The Needs and Demands of the Science Fiction Reader: a Sociological Perspective


Brian Stableford

(This article was prepared for and read at the first World Science Fiction Writers' Conference in Dublin, September 1976. It was also published in Vector #83, September/October 1977.)

This paper will deal with a series of questions which are of fundamental importance to the people gathered here: writers of science fiction, publishers of science fiction and critics of science fiction. The questions are: Why do people read science fiction? What do they get out of it? What do they expect from it?

These questions are a special case of a more general series: Why do people read fiction at all? How do they make use of this species of second-hand experience? In what ways is the use which they make of it similar to the way that they use real experience and in what ways is it different? It will be necessary to deal with these general questions before applying any perspectives specifically to science fiction. I cannot pretend to offer final answers to these questions but I hope to be able to clarify them somewhat and to provide a context of inquiry within which we might legitimately search for the answers.


Literary critics adopt a method of approach to the literary text and the process of reading which is specialised, and therefore narrow. They regard the text as a self-contained entity, an object with definable content. When they consider the reader-experience which it represents they are concerned with the one "correct" or "ideal" reading of the text - a set of relationships between reader and text which is singularly appropriate.

The sociologist must, however, take a much broader view. Whereas the critic concerns himself only with those selected texts which he considers aesthetically valuable the sociologist must deal with all texts. Where the critic is concerned with the correct and ideal reader-experience the sociologist must concern himself with all kinds and classes of possible reader-experience. The sociologist is not concerned with the maximum communicative potential of the text but with the nature and kind of the communication which is habitually achieved.

In order to begin the work of sorting out actual communicative processes involved in the reading of texts we must draw up some kind of a categorisation which will allow us to make distinctions between different kinds of reading behaviour. We must distinguish, if and as we can, between different modes of reader usage and between different species of messages which are operating through the medium of the text.

It is a commonplace in literary criticism that there are two ways to read a text - the right way and the wrong way. The strongest distinction between them is drawn by C. S. Lewis in the opening chapter of his Experiment in Criticism, in which he attempts to define two different species of reader. Literary readers, he claims, read slowly and attentively. They may seek to deepen their relationship with particular texts by re-reading. For them, reading requires privacy and the absence of potential distractions. It is an active, assimilative process. The unliterary according to Lewis, not only read the wrong books but read them the wrong way. Their reading is passive consumption. They skim over the text, quickly and inattentively, so that the presence of minor distractions does not interfere greatly with the process. They rarely re-read because they have no need to deepen a relationship which is essentially without depth. They will, however, read books which are basically similar in considerable quantities and with a degree of consistency - because they are interested only in surfaces it is only the surfaces that need change, not the real content of the literary message.

A version of this distinction crops up in the sociology of literature by virtue of Robert Escarpit, who takes the more reasonable view that it does not serve to separate two kinds of people (the cultural elite and the masses) but two kinds of activity available to all. Even the cultural elite, he notes, may read detective stories for relaxation. He concedes that some people may use only the second mode of reading, but attributes this to choice and the failure to develop skills. He also notes that there are not two mutually exclusive categories but rather two opposite poles of a spectrum. The individual act of reading considered as a whole may involve operation in both modes, to a greater or lesser extent, simultaneously.

I should like, if I may, to put a label on this spectrum. I think that we may conveniently refer to it as the spectrum of disposability. The kind of reading which Lewis deplores is reading in which the text is treated as something essentially disposable, whereas in the kind of reading he approves of it is not. Actual reader usage may differ greatly as to the degree of disposability implied by attitude and attentiveness.

In non-disposable reading the use which is made of the text seems much more similar to the use which is made of real experience. It is carefully stored, carefully evaluated - and, indeed, a pertinent feature of this mode of usage is the conviction that the experience has a value akin to the value of real experience. The reading which Lewis deplores seems to him less worthy simply because intrinsic to it is the attitude that the experience does not have this kind of value - that it is "only fiction". In disposable reading the experience is transient - it is not stored, and the demand for similar experience may not be diminished. In disposable reading the reader experience is important and valuable only while it is being consumed.

