If you're a Leftie you like Ellison and Herbert. If you're a Rightie you like Anderson and Heinlein.
July 18, 2010 2:02 PM   Subscribe

New Maps of Science Fiction
The first question that naturally comes to mind about stories and authors is "How much do you like them?" Literary critics try to go far beyond this simple query, but it is the one that people ordinarily care most about, and for us it is the most important sociological question. Using modern techniques of analysis we can recover a tremendous amount of hidden information from statistics of people's likes and dislikes.
Analog Yearbook, 1977, pages 277-299. (via)
posted by P.o.B. (45 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is interesting, but where are the maps?!
posted by doublehappy at 2:09 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've read at least one book by every author mentioned with the exception of R. A. Lafferty, but then that's because I am a Leftie.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:15 PM on July 18, 2010


It follows that Anderson is a Righty and Ellison is a Lefty. Many readers familiar with both would agree.

Well now I'm even more curious. Further on, he's more right wing than Heinlein for crying out loud. WTF?
posted by DU at 2:32 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is interesting, but where are the maps?!

Figure 5 is practically a subway map for Scifiville.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 2:46 PM on July 18, 2010


New maps... OF HELL!
posted by Artw at 2:50 PM on July 18, 2010


Further on, he's more right wing than Heinlein for crying out loud. WTF?

I see your problem right there. Heinlein isn't particularly right-wing, propaganda to the contrary.
posted by Justinian at 3:03 PM on July 18, 2010


It does show how much the field has grown when, 30 years ago, you could make a "map" with 24 names on it and have it essentially represent the entire field. Try that today, I dare you.
posted by Justinian at 3:09 PM on July 18, 2010


Looking at where Le Guin is, it seems like it would have been clearer not to use the simple left-/right-wing ideas. More like "Pro-" and "Anti-centralization of government," or something like that. (I know that these ideas are bound up with the Platonic ideals of left- and right-wing thought, but those ideals are only tenuously related to the existing left and right wing bases of the past few decades at least, for various reasons. For example, utopian libertarian or anarchist ideas are much less troublesome in SF, because you can stipulate that they totally work on Planet Zendbloig and no-one is exploited, hooray for freedom.)
posted by No-sword at 3:20 PM on July 18, 2010


Yay Analog!
posted by limeonaire at 4:12 PM on July 18, 2010


I see your problem right there. Heinlein isn't particularly right-wing, propaganda to the contrary.

Real libertarians (as opposed to the boobs who serve as a front of convenient idiots to rich conservatives) are pretty rare, but I suppose it's true that I have no proof he wasn't one.
posted by DU at 4:12 PM on July 18, 2010


Their hard science / soft science index is the interesting piece of psychology here, but they were in the system and, ergo, couldn't see it.

Niven is deep in the hard science camp, right? What, in the Niven corpus, is hard science? Hyperdrives? Psionics? Scrith? Hard science might have thrown it's body in front of Angel's Pencil's com laser to try and save the Tracker but if so, it fared little better than the Kzinti. After that, it was hot and cold running cavorite all day long. Meanwhile, Brunner is sitting just above zero. Slightly higher on the hard science index than Edgar Rice Burroughs. But just two years prior he had put out The Shockwave Rider where he nailed not only the internet but all the socially weird and broken things that it made possible. (Just not the interface mechanism.)

I have always laid the blame for the descienceing of the right at Reagan's feet, but clearly it goes deeper than that. Is it just that the rugged individualist mindset is hard wired to equate sciencey with science? Was Gilligan's Island's Professor just not manly enough? I'd love to see this same poll taken in 1967 and 1957.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:27 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was thinking something similar looking at that graph. I think "hard science" is more about the "hard" than the "science". (That wasn't an impotence joke, although it might be that too.) Truthiness. Niven talks hard facts (even though they aren't) so he's more "real" than Herbert who was almost completely realistic but about "soft" sciences like psychology, sociology and history.

