Explaining My Addiction to Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, 9/26/21

One reason I haven’t been posting much here lately is because I’m writing a short story review every other day on my science fiction site. I’m reviewing The Big Book of Science Fiction, an anthology of over a hundred science fiction stories from the 20th century, including many stories I’ve read over the past sixty years. The whole endeavor is a kind of self-psychoanalysis of a lifetime addiction to science fiction.

I’m slowly realizing what science fiction means to me. In 1960, I became a bookworm in the 4th grade to cope with the stress of growing up. In the 5th and 6th grades I slowly focused that addiction on science fiction. A couple decades ago I realized I had substituted belief in science fictional ideas for my childhood beliefs religion, becoming an atheist around age 12 or 13. But actual space exploration played a part too. Sputnik went up weeks after I began the first grade, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon weeks after I graduated high school.

When I first started reading science fiction in the early 1960s I knew no one else that read it too. Then in March, 1967 I met my buddy Connell in 10th grade who became my lifelong friend. When I discovered he had read some science fiction I asked him who was his favorite author. I expected him to say Heinlein, since I assumed Heinlein was the absolute best. Instead, Connell said Clarke. We’ve been arguing ever since.

After Star Trek ended in 1969 I realized that millions of science fiction fans had come out of the closet. I joined an APA in 1970, then a local science fiction club, and then started going to SF conventions with my friend Greg. At the time, science fiction fans seem few and far between.

Then in 1977 Star Wars came out, and it seemed like everyone began to love science fiction. But I soon realized that even though the world loved science fiction on TV and at the movies, very few people actually read the science fiction magazines, and only slightly more people regularly read science fiction books.

As a kid, I wanted to be a science fiction writer like other kids wanted to be rock stars, football players, or astronauts. And even though I took writing courses in high school and college I never developed the discipline to write. Later on, I guess as a mid-life crisis, I took off six weeks from work in 2002 and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and afterwards began a MFA in creative writing. I still didn’t have what it took. When I retired in 2013 I thought I’d finally get down to writing, but I didn’t.

Over the eight years I’ve been retired I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of science fiction. It’s become a pleasurable hobby to fill my time. But I’ve also discovered why I’ve psychologically embraced the genre. For most of my life I thought that space travel was important to the development of humanity, and science fiction was a kind of prophetic literature that gave exploring the high frontier meaning. Now I see wanting to leave Earth as a kind of psychological escape, and science fiction is only a minor art form, a specialized kind of fantasy and entertainment.

In my old age, I read science fiction and admire it for creative storytelling. But I know it’s only a couple steps up artistically from comic book reading. I do read literary novels, and know the difference. Science fiction appeals to the adolescent in me. That keeps me positive while the world around me is turning negative. Reading science fiction in my old age makes me realize I never grew up, but then I’m also realizing most of the people around me never have either. As a species we’re not very good at maturing and facing up to reality.

The percentage of people who rely on denialism to cope with reality grows every day. I like to think I don’t deny reality so much as avoid it. Most of the people who aren’t deniers tend to be avoiders. Only a small percentage of the population face up to reality. I don’t mind reading and studying reality, but I have no discipline to live the life I know I should live. Reading science fiction is my way of occupying my mind when I’m not thinking about how humanity is destroying itself.

I admire people who actual do something about the problems we face, but they are very rare. Most of us just fool ourselves that everything is going to be okay and maybe do a few token things to help, but isn’t that really an effort to sooth our guilt? Reading science fiction is my version of watching Ted Lasso or The Andy Griffith Show. But we’re all on the Titanic killing time in amusing ways even though we know we could change the ship’s course if we worked together. Unfortunately, cooperation is not in our genes.

Reading science fiction teaches me about the possibilities. Science fiction has always been about building better futures, advocating better societies (utopias) or warnings of de-evolving into dystopias, or even the nightmares of apocalypses. It’s all too obvious that we’re actually heading towards the collapse of our global civilization and an environmental apocalypse. Half the population copes by denying this, and the other half that does recognize our destiny does little to avoid it.

We indulge in mindless consumerism and socializing, or restless tourism, or occupy our minds with political and religious rationalizations. When I see people protesting that the 2020 election was stolen, or vaccinations are evil, or the January 6th attack on the capitol didn’t happen I realize those people have the psychology of children, the kind who throw tantrums, who scream “You can’t make me” or “You’re not the boss of me” to their parents, teachers, and even peers. But you can’t reason with them not because they can’t see reason, which they can’t, but because that’s their survival mechanism, and if you could get past it, these people would only fall apart. I have to assume reading science fiction is my survival mechanism.

I am starting to worry a tiny bit because some of my coping mechanisms are starting to fail. I used to binge watch TV in the evenings. I’ve always loved TV, and looking back see that it was a reality stress releaser too. But I now have to try a dozen or two dozen TV shows or movies before I can find one that I can watch. And I no longer can watch TV and movie science fiction. For example, I was looking forward to the new production of the Foundation series on Apple TV+. It just annoyed me, and I quit trying after fifteen minutes. I forced myself to finish the first episode the next night, but still no joy.

