Imagine all the people
April 7, 2006 7:04 PM   Subscribe

DreamWithMe filter: What if everyone read science fiction? How would the world be different?

How do you think reading sci-fi has affected your world view? Your actions? Your life? Has it made you different from other people?

If children (or even adults) were encouraged/made to read science fiction, how would exposure to key concepts (thinking about the distant future, interaction with very different beings, other ideas I can't think of right now) affect their world view? Their future actions? Their votes? Their ideas, especially if they became policymakers?

Would there be negative effects? Would there be positive effects?

Yes, I know this question is potentially oversimplifying things and that people are complex, so it would be difficult to really predict -- but I'm interested in whether anyone else has thought about this. I'm mainly focused on sci-fi -- I'm personally thinking about Neal Stephenson, Heinlein, Asimov mainly, but don't mean to limit this question's scope that much -- but if you have thoughts about fantasy-genre fiction, I'm open to it.

Bonus if you can recommend one book or series you'd love for all high school graduates to have read.
posted by amtho to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If everone were forced to read Asimov, the collective IQ of our society would drop a few points. Seriously. Why not have them read Stephen King? If they all read Heinlein, we'd revert to rampant sexism. If they read Stephenson, nobody would ever reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Forcing people to read science fiction is about as keen as forcing people to horror or forcing them to read romance. Science fiction, as a whole has no special claim on the ability to elevate consciousness or to encourage new thinking. Good literature does this, regardless of the genre.

Now if you wanted to argue that we should make people read Good Books, whether scifi books be LeGuin or PK Dick or Stanslaw Lem (but lord, not Asimov or Heinlein), or just fantastic literature from Dickens or Irving or whomever, well, then maybe I could buy into the idea.

But forcing everyone to read science fiction would essentially dumb down society.
posted by jdroth at 7:14 PM on April 7, 2006

(And I'm a science fiction fan, for goodness sake!)
posted by jdroth at 7:14 PM on April 7, 2006

Exposing people to a wider variety of ideas and influences is almost always a good thing. It helps us understand the world and ourselves just a little bit better. Maybe we'ld dream bigger dreams.

As for Asimov, he got me started in sci-fi, and helped me to look at things differently, and I think he's perfect for most young adults, he's a gateway drug to the harder stuff. A good foundation, one might say.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:22 PM on April 7, 2006

For every Samuel Delany or Joanna Russ, there's a David Weber. There are some things science fiction does particularly well, like sociological thought experiments, and that's good; but there's as much science fiction that's just conventional and militaristic.

I think resentment of indocrination would outweigh any possible benefits (although I'd be glad to add a little more science fiction to the average middle school reading list).
posted by Jeanne at 7:27 PM on April 7, 2006

Best answer: I read almost exclusively sci-fi until I was about 16 -- then I got bored with it and quit (I'm 40 now). But I DO think it had a positive effect on me. While sci-fi is often lacking in prose style and complex-character development (which is why I stopped reading it), there is one thing it does better than all other forms of fiction: take an idea and run with it -- REALLY run with it, pushing into all the crevasses of the idea, taking it to its logical conclusion (and sometimes beyond).

I'm no longer a fan of idea-based fiction, but having consumed reams of it as a kid, it sort of trained my brain to play jazz-riffs on ideas. This will sound arrogant, I'm sure, but I'm often amazed at how tame most people are with ideas. You see this on bad TV sci-fi (amongst other places). On shows like "Star Trek," they nibble at ideas, nudging them a fraction of an inch. I used to wonder why people liked shows like that when you can read books that take those same ideas so much further. Then I realized how conservative most people are in their thinking.

I don't think I'm smarter than other people. I just think many people -- even many people who are smarter than me -- don't look at ideas as toys. That's what sci-fi taught me: ideas are toys.