And Verne so low, seriously? He predicted practically everything we've done in the last 150 years.
posted by DU at 4:37 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd like to see the left/right axis plotted against relative (estimated) wealth of the authors' protagonists. In reading through many Hugo and Nebula award winners over the past couple of years, the authors who like to sneak in righty jabs also seem to gravitate toward protags who either start or end magnificently wealthy. It gets old.
posted by anarch at 4:39 PM on July 18, 2010


It might get old, but it's not inconsistent. A central tenet of right-wing thinking is that if you are a smart, capable person who works hard, you deserve to and will end up wealthy. Therefore, it makes sense for smart, capable, hard-working protagonists to become wealthy sooner or later. (Also note how often protagonists-like-this-with-authors-like-this face total financial and even reputational ruin with a shrug: "Oh, well, I can earn it all back again with a bit of elbow grease and an ingenious invention or two." Because, in SF, they can.)
posted by No-sword at 4:55 PM on July 18, 2010


Heinlein isn't particularly right-wing, propaganda to the contrary.

Agreed. I always laugh when someone says Heinlein was right-wing. "Apparently you missed the book that says Jesus was merely a talented circus-showman and we should all live in free-love communes?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:08 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Figure 5: Significant Correlations between the Authors.

I like very much that Vance is shown to be Officially Not Like Anybody Else.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:23 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also Figure 4, where he's off by himself.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:52 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Heinlein isn't particularly right-wing, propaganda to the contrary.

Heinlein wasn't particularly right-wing in 1977. Of course, given that Nixon was a pinko commie by the standards of today's Republican Party and even Reagan probably couldn't pass muster as one of his own fans, I'm not sure the maps of right and left have that much meaning compared to current definitions of right and left.

Having said that, this is a great find and I'm glad it was posted.
posted by immlass at 6:03 PM on July 18, 2010


Niven is deep in the hard science camp, right? What, in the Niven corpus, is hard science? Hyperdrives? Psionics? Scrith?

Teela Brown's genetic luck is hiding it from you.

I also have never gotten why people think of Niven that way. It's no more hard SF than Star Trek is.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:40 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Heinlein isn't particularly right-wing, propaganda to the contrary.

Libertarians, are so special.
posted by mobunited at 6:51 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Libertarians, are so special.

Uh, Heinlein wasn't a modern Libertarian either.

I also have never gotten why people think of Niven that way. It's no more hard SF than Star Trek is.

The label "Hard SF" has never been particularly useful as a descriptor of content. It's always been much more of a marketing label and a description of the style in which a book is written, not the content. Even people who claim to enjoy really-truly hard SF have trouble coming up with many examples that meet their supposed criteria, which generally would follow Gharlane of Eddore's definition. Hal Clement. The Cold Equations, maybe. And...

One is tempted to claim that Hard SF is SF written in mediocre prose by older white males, set in outer space, and featuring or appealing to socially challenged engineers. But that would perhaps be uncharitable.
posted by Justinian at 8:29 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Uh, Heinlein wasn't a modern Libertarian either.

Yeah, not even close. If I were going to peg him to anything it's that he would appear to be big on Plato; it's remarkable how many of his imaginary worlds are organised by by one or more figures that look remarkably like Platonic Philosopher-Kings, quietly organising everything.
posted by rodgerd at 1:11 AM on July 19, 2010


I think it's right to say that hard SF is a rhetoric rather than a method. I interviewed Kim Stanley Robinson not long ago (the interview shows up in print this fall), and he said this when I asked him about hard SF:
As for science fiction, well it’s a big genre. It might be that most of it is science fantasy, including the greater part of what was called “hard SF.” I think my Mars novels killed that category, because it was never talking about the amount of physics or high tech in the story, but was labeling a SF “hard” in its attitudes towards weaker people, in other words as Social Darwinist right-wing space fiction. You could just call those texts that from now on, but since no one uses the term “hard SF” much anymore anyway, it isn’t necessary.
posted by gerryblog at 3:04 AM on July 19, 2010


Yeah, not even close. If I were going to peg him to anything it's that he would appear to be big on Plato

If I were trying to peg him to anything, it would be whatever his then wife held as her political beliefs with a splash of platonism thrown in.
posted by Francis at 3:15 AM on July 19, 2010


I also have never gotten why people think of Niven that way. It's no more hard SF than Star Trek is.

