There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine...
November 24, 2017 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Science Fiction Makes You Stupid Addressing the effects of genre first, in comparison to Narrative Realism readers, Science Fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science Fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science Fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.
posted by gusottertrout (110 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Me dumb. Like spaceships. Fun book.
posted by Literaryhero at 6:12 AM on November 24 [29 favorites]


Related to engineers disease, a topic cultivated by MF?
posted by lazycomputerkids at 6:16 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


Being a science journalist must encourage reading malcomprehension. Being a headline writer doubly so.

What the study found is that switching around words in a text to make it more science fiction-ey makes people understand it worse. The scientists who did the study hypothesize that the reason is because people expect less of genre fiction and so are lazier in paying attention to the plot and characters.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:17 AM on November 24 [101 favorites]


What a terrible title for an otherwise interesting article. What it really seems to be showing is that people have a finite amount of bandwidth for understanding a story and thus, when they get cues that the story is happening in a world they don't understand, the attention they pay towards building a model of that world of necessity results in a somewhat lower attention being paid to understanding the characters.

That's interesting! In fact, as a writer and reader of science fiction, it's downright fascinating.

But it in no way at all supports the conclusion that "Science Fiction Makes You Stupid." Clickbait headlines make you stupid.
posted by 256 at 6:18 AM on November 24 [160 favorites]


It won't stop me from reading the stuff, but it reflects something I've felt for a long time. There an awful lot of SF that leaves me cold, because the characters are basically just Biff McEveryperson, or a selection of lazy stereotypes so recognisable that the author barely needs to describe them.
posted by pipeski at 6:27 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


It is deeply, deeply disappointing that the clickbait headline was written by one of the scientists who ran the study.
posted by IjonTichy at 6:27 AM on November 24 [18 favorites]


What 256 said.

There are some really interesting things to be learned from the new field of quantitative literary analysis (the book Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve is a cool intro to some of the ideas), and I am actually doing some research myself in this area (analyzing written texts from entrepreneurs using machine learning techniques to predict long-term outcomes). However, if we are going to view “scientific analysis” of literature as a form of social science, we should not repeat mistakes from other fields. The concept and experimental setup seem interesting, but the authors need to avoid sensationalizing their work, they need to consider alternative ezplainations, and they need to provide access to at least a table or two so that we can figure out what these results actually mean. Without those things, it’s hard to know exactly what they found.
posted by blahblahblah at 6:30 AM on November 24 [19 favorites]


While there is no shortage of criticism vectors of science fiction this study strikes me as approaching a very academic sheen of crank pseudo-science.
posted by sammyo at 6:35 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


There an awful lot of SF that leaves me cold, because the characters are basically just Biff McEveryperson, or a selection of lazy stereotypes so recognisable that the author barely needs to describe them.

Not just SF - ALL fiction. See .
posted by
zakur at 6:41 AM on November 24 [18 favorites]


It's basically a demonstration of why a bad writing technique called “Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp“ Is bad.

But really, given how people will go off the handle without reading it, some expert trolling. Further trolling could possibly be achieved bt conning literary fans into getting smug about it and then getting them to read the unsubstituted text to show them the authors have contempt for their genre too, because it's dreck.
posted by Artw at 6:42 AM on November 24 [32 favorites]


While there is no shortage of criticism vectors of science fiction this study strikes me as approaching a very academic sheen of crank pseudo-science.

Sometimes peopl ask if psychology really can be science, and based on this alone I'd say no.
posted by Artw at 6:43 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


How can I hide this report card from my parents?
posted by fairmettle at 6:46 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Also I've a grim syspidcion that likevthat stupid ass "spoilers make you enjoy things more" study I'll be hearing about the fucker forevermore.
posted by Artw at 6:46 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


Watership Down was crawling with substituted words and puzzling out the relationships between a human perspective on the world and a rabbit's is part of the fun of the book. But I challenge anyone to read it without strongly identifying with the, erm, rabbits. Granted it's not science fiction per se, but I think it ticks the boxes. Hypothesis: there are well written and not so well written books (and there are books that function more like a puzzle than a journey into the heart of humanity, and they can be good for other reasons.)
posted by aesop at 7:07 AM on November 24 [15 favorites]


This just shows what narrative defaults do -- there's no particular meaning in choosing a cis straight white Christian guy in the US as your protagonist, but there is meaning if you change any of those options. You have to justify those. Unsurprisingly, people try to figure out the reasons for those changes. This doesn't mean that science fiction makes poor readers, it means we need to also discuss why people choose default settings, not just why they choose non-defaults.

Also, the writing was fucking terrible, and the science fiction, using pointless buzzwords plopped in for random nouns and adjectives, was even more unreadable.

"Spoilers can make you interested in something you had not otherwise had interest in" is true. "Spoilers for something you were independently watching and enjoying make most people happy" is not.
posted by jeather at 7:08 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


Badly written texts.
Badly written study.
Badly written article.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:15 AM on November 24 [9 favorites]


Is it too early to call the ignoble?
posted by Artw at 7:17 AM on November 24 [9 favorites]


What a terrible title for an otherwise interesting article.

This is true, I don't deny it, but I found the article and comments on the study interesting enough to go with their choice of heading.

It reminded me of some earlier studies on standardized tests that were claimed as showing different success rates on things like math tests depending on how the story problems were framed, with boys scoring higher on questions based on their interests and girls higher on those that fit the gender stereotypes of the time for things interesting to them, even as the math problem itself was the same.

I'd like to see more tests along these lines since there are a variety of possibilities for what may cause the results, should they hold over repeated trials. Making some elements "strange", I'd imagine, could have ripple effects that makes the reader less certain on interpreting things that would otherwise be familiar since they lose their grip on convention or the association to "the real", instead getting caught up in disbelief over suspect probability of the descriptive elements. That is something I've witnessed in conversation many times anyway, which is what makes the idea of the study interesting, even if it's obviously limited and framed for clicks.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:25 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


Badest written title
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:28 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


I never read a lot of fiction but a disproportionate amount was science fiction. I enjoyed that it was inventive. It invented worlds, histories, technologies, biologies, terrors, etc. Unfortunately these inventions were invariably populated with cardboard cutouts uttering sci fi boilerplate in adolescent plots. Ray Bradbury was a notable exception. Him I could probably still read. His worlds seemed populated with interesting people...
posted by jim in austin at 7:30 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


I think it is useful corrective to the endless back-patting on the part of science fiction readers, who have been convinced they are slans ever since the 60s and that they grok and whatever the hell other self-congratulatory bullshit I grew up with in the 70s and 80s.

