The Sociology of Science Fiction: Intro

Where was I . . .

Stableford, yes, Brian Stableford before the whole tediousness of moving on short notice to another state for another job, the culmination of an eight month project.

And so I have. But not much reading got done and even less blogging and that was further disrupted by books being packed away and some books not making the journey at all.

Since I was reading works by Stableford and translated by him, I decided to cover another of his critical works. People seem to like those entries. And, even if they didn’t, I’d still do them.

This is Stableford’s doctoral thesis, begun in 1972 and completed in 1978 and published by Borgo Press in 1987.

I’m going to do a post on each chapter. I think the work has value for a couple of reasons.

First, it is a new way of looking at some disputes in the field. (Though, looking at the last issue of Locus, I’m reminded that I am in no way au courant with the genre.) Second, I’m hoping the framework Stableford provides will provide a scaffold to view works and trends in the field in the 43 years since it was written.

Review: The Sociology of Science Fiction, Brian M. Stableford, 1987.

While working on this thesis, Stableford was supporting himself by writing science fiction novels and was fascinated by the question as to why people chose to read what they did and the effects their reading had on them. Those questions were generally met with hostility on the part of readers and some writers. (And, of course, there is, he notes, a more basic question: why do people chose to read anything rather than nothing?)

Writers and literary critics don’t like the suggestion that what writers produce “is to some extent explicable in terms of their social situation and of various social pressures to which they are subject”.

The resistance to those questions can be explained.

First, there is the notion that what people chose to read says something about themselves. This generates the well-known tendency to lie if one likes to read “low prestige” genre fiction. Thus, an explanation of their reading habits may be suspected to be unflattering to these readers.

Second, writers and critics don’t like the question because literature is a sacred cause for them. It is to be discussed in terms of aesthetics and value judgements. To cite influences outside the author is, by this group’s lights, devaluing the authors’ work. The writer is God over a private cosmos of their creation. Suggesting otherwise is blasphemy.

Stableford says his intent is not to threaten readers, writers, and critics of sf or be subversive.  However, good sociology, he says, should shatter illusions, and Stableford worries his thesis is not annoying enough. He wryly says he hopes followers of sf will be reluctant to recognize themselves and react in “pure paranoid horror”.

Stableford restricts says his discussion to works marketed as science fiction in magazines and paperbacks. He will be ignoring questions of “literary merit”.

Instead, he has focused on works of great contemporary popularity with readers. He cautions, though, he is interested in questions of literary merit. In most of his writing on sf, he tries to combine the role of sociologist and literary critic but not here.

He notes that, on the few occasions when sociologists do discuss literature, they tend to focus on “realistic” fiction.

“I have also tried to argue that it is wrong to think of imaginative fiction in this way, and that even where charges of ‘escapism’ are justified, the strategies of escape may themselves be of considerable sociological interest. I have also tried to argue that because science fiction deals so frequently with images of the future and with alternate modes of social organization, that it may actually be more revealing of people’s attitudes to social change than fiction dedicated to the description and evaluation of contemporary social situations.” 

However, he cautions that he has tried to do this without being too credulous of claims by the most enthusiastic sf adherents. 

Finally, he notes some dissatisfaction about Chapter V, “Themes and Trends in Science Fiction”, and elaborated his views further in “The Myth of Man-Made Catastrophes”. 

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