Science Fiction Isn't Less Important Than Other Genres But You Probably Think It Is

It turns out that we may read science fiction less thoughtfully than we do literary writing.

According to a paper published in the journal, Scientific Study of Literature, professors Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University found that when mentally classifying text under science fiction, readers automatically assume the text is less valuable — in a literary sense. For this reason, humans unconsciously put a decreased level of effort into reading works of science fiction than they would apply to literary writing.

Inspired by a 2013 study by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano that found literary fiction produced greater empathic responses among readers, Gavaler and Johnson set out to uncover more about human perception and interpretation of language.

Their paper, called “The Genre Effect,” is based on the results derived from 150 participants who were given 1,000 words to read. The narrative of each text was the same: a character enters a public eatery and socializes with the people there, directly following public knowledge of the character’s criticism of that community. In the “literary” format, the protagonist enters a diner after his critical op-ed is published in a local newspaper. In the science fiction version, the character instead enters a galley in a space station full of aliens, androids and humans.

Both Gavaler and Johnson attest to the consistency of the two versions of the texts, aside from the words that established setting, like door versus airlock. They maintain that participants should have shown equal ability to infer the feelings of the characters they read — a theoretical psychological phenomenon called theory of mind.

Post-read, participants of the study were questioned as to how closely they aligned with statements like, “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story,” as well as the effort each participant imparted in empathizing with the characters.

Instead, the researchers explained that the conversion of the text to science fiction actually greatly reduced readers’ perceptions of literary value, even though the participants were reading the same plot and character relationships.

They said, “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

To the researchers’ surprise, the science fiction setting revealed the reader’s tendency toward less laborious reading, despite the inherent difficulty of the text and subject matter. According to Gavaler, who is also the author of a guide to superhero comics, participants who read their test texts apparently anticipated a simpler story, therefore the science fiction prompted poorer overall reading.

Gavaler did note that this likely is not true of all readers, but mostly of those “who are biased against science fiction, thinking of it as an inferior genre of fiction.”

He added, “It’s a self-fulfilling bias — except we can now show objectively that the weakness is with the reader, not the story itself. So when readers who are biased against science fiction read the word airlock, their negative assumptions kick in — ‘Oh, it’s that kind of story’ — and they begin reading poorly. So, no, science fiction doesn’t really make you stupid. It’s more that if you’re stupid enough to be biased against science fiction you will read science fiction stupidly.”

In time, Gavaler wants to test readers’ responses to lengthier texts and other genres of literature to learn whether “genre markers,” like cowboy hats or sorcerers’ wands, would disclose more of what occurs in readers’ minds.

He noted, “I was paradoxically pleased by the results … In an ideal world, there would be no bias. But if it exists, and it does, it’s useful to expose it.”

Science fiction author Jon Courtenay Grimwood summarized the bias as follows: “The problem is a very basic one — people give an art form the care and attention they think it deserves. (Or perhaps have been told it deserves.) You get out of a book what you bring to it. Well, most books.”

Read discerningly, read without predisposed bias, but most of all, keep reading.


For many years, the so-called miracle on ice was a point of pride for people in the United States.

A group of amateur college hockey players faced off against the Soviet Union's Red Army champions in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

Keep reading...
Las Vegas Review-Journal // Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) is the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to take on President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

Sanders handily won the Nevada caucuses last week, and now a Republican activist is coming forward with why he temporarily switched parties in early voting to caucus for Sanders.

Keep reading...

As the Coronavirus spreads through Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Europe, concerns are growing among Americans that an outbreak in the United States is becoming inevitable.

National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases director, Dr. Nancy Messonier, told the New York Times, "It's not so much of a question of if this will happen in this country any more, but a question of when this will happen."

President Donald Trump, for his part, isn't too concerned.

Keep reading...
Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for Hill & Knowlton

From well done steaks to taco bowls, some of the most bizarre moments in the political career of President Donald Trump have centered around food.

You can add another moment to that list.

Keep reading...
C-SPAN // RB/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

President Donald Trump once again exchanged tense words with CNN's Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.

At a press conference during the President's visit to India, Acosta asked Trump if he would pledge not to accept any foreign assistance in the 2020 election, amid reports that Russia is once again meddling to help ensure another Trump term

Keep reading...
National Archives

Ever since becoming one of the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress—an honor she shares with fellow Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota found herself a favorite target of President Donald Trump, his supporters, Evangelical Christians and other assorted bigots and conspiracy theorists.

But just what is it about Omar that they love to hate?

Keep reading...