Hey, those claims weren't methodologically sound either, but I didn't hear anybody complaining then.
posted by maxsparber at 7:31 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]


In some ways this reminds me of readers like the Rabid Puppies people who are, essentially, campaigning for this theory to be true.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:33 AM on November 24 [10 favorites]


How can I hide this report card from my parents?

Tell them it was lost in the matter transmitter.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:41 AM on November 24 [6 favorites]


Crumpled by an irising door.
posted by Artw at 7:45 AM on November 24 [9 favorites]


The world they created by randomly swapping in sci-fi tropes in place of familiar items is a confusing one. What kind of high-tech spaceship-y future is it when in order to eat you have to wait for an ensign come over and project a holographic menu at you before taking your order? A weird one which is not introduced well.

Mind you it's not as much of a puzzle as the world in the (nonetheless enjoyable) Robert Silverberg novel I just read, in which it was a complete mystery what species all the main characters were, how many arms and legs they had, what part of the body their "sensing organ" was attached to, et cetera, for quite a lot of chapters. On checking google, it seems that I was supposed to have read the previous book in the series first.
posted by sfenders at 8:08 AM on November 24 [7 favorites]


Oh argh, I'm an engineer *and* a science fiction reader.

Woe is me.
posted by infini at 8:09 AM on November 24 [6 favorites]


*kicking myself for not typing "I did not grok this article"*
posted by infini at 8:11 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


The only real conclusion of this study is "the authors are bad science fiction writers."

Like... you can't just take a piece of literary fiction, swap out some of the nouns and adjectives for something "science fiction-y" sounding, and call it equal. Sorry? Science fiction takes more work than that? It takes a different approach, because you cannot rely on your readers knowing what everything means from the default? All of the sci-fi details were just thrown in, rather than introduced in a context that makes sense. Not to mention sfender's comment that none of it seems to make sense together as a world. No wonder the readers were less engaged and had to take away brainpower from characters to understand the badly described and badly developed world.

Hell, even with a well-written sci-fi story, if all of your participants are used to reading literary fiction and have not read a lot of sci-fi before, they're going to have a harder time! Did they control for reader preferences at all? I'm willing to bet they would have similar problems if they took a bunch of hardcore sci-fi geeks and asked them to read literary fiction.
posted by brook horse at 8:27 AM on November 24 [40 favorites]


...Robert Silverberg novel I just read, in which it was a complete mystery what species all the main characters were....

Did they turn out to be some kind of ruminants, and did the word milt appear?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:42 AM on November 24


Oh god, reading the individual stories, they were such /crap/, too. I’m not sure what you can gain from analysis of such drecht.
posted by corb at 9:15 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


The title of this article reminded me of an essay that the late great Thomas Disch wrote - the Embarrassments of Science Fiction.

"Science fiction writers are the provincials of literature. We have always been able to embarrass each other, but to the world at large our gaucheries are generally accounted a major (if not entire) part of our charm."

Disch's The Dreams Our Stuff is Made of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World is also worth a look in regards to the discussion the genre's "literary value".

In regards to the content of the article I think the idea, as mentioned above by 256, is an interesting one but since we are not able to read the study & their data yet, it's hard to determine if the study has much to say in regards to its relationship with the headline. But I'll echo others above, that swapping out well worn tropes isn't the best way to explore this question. Is it shocking people don't understand poorly written text? In my mind, science fiction is about ideas and infinite possibility but representing science fiction as an obtuse text with a thin veneer of "whiz bang" tropes is misleading. Perhaps something written by an actual writer as opposed to a trope swapped non-story would be more edifying? I'd also would want to have a greater understanding of who the readers are in his study. The author claims that the readers are "random" but I think a greater understanding of the backgrounds of the readers would be critical for this study to have much meaning or value.

the Rabid Puppies people who are, essentially, campaigning for this theory to be true.

I feel they are campaigning for a type of science fiction that is barely such. What that bunch seems to want are affirmations of their polarised world view filtered through old time with a thin sheen of "science fictionness". Doc Savage stories seem too progressive and literary for them.
posted by
Ashwagandha at 9:28 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


I don't know if Sci-Fi makes you stupid, but Star Wars sure does.
posted by philip-random at 9:30 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Did they turn out to be some kind of ruminants, and did the word milt appear?

No milt, just a lot of hjjk. It was _The New Springtime_, which in more recent editions has apparently become the name of the series rather than the 2nd book in it.
posted by sfenders at 9:42 AM on November 24


The thing that I find embarassing is the huge chip on the shoulder that some people seem to have about genre. Often, they indulge in the fallacy that, since we cannot define precisely the borders between genres, genres don't exist. If you mostly like space opera or hard-boiled detective or whatever novels, just own it.
posted by thelonius at 9:56 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


Often, they indulge in the fallacy that, since we cannot define precisely the borders between genres, genres don't exist.

my peeve rather goes the other way. It's not that I deny genres exist, it's that I resent being told that because I like A. (brilliant novel that happens to classify as Sci-Fi), then I must also like B. (deeply average novel that also happens to classify as Sci-Fi).

Can't I just like good stuff?
posted by philip-random at 10:04 AM on November 24 [15 favorites]


The comments are worthwhile in this particular case, as they clarify some things (presumably with less effort than reading the paper.)

The study participants were random internet types, so not controlled for favorite genre. The stories are more or less intentionally bad so you don't get a big quality difference when you swap out phrases. The title is meant to grab people's attention. Just changing the setting vocabulary is admittedly not all SF but he thinks it's a legitimate subgenre anyway. One commenter points out that "SF makes you clever" is also a spin that would be supported by the study.

Speaking for myself I like 256's interpretation of limited processing power for a given story. I would also assume that if you did "narrative realism" set in a different culture you'd get the same effect.

I guess that means I basically believe the study but not the spin. "Don't pile up new words and invent trappings for the sake of it, it distracts from the more substantial qualities" seems pretty solid advice for good writers. (The flip side is distracting from flat characters is a feature, not a bug, for some writers.)
posted by mark k at 10:10 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


But I guess I can understand readers being annoyed with critics who, if a book is good enough, say "that's not SF, it's literature" (assuming that there are such critics and books, maybe something like The Handmaid's Tale has been the locus of that kind of fight).
posted by thelonius at 10:12 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Can't I just like good stuff?