If books may be metaphorically described as food for thought then at one end of the disposability spectrum we may find food which is commonly assessed in terms of its nutritional value, and at the other end food which is commonly assessed in terms of its taste sensations. Just as all food has some nutritional quality and some taste, so all books may be available for non-disposable use or disposable use, but there are two different criteria in operation when it comes to exercising preference. This analogy is a useful, and perhaps a particularly apt one. It is, at any rate, already accepted into common parlance in the way we refer to "literary taste" and all the ambiguities implicit within the phrase.

The disposability spectrum helps us to clarify two important points. The first, and fairly trivial, point is that of the different nature of the standards brought to the reading of books by people with different attitudes and expectancies. The second point, which is not so trivial is the economic theory of literary mass-production.

As we all know, mass-production necessitates the maximisation of potential consumption. The mass-market publisher is interested not simply in making a product to meet a demand which is initially high, but in making a product to meet a demand which does not diminish when matched by supply - a sustained demand. The habit of disposable reading is, so to speak, God's gift to the publishing industry, because it is what enables them to standardise their product. The mass-market publisher is interested only in the requirements and demands of the reading habit in which books are used disposably. The actual number of readers involved is really a secondary consideration - what is important is that the demand is both steady and predictable. When dealing with books geared to non-disposable reading every individual venture is a gamble, but the marketing of disposable reading is so secure as to make possible the specialisation of different species of disposable fiction adapted to different variants of literary taste.

In this economic situation we find the seeds of conflict. The economic system of the capitalist countries puts the writer in a social situation where the publisher, the essential mediator between writer and audience, may have motives and priorities significantly different from his own. Writers, by and large, tend to be more interested in the non-disposable aspects of their work. The publisher, in terms of potential profitability, is interested in the disposable aspects. The inevitable results are, in various sectors of the social group which writers make up, warfare, capitulation and compromise.

We often hear the accusation levelled by writers and aesthetic critics at the publishing industry that mass-market publishing has vulgarised the literary taste of the reading public and has all-but-obliterated literature itself. The terms in which this accusation is framed often suggest that this is the result of some evil manipulation of minds, and that publishers are deliberately deadening the literary sensibilities of the public by a kind of deliberate narcosis. This is not so. The anguish which many writers feel in consequence of their neglect by publishers and audience is neither the result of a conspiracy on the part of the mediators or the intrinsic dullness of the audience itself, but of the priorities which must necessarily dictate publishing policy given our economic system and the fact that the disposability spectrum of reader usage does exist.

Science fiction, of course, is a publishing category which was first established in the pulp magazines, which marked the middle phase of mass-production in American publishing (after the dime novels, before paperbacks and comic books). Because of this, science fiction publishing has always been geared to the production of an essentially disposable product. This fact has led numerous writers to try hard to escape such categorisation and has led some to despair of the genre altogether.


Now let us move on to categories of communicative function. Attempts to make such categories distinct have been made in the sociology of literature by Hugh Dalziel Duncan and in the sociology of the mass media by Gerhardt Wiebe. Both of their categorisations are tripartite. In Wiebe's terminology communicative exchanges are divided into instructive messages, maintenance messages and restorative messages. I think it is at least convenient, if not wholly necessary, to split off from the category of instructive messages the category of affective messages. This distinction is often important in the analysis of individual texts and groups of texts. The four categories could, of course, be further subdivided, but the system should not be allowed to become too cumbersome.

The basis on which the four categories are distinguished is as follows:

Instructive messages include statements intended to convey information, or attitudes to information, or new ways to organise information. The category goes beyond the simple didactic function to include what may be called "demonstrative functions". Instructive messages are essentially innovative, in that they are intended to bring about a change in the knowledge, attitude or capability of the recipient.

Affective messages include statements intended to evoke an emotional response from the recipient - to excite sympathy of one kind or another. The concept of catharsis is related to the affective function of literature but the purpose of affective evocation need not be cathartic. Again, this is essentially an innovative function, being designed to bring about a change of mental state in the recipient, although of a more temporary nature than is pertinent to the instructive category of function.

