Are Readers of Science Fiction…Stupid?

Hoisted by their own petard? The very science that science fiction readers adore has now declared them idiots.

Or has it?

Some accounts of a recent scientific study are concluding that reading SF makes people stupid. Researchers Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University set out to challenge the results of an earlier 2013 study suggesting literary fiction makes readers smarter. These researchers believed whatever was going on in the earlier study had nothing to do with genre, and hoped to prove it.

It might help to know some terms used in the recent study:

  • Theory of Mind (ToM)—the text doesn’t tell readers what a character is feeling or thinking, so they must infer those things.
  • Theory of World (ToW)—the text doesn’t tell readers about the world of the story (physical laws, social norms, etc.), so they must infer those things.

Initially, Gavaler and Johnson suspected ToM would be the same in any genre, but ToW would be more challenging in SF, since the worlds of those stories are so different from our own. Things didn’t work out that way.

They asked 150 randomly selected readers to read a 1000-word short story. Each read one of four versions of the same story:

  • Text 1: set in a small town diner. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 2: set in a space station cafeteria. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 3: small town diner. Thoughts and feelings stated.
  • Text 4: space station. Thoughts and feelings stated.

Study participants answered questions posed by the researchers. From these answers, the researchers concluded, “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality.” “Science fiction readers 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.”

According to the study, the SF story readers “appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself…the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading.”

What should we make of this? Are readers of literary fiction smarter than readers of SF? Does reading SF make you stupid?

Perhaps the study was flawed. Were the participants truly random? Did the texts bias readers against SF? Were the post-reading questions biased in some way?

For the moment, let’s assume the study results are true. They imply the public regards SF as a lowbrow genre in comparison to literary works. There’s a valid reason people believe that. Many early SF stories and a lot of SF movies and TV shows were not high quality. In the early years, not many authors were writing science fiction, but the demand for stories was large, and readers weren’t as sophisticated or discerning as they are now. Science fiction fans of the time focused on settings—the weirder and more outlandish the better—not characters.

Given that history, it’s unsurprising that the public views SF as an uncultured mass-market genre for philistines, despite a huge advancement in the quality of writing in recent decades

Another factor is relevance to the reader’s life. Of the sample texts provided in the study, a reader is far more likely to relate to the scene in the small-town diner than the one in the alien-populated space station. Because of that, the public views science fiction as escapist in nature. SF writers strive to say something relevant about the human experience. Despite that, readers will always feel more distant from SF characters than they do from characters in contemporary literary fiction.

In my view, the study didn’t prove science fiction is for dummies, let alone that it makes people dummies. It showed people are different from each other; that’s why so many genres exist. As science fiction improves in quality, it will delight more readers. Delighting readers, and helping to make them smarter, is the main mission of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Book Review — Star Touched

Here’s a dystopian YA novel you’ll want to check out: Star Touched, by A.L. Kaplan. It contains fascinating characters, a challenging future world, and themes sure to interest teens and adults alike. Isn’t the cover intriguing?

The book immediately immerses you in Tatiana’s world, eight years after a meteor has wiped out much of the Earth’s population, and civilization is back to Nineteenth Century technology levels, without electricity. People struggle to grow food and survive in scattered cities, now walled to keep out invaders. While some work hard to restore good relations and a semblance of civilized society, others scheme at ways to take advantage of the weak.

The meteor did more than kill; it also left a small minority of people and animals “star-touched” with strange powers that are difficult to control. Eighteen-year-old Tatiana is one such person, along with her small dog, Fifi. Tatiana has lost her family and gone roving, finally settling in the town of Atherton, hoping to be accepted and to work for her food and lodging. Since most people fear and distrust the star-touched, she tries to keep her special powers hidden.

Author A.L. Kaplan

She finds work at an inn run by a kindly owner. But not everyone on the staff treats Tatiana well. Moreover, the corrupt town leaders are forming terrible plans for the future of Atherton. To make things worse, a new religious order is seeking out the star-touched, and Tatiana doesn’t know why.