Yes, that's the thing. I think there is a perception that works that "slum" in a genre are all the same (i.e. junk) when it is very easy to see that isn't true.
posted by Ashwagandha at 10:14 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Shitty scifi is shitty.

There's also shitty romance and shitty classics and shitty every genre.

Get off my library lawn.
posted by sio42 at 10:21 AM on November 24 [14 favorites]


To give equal time to snark, there are lots of deeply shitty novels about middle aged male literature professors having a moment of clarity while ogling their grad students too.

IDK, buried in here is an interesting kernel to be unpacked about genre expectations and whether a "Star Wars" fan would have the same problem with a Gene Wolfe or an Atwood passage, but it's drowned so far in the muck of unexamined bias, I'm not sure it's worth fishing for.
posted by bonehead at 10:33 AM on November 24 [11 favorites]


I would also assume that if you did "narrative realism" set in a different culture you'd get the same effect.

Not just narrative realism, but a well-known incest/revenge/ghost story. (pdf)
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:34 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


there are lots of deeply shitty novels about middle aged male literature professors having a moment of clarity while ogling their grad students too

I know lots of people here are devoted to hating on this, but I really don't see many books like that when I go looking for new fiction.
posted by thelonius at 10:37 AM on November 24 [3 favorites]


assuming that there are such critics and books, maybe something like The Handmaid's Tale has been the locus of that kind of fight

Yes, and 1984 and Brave New World and Slaughterhouse-Five and many many more.

Samuel R. Delaney writes about a bookstore reshelving one of his novels from Science Fiction to Literature after an employee learned that the book had been optioned as a potential movie.
posted by overglow at 10:42 AM on November 24 [6 favorites]


But I don't think the two stories are identically bad, because one is based in our world, using everyday terms we all are familiar with, and the other is based in nothing, it's our world with some nouns changed.

I'd love to see the results where the story was initially written as SF and then the words were changed out to make it fake-literary.
posted by jeather at 10:46 AM on November 24 [7 favorites]


Samuel R. Delaney writes about a bookstore reshelving one of his novels from Science Fiction to Literature after an employee learned that the book had been optioned as a potential movie.

Then somebody better move all the Marvel comics to the literature section.
posted by obliterati at 10:49 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


I think that there are at least two possible conclusions that can be drawn from the study (taking in good faith that it's valid). The authors claim that it's just a social thing that people presented with science fiction tropes take it less seriously, but I prefer 256's more reasonable theory that there is a limited bandwidth for information from reading a story, and the more one spends on figuring out the world, the less they can spend on other types of meaning.

From TFA: Both texts, for example, include a sentence that begins: “He was awake in his bunk just a few hours ago, staring at …”; the narrative realism version then continues: “… the shadows of his ceiling slowly ebbing to pink, when the delivery kid’s bicycle rattled onto the gravel of his driveway,” while the science fiction version continues: “… the gray of his sky-replicating ceiling slowly ebbing to pink, when the satellite dish mounted above his quarters started grinding into position to receive the day’s messages relayed from Earth.”

Both, on the surface, say the same thing. But the second one contains a lot more information; there are entire political and economic structures implied with the text that might be relevant for the story. We learn that the station has a power relationship with Earth (it's receiving messages, not issuing commands or listening secretly to Earth); it's close enough to get daily messages but far enough that they only arrive daily (daily also implying a high degree of autonomy); the station is presumably communicating with multiple locations within the solar system (otherwise the dish would always be pointed at Earth), and so on. In the "realistic" text, we are left to assume the kid delivers newspapers.

It's disappointing they picked their preferred hypothesis, even though one could easily discern whether they or 256 are correct, with a third story presenting an unusual, but not science-fiction, setting. I'm pretty sure it's 256, though. I've experienced the bandwidth problem in other texts; for instance, reading Russian literature, the system of names and diminutives makes it a lot harder to track characters and I find I get less out of the story. As I tried to keep straight who Lyoshenka, Dmitri, Alyoshka, Alexei, Vanya, Ivan and Mitenka are*, I can't pay as much attention to other details. And I don't think it's because I approached Dostoyevsky with an "assumption of nonliterariness".

*(Brothers 3, 2, 3, 3, 1, 1, and 2 respectively - the three brothers have 10 more names/diminutives amongst them without adding in variations using their family name or patronymic)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 10:55 AM on November 24 [16 favorites]


Weirdly this is the basis of Sterlings bit on Stanislaw Lem.
posted by Artw at 11:08 AM on November 24 [5 favorites]


I do also agree that having to figure out worldbuilding is a piece of complexity we don't get with stories set in this world -- I wonder how fantasy would do, if it was a tavern and an elf and a proclamation or whatever -- and that, especially when you don't read a lot of books that require it, it's more difficult. And there is a skill to worldbuilding, and to incluing, and doing it messily makes it harder.
posted by jeather at 11:16 AM on November 24


I've experienced the bandwidth problem in other texts; for instance, reading Russian literature, the system of names and diminutives makes it a lot harder to track characters and I find I get less out of the story. As I tried to keep straight who Lyoshenka, Dmitri, Alyoshka, Alexei, Vanya, Ivan and Mitenka are*, I can't pay as much attention to other details. And I don't think it's because I approached Dostoyevsky with an "assumption of nonliterariness".

There's a broader discussion here, and one that's way more interesting than the study reported here. I believe Jo Walton once wrote about "in-cluing," and about how people who write historical fiction face the same problems that people who write science fiction or fantasy face when trying to explain things to a reader. Similarly, people who read fiction written in other eras or in other cultures - Russian literature, or even reading Austen or Dickens - face almost more challenges than a person reading science fiction / fantasy. Austen and Dickens both assume that the cultural norms they are describing are things that the reader will be familiar with, even though they might be entirely alien to the modern reader, so they don't even bother to try to explain things that a halfway decent writer of historical fiction or sf/f would try to inform their reader about.

One can debate whether characters in sf/f novels are realistic or how well the average sf/f reader does theory of mind (I'll flat out admit that I don't do theory of mind, at least not in the usual way), but bandwidth isn't a problem unique to the sf/f genre in particular.