PS. but I think the world would be better served by people reading history and science.
posted by grumblebee at 7:29 PM on April 7, 2006

if children (or even adults) were encouraged/made to read science fiction...

they would come to a deeper understanding of the world, and freedom of choice, and question why they were being encouraged/forced to read one kind of book, leading to resistance and repeal of the appropriate laws and customs.

so, you see, we are in a stable position - whenever and wherever your suggestion is followed, people become more enlightened and repeal it.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:29 PM on April 7, 2006

For every Samuel Delany or Joanna Russ, there's a David Weber

Hey, that's a bit snobbish. Perhaps if children read David Weber they'd get the idea that the next place for high adventure and exploration is in the colonization of space, and they'd want to become astronauts. None of the physicists and astronomers I know cite Dhalgren as the work that got them interested in science. You mostly hear stuff like Foundation and Star Wars. There is a great deal of scifi with immense literary merit, but by and large it is not the scifi that has changed the world the most.
posted by Hildago at 7:50 PM on April 7, 2006

There are a wide variety of views espoused in Science Fiction. I don't think it would have much of an appreciable effect.

Also, I think the majority of people in western society, certainly in the US have been exposed to Sci-fi in the form of Star Wars, Jurassic Park, etc.

I mean really, how having people read "Jurasic Park" or "Andromeda Strain" or "Snowcrash" make the world a better place?

Sci-fi is no better then any other genera of literature. In fact, I think there's a lot of immature BS in it.
posted by delmoi at 8:03 PM on April 7, 2006

PS. but I think the world would be better served by people reading history and science.

Yeah, that would be a lot better, IMO. People need a lot more information about the real world, rather then some far off mystery world.
posted by delmoi at 8:06 PM on April 7, 2006

I read sci fi because no other genre is so revealing of a writer's comprehension of human nature. In my opinion, it must be harder to write good sci fi than it is to write just about any other genre. But even frustratingly bad sci fi teaches you something about writing.

Your question is about how sci fi shapes a reader's attitudes, but the genre is so broad that it's hard to generalize. I can't say whether the sci fi I've read has determined my political opinions or even anything else about the person I am, but then, I'm not sure any other fiction I've read has done so either.

However, I don't read fiction because it's supposed to be good for me.

All good writing inspires empathy and reader involvement, but sci fi walks a thin line between intriguing possibility and implausible tiresomeness. There is value in figuring out the limits to your own credulity.

And there would seem to me to be value to showing a high school student how different writers perform in this demanding genre, without the expectation of broadening their philosophical horizons.
posted by woot at 8:37 PM on April 7, 2006

I read sci fi because no other genre is so revealing of a writer's comprehension of human nature.

I'm deeply confused by this statement, woot. I think I must be thinking of something really different from you when I think of "human nature." Sci-fi has its strong points, and sometimes you find sci-fi writers with a gift for character and psychology, but the genre's roots are really more plot and idea based.

Surely almost any other genre is better for "human nature." Do you really learn more about what makes people tick from Asimov or William Gibson than you do from Jane Austen, John Updike, Raymond Carver -- or even Agatha Christie?
posted by grumblebee at 9:04 PM on April 7, 2006

Best answer: I think that people would be more willing to accept new things. A lot of people don't even believe that new things are out there.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:08 PM on April 7, 2006

There would be very little effect, if any.

People are already made to read all sorts of things as part of their educations. Students who are interested in the material tend to get something out of it, students who are not interested in the material get absolutely nothing.

So really the only new people you would be reaching would be people that are interested in Science Fiction, but not interested enough to pick it up outside of class.

(and, as others have pointed out, there's hardly anything unique to Science Fiction that you won't find in other types of Literature)
posted by tkolar at 9:27 PM on April 7, 2006

Funny, I wrote a sci-fi novel a good while ago while having avoided the genre generally, except for "Starmaker" and one or two others. I've often thought it must be fairly provincial as genres go. Is that right? Maybe that's a rephrase of the question?
posted by rleamon at 10:10 PM on April 7, 2006

Most SciFi is escapist literature. Even if it isn't, it's often read as such. When I think back to my scifi reading career, the books that stick out are those like Neuromancer and Dune, which excelled because of the scope and depth of the author's inventive vision, not the idealistic works of folks like Asimov and Clarke. I would surmise that a world where everyone read scifi would be filled with dreamers. I think it would have more of a focus on interplanetary travel and using technology to fix social and economic problems. It would probably be more accepting of change and open to new ideas. However, people would be less socially apt, and tend to see values as black and white, rather than infinite shades of grey.
posted by lemur at 10:46 PM on April 7, 2006

One thing a love of science fiction kills is a love of the status quo. The entire premise of science fiction is to think outside the established norms of just what's possible immediately right now. At the rate things change these days, anything that conditions the mind for shokcing changes has got to be a good thing.