Burdened by all these difficulties along with a ton of internal guilt over a long-ago death she couldn’t prevent, Tatiana will need to confront all her problems and find out if she has the strength of character necessary to endure.

Aimed at the Young Adult market, this novel touches on themes of being different from others, acceptance, maturity, and friendship. Readers will be perceptive enough to deduce the novel’s real message, a powerful and relevant one: we may not have superhero powers like Tatiana, but each of us is different, with our own special abilities and talents. We shouldn’t have to hide our gifts, and we shouldn’t hate the gifts of others. In a sense, each of us really is star-touched.

When the novel launches in October, I urge you to buy and read your own copy of Star Touched by A.L. Kaplan, published by Intrigue Publishing, LLC. How did I get an advance copy to read for this review? That’s a secret to be kept by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Steampunk’s Gentle Decline

The signs are there; steampunk is waning. Gear rotation is slowing; goggles are fogging; airships are losing gas.

Don’t get me wrong. Steampunk will always be. An enthusiastic minority will forever celebrate it. I’m not saying it’s dead and gone.

I just mean the mainstream public’s fascination with steampunk is declining as it moves on to other things. We’re riding the downward side of the curve now. Steampunk had its day, and we’re watching its sunset.

You want proof, I know. But the passing of a movement is hard to quantify. Others have proclaimed steampunk dead before and been wrong. All I’m going on is my general observation of the world. Internet searches of the term ‘steampunk’ turn up fewer new mentions each day. The number of steampunk movies, video games, and books appears on a downward slope.

So far I’ve been referring to the story-telling side of steampunk, the part that started the movement. That’s not all there is. There’s a side of steampunk that’s as popular as it ever was—fashion. When it comes to costumes, jewelry, and custom-made gadgets, that aspect remains in full swing, still going strong.

As a writer, I pay more attention to the literary side of steampunk and, frankly, it’s sputtering. Within the steampunk realm, there will always be stories left to write and movies left to shoot, but authors have explored the wide expanses of the territory pretty well. The map is there, the boundaries drawn, areas surveyed, most of the acreage settled. A few caves and swamps remain uncharted, but for the most part, it’s difficult to come up with a truly new steampunk story idea.

Personally, I’ve never cared for the magical, fantasy side of steampunk, with its vampires and werewolves. Still, that’s just about all that remains of literary steampunk. You want to write a steampunk story people will read?—think Bram Stoker, not Jules Verne.

I say all this with a tear rolling down my face. There’s no joy in reporting steampunk’s downward trend. I write steampunk stories and wish the genre could remain popular forever. But that’s not the way of things. A genre can only fire the public’s attention for a few years before fading into the background noise.

That raises the question about what’s next. What picks up where steampunk leaves off? My hope was that steampunk’s ‘children’ and ‘grandchildren,’ namely dieselpunk and atompunk, would strut their hour on the stage next. After all, these waves of nostalgic interest in retro settings seem to follow 20-30 year generational cycles. Like steampunk, both dieselpunk and atompunk come complete with a look, a style, a feel for the age. Plenty of ideas for the jewelry and costuming crowd.

Don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe we’re heading for a crest in Diesel Age or Atom Age fascination among the mainstream soon, but the signs aren’t apparent to me.

Maybe the term ‘punk’ itself is wearing out. Perhaps folks are tired of punking everything. Slapping ‘punk’ on a thing no longer makes the thing cool.

It could be that if dieselpunk or atompunk are to take off, they need renaming. They need a different descriptor, a better term to evoke the feeling of their times.

That’s where you come in. In the comments, let me know your suggestions for renaming dieselpunk and/or atompunk. Let’s find some catchy and appropriate tags for those movements—names free of ‘punk.’ How about it? Are you feeling creative and up to the challenge?

In the meantime, some of us soldier on. Still bravely writing steampunk stories, hoping that genre can beat the odds and return to past glory, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Sfumato

Next in this series of blog posts is a strange one: Sfumato. I’m blogging about how each of the seven principles in How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, by Michael J. Gelb, relates to fiction writing. Today I grapple with the fourth principle, Sfumato, a word that means “going up in smoke.”