(For that matter, Shakespeare should be even more of a problem than the most dense sf/f novel, if we're working from the above theory. Not only is the setting unusual and most of the context unexplained, the language is extremely archaic.)
posted by steady-state strawberry at 11:17 AM on November 24 [10 favorites]


Make it a bad Austen pastiche for similiar effect.
posted by Artw at 11:18 AM on November 24


I already read a lot of science fiction, but I’d probably read a lot more if I didn’t have to go through the process of deciphering the world and its cosmology every time I started a new novel. “On the third bladeday of Chronis, my hivecousins waved my true name to the outervoice and brought news that Lindeal had Subsumed.” Oh Jesus, here we go again...

It seems that it’s actually worse with more modern novels, since these days “show don’t tell” is more likely to be a novelist’s Prime Directive than in earlier eras.

I wish there were some sort of non-spoiler Cliffs Notes you could get for science fiction or fantasy books, which would summarize the novel’s setting and “rules” but without giving away plot details. Say, the information you would get from the first third of the book.

But I know I’m probably a philistine and a poseur for wanting something like that...
posted by Ian A.T. at 11:43 AM on November 24 [9 favorites]


Now tempted to rewrite it in modern day literary style, maybe a "transgressive" style from the POV of a literary professor who wants to sleep with young students.
posted by Artw at 11:53 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Curl+F all the food for whiskey and cigarettes. Edgy!
posted by Artw at 11:54 AM on November 24


I think that there are at least two possible conclusions that can be drawn from the study (taking in good faith that it's valid). The authors claim that it's just a social thing that people presented with science fiction tropes take it less seriously, but I prefer 256's more reasonable theory that there is a limited bandwidth for information from reading a story, and the more one spends on figuring out the world, the less they can spend on other types of meaning.

I realized this happens every time I've spent time in a country that feels initially difficult to me. The immediate needs tend to be understanding the basic ways that a particular culture works that is different than mine, and on the surface it feels emotionally distant, like a puzzle to be worked out. That effort takes a whole lot of bandwidth and feels a bit like survival mode. As those pieces come together, however, is when interpersonal relationships deepen and points of commonality become more obvious, and empathy becomes a more likely thing.

I'm not surprised that literature genres that are difficult and unfamiliar might also have a trajectory like this. My feeling, too, is that you can observe this happening, if you intentionally attend to it. If I have an author who has a writing style that I find initially difficult, I have a hard time relating to much anything, to the point that I wonder if I'll like the book. As I settle into it, however, and (if) the writing style becomes more comfortable, I can almost see the progression of characters becoming much more relateable, as I'm focusing less on my comfort level in the reading process itself.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:55 AM on November 24 [1 favorite]


there are lots of deeply shitty novels about middle aged male literature professors having a moment of clarity while ogling their grad students too

I know lots of people here are devoted to hating on this, but I really don't see many books like that when I go looking for new fiction.


I was just thinking about this. The "genre" itself and the extent to which it is still a big thing or not. Can we put together a list of books from which this trope is drawn, historically and recently?
posted by atoxyl at 12:00 PM on November 24


I'm not touching this thread with a grappling tractor.
posted by cstross at 12:01 PM on November 24 [28 favorites]


A 10-flurm grappling tractor, even.
posted by rory at 12:11 PM on November 24 [12 favorites]


I was stupid way before I started reading science fiction.
posted by srboisvert at 12:13 PM on November 24 [11 favorites]


There an awful lot of SF that leaves me cold, because the characters are basically just Biff McEveryperson, or a selection of lazy stereotypes so recognisable that the author barely needs to describe them.

The article itself seems like a fun troll--I mean, the title is obvious clickbait composed by an author of the study themselves, and from the look of said author's blog I'm going to guess they're not exactly unfamiliar with the genre.

But pipeski's comment relates to something that's bothered me for an awful long time about sci-fi and fantasy, which is that whenever you get to a race or alien that's non-human, suddenly billions of people on entire planets get painted with the same broad brush. I don't just mean the racism underlying the characterizations of orcs. I mean, how are we supposed to believe all Ferengi are avaricious misogynists, with just a few who've ever married for love? Or only one female one who's ever worn clothes at home? Really? On the whole planet? Ever? Or all elves are super-wise and unearthly and graceful and haughty--I mean, living a long time doesn't mean you'll magically become less foolish or clumsy or have less of a taste for whatever the fantasy equivalent of Chocolate Juniors are. It seems like humans usually get much more opportunity to be their own person, whereas any alien or fantasy race character is defined by the ways they're defying their own culture. It is dumb and only reinforces the idea that The Other is, on average, a faceless mass. Just think about the diversity of cultures, opinions, philosophies, and ideas that have come out from just our one planet across all of human history--how are we to conclude that similar complexity wouldn't emerge from planets with different species?

One of the things I've really enjoyed about the Star Wars Extended Universe was the investment in creating alien race characters that really went beyond the movies. Like you find out that Hutt warriors can be serious badasses, and there were Hutt Jedi, and Jabba the Hutt was considered to be a lecherous, greedy perv by other Hutts.

But from a lot of the sci-fi (granted, I haven't gone into comics and Star Trek novels, so maybe it's different there) and fantasy I've read, anything that's not human exists as a foil for the human's actions and feelings. And I think this approach only further inculcates the very human tendency to not recognize things different from us as fully actualized, complex beings in their own right.
posted by schroedinger at 12:29 PM on November 24 [10 favorites]


Or all elves are super-wise and unearthly and graceful and haughty


No, that's true- Elves are just dicks. They just are.

[NOT ELFIST]
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:46 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


I wonder if they could have done the same thing with ANY genre fiction. As a kid, I read a bunch of Louis L'Amour (sp?) books, and after about a dozen, you start to wonder "wait, did I already read this one?" Same cardboard cutout heros and villians, but instead of space marines and aliens, it's sheriffs and outlaws. The same could be said about many spy/action/Jack Reacher type book series. There's no character development their either, but I'm just there for escapist action, not for navel gazing.

It's been said above, but there are plenty of good characters in sci-fi/fantasy/westerns/whatever. It's just that a lot of is cranked out and it's pure escapism, not "literature".
posted by Mr. Big Business at 12:53 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Here I make an embarrassing confession: I find it really hard to keep track of Chinese and Korean character names.

I observe that if I make the effort to keep track of the characters then I don't have the bandwidth to enjoy the story. At some point I tend to just throw my arms up in the air and stop caring. And of course I understand less of what is going on in terms theory of mind and plot.

