving the social order and pointing out flaws in scientific progress. He claimed they were ignorant of science, but the scientists were just as ignorant of the arts. While scientists might have never read Dickens, literary intellectuals could not describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He suggested that as long as literary intellectuals could not understand science, how could world leaders hope to take best use of it? On the other hand, he asked, until scientists could understand the mirror culture of the arts, how could they hope to understand the world outside the laboratory?

His lecture was quite controversial at the time, but remember, this was the height of the Cold War and, while science and the atom bomb had saved the world from the imperialistic aims of the Japanese and ended World War II, it had also doomed the world to a very real threat of annihilation and mutually assured destruction. The debate that ensued seemed to confirm the dichotomous perspectives of these two cultures and formally polarized the two philosophical domains.

While one would have hoped for science fiction to be the ideal synthesis of these two cultures (science and literature), the genre merely succeeded in exacerbating and exaggerating their differences rather than reconciling them. Indeed, the science fiction authors themselves seemed uncertain about the role of science in society and many seemed to side with the anti-scientific elements in the two-culture war.

This ambivalent regard for science was reflected in the literature of the times, as the focus of science fiction shifted from a speculative and adventuristic nature to more outlandish scenarios of invading bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists, and apocalyptic visions of the future. Many of the most renowned science fiction authors of this “Golden Age” of SF capitalized on these themes.

Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World seemed to set a trend in science fiction that still endures. George R. Stewart’s end-of-the-world classic, Earth Abides (1949), in which civilization was wiped out in a single week by a mysterious plague, established a sub-genre all by itself known as post-holocaust SF.

J.G. Ballard’s works carried on the idea with dark, foreboding futures epitomized in such classics as The Wind From Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (a.k.a. The Burning World, 1964) and The Crystal World (1966). Each depicted the destruction of civilization by some elemental disaster. The ice caps melt in the wake of a solar storm heating up the planet and the cities of the earth are flooded; a virus that crystallizes time spreads through an African jungle, etc.

While in the real world physicists were held in high regard, possibly for the first time, in literature they were inevitably portrayed as insane geniuses bent on the domination or destruction of the world. This stereotypical image even bled into other genres, such as in Ian Fleming’s spy thriller Dr. No. Movies promulgated this theme more effectively than any other medium. Virtually without exception, all science fiction movies were disasters of some sort with alien invaders, mad scientists, or runaway technology wrecking havoc with the world.

In a preface to the 1982 anthology The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (Del Rey), Robert Bloch concluded that science fiction had inherited a stigma in the post war world. In his introduction, entitled Heritage of Horror he observed that:

“World War II decimated American Dreamers and dissenters alike. Those who survived were faced with terrifying truths. Vast power can fall into evil hands - the world can be destroyed - science, armed with biological and nuclear weaponry of its own creation, is not our savior but an omnipresent enemy.

“There was a growing mistrust of every ideology in the age of "ism" - fascism, communism, militarism, sectarianism, McCarthyism, racism, terrorism, even misguided idealism, proved no protection against corrupt leadership. In light of such attitudes the movie monsters of the thirties frightened no one in the forties. Even Abbott and Costello could easily outwit them. Their place was taken by mad scientists, prehistoric beasts, or creatures from outer space. Such menaces came in many forms, but with a choice of only two motivations - to take over the world or to destroy it.”

Even serious non-fiction works, such as Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, E. O. Wilson's Consilience, and the Tofflers' Powershift seemed to provide little reassurance that science was anything but trouble. While science seemed to have all the answers, all the answers seemed to be bad news.

One interesting explanation for this disturbing perspective of science and technology as inherently bad is that this trend was promoted by science fiction authors themselves. Ironically, during the mid-twentieth century the science fiction community became a haven for modern “luddites”, anti-technologists of the first-order. However, while the Luddites of the industrial revolution were practicing social revisionists, who burned factories and sabotaged looms in France and England, the Neo-Luddites of our day are far subtler. Indeed, many may not even be aware of their anti-technology sentiments. They fear the very technology that they embrace.

It is this ambivalence that sneaks in and poisons the lure and promise of science and corrupts to potential of science fiction. While everyone acknowledges the benefits of antibiotics, advances in transportation, medical diagnostic equipment, material science, and computers, many hold serious reservations and secretly harbor fears for the same science that has transformed and improved our world. Rather than being enamored of science, most authors seemed personally troubled by the advances and progress over the decades that followed World War II.

As noted by Thomas Pynchon’s book, Is it O.K to be a Luddite?, these authors follow a long tradition of human nature by promulgating the concept that “what you don’t understand is frightening”. Not being technologists themselves, they often portrayed the darkest most pessimistic scenarios, full of doom and gloom. Pynchon observed that:

“By 1945, the factory system - which, more than any piece of machinery, was the real and major result of the Industrial Revolution - had been extended to include the Manhattan Project, the German long-range rocket program and the death camps, such as Auschwitz. It has taken no major gift of prophecy to see how these three curves of development might plausibly converge, before too long. Since Hiroshima, we have watched nuclear weapons multiply out of control, and delivery systems acquire, for global purposes, unlimited range and accuracy. An unblinking acceptance of a holocaust running to seven- and eight-figure body counts has become - among those who, particularly since 1980, have been guiding our military policies - conventional wisdom.

