About a week ago now I read a short story by Ursula K Le Guin called The Shobies’ Story. Set in the Hainish cycle – the same world as The Left Hand of Darkness – I was excited to get to it (I was reading a collection of her works) and expected great things. And it was great, but I found myself having to re-read the story for a reason I’m not proud to admit; I was really, very confused.
The story follows a spaceship crew who are testing a new kind of spaceship that travels faster than light, and their experiences of the journey. And that’s where it gets weird. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the story basically calls space-time into question and I began to lose my sense of what it was I was reading. And I’m sure this was something Le Guin did on purpose to replicate the confusion of the characters for the reader (I hope) but it threw me a little and brought up a common question I’m sure a lot of first time SF readers have:
Am I smart enough for SF?
Ironically Le Guin discusses this in the essay that introduces the book: On Not Reading Science Fiction. Specifically she said:
People who don’t read it, and even some of those who write it, like to assume or pretend that the ideas used in science fiction all rise from intimate familiarity with celestial mechanics and quantum theory, and are comprehensible only to readers who work for NASA and know how to program their VCR.
And this is something I disagree with. To read fantasy we don’t need an in depth knowledge of dragons or magic, and arguably we don’t need this knowledge because the author provides it. Each writer has a different concept of magic and how it works and where it comes from JK’s magic is different from Tolkien’s magic is different from George RR Martin’s magic, and no one has ever asked, “am I smart enough to read fantasy?” At least not that I know of.
So what is it about SF that intimidates people, and makes them feel they need vast amounts of knowledge to enjoy the genre? Why don’t readers trust that SF writers will explain their science to them the way JK explains magic? Personally, I think there’s two main reasons for this intimidation.
First of all, the word “science.” It sounds stupid, but that’s all it is. Some people recoil from science in general the way I recoil from (ugh) maths. It’s one of those subjects at school that was attributed to (mostly male) gifted kids who seemed to have a secret language made from the fabric of the universe. If there was a genre called Mathematical Fiction I would not read it.
And second, I think there is an idea of fandom that really intimidates people. The way SF fandoms are represented in popular culture is massively questionable; it’s always a group of tight-knit uptight friends who have an in depth knowledge of the Star Trek canon and think anyone who doesn’t know the difference between Tatooine and Jakku (even though they really basically the same, let’s be honest) is a brainless idiot who must conform to the social hierarchy they so despise and wish to be separate from (whilst also desperately vying for the attention of the popular girls, but that’s a whole other blog post right there). And though these representations are massively stereotypical, they are based on a sad reality that fandoms often appear as an impenetrable community, unwilling to accept outsiders or casual fans.
This idea of an impenetrable community is seen throughout many other fandoms and genres, the LOTR fandom makes a big deal of no one understanding why the eagles don’t just carry Frodo to Mordor. Even though Tolkien basically stated in a letter that they were a “dangerous machine” sparking distant memories of deus ex machina that really should just be destroyed. But it’s not just literature this ever happens in, I’ve seen people say they like football and immediately have a bunch of football fans demand they explain the offside rule to prove their love.
Really I think it just comes down to people being protective over something they love, and only wanting to share it with people they think are worthy. In individual scenario this would never happen, part of what is intimidating about fandom culture is that it’s scarily similar to mob mentality. Just log into Tumblr and look up “SuperWhoLock” and you’ll see exactly what I’m saying.