I've come to believe over the decades that whenever someone says "Hard sf," particularly since 1980, what they really mean is "gadgetry fetishizing."
posted by aught at 5:46 AM on July 19, 2010


If I were trying to peg him to anything, it would be whatever his then wife held as her political beliefs with a splash of platonism thrown in.

Well now this is interesting. I didn't remember he had any other wives than Ginny nor had I ever suspected they might have been the source of his political views.
In 1929, he married Eleanor Curry of Kansas City in Los Angeles, Calif.[8] but this marriage lasted only about a year.[4] He soon married his second wife, Leslyn Macdonald, in 1932. MacDonald was a political radical, and Isaac Asimov recalled that Heinlein was, like her, "a flaming liberal." [9]
...
Heinlein and his second wife divorced in 1947, and the following year he married Virginia "Ginny" Gerstenfeld, to whom he would remain married until his death forty years later.
...
Isaac Asimov believed that Heinlein made a drastic swing to the right politically at the same time he married Ginny.[9] The couple formed the small "Patrick Henry League" in 1958 and they worked in the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, and Tramp Royale contains two lengthy apologias for the McCarthy hearings.
Although to be fair, correlation is not causation. In the 30s, a lot of people were socialists (I didn't quote that part, but Heinlein worked on socialist projects) and in the late 40s and early 50s a lot of those people became fascists.
posted by DU at 6:00 AM on July 19, 2010


I'm somewhat of a leftie, but I loves me some Heinlein. LOVES.
posted by antifuse at 7:50 AM on July 19, 2010


HG Wells writing competition demands handwriting only and no science fiction - no one applies 
posted by Artw at 7:51 AM on July 19, 2010


I've come to believe over the decades that whenever someone says "Hard sf," particularly since 1980, what they really mean is "gadgetry fetishizing."

I don't know. I've read a lot of hard-sf over the years, and I can't really say that I've found an extraordinary amount of gadget-focused material. In fact, I'd say most of SF's most famous dohickeys are at the opposite end of the hard-sf spectrum (ansibles, tardises, dilithium).

To me, the watchword for hard-SF is "possible." Not necessarily "likely" or "non-fantastic" or "mundane" ... just that it could happen, given what we know today about science.

Obviously that's going to be a metric that adjusts according to what the current info is, but that's also, I think, helpful in understanding why some people like hard-SF if you aren't one of those people yourself.
posted by Amanojaku at 11:32 AM on July 19, 2010


That's a fair description of how it should be, but I think there's certainly a case to be made that a lot of writers supposedly doing that are actually doing that poorly or doing something else a lot of the time, and when that happens "gadgetry fetishizing" seems like a fair description.
posted by Artw at 11:45 AM on July 19, 2010


Amanojaku: The problem with your scenario is that there is virtually no SF that actually meets that criteria. Can you name some hard SF that doesn't contain anything we currently believe is likely impossible?
posted by Justinian at 12:04 PM on July 19, 2010


I’m trying to remember who said that the descriptors for “Hard” and “Soft” scifi mostly had to do with penises. Anyway, I think they had it about right.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:54 PM on July 19, 2010


That's a fair description of how it should be, but I think there's certainly a case to be made that a lot of writers supposedly doing that are actually doing that poorly or doing something else a lot of the time, and when that happens "gadgetry fetishizing" seems like a fair description.

No doubt. Maybe I'm just not picturing "gadgetry fetishizing" appropriately, here, in this context. Most SF gadgets are MacGuffins, and a MacGuffin, by its nature, isn't very "hard" SF -- the how it works is relevant to a hard SF story, whereas normally it wouldn't be. No "hand waving" allowed. Then again, I'm perfectly aware that things like nanotech were essentially used interchangeably with magic in the late '90s, so grains of salt and all that.

