This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Jasmine Fox-Skelly, digital volunteer

Can science fiction really be considered proper literature, or should the genre really be the sole jurisdiction of teenage boys? Professor Ian Stewart FRS is best placed to answer this question. A writer of science fiction and fact books, a mathematician and a self-proclaimed ‘honorary wizard of the unseen university’, he is author of the book ‘Does God play Dice?’ and has also collaborated with Terry Pratchett on his Discworld books. He gave this talk on science fiction as part of the Royal Society’s ‘One Culture’ literary, science and arts festival in October.

Ian Stewart speaking at the One Culture festival

A keen lover of science fiction, as well as other literary genres, Professor Stewart laments the way that the media portrays science fiction and science fiction fans as geeky, smelly and weird. For example in a David Randall feature in the Independent on “The 50 most ludicrous Britons” he describes middle aged men that are fans of Doctor Who:

“Harmless though such an enthusiasm may appear to be, a fondness for this festival of glitzy impossibilities is a warning sign that you could develop the kind of full-blown dementia so many psychiatrists have noted in science-fiction fans. Watch one too many episodes, and you are embarked on a slippery slope, at the bottom of which is collecting Star Wars memorabilia and building your holidays around attending SciFiComCons at provincial Holiday Inns.”

Another example of a common portrayal of science fiction fans is given in an online article in Chris Bucholz said:

“If you’ve been in any bookstore in your lifetime, you’re probably familiar with that most peculiar of book retail locales: the Fantasy & Science Fiction section. This strange and sweaty place is kept separate from the rest of the bookstore so that its residents, the soap-averse fans of Fantasy & Science Fiction novels, can go about their plots and dark rituals without disturbing any of the normal-smelling clientele.”

Perhaps one of the reasons for this common perception of sci fi as juvenile comes from the visually striking and iconic covers from old 1920s pulp magazines that were aimed at 13 year old boys; the media cannot accept that science fiction has something serious to offer the world of literature.

This lecture leads to the obvious question, ‘What is literature?’ and secondly ‘What is Science Fiction?’ If literature can be thought to include well written works that illuminate the human condition, that provide characterisation and have emotional content, then good science fiction does all of these things. Before the 1970s emotional content and characterisation were less prominent in science fiction stories and it was scientific ideas that drove the story. After the 1970s however characters became more fleshed out and aspects of the human condition were explored, although often indirectly. Not all science fiction is good, but then this claim cannot be made of any other type of literature either. This is summed up best by Sturgeon’s Law, named after Theodore Sturgeon, an American science fiction author, who said that 90% of science fiction is crap, but that 90% of everything is crap.

In answer to the question ‘What is science fiction,’ the Encyclopaedia of science fiction traces its literary roots back to Aristophanes, a comic playwright of ancient Athens who lived in the years 448-380 B.C. However H.G Wells is thought by many to be the modern father of the genre with his books ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘The Time Machine’. Hugo Bernsback, an inventor, writer and publisher of the first science fiction magazine defined Sci-Fi as “charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision,” however none of these definitions quite capture what science fiction is.

Physicist and science fiction author Gregory Benford said that there are two distinct ways to view our place in the universe; humanity is either seen as a context through which to view the Universe, or the Universe is seen as a context through which to view humanity. In other words in mainstream literature often what matters is human life and our existence on this planet, whilst science fiction often focuses on the Universe as being more important in the grand scheme of things.

Whilst science fiction authors may choose to tell stories in different ways than mainstream authors, this does not mean that they cannot help to illuminate the human condition. In fact what better way to do so than by placing humans in perilous alien worlds where life is hard and they have to fight for survival. The Hugo award-winning science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer sums this up by saying:

“Good literature illuminates the human condition; good science fiction illuminates the human condition by examining it in circumstances that could not occur in our day-to-day lives, therefore providing unique and provocative insights.”

After the talk I caught up with Professor Stewart  – click here to download a podcast of our conversation.

Ian Stewart signing autographs after his talk

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