Interview: Social Science Talks Science Fiction

Matthew Campbell (MC) is a PhD student at Aberysywyth University’s Department of International Politics, where he researches Global Health Security. A well-rounded geek, Matthew is one half of the team that runs ‘Social Science Talks Science Fiction’, a podcast mixing politics with pop-culture. Atlantic Bulletin editor James Chisem (JC) interviewed him on 24th April.

JC: First off, can you tell us a little bit about ‘Social Science Talks Science Fiction’? What do you do, who’s involved, that kind of thing?

MC: We’re a podcast that discusses sci-fi through the lens of the social sciences. Each month we pick a book and discuss its ideas and themeswe like to discuss both what the social sciences can teach us about sci-fi, but also what sci fi and pop-culture more generally can teach us about politics. It’s run by meMatthew Campbelland my fellow academic Alex Hoseason. Both of us are PhD researchers at Aberystwyth Universityhe handles the editing, I tend to arrange the contributors. Picking the books is actually something we like to leave to our contributors, partly because it makes people more enthusiastic, but mostly because it opens the podcast up to books, authors, and discussions we might otherwise have overlooked, as different guests bring in their own academic expertise to bear.

We’ve discussed texts ranging from Robert Heinlien’s Starship Troopers to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. We also do interviews with academics when we visit conferences, although pleasingly these tend to become excited discussions of why we love sci-fi, rather than dry explorations of theory. Alex and I have often found that some of the best academic conversations we’ve had occurred in less formal settings, hence the desire to do a podcast.

JC: What is it about popular culture that makes it such an attractive medium for academics to explore their chosen field? I listened to an episode of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy last night and the guest, a bioethicist named Gregory Pence, said that his most recent book originally started out as a dry scholarly analysis of human cloning, before his wife pointed out that more people would read it if he added some sci-fi into the mix—hence its final title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Clone Club: Bioethics and Philosophy in Orphan Black. I mean, she has a point, right? Social scientists seem to be falling over themselves to publish articles and edited volumes on ‘Star Trek and International Relations’, ‘Doctor Who and Philosophy’, ‘Superman and Masculinity’, and so on. Is it a case of starting where people are interested? Or is there something about fiction—particularly science fiction—that lends itself to intellectual interrogation and real world analogising? 

MC: I think there’s a variety of reasons. Most obviously, as you say, there’s the ‘starting interest’ factor. In our zombie episode (a Dan Drezner and Max Brooks double header) we talked about how International Relations and Zombies might have its flaws, but at least it persuades some students to read IR Theory when otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered. I occasionally hear academics looking down on this, as if they shouldn’t care about students who struggle to engage with textbooks, or are opposed to things which upset the rigid staff/student pedagogic barrier. Needless to say, I find both these attitudes to be misguided.

Of course, pop-culture does other things too. If a propaganda film can make you feel fear or pride, then we should show these films to students and let them have that experience rather than just telling them about it. This is probably most apparent with video games like Papers Please, which engage in ways other mediums can’t.  Pop-culture also allows other voices to penetrate our conversations, voices that don’t normally appear in academic discourse, be they the troubled veterans behind Slaughterhouse 5 or the American Muslims behind Ms. Marvel. Sci-fi is particularly good at these kinds of thingsit’s about creating worlds in which some rules don’t apply, so that you can explore different issues and ideas.  We can’t build real societies to test social science theories, but we can use fictional ones to help our understanding. The other thing sci-fi does well is exploring emerging issues. I’ve had conversations about how Jules Verne and Frank Herbert affected submarine design, or how the cyberpunk genre has come to shape the language of the internet.  Even in older sci-fi you can see the ghosts of the contemporaneous political issues that the author was grappling with.

