The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter III

My chapter-by-chapter review of this Stableford work continues.

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

Chapter III, “The Evolution of Science Fiction as a Publishing Category”, starts out with some possible definitions of sf and, thus, its origins. 

If sf is just fantastic tales, the beginning is Lucian of Samosata’s True History. If it is mythology for a modern age, one can go back to Homer’s Odyssey. If sf is a “didactic medium” to popularize science and awaken dull minds to new vistas of imagination, you can go back to Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae. If you see sf as intimately tied to scientific thought, you go with Johannes Kepler’s Somnium. If you are interested in sf as a means of social speculation, you cite Plato’s Republic as the origin point. An “etymologically-minded critic” might insist that the term science fiction loses all meaning before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. An American reader of pulp magazines would trace it to 1926 and Astounding Magazine

However, Stableford argues that it wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that enough kinds of things we would call sf were produced for it to be recognized as a literary genre, and that label basically starts with H. G. Wells’ work. (I’m not sure if his work on French romans scientifique have changed this.) 

Sociologically, there were four trends Stableford sees as sparking the popular imagination and setting the ground for the public to be interested in sf as a genre:

the revolution in transportation; the theory of evolution; the socialist movement; and the anticipation of large-scale war.

The inclusion of the socialist movement is a significant addition to usual theories of sf developing as a genre.

He says that, with the socialist movement, the nature of Utopian works changed. They were no longer for comparison with contemporary society. They were a vision of what could be done in the future. Important in this was Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward in America and William Morris’ News from Nowhere in Britain.

Jules Verne was, of course, inspired the public imagination with tales inspired by developments in transportation technology. 

Stableford sees the genre of sf moving from Britain to America and American mass production creating dime novels and pulp magazines. Hugo Gernsback thought of sf as propagandizing for science and technology. Though he doesn’t explicitly say it, Stableford would be thinking of this vision of sf – which did not carry the day – as operating in the directive mode. 

Astounding Stories of Super-Science, created by magazine chain owner William Clayton and first edited by Harry Bates, conceived of sf as a new type of adventure fiction. Stableford does explicitly put this vision in the restorative mode. F. Orin Tremaine, when he took over the magazine, pushed the idea of a “thought-variant” story and for his writers to be innovative. Tremaine thought of sf as preparing people for a world of change. Of course, John W. Campbell famously pushed the magazine further in this direction. 

Stableford sees Campbell’s claims for the type of stories he published as largely pretense. Certain authors lived up to it, but even the stuff he published didn’t always match his creed.

Stableford speculates that is the work in Astounding which has survived (presumably he means reprinted) which lives up to Campbell’s dictum best. 

Stableford thinks it is the illusion that sf comports with scientific reality that is important. He cites influential sf anthologist Groff Conklin as arguing that sf was mind opening. It wasn’t much different than fantasy or supernatural literature except it appealed to a rationale of science and technology, not religion. It’s better suited, as fantastic literature, to the modern world. The sf writer, in Stableford’s words, uses “jargon-mongering” to create an illusion palatable to the modern reader. 

Post-World War Two and into the 1950s, sf moved from the magazines into hardback books from specialty publishers and major publishers and mass market paperbacks. Sf became a film genre too. It also spread from America and Britain to Europe.  In the 1960s and with Star Wars, discussions begin to occur in the sf community “about the essential nature of the species and its goals”. This included arguments about whether the label “science fiction” with its pulp past should be abandoned and whether sf is hurt by being a popular genre. 

The last part of the chapter turns to the nature of the science fiction reader with the help of various magazine polls and letter columns. Sf always was marketed to the young. Adults may have bought the burgeoning number of titles in hardback and paperback, but they developed a taste for sf when young. He cites 1971 and 1977 Locus polls as showing a small percentage, about 20 %, of the sf audience as female. Stableford does not believe this given an increasing number of female writers and the influence of feminism. 

Stableford is not too impressed by the number of people in engineering and science who read sf. After all, he argues, Westerns aren’t written for gunslingers. He does note the high level of education among sf readers but cites a potential problem with detailed surveys like Locus uses. They require high education to fill out. Nor does he buy the notion that the unusual number of highly intelligent and precocious youngsters reading sf says anything significant about it. He suspects, and this is a major theme later on, the alienation of such youngsters causes them to seek out a literature which often deals with alienation. He is not at all prepared to say sf readers and writers are above average in intelligence though such a claim is a

deep seated conviction in the science fiction community. The egotism of several of the most famous people in the field is almost legendary.

Additional Thoughts

I don’t see too much to argue about this. I agree that the patina of rationality of sf defines it, not the occasional work that attempts speculative rigor based on actual science. I also agree that you can see a genre as being born before people start grouping contemporary works into that particular genre.

And I agree with the vanity of sf being held to be the brainy reading choice of the exceptionally smart person.

I hadn’t thought about it, but the influence of socialism in generating utopias that were calls to action (like the clubs that sprang up to bring Bellamy’s world into being) does seem significant. In the discussions of utopias I’ve seen, this distinction between a utopia being a mere philosophical contrast to the author’s world as opposed to a call for action was not made.

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