The Sociology of Science Fiction: Chapter VI

My look at this work by Brian Stableford concludes.

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

In Chapter VI, “Conclusion: The Communicative Functions of Science Fiction”, Stableford puts forth some theories on sf’s communicative functions. 

Stableford notes that both Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell believed in the directive, i.e. didactic, function of sf.

Gernsback thought sf could educate people about science. Stableford says that goal was never really achieved. There is better evidence that sf did achieve Gernsback’s hope that it would inspire people to become scientists and inventors. It certainly did make more people interested in the future as Gernsback also hoped.

Campbell wanted people interested in realistic versions of the future. Stableford is not convinced this occurred. That’s not surprising. All other popular literary genres serve the maintenance and restorative functions. With the possible exception of rocketry, sf had no influence on the history of science and invention. (Post-William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it might be argued that computer applications and technology may have been influenced by that novel.) 

Stableford thinks a case might be made that sf did change attitudes (at least among some people) regarding technological innovation. He specifically notes that it may have primed the mind of people who joined Scientology or the Aetherius Society. After all, he notes, why did UFOS become almost universally (at least for decades) associated with alien spaceships? 

He notes that it is not necessarily genre sf that influenced people the most in this regard. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 from outside the pulp genre did that.

Stableford notes that you would need a longitudinal study of people starting with their first exposure to sf simultaneous with also tracking readers who don’t read sf to really answer the question about sf’s effects on people. That would determine how much, if any, sf is directing attitudes.

If such an attitudinal change occurs, the vexing question is whether it has any real utility. C. S. Lewis argued that an attitudinal change serves a restorative function. Robert Scholes suggested that sf makes the mind more flexible and able to adapt to technological change. Alvin Toffler argued that sf could mentally protect one against “future shock”. 

Stableford is willing to entertain that these theories may be true but cites two problems with it:  the sf community is pretty conservative in its tastes. If sf attracts the alienated, it may reinforce and help to maintain that sense of alienation.

Stableford again emphasizes that sf may have a directive function when first encountered but read after that to maintain an emotional affect.

Stableford notes that sf does not really have a good track record at foreseeing real problems. It is merely good at luridly extrapolating current concerns.

He also sees sf alone in popular fiction genres in that, while it serves maintenance and restorative functions, it emphasizes and treasures thematic variations. This “affective aggression” is such a strong feature that, in Stableford’s opinion, it led Kingsley Amis to mistake sf as primarily satirical. 

It is in his discussion of the maintenance function that Stableford’s discussion of themes, particularly dealing with machines and aliens, becomes more relevant. He looks at the plot formulas, a characteristic of a genre’s maintenance function, and how they change a lot in sf. 

Sf in the beginning resolved its plots usually through the invention of a new science or piece of technology. This is, basically, a sort of deus ex machina ending. Decadence caused by machines was only something to worry about in the extreme long term. In the short term, the power of technology was celebrated. Escape into space became a key method of plot resolution after WWII. 

The sf of the 1960s lost its uniformity of resolution. Given how the space program worked out was one factor. The other was the realization that the future looked to be a challenge not only to “the would-be rebel, but even to the would-be survivor”. 

He sees the sf written recently (from the vantage point of 1979 when Stableford finished his thesis) as striking the middle ground in its attitude toward technology. 

Communication and its theorized transcendent results became more of a concern. The meeting with aliens was not a prelude to conflict but a relief that man was no longer alone. Stableford notes these stories seem to have little bearing on reality, and their utility in helping us maintain our place as a functioning member of society isn’t at all clear. SETI researchers and men seeking to make themselves transcendent supermen (both groups with us still) have uncomfortable amounts in common though, fortunately,

the whole world has not yet fallen prey to flying saucer mania, Scientology, or transcendental meditation, and neither has the science fiction community.

This transcendent tendency, Stableford seems to argue, has little utility in everyday life. In a bit of snark, Stableford notes that Colin Wilson, whose work is full of this theme, is “not much of an advertisement for his prospectus”. He asserts that, if you look at this whole quest for personal transcendence among alienated readers and characters, it matches the plot of many mainstream novels. 

Sf also is concerned with eupsychian themes (making a better world rather than finding a Utopia). 

In the final part of the chapter and book, Stableford talks about the restorative function in sf which, in the early days of sf, was a power fantasy in exotic settings. Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt are the prime examples of this. Starting in the 1920s and 1930s, readers started to want more technologically oriented worlds for these plots to play out against. This was epitomized by E. E. “Doc” Smith. But stories on alien worlds, especially in the 1950s, were played out on more inhospitable and enigmatic worlds. This, combined with the desire for transcendental and euphyscian themes, resulted in “ecological mysticism” in the 1960s.

Stableford ends by pondering how recent sf reaffirms insecurity at all levels of the person in the universe. It is hard, he says, to see how this serves a restorative or maintenance function except to constantly be aggressively affective. It’s hard to see how the maintenance theme embedded in stories of transcendence which end “with vaguely triumphant images of apotheosis” serve any social utility.

He wonders if sf will start to develop “rituals of exorcism” which will reaffirm

 confidence in the effectiveness of ordinary human action rather than in mysterious processes of transcendental metamorphosis.

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