The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter IV

My look at Stableford’s work continues.

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

In Chapter IV, “The Expectations of the Science Fiction Reader”, Stableford tries to discover what sf readers get out of the genre. He looks at three questions: what sf readers say they get out of the genre, how the various definitions of sf serve as rules for composing sf works, and what writers and apologists of sf say about the genre’s function and value. 

Stableford argues that the whole question of science fiction as a genre is that reading a work of sf is different than reading another sort of novel. That’s what defines the genre. He quotes Darko Suvin as defining a genre as a system of expectations, based on prior reading experience, of a particular type of material. Even innovations in the genre are just an evolution of expectations based on past experience with sf.

What are those expectations? To get an idea, Stableford turns to the letters columns of sf magazines. There are a couple of methodological problems with this acknowledges Stableford. 

These are, first of all, a self-selected sample, and, of course, not all the letters received were printed though Stableford notes early sf pulps frequently had letters insulting certain stories.

Second, the editorial suggestions from these letters were not frequently taken up. The opinions of the vastly larger number of readers who didn’t write still affected sales. An example is when some readers complained about lurid colors on covers. So William Sloane did pastel covers for a few months in 1933, and sales dropped.

Stableford contends the sample letters he chose are not atypical in their sentiments, just their “over articulateness” and exaggerations. 

What comes across is that the first exposure to sf, to these readers, was akin to a religious experience. They perceived they had, at last, come across a great secret, a truth, a new way of seeing the world. Sf, for these readers, sets the present world in a new context, creates a “gestalt shift”, a “breakthrough to new concepts”. He also notes that today’s readers (even more so over 40 years later) can’t experience the first sf they read in the same intense way because sf concepts are much more prevalent now outside of sf. 

The sf reader wants “great vistas in time and space, not necessarily made explicit but suggested”.  He notes that some of the most beloved classic sf tales, like Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” and James Blish’s “Surface Tension” are about such shifts. 

Stableford quotes from an essay by David Kyle, who went on to be a major fan, small press publisher, and author of sf, called “Why do you read Science Fiction” [sic] published in the May 1935 issue of Wonder Stories. It opens, at least in the quoted section, with the common superiority and condescending attitude of the sf fan

The common people of the world have been noted for their obsolete views concerning the advancement of science; despite persuasion, they will not swallow anything that is beyond their infinitesimal brains. But science fiction changes that . . .  

Kyle then goes on to talk of sf as an “opiate”, how it makes him ponder the universe, grasp and whirl him to the realms that “dominate the cosmos”.

“It is a that is intelligent and educates, not towards the bad or immoral things, but for the advancement of the people of the world.” 

Stableford notes that Kyle was a guest of honor at a 1976 sf convention where he

gave a speech condemning modern science fiction for betraying the kind of ideal set out in the essay, by becoming pessimistic and permitting the expression of immoral ideas. 

Stableford says the striking thing about Kyle’s essay is its metaphors of size which also show up in Isaac Asimov’s recollections about being introduced to sf as recounted to his introduction to James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds. Besides telling us that ten is an impressionable age, Asimov’s piece talks about the glamor of sf, an idea recounted by Donald Wolheim talking about being introduced to sf during the Depression, how it gave him “infinite horizons” and “out-glamored the sun”.

Stableford makes two observations about this response to sf. 

First is that is “reached through stories rather than found in them”. This required lurid writing and bold strokes and subtlety was at a disadvantage in writing sf. “The stories, individually, were largely heuristic devices.” 

The second is that this need for novelty and immenseness loses its power over time. Some readers drift away from the genre after the initial thrill. The strength of the sensation for “infinite horizons” is that it is so vague and mysterious. Readers who continue to read the genre find it after their initial exposure though usually in a muted fashion. 

The key point, though, is that the first exposure to sf is reading in the directive mode. Continued reading is in the maintenance mode. A feature of the maintenance reading of sf, for the young, is that it puts the powerless and non-specialness they feel in a larger context. It is not just the young reader but all of civilization and the Earth itself that may be at risk. 