I can see the same happening with science fiction terms.

BTW, my solution after three body problem became to confusing was to get a PDF version and use search and replace. I enjoyed the book a lot more when the names where "Ye Wenjie (strophis, profsor's dgtr)".

I should try this with some other scene fiction.

BTW, I love the technique in SF we're it takes you some time to figure out that "rabbit" is a 10 pound spiderlike thing that lived in burrows and is tasty in a stew, and that the humans I am so invested in are half ton blobs of protoplasm who eat radistion. I enjoy seeing my mental picture morph.
posted by Index Librorum Prohibitorum at 1:01 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Regardless Neal Stephenson likes the word “Carom” a whole lot.
posted by Annika Cicada at 2:00 PM on November 24


> science fiction readers, who have been convinced they are slans ever since the 60s

The '60s?! Try the ! Kids today, I swear... mutter mutter....
posted by
languagehat at 2:15 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]


I'm kind of disappointed that instead of posting things along the lines of "yeah, but what if there were a science fiction novel about the world having become stupid by reading science fiction and then..." people have been discussing, like, legitimate stuff.
posted by mr. digits at 2:17 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


The '60s?! Try the '40s! Kids today, I swear...

There's a study I'd like to see... Give various groups A.E. Van Vogt's World of Null-A and see if the average reader can figure that out.
posted by Ashwagandha at 2:54 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]


Or all elves are super-wise and unearthly and graceful and haughty

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

--- Lords and Ladies, Terry Pratchett
posted by SPrintF at 3:17 PM on November 24 [7 favorites]


When I was reading a lot of Russian lit I made a list of character names. That was before computers and e-readers were a thing. These days I'd probably mark up names with different colors and patterns, or at least be able to keep the list alphabetized. If I recall sometimes books would even have indexes along with rough descriptions of who the characters were. That was VERY helpful.

I actually had more trouble when authors like Hugo would go off on their goddamn book-length tangents. You just spent 200 pages on street slang and are referring to everyone and everything as "M. A~" or "the village of B~", and now we're back to the story? Really makes you appreciate the value of editors.

(not that modern authors are any better, looking at YOU, GRRM)
posted by schroedinger at 3:21 PM on November 24


"Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder. ..."

Exactly. And they fart unicorn dust and never pick their nose, get heartburn, or get Mad At Dad and get regrettable tattoos, or go through awkward periods in their teenage years where they wrote terrible emo poetry and their ears are over-sized and they filled their scrolls with how much their hate Tariel, that BITCH who thinks she's sooooooooo great and you know she dyes her hair that silver color.
posted by schroedinger at 3:27 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]


ELVES ARE PEOPLE TOO
posted by schroedinger at 3:28 PM on November 24


schroedinger, I will read your ya book about elf teenagers.
posted by jeather at 3:35 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


less effort to understand the minds of the characters.

How different are the characters, really, in 'narrative realism'? The world described by science (and one of the primary characters in sci-fi) is far more diverse and intriguing than the same old hateful, greedy, kind, loving humans. War is war, romance is romance, and tedium is endless replays of the same old 'dramas'.

As for realism, reading science fiction -- which took me beyond our tiny sphere with its endless problems --caused me to become a science major. Which made me smarter about 'reality' than the majority of US Congressmen, capable of more creative solutions to our problems than the daffy 'tradition', 'fashion' and 'common sense' which drools from many (if not most) mainstream novels.

So go suck it, Msr. Gavaler.
posted by Twang at 3:38 PM on November 24


ELVES ARE PEOPLE TOO

Technically they are hell-beings with no souls.
posted by Artw at 3:43 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


Technically they are hell-beings with no souls.

Potato, potahto.
posted by jeather at 3:51 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Every seven years the pay a tithe of human babies to the devil in order to keep living so fancy and pretty, I'm just saying.
posted by Artw at 4:05 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]


But from a lot of the sci-fi (granted, I haven't gone into comics and Star Trek novels, so maybe it's different there) and fantasy I've read, anything that's not human exists as a foil for the human's actions and feelings.

I don't think that this is a genre problem. Or rather, I don't think it's unique to sci-fi and fantasy. I'm thinking about how many historical fiction or travel works use the foreign "other" as a foil for the narrator.

But it's also just not fair to say that's what the genre is like? On one hand, there's a lot of the stuff, because many creators draw inspiration--or are even continuing--older stories, like Star Trek or Tolkien. And it's a genre in which there's a lot of pulp, where these things often don't get interrogated all that deeply. On the other, though, there's a lot more than stories about Klingons and elves. I often feel like people who are being snobby about "genre" fiction take the worst or most popular examples of genre fiction, and then compare them to better examples of literary fiction.

Like, it's the same kind of thing as comparing the latest popular pop party track to your favorite groundbreaking rock bands, and declaring that pop is awful--it ignores all of the more interesting, artistic pop and all of the absolute drivel that some rock bands put out.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:29 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


Oh, it's absolutely a problem in other genres--but these days I think you get more pushback in other genres for writing about the Generic African Villager than you will about Generic Hutt. Which, like, makes sense. I'm simply making the point that we do allow a sloppy sort of thinking when it comes to thinking about The Other in sci-fi/fantasy genres in a way that has become frowned upon in other ones.
posted by schroedinger at 6:41 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


schroedinger, I will read your ya book about elf teenagers.

Are You There, Yavanna? It's Me, Mithrellas
posted by schroedinger at 6:44 PM on November 24 [13 favorites]


in comparison to Narrative Realism readers

what kind of idiot only reads one kind of book, though? who can be called such a reader, who is so sheltered or so narrowly constrained outside of test conditions? the whole point of learning to read, and the whole long history of restricting literacy among certain people as a means of social control, is that once you know how to read you can read anything. you can't tell someone they are only permitted to read the Bible or the collected back issues of Analog for the rest of their lives and expect them to actually do it and never take a look at anything else, nobody with any spirit ever does. and if you have no spirit, what does it matter how far your wits are eroded by your special restricted diet of robot novels, they were never any more use to you than your tonsils.

plus, although science fiction patently does make you stupid, we are all capable of reading more than one kind of thing. so stupidity must then just be a temporary state one can swim in and out of at will. and who would be so small as to be afraid of it, even if it were permanent and forever? if injury to the brain is the price of art, all good people will pay it. it's a pitiful and a pathetic man who treats a piece of literature like an SAT prep booklet and measures its worth to him by how much it improves his score after reading.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:26 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