Maintenance messages include all statements intended to confirm attitudes and opinions already held by the recipient. All world-views require constant support and reinforcement from the environment as experienced - in the absence of such continual reinforcement world-views become aberrant and the individuals who hold them are said to be mad. This support is provided by a constant flow of maintenance messages, and most ordinary conversation belongs to this category. The function is inherently confirmatory, not innovative.

Restorative messages include all communicative exchanges whose function is not to inform, inspire or maintain but rather to allow the recipient temporary relief from confrontation with reality. It appears that the strain of maintaining a conscious and rational relationship with the real world is such that periodic rest is very necessary. Relief from the exhausting effort of sane conformity is provided physiologically by sleep and psychologically by fantasy. Literature designed to supply the restorative function is commonly described as "escapist" but the derogatory undertones of this label are inappropriate. It is vitally necessary. This function is not necessarily innovative, in that fantasies and modes of relaxation may often become very standardised, but where it is innovative it is on a strictly and necessarily temporary basis.

If we consider the definition of these four categories one thing becomes strikingly clear, and that is that they differ dramatically in terms of their inherent disposability. Messages in both the restorative and maintenance categories are intrinsically and necessarily disposable. Restorative messages provide temporary relief from reality, and should not interfere with it, although the need for such experiences is maintained. Maintenance messages are likewise required continually. Both of these needs are undiminished by supply.

Affective messages are less disposable. Their effects may linger and they may, in fact, be permanently incorporated into the mental structure of the recipients in that they constitute a process of training and provide a vocabulary of symbolic associations for the emotional responses of the individual. Our emotions are not instinctive - we have to learn to feel. Affective messages help us to organise and develop our emotions, and inevitably control that organisation and development. To this process affective messages in literature make a genuine contribution.

Instructive messages are less disposable still, for information and principles of informational organisation are intended to remain permanently with the individual unless or until they are forgotten or rejected. All individuals rely much more on information and attitudes gained at second-hand than on the lessons of first-hand experience. Instructive messages in literature make a definite contribution to this process, especially in the matter of the organisation and development of attitudes and ways of understanding.

Thus we may build upon the conclusions which were drawn from the initial categorisation of modes of reader usage. We may say that texts which are used disposably are being used - whatever the intention of the writer or the critic's interpretation of the text - primarily for their maintenance and restorative content. Any instructive material which the text may contain is, in all probability, not being received, but either misread or ignored. The affective function may operate, but in a shallow and transient fashion. The consequences of this fact may perhaps best be illustrated by consideration of the policies of newspapers. Although the function of a newspaper is nominally to inform it is obvious that the more popular publications - the tabloids - owe their appeal to their intense concentration of the maintenance and restorative capacities of so-called news, and that this is the reason for much of the distortion of information perpetrated under that name.

As, however, the mode of reader usage passes along the spectrum and becomes non-disposable the instructive and affective functions will be served as well as - and to a progressively greater extent at the expense of - the maintenance and restorative functions. The maintenance and restorative functions are never totally lost, but the character of the material which supplies them may change. To draw, again, an example from the newspaper field, the nature of the Times crossword is inherently different from that found in the Daily Mirror.

One thing which must be remembered is that the needs which are met by these different communicative functions are not equal. Restorative and maintenance messages are the more necessary, in that one cannot get by in life half as well without them as one can without instructive and affective messages. Ideally, all four are vitally necessary, but some are more dispensable than others. The contempt in which maintenance and restorative material in literature is held by many members of the various aesthetic elites which exist in our society is unjustified, and is based upon false assumptions as regards to the real communicative needs of the individual. What the cultural elite regard as "good literature" is not adequate to the whole social function of fictional communication. The importance of this point cannot be emphasised too strongly.


Now, after that rather lengthy introduction, let us turn our attention specifically to science fiction, and investigate the application of these perspectives to this particular case. What are the genre's special communicative functions, and what elements can be detected within the spectrum of reader demand?