Amanojaku: The problem with your scenario is that there is virtually no SF that actually meets that criteria. Can you name some hard SF that doesn't contain anything we currently believe is likely impossible?

"Likely impossible" or just "flat-out contradictory to what we currently think we know"? Because therein lies the wiggle room. We know you aren't going to die in a cave while you're hiding from Apaches and wake up on Mars. We don't know that we won't be able to develop tremendously sophisticated AI at some point in the future.

So yeah, I fully agree that these aren't iron-clad categories (as is "science fiction" itself), but that doesn't mean "hard" SF can't be a useful distinction.

Just because I don't want to seem like I'm ducking your question, some specific examples would include: a lot of Nancy Kress stuff, the couple of Ben Bova's "Grand Tour" books that I've read, and, to get really fantastic, Karl Schroeder's "Virga" series. Heck, even Campbell's "Who Goes There?" is hard SF by the standards of the time. Yes, he falls back on psionics, which would probably be a no-go in modern hard SF, but the alien can't just turn into things larger or small than itself -- is has to gain the mass from somewhere.
posted by Amanojaku at 1:17 PM on July 19, 2010


Heh. Psionics being pushed so hard by Campbell and therefore getting grandfathered in to a lot of the SF that followed is responsible for a hell of a lot of softification.
posted by Artw at 1:28 PM on July 19, 2010


And then there's the whole horrible fans are slans thing... where reading science fiction means you might be a psychic ubermench.... which would be a particularly bonkers example of "faith in human ability to change the world" that is supposedly dying out of SF.
posted by Artw at 1:36 PM on July 19, 2010


Heh. Psionics being pushed so hard by Campbell and therefore getting grandfathered in to a lot of the SF that followed is responsible for a hell of a lot of softification.

Absolutely. It was such a weird weak spot for him to have, too. I don't think his readership ever bought into it to the degree he would have hoped. Then again, there are much worse hang-ups to have, as far as SF writers go: he could've hated the gays, or been a holocaust denier, or had his own scammy religion.
posted by Amanojaku at 1:49 PM on July 19, 2010


or had his own scammy religion.

Well, he was an early proponent of dianetics...
posted by Artw at 1:52 PM on July 19, 2010


And then there's the whole horrible fans are slans thing... where reading science fiction means you might be a psychic ubermench....

I'm so glad I wasn't around for that phase -- I would have had a hard time keeping a straight face.
posted by Amanojaku at 1:54 PM on July 19, 2010


Well, there's always the Transhumanists if you want the contemporary "Hard SF' version of it.
posted by Artw at 1:57 PM on July 19, 2010


Well, he was an early proponent of dianetics...

Of course. But he actually believed in it, my point being "bit of a crackpot" (the Dean drive? Really?) trumps "kind of an asshole" (see list above).

Well, there's always the Transhumanists if you want the contemporary "Hard SF' version of it.

I won't say who, but I'm pretty sure I offended a Big Name when I burst out laughing after he explained the Singularity to me. I hadn't realized he believed in the Rapture for Nerds, and he's a nice guy, so I felt bad ... but at least I'm consistent, right?
posted by Amanojaku at 2:05 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


and, to get really fantastic, Karl Schroeder's "Virga" series.

Ah, yeah, I'd forgotten about the Virga series. I read Sun of Suns a number of years ago and have the rest on my shelf. So many books, so little time. Are you sure there wasn't any FTL travel in the background outside of Virga, though? It's been a long time since I read it.

a lot of Nancy Kress stuff

Hmmmm. Isn't it palming a card a little bit to start talking about very near-future SF which is set on Earth or very near environs like orbit or the moon? I could write a science fiction novel set in Los Angeles about 5 years from now without violating any laws of nature pretty easily but I'm not sure it would be fair to call it Hard SF. If you see what I mean. This is not a criticism by any means.

Who Goes There?

Another problem with defining it based on content; you have to know what the current cutting edge of science was at the time the piece was written in order to judge whether it is Hard SF or not.