Interesting, but I suspect good science fiction actually addresses many ethical questions better by tending towards consequentialism. We've plenty of bad sci-fi of course, but we seemingly read the better ones more, like say Fank Herbert who addressed environmentalism and centralized power, via religion and large governments. In this experiment, they alter a single base story without afaik attempting to push the form. Also what 256 said.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:48 PM on November 24


In summation, one of the stories we made up for this study was harder to grok than the other one.
posted by oheso at 8:00 PM on November 24 [5 favorites]


(Hint: It's the one where we obfuscated all the nouns ... )
posted by oheso at 8:03 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]


A peice of text that can make you dumber might qualify as a low grade basilisk.
posted by Artw at 8:06 PM on November 24 [2 favorites]


I'm simply making the point that we do allow a sloppy sort of thinking when it comes to thinking about The Other in sci-fi/fantasy genres

I agree that it's usually sloppy thinking*, and that it makes sense that it's been more tolerated in sci-fi and fantasy--after all, making it about a fictional people adds a bit of plausible deniability.

I could probably spend an hour ranting about how sci-fi and fantasy are so heavily influenced by iconic works that beginning authors think that having different species with an overriding characteristic is something that you're supposed to do. The /r/worldbuilding subreddit is an excellent example of this; it's full of amateurs going on and on about the "races" they've invented (and why you should think their orcs are different).

But then I look at my shelf, which is full of wonderful books that don't do any of these things. I never even had to work to avoid it. Like, the Drows exist in their own little sub-genre of fantasy, one that I never really read. Likewise the angry aliens with crinkly foreheads. And I wonder if we compared like with like--that is, older works with older works, pulp with pulp--if the difference wouldn't be so stark.

* Maybe. It depends on the story. I give Tolkien more of a pass on this than some others because of the deliberate mythological tone.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:12 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]


the clickbait headline was written by one of the scientists who ran the study

The "scientist" in question's only advanced degree appears to be an MFA.
posted by RogerB at 8:17 PM on November 24 [3 favorites]


Well I think it would be fair to extrapolate the authors' point as, assuming/if/supposing that "literary realism prejudice" is real and can be measured, one consequence of it is that it undermines the genre of science fiction systemically. So you do get problematic books and weakly-characterized books in sci-fi, but on the other hand, if you're judgmental about this situation or status quo at that level (hello, my old English teachers), then you're contributing to this socially constructed form of ideological prejudice. That's a pretty standard analysis of how prejudice recreates itself and gets internalized, etc.

It'd be partly why Margaret Atwood distanced herself from the sci-fi label, for instance. And why her nytimes critic for Handmaid's Tale back in the day said her characters sucked or something, despite the otherwise great story.
posted by polymodus at 8:58 PM on November 24 [1 favorite]


I'm simply making the point that we do allow a sloppy sort of thinking when it comes to thinking about The Other in sci-fi/fantasy genres in a way that has become frowned upon in other ones.

But that's just it, the otehrness in their "realism" text is probably pretty cut and dried (I'm betting race, though maybe religion). In their sciencefictional story the main character, rather than coming into the cafe through a door comes in through an airlock (the authors example of a no-added-cognitive-load word swap). Seriously? Suddenly the sciencefictional community is far more complicated than the realism story. Different parts of the community don't just look different or believe differently or even think differently. If members of on part of the community interact directly with other parts of the community, some is going to die of just being in the room!

If I were one of their subjects I'd be filtering the text looking for an explanation of why the cafe needs an airlock. But guess what! There's no there there and I'm never going to find it. When they ask me what the main character is thinking or feeling and I'm going to say that I have no idea what the fuck is going on in the story.

I mean, seriously:

Tim looked at his cell phone. No need to rush, he had almost 30 minutes to spare."

"Tom looked at his Geiger counter. No need to rush, he had almost 30 minutes to spare."

Could any sane person say these were cognitively equal?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:07 PM on November 24 [4 favorites]


I mean, if I give algebra and calculus problems to a group of people, only some of whom are accustomed to doing calculus, I'm pretty sure I can predict the result. I'm also pretty sure that I would not summarize the result as "calculus makes you stupid".
posted by SpiralT at 1:02 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


"calculus makes you stupid".

It sure made me feel stupid.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:03 AM on November 25 [2 favorites]


Regex makes you stupid.
posted by Artw at 7:03 AM on November 25


If I were one of their subjects I'd be filtering the text looking for an explanation of why the cafe needs an airlock.

I occasionally dabble in attempting to write stories. I always get bogged down in this sort of stuff. Sometimes I just want to write a dumb fantasy or sci-fi story and throw some magic or technology elements into it. (Because it'd be cool to explore.) Then I end up thinking a little more about what's different in this world and a lot of these sorts of details each become rabbit holes and I end up not getting much writing done.

Like in both whether you have robots, aliens, or fantasy creatures in addition to humans, now you're probably dealing with pseudo-racism and stuff like that. What sort of a history would a world with humans and orcs have? You'd most likely not have a nearly identical late Middle Ages to the one we know but also with orcs living along side humans perfectly happy. And then I don't want to write a story set in Human-Orc Tribal War #450. Or would they have long ago found some resolution to whatever issues they have? And then a critical reader would probably look at the text thinking I actually wanted to write a story that was a vehicle for a solution to racism or something. I can't get this voice out of my head. Thanks excellent HS English Teacher!

What we think we see in these stories reflects the times we live in. There was the recent trend in the 00's which perhaps has died down of books and movies about zombies and zombie invasions. (Zombies aren't interesting at all for me.) Was that a matter of people reading a zombie story and wanting to make their own? Or was interest in it reflecting Americans' concern about illegal immigration which is still manifesting itself today despite the numbers having peaked a decade ago? In the same way the pod people and mind-invader sort of alien invasion movies of the 50's and 60's could actually have been about stuff like communist infiltration.

Sometimes the curtains are just blue and I get stuck unable to write.
posted by Blue Tsunami at 7:57 AM on November 25


The way this is being framed reminds me of the academic who went griefing in City of Heroes and then wrote a paper about it; that he didn't portray the subculture that he was writing about accurately not only wouldn't be obvious to the larger audience, but would get him all sorts of negative attention from his ostensible subjects, which would heighten his profile.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:34 AM on November 25


I agree that it's usually sloppy thinking*, and that it makes sense that it's been more tolerated in sci-fi and fantasy--after all, making it about a fictional people adds a bit of plausible deniability.

