Thursday, April 12, 2007

Why Science Fiction is Important

Some while back, I noted touched briefly on a profound subject, the unprecedented demographic changes that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries, in America and elsewhere, though I’m primarily focused on the American change for now.

The change is part of what we call “The Industrial Revolution,” where vast numbers of farmers first left farming, then left rural America for towns and cities. This demographic change first swelled what was called the working class, then the middle class. The vast majority of people in the U.S. at least say they consider themselves to be middle class, whereas even as little as a century ago, the major category would have been farmer.

So the path went farmer->working class->middle class, with that last transition being really important in the last half of the 20th century, post-Depression, post-War, post-GI bill. And “the bright child of working class parents” describes so many of us, especially science fiction fans, (and just incidentally, me).

This demographic transition coincided with the Baby Boom, and the transformation of science fiction from a genre among many other genres, to the genre, a dominating force in popular culture and indeed, many other parts of culture. Science fiction (and I'll toss in Fantasy, though in truth SF is a subset of F, not the tother way around) are now so dominant in popular culture that "realistic" dramas often slip into SF&F tropes without even noticing.

It seems to me, therefore, that a critical review of science fiction is necessary for an understanding of American culture in the last half of the 20th century, and the intellectual atmosphere that we all breathe. And I will try to make the case that you can’t really understand anything about our country without trying to understand the connections between science fiction and its readers and fans. The “bright children of working class parents” constitute the core population of technicians, engineers, and scientists who have created the modern economy, and this cohort also provides a great deal of the intellectual muscle that powers the present political conversation, for good or ill. The cohort is so massive its gravitational attraction affects everything.

The sort of criticism (in the literary sense) that this outlook provides makes many people nervous. It smacks of Marxism, deconstructionism, Freudianism, and a host of other “isms” that some find distasteful. Some of this distaste is legitimate, since deep analysis generally can be used as a club, a put-down, a sneering rejoinder: “You’re not really interested in space travel; you just want to escape from your boring, mundane existence.” “You don’t really care about the environment; you just hate business.” And so forth.

Nevertheless, my intentions are honorable. I think that popular culture, including pop philosophy and pop psychology can offer interesting insights into collective and individual belief and behavior. The ideas themselves can have intrinsic interest, but so can the nature of belief in those ideas, and what believers get out of that belief. Science fiction is a literature of ideas and a literature of belief. An analysis of the ideas that appeal to science fiction readers might very well offer insight into the nature or our current world.


Amanda French said...

It's always a little odd to me to remember how little F/SF there was before the late nineteenth century. It's like, didn't it occur to anyone before that you could just MAKE UP whole new worlds? Sure, there's Gulliver's Travels, but apart from that you have to wait for Wells and Verne and Lovecraft and the like. My theory has always been that people who wanted to imagine other worlds usually had plenty to play around with trying to imagine Heaven and Hell. Paradise Lost as F/SF, in other words. Also, they had more trouble than we do finding out about worlds that were "other" historically and geographically. Now, we can easily find out a good bit about 14th-century China if we want to, which of course makes most of us not want to. How ho-hum.

James, can you please put an RSS feed on your blog so I can subscribe to it?

James Killus said...

One of the things that science fiction did was to extend the old pulp tradition of the late 19th century after the "dark and savage" regions had been explored. In the 19th century generally, exotic locales and unknown civilizations could be located in Darkest Africa, or the Thuggee Cult could be conjured up for India. Of course this didn't really get going until the process for producing paper from wood pulp enabled large print runs on cheap paper. The tabloid press and "Yellow journalism" also came from that enabling technology.

Speaking of which, RSS feed, right. That's one of the reasons for doing this, to learn all the fiddly bits. I will do that.