Gelb’s definition of Sfumato is “a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.” Although most people prefer knowledge, predictability, and clarity, Gelb contends that Leonardo did not shy away from the gray areas, the question marks, the mysterious, and the absurd.

SfumatoDa Vinci painted beautiful things, but also made many drawings of ‘grotesques’ or ugly human faces. His most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, contains mystery after mystery, including the anonymity of its model. Gelb notes that we discern human mood from the corners of the eyes and mouth, but in the Mona Lisa, Leonardo obscured these areas in shadow, deliberately leaving them vague so we are left to wonder whether she smiles or not.

Is Sfumato important for a fiction writer? First, let’s define each of its three aspects:

  • Ambiguity: something that can be understood in more than one way, allowing for more than one interpretation.
  • Paradox: a statement or proposition that, despite apparently sound reasoning, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, illogical, or self-contradictory.
  • Uncertainty: A state of having limited knowledge where it is difficult to choose between two or more alternatives.

Writers make use of ambiguity through symbolism, where one thing may represent something else. Metaphors and similes prove useful to ways to compare the unfamiliar to the familiar, but also leave the story open to interpretation. Often the greatest works of literature contain enough ambiguity to allow generations of critics to argue over meanings.

As for paradox, a writer may employ it for humorous effect, as in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” where a young man thinks he can end his apprenticeship with a band of pirates when he is twenty-one years old, but since he was born on February 29, he’s really only a bit over four. Even when a writer uses paradox in a serious way, it can heighten reader enjoyment by giving the reader something to puzzle over and think about.

Uncertainty is at the center of fiction writing, and comes into play in three levels—the character, the reader, and the writer. Fiction must have conflict, and often it can be an internal conflict for the main character. To heighten the drama of the conflict, it’s necessary to force the character to make a difficult decision. The protagonist’s uncertainty is what makes readers keep on reading.

You must create uncertainty in the mind of the reader as well. If the reader knows what’s coming next, there’s no point in continuing with the story.

How does uncertainty apply to the writer? I believe this has to do with the tone of the prose. A writer should have something to say, and have a level of confidence in the point she or he is trying to make. I didn’t say ‘certainty;’ I said ‘a level of confidence.’ If you believe you possess the ultimate truths of the universe, the universe will prove you wrong. No reader likes a know-it-all, so I urge authors to advance ideas for consideration, not in a manner that closes the door to criticism.

That’s Sfumato. Now, if you find yourself striding with confidence into areas of smoke, of fog, of murkiness and mystery; if you come to enjoy being ambiguously, paradoxically uncertain, you have no one to blame except Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb, and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 20, 2015Permalink

Book Giveaway Contest

I’m running my first book giveaway!  I’ll be giving away three free copies of “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” which normally sells for $2.99.

WindSphereShip4Here are the rules:

Giveaway ends September 24, at 11:59 PM EST. There will be three winners, each receiving an eBook copy of The Wind-Sphere Ship, by Steven R. Southard. The giveaway is open to anyone with an e-mail address.    Digital copies will be distributed via Smashwords.com where the preferred format can be chosen. Winners will be selected randomly via Rafflecopter.com and be notified by email. Each winner will have 48 hours to respond before a new winner is selected. The book offered for the giveaway (The Wind-Sphere Ship) is free of charge, no purchase necessary. The promotion is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with, Facebook or Twitter. By providing your information in this form, you are providing your information to Steven R. Southard alone. I will not share or sell your information and will use your information only for the purposes of contacting the winner, and for offering a newsletter, if I ever start one of those. If you have any additional questions – feel free to send me an email at steven-at-stevenrsouthard-dot-com.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

You can enter by:

1. Tweeting the message “Steve, I’d like to enter your giveaway contest to win The Wind-Sphere Ship.”

2.Visiting my Facebook page.

3. Leaving a comment on this blog post (worth twice as much as tweeting or visiting Facebook). Comment must contain my first name, and the name of the book.