It's easier to advocate genocide as the answer when you're talking orcs, not Jews.

The modern (really modern) history of science fiction and fantasy is slowly coming to the realisation that everybody is peoples, whether robots, orcs, or fuzzy green creatures from Alpha Centauri and you cannot get away from treating people as people, rather than things.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:57 PM on November 25 [3 favorites]


Uh, I think you might have missed some Hugo and Locus nominees in the sixties and seventies.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:11 PM on November 25


No, you apparently missed that MartinWisse was commenting about The modern (really modern) history of science fiction (emphasis added). I'm not psychic and don't know which works he was thinking of, but the ones I think of that his comment describes were published after 2010, and many of them after 2015.

BTW, starting a comment with "uh" or "um" tends to come across as "I intend to be an asshole." If you just want to disagree with somebody, it's possible to do so without being disdainful in the process. And if you are going to be disdainful, maybe try not to miss the central point of the comment you're snarking on.
posted by Lexica at 10:21 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


/Slams stack on WH40K tie in novels on table.

Look, it's okay if the humans are really awful too.
posted by Artw at 10:26 PM on November 25


Also, TBH, in the kind of fancy ass SF I tend to read I think aliens of the Star Trek bumpy-forehead-and-veiled-stereotype-earth-culture largely fell out of fashion somewhere in the 80s with Cyberpunk.
posted by Artw at 10:31 PM on November 25


Or, or reread, maybe I misread you and you meant that there was some amazingly enlightened stuff back then. If so, apologies. That's not my memory of the bulk of it, from reading a lot of it. (Grateful to my dad for having something like 20 years of back issues of F&SF when I was growing up.) While there were some outliers, Sturgeon's law applied and there was a lot more stamped-out, race/species-determines-character fantasy and science fiction than things that were different, as I remember.
posted by Lexica at 10:33 PM on November 25


there are lots of deeply shitty novels about middle aged male literature professors having a moment of clarity while ogling their grad students too

I know lots of people here are devoted to hating on this, but I really don't see many books like that when I go looking for new fiction.

I was just thinking about this. The "genre" itself and the extent to which it is still a big thing or not. Can we put together a list of books from which this trope is drawn, historically and recently?


You know, this is a really good question...the closest I can come to thinking of a book that literally fits this description is Lolita which I don't think anyone is really meaning to indicate.

Books that I think spiritually fit this niche even if they don't literally fit it:

Rabbit Run
Something Happened
Keep the Aspidistra Flying
The ouvre of Jonathan Franzen
posted by phoenixy at 11:30 PM on November 25 [1 favorite]


I've not read it, but isn't The Corrections literally exactly that?
posted by Artw at 7:57 AM on November 26


[..] but these days I think you get more pushback in other genres for writing about the Generic African Villager than you will about Generic Hutt.

"The author writes like he's never met a Hutt."
posted by rochrobbb at 2:38 PM on November 26 [1 favorite]


What it really seems to be showing is that people have a finite amount of bandwidth for understanding a story and thus, when they get cues that the story is happening in a world they don't understand, the attention they pay towards building a model of that world of necessity results in a somewhat lower attention being paid to understanding the characters.

I think the "bandwidth" idea is certainly true to an extent, but perhaps doesn't fully explain some of the possible conceptual differences between science fiction and narrative realism. It would suggest that those who do read science fiction either do get less out of it along the lines of what is being claimed as measured here or that science fiction readers are able to process stories using "greater bandwidth" than narrative realism readers. Neither seems entirely satisfactory to me, even as both likely contain some truth to them.

One of the main points I'd consider when thinking about the "bandwidth" idea is that science fiction, by its very nature, is going to ask different things of the reader than narrative realism, mostly in what the reader is asked to focus on. With narrative realism the reader is at once familiar with most of the workings of the world of the story. Objects are mostly known and demand little explanation or notice as they work as they do in our "real world". The same is true for many of the basic roles people will play in their public stance, a cop is a cop, a reporter a reporter, waiter a waiter and so on, these roles don't require much introduction as to their basic functions. These elements by dint of usually being able to be taken for granted makes the reader focus on the elements that are "strange" or which will provide the interest of the story, which is often interpersonal relationships and perhaps some more unusual events, like murders, law suits, or conflicts of some specific sort. This is the expected crux of the story, those specific and unfamiliar, rare, or strange elements and how they involve the characters we follow.

With science fiction, many of those basic elements can't be taken for granted as the very nature of the genre is to draw focus to elements of the society which differ from our own. The society itself is in some way "strange". With this emphasis, not only is the reader devoting bandwidth to different elements, but the writer is often focusing on different elements than in narrative realism. In effect, in much, though not all, of science fiction holds the interpersonal relationships or inner state of the characters as "normal", keeps them familiar, in order to shift the attention to the elements that are different than usual and the focal point of the story. If nothing else, one can think of it in terms of space, not the "out there" science fiction kind, but of the use of words on the page. Two works of the same length, one narrative realist and one science fiction, are, almost by necessity, going to have to devote their writings to different elements of the stories in order to be clear to the reader.

A narrative realist work generally isn't going to require much effort to explain their world, because it's the world we know and will instead add more focus on the things that are believed to make this particular situation interesting, where a science fiction work will require more explanation of the basic functions of their world as that is the promise of the genre, the world of the story itself being strange.

So it isn't really a matter of "more" bandwidth being needed necessarily, but that of the bandwidth being attuned to different stations of emphasis. None of that is to suggest that science fiction doesn't deal with character or that narrative realism doesn't deal with events or objects, but that the manner in which they each address their readership does differ. A story like Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life, for example, is very much about the interpersonal relationships between the characters and uses a science fiction format to come at those relationships from a unique angle in order to better clarify the emotional/intellectual response in an unexpected form. Chiang provides the reader a "normal" narrative realist vision of life in order to overturn it through examination from a "science fiction" angle. The important element isn't in the labeling of either genre or their elements, but in how those elements mediate the experience of the reader in "reality".

