Hubert Burda Media

Does Science Fiction Make You Read Stupidly?

Are shiny silver aliens frying your brain cells? Why isn’t sci-fi considered real literature?

Rolling stone used its front cover to call Philip K Dick (Martian Time-Slip, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) “the Most Brilliant Sci-Fi Mind on Any Planet”, adding that by the 1970s he was “widely regarded as one of the greatest living American novelists”. JG Ballard (The Drowned World, Myths of the Near Future) was garlanded with the affectionate, unofficial title the Seer of Shepperton and hailed by ever-hip novelist Will Self as “the most important British writer of the late 20th century”. Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last) is a recipient of the Booker Prize and the Arthur C Clarke Award. 

The best science fiction, in all its guises, even when someone of Atwood’s standing prefers to call her work “speculative fiction” (broadly, having no acid-dripping monsters is the difference; or, as she has put it, because her books don’t concern things “we can’t yet do”), can be as affecting, challenging and authoritatively written as literary fiction. Literary fiction is the highbrow, reality-based, serious stuff that usually wins the big prizes, as opposed to genre fiction, of which science fiction is a sub-set. Confused? You will be. This is not the place for a discussion of what is and what isn’t literary or genre fiction, or whether literary fiction fans are merely bookshop snobs with no imagination. Rather, it’s the place for a response to a startling, recently published American study that equates reading science fiction with stupidity. Yes, you read that correctly. As The Guardian put it: “reading science fiction … makes you read more ‘stupidly’, according to new research”.

While the word “science” has always suggested “clever”, at least in these quarters; and any given “scientist” is possibly unhinged but also dazzlingly intelligent most of the time, the study in question makes room for somewhat outraged objection. Professor of English Chris Gavaler and psychology professor Dan Johnson, of Washington and Lee University in Virginia, gave 150 or so test subjects a passage of 1,000 words to read. The science fiction and literary versions differed in setting only, but essentially told identical stories. According to the academic yardstick called theory of mind, readers should have been equally adept at inferring characters’ feelings, whatever the setting. This was not the case when placement indicators such as “space station” and “airlock” were used rather than equivalent, earthbound terms.

Ultimately, the professors’ findings, published in the periodical Scientific Study of Literature, show that when a given text is identified as science fiction, readers automatically conclude that it is less worthy in literary terms than “serious” fiction – and therefore slack off when reading it, making less effort to understand and empathise than they would with something apparently higher of brow. “Poorer reading” is the result.

At this point one would ideally saddle up one’s time machine and drop in on Arthur C Clarke to ask his opinion of this exercise. Among his swathe of books are 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Fountains of Paradise (proposing the space elevator) and the Rama novels. When Clarke wasn’t writing or creaking under the weight of his awards he was dreaming up the geostationary communications satellite or having an asteroid named after him.

But with the great man sadly being unavailable, we may turn to the blogosphere for a reaction. “The study isn’t about the effects of reading SF, it is about the effects of the reader having anti-SF biases,” weighs in GeoffR. “This just seems sad to me. There are fantastic works of science fiction that DO bear careful reading,” writes astrangerhere. In the opinion of crich70, “It’s perhaps more a reflection on society than the genre. If a society as a whole values something, then people are more likely to see a given thing as having value.” Ralph Sir Edward believes: “Literary fiction is judged by subtle playing with words. Science fiction is about playing with ideas. Playing with ideas requires you to think. Playing with words does not.” And demonstrating that “genre” novels may indeed have feet in more than one camp is Abzeronow, who writes: “I disagree with the findings of this [study]. Recently I read Men Like Gods by HG Wells … a rich novel and a good science-fiction novel.”

Regardless of whether sci-fi is appreciated mostly by acne-afflicted nerds looking for friends, its natural home could be East Asia. For a metropolis with all the characteristics of sci-fi heaven, pick any rapidly modernising Chinese city: all gleaming towers and glittering lights above, plenty of mean little alleys below. It’s hard to imagine a better breeding ground for a Hugo Award or two, as novelists Liu Cixin and Hao Jingfang each found recently on winning the sci-fi world’s most coveted literary coronet.

For an even more earthy take on Futureopolis there’s always Hong Kong, the inspiration for several scenes in 1982 movie Blade Runner. Hong Kong has a bookshop’s-worth of science-fiction writers, many inspired by its profound dystopian possibilities. (If required elements of reverse utopia include heaving streets, overflowing landfills and a poisoned, scarred environment, Hong Kong may well have been living the dystopian nightmare for decades.) Several such writers recently banded together in the Chinese-language compilation Dark Fluid, which features works of art alongside sci-fi short stories, all tapping into a certain subversive spirit that, in these interesting political times, bends towards alternate visions of the SAR’s future.

In her foreword, compiler and artist Angela Su writes, according to the South China Morning Post, that the book  “sets out to explore the possibility of using science fiction as a method for social critique, as a tool of empowerment, a survival kit for a dystopian future, a manual for organising different community models”. One wonders whether, having read the Dark Fluid manifesto, academic test subjects would sit up or switch off.

Hong Kong- and London-based Jane Wallace, author of science-fiction novel Into the Light (2010), represents both sides of the “literary-genre” coin now that she’s writing Black Magdalen, “an historical novel set in 1618. It follows the adventures of a courtesan and a young Frenchman, who overturn a Spanish conspiracy to stage a coup d’état and take over Venice.

“The two genres are not dissimilar in the creative process … and inevitably all books are about contemporary times,” she says. “With historical fiction you are trying to interpret the past through the lens of today; in SF you are extrapolating today’s social mores and technological discoveries into the future in a big, ‘What if?’ scenario – essentially a critique of the here and now.”

As for the Gavaler-Johnson study, Wallace says: “The selection of words tells the reader what kind of publication they are reading and they adjust their reactions accordingly. If you did the same experiment with fantasy, romance, crime or pornography you’d get the same result. And incidentally, ‘poorer reading’ doesn’t mean you didn’t enjoy it all the same. I read Mills & Boon novels for fun, not to improve my mind.”

Beam us up, Spotty.