Could science fiction be for everyone?

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There’s a weird sort of division among people that I’ve never understood. Either you are a STEM-type person or a humanities person. And if you’re smart enough, of course, you pick STEM.

Meanwhile most STEM majors are men, which is not unrelated. We’ll get back to that.

I myself have always loved both sides of the coin. In junior high I took high school biology, and I was obsessed. You mean we can learn about how life works as an intricately connected whole, from the planetary ecosystem right down to the molecular level? I couldn’t get enough. I made a board game about cellular respiration and decorated my room with paper DNA. (Can you tell I was homeschooled?) I wanted to be a geneticist when I grew up.

But in high school I fell in love with literature. I memorized huge quantities of poetry and tried writing my own. I had a crush on Hamlet.

When it came time to pick which to focus on, the decision was kind of made for me. The only college that was Catholic enough for the person I was then was a liberal arts school. There were no STEM majors offered. I almost majored in classics, because Latin and Greek came easy for me while being widely regarded as hard. I felt like a classics degree would be a big sign to everyone that I was pretty smart.

And then I thought, you know, that’s a terrible reason to pick a major. So I picked English, despite it being seen as an “easy” major, because I love literature. It certainly was useful to me as a writer, both in what I learned about writing and in the practice of cranking out thousands of words on a deadline.

But this path for my life has given me something of a complex. I didn’t do the Smart Major. Therefore people will think I am Not Smart. And for a person like me, who puts a truly unhealthy amount of my self image into being smart, that doesn’t feel great.

But the fact is, science is not for the super smart and English isn’t easy. They each have their challenges and rewards. I’ve known plenty of tech people who can’t write a decent essay to save their lives. Brain power isn’t a single raw muscle you can put toward anything. You have various kinds of intelligence, and that’s compounded by the training you’ve received. I don’t care if your IQ is 190, that’s not going to give you knowledge of something you’ve never learned.

And yeah, I’m going to come out and say it. This is sexist as heck. The gendering of knowledge goes along with science being seen as “smart” and English being seen as “easy,” such that men with science degrees scoff at women with English degrees. It’s hard to disentangle causes and effects here. I think personally a lot of women are turned off science by hearing it’s hard and for smart people. Not a lot of high school girls, even straight-A students, are comfortable identifying themselves as smart.

There is a certain kind of guy who identifies as smart, studies math and science, and reads science fiction. I’m sure they do enjoy it. But they also really enjoy the idea of reading something other people can’t understand. So when I say that anybody can enjoy it, they’re all up in arms. How dare I take away their thing and “dumb it down for the masses”?

But science fiction doesn’t have to be science-free to be accessible. Science should be for everyone! That’s why we teach it in high school, because it’s necessary to know. Science helps you avoid getting COVID and understand why you shouldn’t drive a gas guzzler. We definitely, as a society, need people of every intelligence and education level to understand some science.

Combining science and art definitely enriches the genre as well. People who love both the space program and a good poem can write about the beauty of the stars. Star Trek may be inspired by real science, but it also is played out by a bunch of theater people. It couldn’t exist without them. I think it’s absolutely possible to create books that are both scientific and beautiful. And they can also be accessible, easy for anyone to grasp without having to have a degree. 

So, if you’ve ever felt like science fiction was for you because you’re an arts person, or because you didn’t always get good grades in school, I hope you give it a second try. There are great stories here. And, if you’re a writer, you’ve already mastered the hard part, crafting a story. If you want to set it in space, you should go right ahead.

The gatekeepers might try to stop you, but you’ll see most of us don’t pay them any mind.

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