The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter II

My look at Brian Stableford’s doctoral thesis continues.

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

In the Chapter II of the book, “The Analysis of Communicative Functions”, Stableford looks at how the directive, maintenance, and restorative communicative functions work in sf.

Stableford says you would think that sf, deemed escapist fiction, would all be done in the restorative mode, but that’s not the case. Only a naïve, very inexperienced sf reader would think that. 

The crucial task would be to ask sf readers what they get out of reading the genre. 

There is, however, a sociological problem with creating a questionnaire to do that since it runs the risk of creating data artifacts. Fortunately, American sf magazines have long had feedback by readers in their letters columns. There is a problem of “content analysis” in regard to sorting sf into the three communicative categories.

Directive and maintenance are easy. Directive content is novel. Maintenance is familiar. 

Restorative is harder to pin down. Stableford says that, rather than using individual texts, he will do content analysis by theme. 

The problem with identifying the directive function is that, while an author may have intended to teach something, provide some insight, it’s hard to pin down whether that’s what a reader took away from that work. One can certainly not take literary critics word on what are “important” texts in terms of reader reaction. 

Stableford prefers an approach based on that of science historian Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn says we learn theory based on specific examples. Books cannot be examined like cadavers with no interaction with the living. Stableford contends that, for a theme to be directive, depends on its “novelty and uniqueness” being perceived by readers. Unfortunately, even sociologically examining the directive function in literature ends up being more like literary criticism than physics.

The maintenance function is easier to spot. It must use common themes and be repetitious. It lends “emotional support to moral judgments, value judgments, and convictions about the way facts relate to each other.” 

Didactic fiction often fits in this category. Fiction in the maintenance mode often reinforces a conventional moral view. These works have harmonious resolutions. This sort of fiction often presents the world as it ought to be. Maintenance works tend to be written to formulas. They must, by definition, be mass produced.

Literary genres, says Stableford, are noteworthy for specific resolutions which bring order out of chaos and provide harmony. Sf is peculiar in that in provides an extreme amount of possible resolutions in maintenance mode and variant resolutions come into being and decline rapidly in popularity.

At the end of the section on the maintenance function in sf, Stableford warns that it is easy to place works in this category – too easy.

In discussing the restorative function, Stableford says we need to ask why readers prefer one fantasy world over another. After all, in sf, none of the worlds are real. Perhaps readers chose those worlds because they are a “negative image” of reality.

Stableford asks about the particularities of readers’ preferences? Why do they prefer a particular genre or even a particular sub-genre or even a particular author with often great devotion? The same question can be asked of devotion to certain series. Stableford engages in a bit of blank slatism when noting the reading preferences of men and women. He claims they differ not because of innate biology but because of “differences in social roles and social situations”.

Stableford notes that popular fiction can be neatly divided into his three categories. Nearly all popular fiction works in both the maintenance and restorative modes. Plots may be moralistic like maintenance fiction but restorative in their settings. (He cites J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings here.) He holds this fusion takes place in romance fiction especially. He notes feminist critiques of romance fiction see it as enslaving women with a “sexual religion” that is the “opiate of the supermenial”, at least according to Germaine Greer. The problem with that, says Stableford, is that romance readers already know their fiction is unrealistic, but it’s still a desirable fantasy. We don’t have to believe in a piece of fiction, says Stableford, for it to serve the maintenance function. 

He thinks the sociologist must explain what frustrations with their reality make readers read what they do in maintenance and restorative popular fiction.

Stableford concludes this chapter by talking about “misreading”. Like Wiebe, he thinks that messages intended as directive by an author may be ignored or misunderstood by a reader. That is particularly true with tv and movies. However, reading doesn’t work the same way. We pause in our reading. We re-read. (Obviously home video has perhaps changed this.)

Most of the time, thinks Stableford (noting, wryly, that this is a perennial source of frustration and dissatisfaction for authors), readers don’t get the directive messages authors intended. 

He says there is another problem, too, though it can be largely ignored in this study: works of formula maintenance function can serve as directive works when they are the first works encountered in a particular genre. This is particularly true of sf whose readers often compare their first exposure to it as a revelation. There is also the fact that two readers can take away two things from the same book. One or both is either refusing a possible directive message in it or misinterpreting it.

In sf, Stableford believes, this can be explained by different reader preferences in restorative messages or differing allegiances to the “values and attitudes” in the maintenance function of the text. He doesn’t consider the problems of “misreading” to be significant to his methodology, though.

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