A recent survey claims to show that reading science fiction makes you read more stupidly. But before the SF haters cry "Told you so", it's worth looking more closely at the research.
Washington and Lee University professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson gave a text of about 1000 words to 150 readers. Each person got one of two versions of the text. Each version was identical – except that in the literary one, the character enters a diner full of people. In the SF one, he enters a galley in a space station full of humans, androids and aliens.
Afterwards, the readers were asked questions, and their answers showed they had read the two versions very differently. The SF version "dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality", the researchers wrote in an article for Scientific Study of Literature. Readers seemed to expect a simpler story, so the SF setting "triggered poorer overall reading".
Gavaler, a writer who teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction, said the study showed that those who were biased against SF assume the story won't require or reward careful reading, so they read less attentively: "It's a self-fulfilling bias – except we can now show objectively that the weakness is with the reader, not the story itself."
At last. This is a great validation for those SF authors and fans who have been arguing for decades that their genre is criminally underrated. But how did this come about, when once despised genres such as crime fiction are now respectable?
Back in 1999, John Clute, editor of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, wrote in an article for Salon that there were three reasons people dismissed SF as trash. One was that most of it was trash, and it was all marketed in the same way, so the dreadful books marched side by side with books by writers such as Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin and many more "who if they didn't have the SF label gummed to their foreheads, would rightly be understood as major creative figures of the last half century".
The second reason Clute identified was that most writers had tended to think of themselves as creators of "thought experiments", so SF could sometimes suffer from "a terrible simplemindedness" about genuinely complex phenomena such as human nature.
And the third reason was that the American SF story of technology-led triumph had become embarrassing "because it is racist, technophilic, provincial, arrogant and because it is wrong".
In the couple of decades since Clute's article, there has been a huge growth in a darker kind of SF, a dystopian vision of the future that has come about because of our mistakes in the present. And not only genre authors are writing it: more mainstream, literary authors are gradually losing their squeamishness about the SF label and joining writers such as Margaret Atwood, who has long been happy to proclaim that she writes SF.
The renewed popularity of Atwood's 1986 novel The Handmaid's Tale, recently updated in an award-winning TV series, shows that wild fantasies of future worlds can inspire deeply humanitarian perception.
And yet Gavaler and Johnson's study reveals that readers in general have far from open minds when they read words such as "airlock" and "antigravity". Perhaps they need to pay heed to Clute's prophetic words: "We cannot afford to exclude any vision – any way of looking at the world – that human beings have invented for ourselves. As the futures we are heir to fall like rain upon our heads, we're going to need all the help we can get to see our way through."
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