I'm also not a huge believer in the sanctity of tradition, aka "the way things have always been." The tantalizing promises of sci fi are pretty good for stretching one past that curmudgeonly desire to see things remain the same forever.
posted by scarabic at 11:00 PM on April 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yes, my question was broad, too broad, but the discussion so far has helped me focus: I think what I'm interested in is a) qualities unique/endemic to science fiction, and b) different, in the main, from other fiction. Yes, it can be annoying -- I don't read much of it lately, but I do think something about my exposure to it early in life has made me different than I otherwise would be.

For instance, a lot of stories examine another, imagined, culture, or examine "human" culture from an imagined other perspective. Can you get this from history or other literature? Yes, but using an imaginary other cultural viewpoint might be freeing, might help eliminate unintended emotional responses in the reader, might condition the reader to view his own culture in an impossibly broad context -- this might be good or bad.

Plus the very idea that one can imagine entire worlds, universes that are different from how things are or were might affect how people see current problems, might, as Mr. grumblebee implies, encourage people to look for unthought-of solutions rather than giving up in the face of a problem that hasn't happened to be solved yet.

That's an example of what I was thinking; another might be the idea that people are essentially very complex automata. I'm not asserting that all sci-fi assumes this, but if sci-fi does lead one to this conception, I could imagine both positive and negative intellectual/emotional outgrowths.

Yes, there's a lot of, ah, questionable quality out there, and I wish people would read more history, too. But is it possible there's something in sci-fi that could lead to a fundamental questioning, and maybe even lead to further knowledge seeking?

The idea of "forcing" people to read anything wasn't central to my question, but I see the point. I'm more interested in what would happen if people were to read it for whatever reason. But of course forcing them would be pretty ineffective.

On a society full of dreamers - I can see there might be problems with that, too, but it is attractive. I think my (limited) reading in history (book 4 of "The Story of Civilization" so far, plus a few biographies) is a counterbalance to this.

On lack of love for the status quo - same as above, including history being a counterbalance. History: "Look how far we've come!" Sci-fi: "Look how much better it could be", or "we're all doomed".
posted by amtho at 11:10 PM on April 7, 2006

Response by poster: Lemur: why do you say "... people would be less socially apt, and tend to see values as black and white..." ?

I think I agree, but would like to know your train of thought.

On the socially apt front, though, if we all had a similar literary background, might it help us relate to each other?
posted by amtho at 11:15 PM on April 7, 2006

As an aside, SF writer John Scalzi had a discussion on his site about what made good 'Gateway' SF - i.e. what could you give to someone who had never read any SF before that wouldn't 'scare them off'
posted by Happy Dave at 5:39 AM on April 8, 2006

You know, I used to love SF, but some time in my twenties I pretty much stopped reading it. I started to feel that the literati who sneeringly dismissed it (and who I'd spent many happy hours railing against for their 'snobbery') were basically right. It's a generalisation for sure, but when you look honestly at the broad canon of SF, much of it is a little bit juvenile, a little bit naive and frequently lacking in emotional depth and subtlety.

The likes of Heinlein and Asimov have been mentioned and rightly dissed, but even some of the SF authors who are generally highly regarded started to seem thin to me. The end came when someone raved about Gregory Benford and so I picked up one of his books and was left absolutely bored rigid by it. Actually no: the end came when I read Vonnegut's so-called SF books and realised they weren't SF at all. They were great books which happened to make a few nods to SF.

Since then I've tried Neal Stephenson and marvelled at how long he takes to express what are really quite pedestrian stories. I couldn't even finish "Cryptonomicon" because the obvious geekboy contrivance of the thing irritated the hell out of me. It's a cliche, but I really do think many people simply outgrow SF, and for generally sound reasons.

