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The Two Cultures of Hugo short stories

Lela E. Buis argues that hard SF writers are in danger of extinction, even in their traditional home of Analog magazine. She says:

Does staying within the confines of science really limit creativity? Cixin Liu has refuted this one. He’s written something very creative within the limits of current physics. So what’s the problem with Analog’s stories? My thoughts? They’re not written by brilliant scientists any longer.

As a hard SF writer with a geophysics PhD,  I decided to investigate who was writing award-nominated short fiction. So I looked up the degree subjects of Hugo short-story nominees from 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and – for comparison – 1967.

The results were remarkable. In 2014, two out of the four short fiction nominees had an MFA or PhD in English or Fiction. Only one of the nominees had a science background. In 2013, two of the three nominees had a first degree in English.

The year 2012 was slightly more diverse, as John Scalzi has an undergraduate degree in philosophy and Nancy Fulda has an MA in computer science, but the ballot still had a BA in English Literature and someone with a BA in English (and biophysics).

Compared to 1967, the difference was striking. Only one of the eight 1967 nominees had a BA in English. Most of them didn’t even appear to have degrees, and four had been in the US Army, Navy or Airforce (suggesting a technical background).

It’s no surprise that a bunch of English Literature graduates and professors are more interested in literary styling than in scientific ideas or technical social speculation. And, going by the reaction of literary writers on my MFA program to my short fiction, they don’t find hard SF engaging – unless the writer also delivers an emotional punch, deep characterisation and perfect prose.

I can’t help thinking of C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture The Two Cultures, which argued that humanities and science are separate cultures, and their separation is an impediment to Western society solving its problems.  The cultural divide is deep seated.  As Simon Critchley is quoted on Wikipedia:

[Snow] diagnosed […] the emergence of two distinct cultures: those represented by scientists and those Snow termed ‘literary intellectuals’ on the other. If the former are in favour of social reform and progress through science, technology and industry, then intellectuals are what Snow terms ‘natural Luddites’ in their understanding of and sympathy for advanced industrial society.

In short, ‘literary intellectuals’ don’t write hard SF because they’ve nothing to say about the future. They’re concerned with the beautiful arrangement of words, and not new ideas.  They’re a cultural dead end in science fiction. And, yes, if that sounds prejudiced, it is…*

*(or maybe I’m just provoking a little 🙂 ).

[My data can be downloaded here].

 

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