So, asks Stableford, what things do sf readers seek out in their maintenance reading. He turns to the letters columns of pulps again. 

The impression one gets is that the readers didn’t like familiar ideas used over again. They also placed an emphasis on the illusion of plausibility in stories. 

But for the reader, plausibility is a much more impressionistic quality. If a story strikes him as plausible, then it is good, it is useful, and the extent to which it can be mined for nuggets of scientific information is really irrelevant. 

What strikes a particular reader as plausible varies. “The illusion of plausibility” is necessary for a sf reader to enter those infinite horizons.”

For sf writers and editors, the problem is that what creates this illusion varies from reader to reader and depends on things like when they read the story. 

The strategy of using familiar ideas is the one almost certain to commercially fail.

“Only innovation could reinforce the sense of illimitability so crucial to the world-view of science fiction.”

Stableford uses an evolutionary metaphor to examine the necessity of sf, unlike other popular literary genres, to innovate. (Stableford notes that Sam Moskowitz made a whole career of tracking down the first uses of an idea in sf.) Older, long-term readers of sf may complain about sf lacking vitality. This highlights a problem of the genre: it requires constant innovation but also stories that maintain that illusion of plausibility. The innovations that some long-time readers demand of the genre are often meant by “hostility” by a “considerable fraction” of other readers.  Adherence to real science and technology is difficult. Real innovation in sf must contend with the requirement to still be “comfortable”. 

Sf is an “anomalous genre” because, while read for maintenance, its exemplary forms must change form over time. 

Stableford then talks about the many definitions of sf (including talking about William Wilson’s first use of the term) and how they usually touch on the issue of scientific plausibility. Wilson and Edgar Fawcett both defined a genre they thought should exist. Brian Aldiss’ definition is perhaps the most expansive.

Some definitions touch on the utility of sf. In the 1960s and 1970s, as sf became more popular, major literary figures attempted definitions.

Critic Leslie A. Fielder gets a short reference. In his Love and Death in the American Novel, sf was a “characteristically Anglo-Saxon form of ‘horror pornography’”. (Sounds like ethnic animus to me.)  In Waiting for the End, sf suddenly got stamped with his approval (again in the best ethnic terms) as an “expression of pseudo-Messianic expectations and “typically Jewish”.

C. S. Lewis, in “On Science Fiction”, argued for sf enlarged one’s consciousness and expanded our imagination. Stableford comments that this view places enlargement of consciousness as a maintenance function, but expansion of imagination serves a restorative function as, indeed, The Lord of the Rings by Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien aimed to do. 

Stableford also talks about another sf “apologist” critic, Robert Scholes, who relabeled sf as “structural fabulation”. Scholes interestingly noted that fabulation is a form long used by religious thinkers. (This is useful in noting the religious overtones of some sf works and sub-genres.) Fabulation comes in two varieties: speculative and dogmatic. Structural fabulation is a type of speculative fabulation influenced by the scientific view of the world as being composed of various systems. Structural fabulations are not scientific or a substitute for science. 

“It is a fictional exploration of human situations made perceptible by implications of recent science.”

Stableford says all these definitions have sf as allowing us to “perceive and explore new possibilities (imaginative, not actual) for human existence.” 

Stableford concludes the chapter by looking at why sf appeals to some people. 

He mentions an autobiographical essay by Robert Silverberg in Hell’s Cartographers as an example of the lonely, alienated, smart sf fan. (Stableford notes that Silverberg’s sf novels of the 1970s were bitter and certainly not intended to be restorative or maintenance for readers.)

Stableford concludes with some remarks by Robert Sheckley about reading sf to “transcend the dull quality of everyday life”. While Stableford is careful to state that why and how often people read sf exists on a spectrum, alienation from everyday life seems a reason to read it for a significant portion of readers. 

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