Because it is a genre which has obtained a separate identity and evolved within the mass-market, subject to the assumptions of mass-production in publishing, the need which science fiction fulfills is primarily a disposable one. I submit, however, that there is also a significant non-disposable function which is characteristically superimposed upon it.

The demands and expectancies of readers can conveniently be identified by taking census of the attitudes and opinions expressed by habitual readers. An immensely valuable guide to these expectancies is provided by the letter columns of the magazines which were for many years the principal vehicle of the genre and by the host of amateur magazines which circulate within the science fiction community. It is the existence of this close-knit community - which has been enormously influential in governing the evolution of the genre, though it comprises only a relatively small minority of the readers - which sets science fiction apart from the other categories of mass-market publishing, and which is symptomatic of something unique within the needs and demands that are being supplied.

A survey of these expectations of demand and expectancy reveals the following. As might be expected, the largest demand in quantitative terms - and perhaps an important aspect of the expectancies of all readers - is for the service of the restorative function. All reading involves an element of escapism but some reading is entirely escapist. The vocabulary of symbols which science fiction employs is particularly amenable to use in this respect. It provides for the dramatisation of fantasies of virtually every type. It is inherently exotic.

The first thing which sets science fiction apart from the other popular genres is not this strong priority upon the restorative function. Though the mythology of other genres may be more conservative the restorative function is nevertheless vital to the shaping of it. It is, in fact, not what science fiction has but what it lacks that marks the basic division. It is fairly obvious that what supplements the restorative function of most disposable literature is the maintenance function. The western, the detective story and the love story all operate within a fixed and stable ritual framework which embodies a particular world-view. Sometimes these world-views are subject to a change of fashion, as when the characteristic thriller of the early part of the century went into a decline to be replaced by a much tougher variety incorporating a different attitude to the world. In addition, all the world-views are subject to processes of evolution. But in these cases the ritual element is vital. Conformity is conspicuous. Formularisation and standardisation of these products can often go to extremes, as in the case of the romantic novels published by Mills & Boon. The prominence of this type of maintenance ritualisation varies quite considerably from genre to genre, and it is certainly obvious in certain fields allied to science fiction - notably "sword and sorcery" fiction and the kind of fantasy associated with Edgar Rice Burroughs. But science fiction taken as a whole exhibits a much greater variety than any other popular genre.

This is not to say that science fiction does not perform a maintenance function. There have always been formulae of action and presentation, and there are certain world-views which have characterised different groups within the field at different times. But these have never been uniform. Science fiction has always been a literature of alternatives, and the simple existence of alternatives necessarily weakens the maintenance function considerably. There has always been a manifest demand for alternatives in the reactions of the readers - a quest for new ideas and new treatments. This is not a demand for the service of the maintenance function but a demand for the priority of a certain instructive function over the maintenance function. In this science fiction is unique among popular genres.

Because of this tendency towards non-disposability many members of the science fiction community have always considered that science fiction never really "belonged" to the spectrum of publishing mass-production. They have felt that the labelling of the category within the pulp magazines was an unfortunate historical accident, placing the field in a literary ghetto where its true affiliations to elite literary culture could not be recognised or developed. There is some justification for this kind of attitude, in that reader demand does require certain non-disposable content from a fraction of the material produced. However, the demand is for a very special kind of instructive function by no means identical to the kind of demand which is effective in the non-disposable aspects of the literary mainstream.

In its crudest form, represented by the prospectus for science fiction initially issued by Hugo Gernsback, the special demand for instructive qualities in science fiction was for a staightforwardly didactic function. Science fiction was intended to contain science fact, and also to inculcate in its readers a properly positive attitude to scientific knowledge and technological progress. Gernsback designed a literature that was basically advertising copy for science - propaganda to the effect that science was good and that technological possibilities were wonderful and exciting. Over the years, however, this kind of demand became somewhat more refined and sophisticated. According to John Campbell, the author of the modern philosophy of science fiction, the demand is that science fiction stories should aspire to be experiments in thought which have an instructive capacity by virtue of their logical and rational investigations of imaginative hypotheses. In the subtitle of his magazine Analog Campbell stated this simply and clearly as: "science fiction is analogous to science fact". Science fiction thus becomes the imaginative instrument by which the realms of fantasy may be investigated, analysed and systematised, just as science provides the imaginative instrument for the investigation, analysis and systematisation of real phenomena.