How useful a definition can it be if someone who knows the publication data of the Campbell story would call it Hard SF while someone who doesn't know the publication date would call it horror or soft SF?
posted by Justinian at 3:29 PM on July 19, 2010


Heinlein had one fictional society where the primary or perhaps only source of revenue for the government was an inheritance tax of 100%. I believe his justification was that it fostered equality. Imagine someone in today's American political spectrum suggesting such a thing and being labeled right wing.
posted by Tashtego at 9:50 PM on July 19, 2010


Are you sure there wasn't any FTL travel in the background outside of Virga, though? It's been a long time since I read it.

I'm pretty sure there isn't any in the first three books, but I haven't read the fourth, so there's certainly room for me to be wrong.

Hmmmm. Isn't it palming a card a little bit to start talking about very near-future SF which is set on Earth or very near environs like orbit or the moon? I could write a science fiction novel set in Los Angeles about 5 years from now without violating any laws of nature pretty easily but I'm not sure it would be fair to call it Hard SF. If you see what I mean. This is not a criticism by any means.

I take it you mean that by not introducing any fantastical elements, you're left to wonder what even makes it SF? I get that. I have something of that problem with "mundane" SF. But I never said that sticking to some kind of Platonic ideal of "hard" SF wouldn't limit writers. But like any artist that sets out to work within certain boundaries, you can judge them based on how well they perform under those limitations. Sometimes those limitations are arbitrary; sometimes they're the whole point of the exercise. Reading hard SF is a bit like watching a kung fu movie in that respect. That's precisely why I liked the Virga books -- he absolutely did his homework scientifically, but still put together a great, imaginative setting, as far removed from "Yay, another asteroid mining story" as you can get.

Another problem with defining it based on content; you have to know what the current cutting edge of science was at the time the piece was written in order to judge whether it is Hard SF or not.

How useful a definition can it be if someone who knows the publication data of the Campbell story would call it Hard SF while someone who doesn't know the publication date would call it horror or soft SF?


Outside knowledge helps decipher (or categorize) anything you read. How do you know whether the book you're reading is even fiction or not? Having a ballpark idea about the history of science isn't the highest hurdle for science fiction readers to clear, I think.

There's always going to be some flux at the edges -- like I said, these aren't iron-clad, rigid definitions that anyone should be taking too seriously, in my opinion -- but they're still helpful labels for getting a grasp on what you're working with. It's great to have broad tastes, and I think modern fans increasingly do, but the vast majority of people who like the Twilight books are never, ever going to start reading Hal Clement, and it's not unreasonable to come up with a way of easily differentiating the two types of stories (such as they are), and "caring about getting the science right" versus "caring about weird Mormon abstinence policies" is a pretty good way of doing that.

I know you're pretty opposed to any kind of genre labeling, and for the most part, I agree -- when I was reading stuff as a kid, I literally had no sense of whether something was "science fiction," "fantasy," or "horror," and I've seen way too many fans (and some professionals) turn up their noses at something they didn't judge to be "real" science fiction (just like I've seen people pooh-pooh hard SF for imagined flaws) -- but in a genre where, literally, anything can happen, having some kind of label lets people manage their expectations, so they're not sitting there trying to figure out what, say, a Smoke Monster on a tropical island is, only to left with the sad trombone playing over the ending to St. Elsewhere. Not that I'm bitter or anything.
posted by Amanojaku at 6:16 PM on July 20, 2010


Amanojaku: I actually don't have a problem with labelling sub-genres in order to help people find books they enjoy. So I'm not arguing we shouldn't label books as "Hard SF", I'm arguing that those books which have historical been labelled as such are usually given that label based on attributes that don't necessarily have to do with rigorous science.

That's primarily a historical descriptive argument. If in the future we were to restrict the label to only those books which do contain rigorous science, well, that's all right with me. It just hasn't been the case in the past (*cough*RED MARS*cough*) and I strongly suspect t won't be the case in the future.
posted by Justinian at 7:12 PM on July 20, 2010


Libertarian Futurist Society bestows its annual Prometheus Awards
posted by Artw at 3:56 PM on July 21, 2010


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