“To people who were writing science fiction in the 50's, none of this was much of a surprise, though modern Luddite imaginations have yet to come up with any countercritter Bad and Big enough, even in the most irresponsible of fictions, to begin to compare with what would happen in a nuclear war.

“So, in the science fiction of the Atomic Age and the cold war, we see the Luddite impulse to deny the machine taking a different direction. The hardware angle got de-emphasized in favor of more humanistic concerns - exotic cultural evolutions and social scenarios, paradoxes and games with space/ time, wild philosophical questions - most of it sharing, as the critical literature has amply discussed, a definition of ''human'' as particularly distinguished from ''machine.'' Like their earlier counterparts, 20th-century Luddites looked back yearningly to another age - curiously, the same Age of Reason, which had forced the first Luddites into nostalgia for the Age of Miracles.”
This stigma against science, as epitomized in science fiction, remains. While technological advances have continued to transform our lives, the “dark side” of science still haunts us. The Unibomber’s manifesto against technology reflects this very real anti-technology sentiment in our society. Luddites no longer march through the streets burning businesses that employ technology, but their apprehensions are nonetheless real. Neo-luddites simply have new things to fear rather than simply losing their jobs to automated looms. Technophobes are terrified of nuclear weapons, high-tech terrorism, nuclear power plants, florinated water, pollution, subliminal advertising, mind control, genetically modified foods, mutating viruses, irradiated foods, anthrax, global warming, the hole in the ozone, cancer clusters, oil pipeline spills, big brother, and the pervasive invasion of our privacy.

If technology weren’t so damned beneficial, we’d probably decide to get rid of it all. Therein lies the root of our ambivalence. Lord Snow’s battle of cultures continues and a winner has yet to be declared. As a society, we haven’t yet decided for ourselves whether to embrace or eschew science (though we seem to be leaning toward technology more every day.)

In the meantime, most science fiction authors play into these fears, since such fears sell books, just as assuredly as they sell supermarket tabloids. Science fiction continues, for the most part, to be written by authors with little understanding or appreciation of actual science. They exaggerate the worst possibilities and generally leave the best unsaid. These closet-neo-luddite writers project their own worries to the rest of the population with dark cautionary tales, which, like Westerns and Gothic Romance, bear little resemblance to reality.

Where science fiction writers and fans could have bridged the gulf between the scientific and literary communities, instead they sometimes resemble little more than a cult of squatters camping in the no-man’s-land between the two domains, embracing both philosophies while being accepted by neither and ultimately honoring none.

While there is a sub-genre of science fiction that endeavors to be realistic (in every possible sense), Hard-SF constitutes a mere fraction of the SF that is marketed today. Soft-SF, that science fiction which doesn’t even try to be technologically accurate, is responsible for plotlines in which characters whip up a batch of nanomachines using common household chemicals and turn themselves into super-villains, or where they accidentally bump their computers, which come alive and take over the world.

Additionally, there are other sub-genres, including: SF-Horror, Juvenile-SF, SF-Porn, New Wave, Space Opera, and Alternate History. In trying to maintain an ecumenical attitude of openness about ideas, science fiction has diluted its own focus and embraced the fringes of pseudoscience, UFO groups, and even the occult. What credibility it might have once sought has been sold to achieve popularity with the masses and, like Gothic, Horror, and Mystery, SF rarely aspires to realism anymore but languishes in the absurdities of hyperbole and hype. As its detractors claim, most SF is sadly mere escapist literature.

Distressingly, there are few active apologists for Science Fiction. Earlier editors, like John W. Campbell successfully shaped much of the genre by coaxing authors to write different kinds of stories. Writers of science fact, like Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, and scientists, like Carl Sagan, were successful in building new respect for SF. But these giants are gone and the new leaders of Hard-SF, like Jerry Pournelle, Gregory Benford and Robert E. Forward, are not popular enough, visible enough, or vocal enough to defend science fiction against the onslaught of criticism and derision that diminishes it.

Most people associate science fiction with shallow, plot-devoid movies whose entire budgets were spent on special effects. The stereotype, that science is magic and technology is bad, endures. Few people have read really good science fiction, particularly since there is so much low quality material on sale written by authors who love the technology they hate. As in any genre, first class writing is rare and hard to find.

Unfortunately, most Science Fiction simply remains both bad science and bad literature. Sometimes even the best that it offers is hardly more than neo-luddite propaganda written by those who fear or fail to understand technology, its benefits and limitations. That’s why SF has been unable to shake the bad reputation that haunts it. As long as this trend toward unrealistic, technological pessimism persists, Science Fiction will likely never be considered serious literature.

It will continue to bear the stigma it has earned and won’t be taken seriously until it takes itself more seriously first.