That said, there's some good stuff in the genre. I happen to think the classics are generally best: Wells, Verne... even Wyndham. None of it is great writing but what those guys had were great ideas - often the greater for not being overly complex. And they could all tell a cracking good story without taking 600 pages to do it. They were pacy and sharp. And (finally!), in answer to your question, I think people would benefit from being exposed to that sort of writing. Ideas. Thinking outside the box. Good yarns which use the unfamiliar and the fantastic to express ideas about the familiar and the real.
posted by Decani at 5:58 AM on April 8, 2006

Best answer: Science fiction opens the mind to the possibility of things being different than they are. This is one of the most important lessons we can learn. Its literary quality is pretty much irrelevant; the fact that it's often poorly written is one reason so many people give it up after adolescence, but by then it's done its vital work. The very fact that you can ask the question "how would the world be different if everyone read sf?" shows the influence of sf.
posted by languagehat at 6:52 AM on April 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Grumblebee was confused by my comment above that sci fi is the genre most revealing of the writer's comprehension of human nature. I don't mean to imply that sci fi is better at PORTRAYING human nature than other genres-- that kind of value judgement would be dependent on the kind of reading I've done, and would be irrelevant to another reader with a different experience.

(N.B., my comments are predicated on having read some sci fi that I found to be absolutely terrific.)

But I do believe that sci fi is intimately revealing of the writer's level of skill, because the writer has to get the reader to buy into the story to a greater degree than with other types of writing. (Fantasy is like this, too.) Good sci fi has to have believable characters and a setting with "rules" that are satisfying to readers. (You can't just say, "And then, gravity stopped working!" That's not fair.) Contemporary fiction doesn't have to explain to me how a car works or what New York is like, but sci fi has to establish the planet, the flora and fauna, the technology.... This is a burden on the writer above and beyond plot and characters, and the degree to which he or she can do this is highly revealing of how good a writer he or she is. And all this stuff better be relevant to present-day readers, too.

A lot of sci fi is crappy. Could it be that the sci fi genre is so crap-laden because it's so hard to do it well? Good sci fi addresses human nature on multiple levels-- both in the characters in the story, and in the writer's ability to connect with real-world readers. That, in my opinion, requires that the writer have a nuanced understanding of human nature, all within this genre that burdens the writer perhaps more than other, "reality"-based genres.

Please forgive the pedantry, but I am just so flattered that grumblebee responded to my comment!
posted by woot at 7:24 AM on April 8, 2006

90% of everything is crap.
posted by flabdablet at 8:23 AM on April 8, 2006

For instance, a lot of stories examine another, imagined, culture, or examine "human" culture from an imagined other perspective. Can you get this from history or other literature?

Gulliver's Travels, Candide, Arabian Nights.
posted by tkolar at 8:26 AM on April 8, 2006

I was exposed to Golden Age and post-Golden Age science fiction at a very early age - it was the first adult fiction I ever read.

From this, I understood that competent, confident people could master their environments with the help of technology, and achieve their goals.

I still can't read something like, say, Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," without wanting to puke. Give me a good old Heinlein novel any day instead of that crap.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:06 AM on April 8, 2006

I wrote a story about this called "The Kansas Jayhawk vs. The Midwestern Monster Squad." It appeared in issue 197 of Interzone. It's SF. Heh.
posted by JeremyT at 11:54 AM on April 8, 2006

I have a suspicion that the OP's definition of science fiction and some other people's definition is radically different. For instance, there are epistolary, picareasuq, and travelogue science fiction of the 17th and 19th centuries. There is the adventurer, utopia, and dystopia fiction of the 19th centuries, the electromechanical fetishism of the pre-Golden era, the Golden Era's militarism and optimism, the New Wave's dystopianism and inner space obsession, the 1970's preoccupation with immanentisation and sexual identities, the 1980s peculiar fascination with cultural and species relativism, and the 1990s' solipsism. And these represent just dominant strands in Anglo science fiction amid a malestrom of countercurrents. I suppose one common theme that unites them is a firm belief in the primacy of technological determinism as the organizing and evolutionary principle of cultural evolution and economic development.

To be of worth, the question really needs to be rephrased in terms of specific authors, and wether the determination of a "Canon" of science fiction would be a good thing. For example, the Canon of English Literature developed quite recently, within the latter part of the 19th century, and came about as a deliberate policy of cultural regulation. It maintained its hegemony for several generations and produced significant effects on the perceptions of generations of students and educators as to what constituted "English Literature", and what constituted the "Great Authors".

One of the most exceptional science fiction writers of the 1970s, Joanna Russ, even managed to write an alluminating book about the process: How to Suppress Women's Writing.
posted by meehawl at 2:07 PM on April 8, 2006

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