This demand has never been rigorously applied (not even by Campbell) but an eroded version of it is characteristic of the reader demand. The demand may often be satisfied by pretence or illusion, and in practice it almost always is - most readers prefer jargon of apology to an actual fidelity to known scientific principles - but it is nevertheless a force which shapes the fiction and, more importantly, affects the attitude of the reader to the text. The demand itself, whether or not it is honestly met, is a factor in the mode of reader usage. The mode of reader usage employed by the majority of science fiction readers seems to be located further along the disposability spectrum than that which is pertinent to the consumption of other mass-produced fiction.


At this point I wish to return briefly to a more general question. I have observed that mass production of literature to meet disposable needs permits specialisation to cater to different literary tastes. I have also observed that different popular genres contain - and must be presumed to assist in maintaining - different world-views. Some discussion is now necessary with regard to the evolutionary forces, of social or psychological origin, which have led to the development of the particular specialised world-views manifest in popular fiction.

The popular genres which we know today arose in the dime novels, the penny dreadfuls and the magazines both in Britain and America by a process of natural selection. The formulae which sold survived, those which sold best flourished, those which did not sell were abandoned. If we wish to look for an explanation of why particular mythologies - the love story, the western, the detective story, etc - survive, then we must ask two questions: firstly, we must ask about the nature of the social pressures and tensions relative to which these fictions are restorative; and secondly we must ask about the utility of the world-views which they maintain.

For example, the detective story maintains the faith that all problems have solutions, which may be obtained by ratiocination. As maintenance mythology this is a mythology appropriate to an age in which philosophies are dominated by science rather than by religion. But there is also a powerful element of reassurance in the common structure of the detective story, which recognises that the basic situation is one of mystery and confusion, often rather desperate and frightening. The ritual of the detective story is the insistence that the truth can be discovered despite the conspiracy of circumstances to conceal it. It is a myth of intellectual triumph, of the victory of reason over the snares of delusion. By the same token, the western embodies the myth of the triumph of purpose. The gun is the magical agent of destruction which will defeat the menacing forces no matter how numerous and powerful they may be. The reason why the detective story is approved by the cultural elite while the western and the thriller are most often condemned is, I think, obvious in this comparison of mythologies.

The restorative function and the maintenance function collaborate in these genres. Women, under the strain of their allotted inferior role within our society, and of the social institutions which support it, escape through restorative fiction. But they do not escape to a world in which their role is superior to the male role, or to a world where the attendant social institutions do not exist. They escape, instead, to a world where their role and the institutions which surround it are more appropriate and intrinsically meaningful - into the fiction of romantic love. Similarly, with respect to westerns, men who feel threatened by multitudinous vague social restrictions and impositions escape not to a Land of Cokaygne where all is peace and harmony, but to a violent milieu in which all threats and restrictions can be immediately and effectively opposed and defeated.

We must, therefore, ask of science fiction how this same logic can be extended and how it must be modified in order to account for the partial replacement of a maintenance function by a special instructive one.

Any historical study of the literature of the scientific imagination makes it abundantly clear that the class of anxieties which have provoked the emergence of this kind of fiction are the anxieties corollary to scientific and technological progress. This is probably obvious without detailed supporting arguments. What is also obvious is that a great deal of science fiction meets that anxiety straightforwardly, and by the same strategies of reassurance that the other genres employ. Mass-produced science fiction tends to imagine a world in which technology is meaningful and appropriate, and in which technological problems inevitably have glib technological answers. With the aid of a cunning invention and a little planning the alien invasion can always be repelled, the manipulators exposed and rendered helpless. The hero's miraculous machine is always superior to the villain's miraculous machine, thanks to skill and ingenuity, in exactly the same way that the hero can always outdraw and kill the villain in the western. It is equally clear, however, that this is by no means a complete description and characterisation of science fiction, though it is of the western.

