Saturday, September 02, 2006

Learning The World

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.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why a minimum of infodumping? The infodumping is often quite enjoyable. (And on rare occasions from writers we won't name, the best part).

September 02, 2006 8:27 PM  
Blogger Martyn Taylor said...

I'm not sure if novels should be polemical, but I wouldn't want to discourage anyone who thinks they can be.

'Good' infodumping is useful, 'bad' infodumping just reminds us of the cent a word hackery we'd love to go back to!

I read somewhere that 10% of Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens and subjected to those ghastly procedures. When I read the statistic, I was reminded of that ancient Greek saying about those whom the Gods wish to destroy . . . and why are they concentrating on Americans?

September 06, 2006 2:31 PM  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

Those alien violations do seem to be peculiar to Americans, don't they? I know that Britons,
Brazilians and Russians (all big UFO centers for whatever reason) have claimed to be
kidnapped and given the kind of old-fashioned utopian tour that good old George Adamsky
enjoyed, but I can't remember probes entering into it, as it were.

September 07, 2006 6:18 PM  

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