Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Scientists in SF

Jon Turney has an interesting post on the LabLit blog - Can science fiction be lab lit? - about the depiction of scientists in science fiction.

"Lab lit" is fiction that features scientists working at science. There isn't really a clear bright line between "science fiction" and "lab lit", and it's not clear whether realistic stories about scientists set in the very near future should be one or the other. I usually consider such stories science fiction (as does Turney, apparently), and the LabLit folks consider them to be lab lit.  But even if you exclude such novels - Gwyneth Jones's Life, for example - there are some good depictions of scientists in SF.

You should read Turney's post to find out which novels he considers to be some of the best examples of scientists in SF.

Turney also cites an informal survey of scientists in SF made by Lucy A. Snyder. In her article - The Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction - she compares scientists in short stories from the mid-1990s to the 1950s. It's by no means a comprehensive study, but it seems that over the years the portrayal of scientists in SF has gotten more positive and much more diverse:
In summary, the '50s anthologies I sampled portray scientists as main characters in 10 out of 32 stories (31.3%), and of these 10, 4 are negative portrayals. [...]
I went through six consecutive months of Analog [from the 1990s] and analyzed the stories in the same way that I had the '50s anthologies. Of the 36 total stories in these issues, 16 (44.4%) featured scientists as main characters. And of these portrayals, none were negative except insofar as scientists were shown to be fallible human beings.
[. . .] On the whole, the scientists portrayed in Analog are likeable, highly intelligent, and occupy a sort of moral high ground. There is also a much greater diversity of scientists in these stories as compared with the '50s anthologies. In addition to the traditionally-portrayed medical doctors and physicists, the stories featured liberal doses of paleontologists, ecologists, and other biologists.
So not only more likable, but more biologists!  That's consistent with my own impressions of scientists in SF short stories, but I'd love to see a more systematic study that compares more than 30-ish stories from each era. 

Heck,  I'd do the myself if someone would provide me with the required extensive SF collections the study would require!


1 comment:

  1. There is a grant of 250 pounds to go to the University of Liverpool collection, which is quite good:

    And the Speculative Literature Foundation has an $800 grant for research for a fiction project, which isn't the same...but, well, if you did both it's a good idea (



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