That, to me, is the central focus and question regarding any art. How does the story being told, the thing we are seeing or hearing inform my experience of reality. A science fiction story, no matter how improbable, still needs to say something to me or show me something about the world and my understanding of it now. Without that it has no meaning to me. The same is true for narrative realism, but from the opposite angle. A story can be entirely realistic but mean nothing if it isn't providing some perspective outside my own to better inform my experience. Art has to be "strange" but not so strange as to lose connection to my understanding of reality. In some works, this might just mean my understanding of the art itself, an exceptionally meaningful part of my interests, while in others it may be in showing the world or people in some better defined fashion than I'd have imagined on my own, through humor, drama, or whatever form the work takes.

The thing that makes the study interesting to me, isn't that the readers didn't understand the science fiction as well, the explanations for that have been reasonably debated to whatever extent of truth there is in them, but in what the study is attempting to measure and what it suggests about the differences between genres. I would hypothesize that there is some real, but general, difference between science fiction readers and narrative realism readers at the more extreme ends of the spectrum, one could point to all the science fiction paraphernalia devoted to ship design and the fandom arguments over plausibility as examples of how some of the fans of the genre lean towards appreciation of the sorts of technical engineering things that narrative realism doesn't provide. In the same way, narrative realist fans often have their own little special niches of interaction with works based around relationships or fantasies of living lives other than their own. There's nothing wrong with either, but they point towards different interests and manners of appreciation.

This is true for all genres, not just the two mentioned. Each has its own focus and will draw appreciation for whatever the emphasized qualities might be, but that isn't to say then everything is equal, but to suggest better attention to what is being emphasized and what is being taken for granted is needed to assess the merits of the works. There is nothing intrinsically worse about science fiction than narrative realism as a genre or method, but the measure for one may not suit the other since their purposes or emphases are not the same. In determining merit one first has to look closely at what one is using as a measure and balance that against what the works provide. Judging science fiction by narrative realist values works no better than judging narrative realism by the values of science fiction, but both can be judged by measures of how they inform the reader, in the crudest way this can be measured by enthusiasm or sales, but that only points back to the problem the survey addresses, where enthusiasm alone isn't sufficient explanation, outside the one enthused, of merit to place the value where it belongs, or where it is lacking.

To be sure, a subjective appreciation can be enough for any given reader but the aggressive defensiveness in response to differences in appreciation show there needs to be something more. This survey, as limited as it is, points towards the gap between audiences and to the gulf in understanding on a cultural level. There is some irony in this as science fiction and fantasy is as prevalent in the culture as one could reasonably hope. It's everywhere, but the critical understanding of its importance and discussion of the values or vision it promotes lags behind. It's this gulf between popular opinion and critical response that needs addressing, both to show the things science fiction does well which are being diminished and in showing where it is lacking beyond enthusiastic response. These kinds of studies, should better ones be developed, can help build better tools for thinking about different genres and what they provide their audiences and better bridge divides between those who excessively favor forms over the meanings they hold.

Wow, that was long. TL:DR version, the study is a good start in showing how genres differ now we need to better understand why different genres work for some and not others and what that suggests overall.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:56 AM on November 27 [1 favorite]


science fiction, by its very nature, is going to ask different things of the reader than narrative realism, mostly in what the reader is asked to focus on.

This, I think, is the key point the article missed: that a change in genre doesn't just mean a shift in terminology and story setting. We have genres because they tell different kinds of stories.

I suspect if you took a good science fiction short story, stripped out all the sf elements, and set it in the modern-day real world, you'd reverse the results: readers who read both would have more trouble with the realistic one, which was forced into the wrong genre.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:57 AM on November 28


Yeah, I think there are several different things going on when readers go between genres. The article points to the most basic, of readers who may not be comfortable in reading an unfamiliar or disliked genre, but doesn't look closely enough at the rest.

For me, as an example, when I read the two versions of the story I find the science fiction one more interesting since the writing and character construction simply isn't very compelling on its own. The narrative realism elements are routine at best in the sample, so the science fiction elements stand out more for at least hinting there is a possibility of some more interesting world building going in that would make the conventional more palatable. In essence, I'd rather read a poorly written science fiction story than a poorly written narrative realism story since there is very little hope for the latter having anything interesting to say.

Call it the MST3K school of thought, where poorly crafted fantasies still contain enough strangeness to provide something interesting for the reader or viewer to take in. That's way, I believe, children take so readily to more fantastic stories or movies, they mirror something of the effect of more profound art but often without clear purpose or internal/emotional logic that more complex art provides. That doesn't mean there can't be complexity or profundity in the fantastic, but that even completely absent those things it still can be striking for the unexpected nature of some detail. Narrative realism has a much harder time with that.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:11 AM on November 29 [1 favorite]


So "theory of mind" is the incredibly complicated idea that solipsism is bullshit and other people probably have inner lives? Do I have that right?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:49 AM on November 29


Heh. Yeah, that's more or less the idea. In action, it's obviously more difficult for some to accept than others, he says glancing towards DC.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:14 AM on November 29


On the third bladeday of Chronis, my hivecousins waved my true name to the outervoice and brought news that Lindeal had Subsumed.

not gonna lie if this was a short story and i needed a break from the latest Sanderson tome i would totally read this

posted by lazaruslong at 5:47 AM on November 29 [2 favorites]


So "theory of mind" is the incredibly complicated idea

*waves hand* To some of us, yeah. I have a Ph.D., and I struggle with this every. damn. day.

There's many reasons a lot of people with ASD read sf/f, and it's a little embarrassing to admit that I have a hard time following many character-driven literary novels.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:24 AM on November 30


It might also be worth noting that a lot of people readily accept convention as being sufficient evidence of mindfulness as the commonality of some tropes allows authors to simply follow the numbers to draw in a character instead of actually providing evidence of more complex thought or motivation. "The hero's journey" perhaps being a good example of this.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:15 AM on November 30


So "theory of mind" is the incredibly complicated idea that solipsism is bullshit and other people probably have inner lives? Do I have that right?

Oddly given the topic, I'm not sure what you're snarking about. The link clearly explains what it means in this context: the character's state of mind is not directly given but the reader is making inferences about the character's state of mind from what is stated in the text. The point of the link is that readers do less of this when the text has science-fiction trappings than when it doesn't.

It's not, in this context, anything about real people, just about how readers react to fictional characters. If you treat a fictional character as if it were a person and try to figure out its motivations etc from what you see on the page, you have good theory of mind. If you don't particularly care about the character's state of mind or have trouble inferring it from the text, then you don't. The character doesn't actually have a mind to make inferences about because it isn't real.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:50 AM on November 30 [2 favorites]


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