Why Do We Read Science Fiction?
Does personality influence reading choice?
Just as Obi-Wan Kenobi presented a lightsaber to Luke Skywalker with the words,
"Your father wanted you to have this when you were old enough," my father gave
me two books when I turned 11: Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov and The
Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein. I don't remember which book I read first,
only that I finished both in one day. I never stopped.
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
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
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
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.
Take the temperament test:
Carol Pinchefsky is a freelance writer from New York City.