The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Whither Science Fiction?

Science fiction, like so many aspects of the world right now, feels like it is on the cusp of a major shaking up. One year ago, Neil Stephenson provoked a flurry of discussion with his article on the decline of bold and innovative ideas in our contemporary society, and science fiction in particular. More recently, Jonathan McCalmont posted am extensive assessment of a the state of science fiction, provocatively entitled “Cowardice, Laziness, and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future,” which has drawn fire for criticizing the science fiction publishing establishment and some of the most lauded authors in the genre.

I don’t agree with everything in either of those articles, but I do agree that science fiction is due for a makeover. What has been done was brilliant in its way — generations of writers and artists who dreamed of what we could be and warned us against what we could become. But so much has changed about our society and I don’t think that the media establishment, including traditional publishers, have changed with it. Innovation is ultimately driven by and for people, and who we are as a people no longer conforms to where the genre has been.

I am particularly interested in the perceived narrow appeal of science fiction. Why is the stereotype sci-fi geek a particular race, class, gender, and personality? Is it because the genre is inherently of interest only to this set of people? Or could it be that what gets published and awarded attracts only that set, who are the ones that rise up in the genre and in turn become the publishers and awarders?

Put more specifically, does the current portfolio of literary science fiction published in the United States actually reflect the current cultural, linguistic, socioeconomic, and gender demographics of literate Americans? I really don’t think so. So why is anyone surprised that the appeal of the tried and true seems to be waning?

The tide is changing however. New periodicals like Lightspeed Magazine for example are embracing new publishing models, going with solely electronic format and easy mobile web access from the very beginning. They also explicitly embrace diversity in their submissions:

We believe that the science fiction/fantasy genre’s diversity is its greatest strength, and we wish that viewpoint to be reflected in our story content and our submission queues; we welcome submissions from writers of every race, religion, nationality, gender, and sexual orientation.

In a similar vein, The Future Fire has been accepting submissions on an anthology call entitled We See a Different Frontier. They are more blunt about their purpose:

We See a Different Frontier will publish new speculative fiction stories in which the viewpoint is that of the colonized, not the invader. We want to see stories that remind us that neither readers nor writers are a homogeneous club of white, male, Christian, hetero, cis, monoglot, anglophone, able-bodied Westerners.

I don’t know where this is going nor am I sure that it will necessarily be better. But I seem to have discovered a love for writing fiction during a major shift in social attitudes, which has made me think about my experiences and personal perspective in interesting ways.

It’s definitely going to be a writing weekend…

Edit 10/13/12: Repaired the link to McCalmont’s article.

Rich White Dropouts

Mangino, W., “Why Do Whites and the Rich Have Less Need for Education?”, American Journal of Economics and Sociology (July 2012):

It is generally assumed that affluent kids get more education than their middle-class peers. But it turns out that on average, rich kids find they can get away with less. An analysis by a sociologist reveals that, in a national sample of kids who attended public and private high schools in the 1994-1995 school year, the odds of graduating high school and attending college were actually lower for white and rich kids, controlling for other individual and contextual factors associated with educational achievement. In other words, Paris Hilton’s future was bright even if she didn’t graduate from high school and go on to college, so she didn’t.

(From Idea Columnist Kevin Lewis in Uncommon Knowledge, Boston Globe, Sunday, July 22, 2012.)

Something about this was bugging me until I realized that I think the title is misleading. The excerpt compares wealthy kids (who are overwhelmingly white) to middle-class kids (who are mostly white). Poverty (which is overwhelmingly, but not exclusively non-white) does not appear to be part of the comparison. The “other individual and contextual factors associated with educational achievement” which were statistically filtered out are the heart of the matter, which is that educational inequity (from the perspective of opportunity, not simply educational level) is fundamentally more about socio-economic and class inequity than almost anything else.

To compare the absurdly-rich-and-privileged with the not-so-rich-but-still-relatively-privileged and make a statement like “Do Whites and the Rich Have Less Need for Education?” seems to really miss the point. Something like “Why Quality Education is Necessary to Ensure Equitable Opportunity for All” might get closer to what’s important (I think).