Finally, there’s the enormous cultural value in the artifacts themselves. Star Trek wasn’t just a comment on equality, it demonstrated forms of equality that were meaningful to many of it’s viewers. Take a look at that ‘The Big Read’ list the BBC published in 2003it’s got many ‘genre’ novels interspersed among the classics. Science fiction can be as worthy and as valuable as any other art form. What’s curious about this is that we don’t expect older forms of literature to justify themselvesonce a book is sufficiently old and established, you don’t have to defend the value of studying it. It’s hard to point to sci-fi stories which are held in this regard; even Frankenstein still get’s dismissed as a monster story. George Orwell’s 1984 might be the only one. In this sense, it might be worth removing the “pop” from “pop-culture” when we talk about these texts.  They’re part of our literary culture, and we should say so.

JC: It’s an interesting point you make about the intellectual snobbery surrounding science fiction. I’ve lost count of the number of theory driven academics who’ve dismissed others who use it in their work as ‘self-indulgent’, which is quite remarkable really, when you consider the fact that most of them spend their lives constructing internally consistent worlds. In fact, John Mearsheimer wrote an article for Foreign Affairs back in 1993 entitled ‘The Case for the Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent’ which is to all intents and purposes a piece of speculative fiction. Nobody thinks of it that way, of course, because it’s written in Academese. The same goes for the use of counterfactual exercises by historians—most of them have the same playful, excited undertones that you find in alternate history, a much maligned literary sub-genre.

I suppose you can’t blame scholars for building walls between the academy and popular culture—it’s a bureaucratic necessity, as Max Weber famously pointed out. And in a sense, they’re only doing what everybody else does. You rarely, if ever, for instance, find a J.G. Ballard book in the Science-Fiction section at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble, and I haven’t met many people who think that 1984 is first and foremost a work of science fiction, let alone that Orwell was a sci-fi author. So do you think there’s a right way and a wrong way for social scientists to talk about fiction and science fiction? When you’re picking a book to discuss on the podcast, are there certain criteria you refer to in order to make sure that you’ll be taken seriously?

MC: There’s not really a right or wrong way, because there’s not really a single ‘social science’. So many of us are doing different things, that there’s no real benefit in deciding what you can and can’t use, what you can and can’t get out of a text.

There’s also not a clear definition of Science Fiction, but that’s okay.  Orwell’s 1984 builds a future world in which society has been shaped in strange ways using technology which (at the time) didn’t exist. The book explores universal human problems, as well as the societal problems that the author lived through, and draws this out using the future-world he’s created.  That’s science fiction, however you cut it.  Of course, we don’t see it that way because we expect spaceships and lasers…or worse, because we assume anything worthy can’t be sci-fi by definition.

When we’re picking a book, I suppose the only limit is that sometimes we come across a book and think “it’s really good, but there’s not enough for us to get our teeth into”.  The only real surprise for either of us was Max Brook’s World War Z, which Alex was skeptical about when I suggested reading it, before he started to brim with excitement over how good it was (anyone eyeing this with skepticism is invited to read WWZ and see for themselves…). Generally if one of our contributors has suggested it, there’ll be enough to discuss in any case. This is actually one of the neat things about letting the contributors pickthey are often interested in a text for all sorts of reasons we hadn’t even considered.  This was most pronounced with Agent Carter (the only non-print media we’ve done so far), where our two contributersboth experts in Intelligence Studieswere able to discuss a wide variety of important ideas the show raises. If a listener doesn’t take a text seriously after they’ve heard us discuss it, then we haven’t done our job properly.

JC: Well, I, for one, am always satisfied at the end of the one of your podcasts. You mentioned that you occasionally come across a book that doesn’t lend itself to an academic discussion? Can you think of an example where you thought “no, this isn’t going to work”? 

MC: We tried doing a short Pratchett tribute, where we just turned on the mic and talked about his work, but we didn’t get anything good because there was nothing to debate, we all just loved Pratchett too much. We’ve never started organising a full episode and had to abandon it, but there have been ones that gave us pause. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is on our list, but we aren’t certain about what to focus the discussion on, namely can we (and should we) separate an author’s views from their works—this is something I want to have clear ideas about before recording. For a while there’s been a plan to do a John Wyndam, but the obvious choice, Day of the Triffids, is probably the book of his which there’s the least to get into. This is not at all to say that these aren’t worthy books, it’s just that with so many novels to choose from, it takes us a while to get there. China Mieville was on the very first list of notes we made…but we only just got around to discussing one of his books this month.

