Who Speaks Truth to Fiction? Scientific Authority and Social Difference in Speculative Fiction

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Virginia Tech


The term "science fiction" has in itself a contradiction: if science is truth, and fiction is make-believe, how can the two come together? The authors, readers, and fans of science fiction have come together to create a set of informal rules for how to deal with this contradiction, allowing fictional science when it is realistic, rigorous, backed up by evidence (which I call empiricism), and free of any obvious bias (which I call objectivity). There are areas, though, where these rules break down. Some of these areas are tied to genre, centered on works that may or may not be science fiction or the larger umbrella genre of speculative fiction, including fantasy. But some of these areas seem not to have a clear cause, causing friction within the larger speculative fiction community. Studies of science and engineering, I argue, offer an explanation: realism, rigor, empiricism, and objectivity are frequently used to hold women and people of color to higher standards than other community members and epistemologically privilege white and male experiences. Women and people of color in science and engineering are told that their work is incorrect or unrealistic without basis; they are told that their work is insufficiently rigorous; they are told that their evidence is not as good as it is, or their work is attributed to someone else entirely; and they are told that they are not capable of being unbiased and producing unbiased work. I argue that these expectations have been translated into science fiction, potentially contributing to arguments and disputes that have caused significant conflict in the community. I look at novels that were nominated for a major speculative fiction award, the Hugo Award, between 2008 and 2012 to see how authors establish made-up facts in their texts. I then analyze online book reviews of those same texts to see if there are patterns in how readers respond to these speculations. Lastly, I look at statements by the authors themselves to document their experiences of both writing and how readers have interacted with them about the reception of their texts. I find that, much like in science and engineering, the rules about realism, rigor, empiricism, and objectivity are enforced differently against women and people of color, which potentially indicates that the cultural view of science has these inequitable norms embedded into it.



science fiction, science, speculative fiction, epistemology of science