Can Science Fiction Save the Liberal Arts? (Asks The New Republic)

Both the lit­er­ary and sci­ence fic­tion worlds have come out in the past few weeks with poignant trib­utes and acco­lades for recent­ly deceased Scot­tish writer Iain Banks. The remem­brances from both quar­ters are very well deserved, and very rare. Banks was an unusu­al kind of artist; he main­tained a high­ly respect­ed pres­ence as both a writer of real­ist lit­er­ary fic­tion (as Iain Banks) and superbly well-craft­ed, high­ly imag­i­na­tive sci­ence fic­tion (as Iain M. Banks). In the brief video inter­view above, you can hear Banks recount the ori­gin of the two names and make an impas­sioned case for sci­ence fic­tion as “the most impor­tant genre” of fic­tion.

Banks’ accom­plish­ments are all the more extra­or­di­nary giv­en that so-called lit­er­ary fic­tion and so-called genre writing—sci-fi, hor­ror, romance, etc.—have for so long occu­pied entire­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al spheres, worlds, to use the words of Thomas Pyn­chon, as dif­fer­ent as “the hot­house and the street.” There were the obvi­ous exceptions—the work of Franz Kaf­ka, Drac­u­la and Franken­stein, 1984, Fahren­heit 451—that slipped through the gates, grand­fa­thered in as lega­cy cas­es or exem­plars of “Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion,” the respectable term for genre writ­ing deemed “seri­ous” by aca­d­e­mics and the literati. Lit­er­ary schol­ar Fred­er­ic Jame­son has long been a fan of sci-fi. Crit­i­cal the­o­rist Felix Guatari once wrote a sci­ence fic­tion film script. Again, more excep­tions.

All of this has changed. After the suc­cess of pop­u­lar cul­ture stud­ies pro­grams in the free­wheel­ing post­mod­ern 90s, even the most tra­di­tion­al depart­ments have begun turn­ing toward genre fiction—the cur­rent pop­u­lar obses­sion with vam­pires and zom­bies, for example—as a means of re-invig­o­rat­ing the lib­er­al arts and reclaim­ing rel­e­vance. (I myself once helped an aca­d­e­m­ic press acquire and pub­lish a fun col­lec­tion called Bet­ter Off Dead: The Evo­lu­tion of the Zom­bie as Post-Human.)


Is this a cyn­i­cal piece of strat­e­gy to mar­ket strug­gling human­i­ties pro­grams to increas­ing­ly busi­ness- and sci­ence-mind­ed stu­dents? A gen­er­a­tional turnover in the pro­fes­so­rate? An attempt to expand the mar­ket share of the human­i­ties in the over­all pic­ture of uni­ver­si­ty fund­ing? In a recent arti­cle in the New Repub­lic, sci­ence edi­tor Judith Shule­vitz argues, like Banks, that sci-fi is a genre of fic­tion that the acad­e­my should take more and more seri­ous­ly on prac­ti­cal grounds—sci-fi writ­ers show us the future of tech­nol­o­gy more accu­rate­ly than any tech­nol­o­gist. Shulavitz also writes that doing so will raise the pro­file, and fund­ing, of human­i­ties pro­grams.

As you can see from the charts above, the arts and sci­ences have reached a dire fund­ing asym­me­try. Shule­vitz quotes Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote, “There is no sci­ence with­out fan­cy and no art with­out fact” as part of her case for the impor­tance of lit­er­a­ture to the “prac­ti­cal arts” and vice-ver­sa. I don’t know if I’m entire­ly con­vinced, but Shulevitz’s argu­ment is wor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion, unless you believe, with Oscar Wilde, that “all art is quite use­less” and in no need of an apolo­get­ics or a defense to bureau­crats.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Sci­ence Fic­tion Clas­sics Avail­able on the Web (Updat­ed)

Andy Sam­berg Announces Death of Lib­er­al Arts, Cool­ness of Sci­ence Majors at Har­vard Class Day

Ser­i­al Entre­pre­neur Damon Horowitz Says “Quit Your Tech Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Human­i­ties”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Dana Paxson says:

    If I may, I’d like to add my voice to those prais­ing Iain Banks and his works, and fur­ther to sug­gest that per­haps the declared and accept­ed divide between human­i­ties and sci­ences may not be as clear in prac­tice as it appears in sta­tis­tics and charts. The clear divide in col­le­giate depart­ments is no more indica­tive of a true divi­sion in writ­ing and under­stand­ing than is the divide in book­store genre clas­si­fi­ca­tions with respect to cat­e­gories of books.

    Look to the prac­tices and the sur­pris­ing break­throughs, not to the fund­ing wars and the pol­i­tics. The world has an inces­sant way of escap­ing our views of it, and the artists and tech­nol­o­gists we are have an equal­ly-inces­sant obses­sion with pur­su­ing its trail.

    How do I assert these things with any degree of val­ue? I am one of those exper­i­menters on both sides of the aisle, who min­gles, munges, and bas­tardizes art and tech­nol­o­gy in all of my work, all the way from satir­i­cal paint­ings and essays to advanced e‑book soft­ware and vir­tu­al-world pre­sen­ta­tion of nar­ra­tive. Look me up some time on LinkedIn, or sam­ple my fic­tion at .

    And I’m far from alone. Not being in the aca­d­e­m­ic set­ting has been a boon and a bless­ing, unfor­tu­nate­ly or for­tu­nate­ly; I think a great many human­i­ties depart­ments could gain great­ly from the play that tech­nolo­gies have made avail­able, and from the insights that cog­ni­tive sci­ences have offered con­cern­ing the mind.

    With the intense pres­sure on bricks-and-mor­tar schools com­ing from the dig­i­tal-learn­ing realm, I think it’s time to embrace this future. Once the schools real­ly take on the pos­si­bil­i­ties, they will thrive, and the fund­ing issues will recede into much-dimin­ished sig­nif­i­cance.

  • Eunice Riemer says:

    Josh Jones has a poor com­mand of Eng­lish.

    “(I myself once helped an aca­d­e­m­ic press acquire and pub­lish a fun col­lec­tion…”

    “Fun” is not an adjec­tive.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Oooh, a gram­mar troll!

    See the third entry:

  • steve stevenson says:

    As a 50 year denizen of the sci­ences, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, and math­e­mat­ics (STEM) realm, I would urge my human­i­ties and lib­er­al arts col­leagues and sup­port­ers to bol­ster the STEM world. My stu­dents rarely had an appre­ci­a­tion for the world out­side the phys­i­cal sci­ences. I claim the cur­rent insan­i­ty with the NSA snoop­ing is large­ly because of the “we’ll do it because we can” men­tal­i­ty of STEM.

    Sci-fi is just one inter­sec­tion. We should work to find more and bet­ter ways to “human­ize” STEM.

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