In another of his short essays about the novel
, John Sutherland meditates on the role of the novel as a vehicle for instruction and ‘clueing-up’ in the ways of the world. He’s pretty sympathetic to science fiction, pointing out that it ‘has done as much for the factual scientific education of the average reader as all the educational reforms introduced since CP Snow’s 1959 polemic The Two Cultures
lamented his fellow Britons’ epidemic ignorance of the second law of thermodynamics.’ And while I at first bridled at Sutherland’s suggestion that because a high proportion of Americans believe in X-File alien probings (how quickly SF authors get tired of being asked about UFOs), SF may have been responsible for ‘dumbing down the citizenry’, on reflection, he has a good point; after all, although SF writers aren’t responsible for the finer flights of fancy of flying saucer afficiendos, they did after all invent and propogate tropes about aliens and alien invasions. And worse than flying saucer fever, SF has produced a clutch of post-catastrophe novels that mendaciously suggest that plague, nuclear war or asteroid impact may be a beneficial winnowing of the dumb and undeserving, and that clever and resourceful people will flourish and bring in a Utopia. As if. (On the plus side, SF in the 1950s and 1960s definitely boosted interest in space travel; many people working for NASA were hooked by SF at an impressionable age.)
Whether or not novels instruct and enlighten the reader and make her a ‘better, or at least, better informed’ citizen (a lovely notion), they certainly allow the authors to indulge in their interests and obsessions. I had a lot of fun researching paleolithic art and theories of consciousness for Mind’s Eye
, and delving into police procedures and the economies of massively multiplayer online role-playing games for Players
. And right now I’m deeply immersed in the landscapes of Saturn’s moons, trying to figure out how to convey their strange and wonderful beauty with a minimum of infodumping.