Readers of science fiction characteristically demand, and perhaps require, a much greater emphasis on the analysis of situations. In the vast majority of cases they will still ask for ritual resolutions, and will undoubtedly prefer that analysis should lead to such a resolution, but in science fiction as in no other popular genre the reader will often accept the analysis instead of the ritual resolution. If the analysis of the situation precludes successful rational resolution then the science fiction reader will often accept an unresolved or negatively resolved situation. The frequency with which such stories can be published in science fiction is far greater than the frequency which would be tolerable in other genres.

As to why this is so, we can at present only speculate. Much more detailed work and very careful consideration of methodological problems is necessary before we can draw up hypotheses which are amenable to any kind of rational testing. However, it seems to me that the following suggestions are worth considering.

I do not believe that the observations I have so far made are adequate grounds for rejecting the notion that science fiction is basically a literature of reassurance. Rather, I should like to suggest that it deals in a rather different kind of reassurance which is particularly appropriate to a characteristic modern world-view.

In the era of the victory of scientific rationalism - the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first few years of the twentieth - it was possible to place a great deal of faith in the ability of science, potential or actual, to answer all questions. Ernst Haeckel, in 1900, wrote The Riddle of The Universe as an expression of his confidence that all the great enigmas of existence had already been solved, barring a few inconvenient details. This was the era in which the myth of Sherlock Holmes proved immensely powerful. Today, that faith has almost disappeared. We no longer think that the riddle of the universe is solved, but rather that it may be unanswerable. Twentieth century science is complex, arcane, mysterious - and it has retreated from many of the questions relating to the meaning of existence which Haeckel once thought it might usurp from the realms of the religious imagination. But this is not necessarily a loss of faith in science - it is a loss of faith in final answers.

If we have a new faith today - a reassurance that science fiction supports and disseminates - it is faith in our ability to get by without final and absolute answers, a faith in our ability to live in a universe of moral and philosophical relativity. Science, in this mythology, becomes not the means to our ritual victory over the forces which threaten and confound us, but the means which will allow us to exist in the absence of such a ritual victory. This is not a myth of confrontation and destruction but a myth of the attempt to understand and the acceptance of a compromise with that understanding.

The evidence of such a change in the historical development of science fiction is clear in various attitudes to characteristic symbols. The alien was once employed almost exclusively in Anglo-American science fiction as a menace to be destroyed. Then the priority shifted to the achievement of a mutual understanding. Now we can find the emergence of a new attitude to the alien which involves the dramatisation of the problem as the necessity to co-exist in the absence of any such genuine mutual understanding. Simply put, science fiction writers once tended to set out to destroy the unknown, now they tend to work out ways to admit and accept the unknown as the unknowable. This is the evolutionary trend which is identifiable in the science fiction of the past, and I suggest that it is the one which may allow us to predict the form and acceptability of many science fiction stories yet to come.

I consider that the reason why the reader demand for science fiction places a priority on the innovative instructive function at the expense of the confirmatory maintenance one is due to the pace at which the social anxieties controlling the response of the fiction are changing. New fears are constantly emerging from the technological remaking of society, and science fiction must constantly innovate to keep pace. But the existence of this demand in turn makes possible the design of experiments not only in imaginative thought but also in the processes of literary function. In this respect science fiction is definitely a bastard genre, unlike other popular genres but by no means identical, or even particularly similar, to the generalised literary mainstream.


This paper constitutes an introduction to the analysis of reader demand and expectancy. It is no more than an introduction. Its conclusions are necessarily vague and tentative. I would suggest, however, that the perspectives which are contained here are relevant, not only to authors but also to editors, publishers and critics of science fiction. It is, I think, useful to ask not only what manifest forms reader demand and reaction takes, but also how that demand and reaction has been formed and why. At best, this kind of study may allow us better to direct our anticipations - and even at worst it may still help us better to understand what it is that we are doing in our collective enterprise.


--- Brian Stableford 1976

Scanned, OCR'd and saved as HTML, 13/7/02.
Corrections made, 18/7/02.
Final proof reading, 21/7/02.