Kevin J. Maroney, managing editor of the New York Review of Science Fiction, says, “I started reading SF because of peer pressure: Both my father and my older brother were heavy SF readers, so the stuff was all around the house when I was growing up. The earliest books I can remember reading were fantasies (Oz, Narnia, Lewis Carroll, The Phantom Tollbooth) and SF (The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, the really gawdawful Tom Swift Jr. novels, [The Wonderful Flight] to the Mushroom Planet).”
Diana Tixier Herald, author of the upcoming Fluent in Fantasy: The Next Generation, says she has always been a reader. “I changed schools 13 times before I graduated high school, and every time I moved I would go into the library and all of my friends were there. I established relationships with the characters in these books.” Herald’s literary companions? Besides Nancy Drew, she read, A Wrinkle in Time, The Once and Future King, and The Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron.
The science fiction and fantasy genre is an oeuvre of weird and wonderous (and apparently, mushroom planets). The mythic, the otherworldly, and the speculative are not so much an everyday occurrence as they are a mission statement. People come to science fiction and fantasy for the familiarity — most children’s fairy tales are deeply fantastical — but they stay for reasons as varied as why people read at all.
Tor editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden wisely says, “If you ask 20 different readers why they read, they will all be right.” People read straight-out non-genre fiction to enjoy a world that is not their own, to live someone’s life tangentially and vicariously. People read fiction to be informed, to be entertained, to escape, etc. (The reasons why people read fiction in general are too complex to be distilled in this article, and the subject certainly deserves academic attention.)
Reading is an escapist hobby, but science fiction and fantasy reading even more so — people escape out of their own worlds into places and times that do not exist nor ever will.
Why do I read science fiction and fantasy?
It turns out the answer may be in my psychological makeup. Paul Allen, a reader of science fiction and a practicing clinical psychotherapist for 22 years, says my temperament predisposes me to a love of science fiction.
Each of us has a temperament, that is, a part of our personality that may or may not be genetically based. A quick Myers-Briggs test has informed me that I’m a Thinking iNtuitive (NT), that is, a “Rational.” According to the Keirsey Temperament website, “Rationals are very scarce, comprising as little as 5 to 7 percent of the population.”
Allen says, “NTs are non-conformist critical thinkers. The NTs idolize the science fiction writer as the real architects of change. They can see the cleverness and competency in science fiction. Back in the day, when you could sell a book with a rocketship on the cover, you were selling to the NT.”
According to a Wikipedia article on temperament , Rationals “excel in any kind of logical investigation such as…conceptualizing [and] theorizing.” Science fiction readers require a “willing suspension of disbelief” to enjoy the material as well as the ability to conceive and extrapolate beyond what the writer has written.
Sherry Sontag, a science fiction reader and non-fiction writer (Blind Man’s Bluff), compares reading science fiction to the experience of the Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” “You see a man and a woman and your brain fills in a park bench and the sky and the blackbird flitting around. Reading science fiction is the ultimate interactive experience,” Sontag says, because when you read science fiction, “your brain begins to build a world from the ground up.”
“[T]his tendency [to read science fiction] is anchored in [a] love of complexity, the author’s independent thinking, and an eye for elegance in any well-designed system.” Allen says, “NTs also the ones who argue with [the authors] about why they did this on page so-and-so.” Not only has Allen put a finger to my reading habits, but also he has identified my former career as a copy editor.
If all NTs in the U.S. general population read science fiction, that would mean 15 to 21 million people would know where their towel is. As science fiction readership is nowhere near that wide, another element must be added (or removed) to identify the genre readership.
In addition to nature, there is also nurture.
From my interviews, it seems that many people who read science fiction as children had similar experiences: raised outside their mother countries, moved frequently, had health problems, troubled childhoods, and/or were academically gifted. These circumstances led these people to delve more deeply into books than to reach out to other people.
For example, author Jay Lake (Trial of Flowers) says he reads science fiction because, “I grew up overseas before satellite TV or VCRs, so my childhood was dominated by books in a way which is unusual for my generation…. I was always drawn to the genre side, quite possibly because of the improbably alien nature of my own life in the Third World.”
Tamara Nichols, who practiced psychotherapy for 11 years, says, “[The genre] can provide a sort of a symbolic model for people who don’t fit into the more mainstream ideas of what a man should be, what a woman should be.”
Science fiction speaks to people who feel, well, “alienation.”
Nichols says, “Certainly I think everybody has that feeling of being an outsider at some point in their lives, particularly in the US because we don’t have communities like we used to. A lot of people feel like they don’t belong at all. SF hits on what it’s like to go out into an alien environment. SF organizes the unknown in a sense, and makes it more psychologically available,” says Nichols.
Lake says that, for some, change is frightening, and “genre fiction embraces, encapsulates, and explains that change.”
Genre stories are set in worlds that are unknown and disparate to us, and we automatically reorder them; at the same time, the main characters set fundamental wrongs to right. Readers of science fiction have the luxury of extrapolating a positive future or predicting and hopefully avoiding negative ones. But if one liked to read equations and logic puzzles, one would stick with non-fiction. Science fiction and fantasy also appeal to other temperaments, including readers of a “romantic” nature.
“SF is called the literature of ideas, and it really is, but the ideas aren’t about fusion or nanotubules or seven schools of magic; they’re the same ideas of love and anger and the human heart in conflict with itself (tm William Faulkner) that drive all other stories, but foregrounded and made new,” says Maroney.
“Even [books about] distant space travel boils down to human emotion and human thought,” says Sontag.
Yet reading science fiction has its own pitfalls: people whose diet consist mainly of genre material can experience a kind of cognitive dissonance when reading non-genre. Maroney says, “I know that when I read Vonnegut’s collection Welcome to the Monkey House in my early teens, I kept expecting fantastic events to burst out in every story and being slightly puzzled by ‘Who Am I This Time?’ and ‘Long Walk to Forever,’ which have no SF elements.”
I agree, and here I admit: non-genre material bores me. I keep expecting aliens or smoke-puffing dragons and even mushroom planets to appear, and when they don’t, I am disappointed. I also enjoy the anticipation of the unusual, woven into the fabric of any genre story: if a book or story begins on a “normal” day, it will mostly certainly not remain so.
Back to my psychological profile.
The circumstances of my childhood (troubled by poor health) plus my tendency toward thinking-intuitiveness — nurture and nature — have possibly shaped my reading choices.
But what about the reverse? Does what we read shape who we are?
I can’t speak for everybody, but I read science fiction and fantasy for an even more important reason than it appeals to my critical thinking. I read because it’s a genre full of ideas and optimism and inspiration. Hopefully, I am what am read.
Thanks to Melissa Lee Shaw.
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Carol Pinchefsky is a freelance writer from New York City.