JC: The author of Enders Game, Orson Scott Card, has some pretty, shall we say, controversial views. When you’re discussing H.G. Wells or Heinlein, you obviously have to be mindful of the social context from which the author sprung, but at the very least you have the luxury of temporal distance and a long departed scribe. You don’t get that with more contemporary books and media, which I imagine means you can’t help but get snared in more pressing political debates. Most notably there was the controversy surrounding last year’s Hugo Awards, where a group of readers slate nominated right-wing sci-fi onto the ballots, in response to what they saw as an increasingly diverse and ‘progressive’ genre. What did you make of all this?

MC: A lot of ink has quite rightly been spilled over what happened. I think the best take apart of it was Philip Sandifier’s ‘Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons’, which I suggest people who want a deeper analysis should read. But, yes, I have a few thoughts on the Slate Voters, and why I think they were wrong.

Their position confused me for a variety of reasons (aside from the fairly obvious incidences of homophobia and bigotry). The first was the way they framed the objection: that they used to be able to tell what a book was going to be about from the artwork, which is literally complaining that they can no longer judge a book by its cover. There’s also the insinuation that books shouldn’t challenge what we think, or that it’s at all possible to have a book which doesn’t somehow contain political ideas (which all books and media do, by definition). Saying you want science fiction to be free from politics is like saying you want a swimming pool without any water.

A lot of their slate was also, well, badly written. If you want to read military sci-fi, that’s completely fine, and there’s certainly enough good stuff out there from the likes of Joe Halderman. Even if you just want exciting explosions sci-fi, then you’ve authors like Dan Abnett (although even there, Abnett’s work has a lot going on under the hood). But many of the entries on the slate seemed not only badly written, but focussed on feelings-free technology in a way that was both facsitistic and fetishistic, as if telling us in detail about what fictional metals a missile is made of (and how many sub-warheads it has) is good writing. Compare this to other sci-fi, such as the way Banks emphasised the easy, apocalypic power of his “Lazy Guns” by never explaining how they work—it makes the weapons scarier and their impact more meaningful.

Finally, the Slate Voters seemed curiously divorced from reality. I saw people claiming that Ms. Marvel wasn’t actually very popular, despite it’s multi-print-run, New York Times Best-seller success. Most seriously, a lot of them seemed to be under the impression that issues of gender, race, justice and politics were new to sci-fi, or at least a trend of the last two decades. I mean, what? Left Hand of Darkness won the Hugo in 1970. Asimov was writing about what it means to be a human with free will in the 1950s. The word “Robot” comes from a 1920 play in which ‘Robota’ was literally the Czech word for “Slave”. Mary Shelly was writing about the collision of science with morality and motherhood way back in 1818. These issues have always been deeply ingrained in sci-fi—suggesting that the prevalence of such themes is a new phenomeon is both wildly inaccurate and revealingly ignorant.

JC: All very good points. So what else have you got lined up? I hate to be a crashing bore, but may I suggest Stephen King’s novel 11.22.63 and the recent television adaptation by JJ Abrams? I’m currently juggling them both, and I have to say, they could keep you—not to mention me and the rest of your listeners—occupied for hours.

MC: We’ll certainly put 11.22.63 on the list, it’s probably our first confirmed ‘fan request’! This month it’s Embassytown by China Mieville which we’ll upoad some time in the next week, and then next month it should be Thomas Moor’s Utopia, which is by far the oldest book we’ve done, but also the first one where its original language wasn’t English. After that we’ll hopefully have some more interviews from conference season. After that…who knows!

JC: Good stuff—I’m looking forward to it. Where can our readers find out more about ‘Social Science Talks Science Fiction’ if this interview has whet their apetite?

MC: Our main site can be found at socialsciencetalks.wordpress.com You can also subscribe to us on iTunes, or follow us on Twitter @social_scifi