Think of The Wind-Sphere Ship as proto-steampunk. We know Heron of Alexandria invented the steam engine in the 1st Century, A.D.  History books don’t reveal that Heron used this engine to propel a ship.  If his steam-ship could beat a man-rowed galley, could he make the Industrial Revolution happen 1700 years early?  Let the race begin!

The contest starts on September 8th and ends on September 28th. Good luck!

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

September 6, 2015Permalink

Thanks to My Fans

TheSixHundredDollarMan5AgainstAllGods3fI just wanted to thank all of you who voted for my stories in the Critters Workshop Predators & Editors Readers Poll.  The results for 2012 are in, and my story “The Six Hundred Dollar Man”  came in 2nd out of 8 steampunk short stories.  My story “Against All Gods” was tied for 4th in a list of 38 romance short stories.  I feel so much gratitude for the amazing fans of—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

January 21, 2013Permalink

Gypsy Shadow Publishing – 3rd Anniversay Celebration

You should enter to win the prizes being offered by Gypsy Shadow Publishing as part of the celebration of their 3rd anniversary.  I’ve never promoted something like this on my blog, but I’m very grateful to GSP for publishing five of my stories so far, with possibly more to come.  Also, the prizes are great!  There are two gift baskets being given away.  In addition, they’re offering a whole bunch of free e-books.

Did I say free e-books?  Yes, and they include books written by yours truly.

Are you still reading this?  Stop now and go enter to win!  If you do win, there will be plenty of time later to thank–
                                                     Poseidon’s Scribe

 

September 9, 2012Permalink

Writing by Number

Today I calculated I’d blog about daily word counts.  For you writers and would-be writers, do you count your word production and log it?  If you do, are you finding it helps you or not?

Here’s my take.  I used to do that but no longer do so.  I think keeping a daily log of writing progress is very valuable in the beginning to establish the habit of writing.  It may even help you get through a slump period, the so-called “writer’s block.”  Once the writing habit is established, such logging may no longer be necessary.

What I’m talking about is the idea of keeping a log of how many words you write each day.  If you write on a computer with a word processor, it’s pretty easy using the software’s own word count feature.  If you write some other way, you might have to count by hand.  You’ll have to figure out how to count words on the days you’re editing previously written text, as opposed to creating new text.  I tracked those distinct acts separately, since editing previously written text yielded much higher daily word production.  Once you get the log going, you can find out what your daily average is over time and even set goals.

Why would anyone do this?  There’s a sort of magic in measuring your progress with numbers.  You will find yourself feeling guilty on those days when you have to log a zero because you did no writing.  You’ll have excuses for that, of course, but they won’t change the fact that your log still shows a fat zero for that unproductive day.  On days where you’re feeling tired and teetering on the edge about whether you want to try to write a bit or not, the knowledge of your numeric log looming before you may spur you to write when you otherwise wouldn’t.  In some mysterious way the habit of logging progress can actually prod you to into the habit of writing more.

It turns out your attitude toward these sort of personal metrics comes into play.  It’s vitally important that “zero days” not get you depressed.  The point of the log is to promote progress, not incite negative thoughts.  If the very idea of seeing a zero besides a date will cause you to think you’re not cut out for writing or might make you want to give it up, then perhaps the idea of daily word counts would be adding too much stress for you.  This thing only works with those for whom occasional failure is an inspiration to greater achievement next time.

You may be thinking that counting words is stupid because not all words are equal.  Isn’t the point to learn to write well, you ask, not to simply write a lot?  Well, yes and no.  Of course the point is to learn to write well.  The few words of a brilliant short story by a talented author do far outweigh several trashy novels written by a bungling hack, even though the word count is less.  But in the first place quantity has its own kind of quality in writing, in the sense that practice makes perfect.  The practice comes from writing a lot, and that practice can be roughly measured by word counting.  In the second place, it’s very hard to measure the quality of prose.  There is no menu item or icon in your word processor for that.  Yet.  (Software programmers, take note:  the world screams for exactly such a feature!)

I’m counting on you to leave a comment for me about whether you log your word counts daily and whether you find it a helpful exercise or not.  Including the end of this sentence, that’s 627 words written by…

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

 

December 25, 2011Permalink