I worry that I’m also going to develop a tolerance to written science fiction, and it will fail to hold my attention like my TV watching. So far, I still find great pleasure in reading science fiction short stories. I don’t have the patience to read novels anymore, but continue to enjoying reading old SF anthologies and magazines. I worry that this love won’t last.

Luckily, I still have other interests to turn to if I finally wear out on science fiction. The current state of the world is very sobering. It might even cure my addiction to science fiction, but I doubt it. I’ve had it my whole life now. It might be too late to give up. But my attitude has changed. We wanted a lot of fantastic things from religion, and that’s true of science fiction. That’s why I compare them. I believe we need to change our expectations for both. Religion and science fiction need to focus on reality. They both need to be more down to Earth.


26 thoughts on “Explaining My Addiction to Science Fiction”

  1. Nice one, Jim. I appreciate how you are always inspecting your reasons for doing things. I’ve tended to rely on serendipity for everything.

  2. I watch to wind down at the end of the day and I’ve recently had the same experience of finding nothing that engages me, so I go back to old favorites. What engages me are characters I care about.

    On rewatching https://www.amazon.com/The-Expanse-Season-1/dp/B08B49T8TZ I noticed: season 1 is very weak; 2 is better, 3 is so good it should have been two seasons because there are two major story arcs; 4 ended up better than it started; and 5 is great because of a scene that is emotionally built on many minor details in previous seasons for a minor-seeming character. It is a summation of the season and also the series so far: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sONil0eLr-M

      1. Seasons 1 &2 were produced for SyFy before they moved to Amazon where the production quality improvement is very apparent. The story telling also got better.

  3. Mainstream comic books can be literary, not to mention underground comics, that have had a more exclusively adult audience. Since they embrace words, they come much closer to books than any other art for/entertainment. If you think then that science fiction is a few steps above comics, then much of it is highly literary, as we know. Why are your feelings so conservative about it?

    1. Well, there are only so many words you can put into a thought balloon. But when I think of comics, I think of superhero comics, and their target audience is pre-teens. Also, the science fiction in superhero comics is primitive.

      1. Of course the science in superhero comics is primitive, but the contents aren’t necessarily completely childish in other ways. Many of the classic DC/Marvel comics had social commentary on the issues of the day, etc.

        1. That’s true, comics sometimes try to have social commentary, but you’d gain a lot more from nonfiction books and magazines, or serious literature. Social commentary in comics is like sorting your recycling, it’s helpful but very minimal. There are comics like March by John Lewis, but how many comic readers even step up to that level? And compare that to reading The Warmth of Other Suns Isabel Wilkerson. I’m not saying comics make no effort to be literary, insightful, or educational, I’m just saying we could all step up our reading – significantly.

          But to save the world requires completely stopping using fossil fuels. To bring about equality means transforming society. To avoid our fate would require at least 75% of the population to work cooperatively on making hard and difficult changes. I see no indication of that happening. So I read science fiction, wait, and watch.

      2. It was about the written science fiction genre I was really quibbling with you about though. I don’t have to tell you that some science fiction authors, such as Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Ursula LeGuin, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and Kurt Vonnegut, to cite some obvious examples, are recognised as being among our best authors. You have said so yourself. Of course, many of them aren’t, but this shouldn’t darken our view of the greatness to be found there.

        As for comics, it’s probably just as difficult to compare literary standards between them and actual books, as it is to compare comic book art to actual fine art. There’s probably no comparison, but comics require artists with a very different kind of ability to collaborate with the author to illustrate and tell stories in sequentional form than what it takes to just paint or draw actual pictures. I think it’s the same for comic book writers, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t possess strong literary skills. There probably isn’t any greater medium of art/entertainment than books, but comics come closer to them than any other medium, as they do to fine art.

        1. Richard, I didn’t mean to suggest I was putting down comics. I was only comparing the complexity of two art forms: science fiction short stories and comics. In my old age, I’ve focused on SF short stories, and what I was trying to suggest was that’s not very ambitious, only a couple of steps up from comic books. All art represents various levels of complexity to create and to consume. I’m not challenging myself much by focusing on SF short stories.

          But I agree, comics can come in different levels of complexity, depending on the writing or the artwork. I often think the artwork in comics is far more innovative than the writing. But this is relative too. The artwork for magazines and websites is usually more complex and challenging than that found in comics. I’d suppose the highest levels might be fine art, but I see some very impressive artwork used on commercial graphics and advertising.

          When I brought up the comparison I was criticizing myself for not working to admire more complex forms of art. I do at times. Recently I’ve been reading biographies such as those of Alexander von Humboldt and Jennifer Doudna. But mostly, I fall back to SF short stories. And even short stories require different levels of effort to appreciate and create. For example, the Jorge Luis Borges literary story required far more work to read (and write) than most of the other stories SF in the anthology so far.

          My lament is I’ve taken it easy by sticking with science fiction. And even now, I could challenge myself more.

          1. Yes, but it’s difficult to come to terms with it. Both science fiction and comics and their fans, have suffered prejudice because they’re associated with fantasy, which is seen as escapist, not just because they deal with things that are unreal, but that it’s associated with bad writing or being unliterary. As I said, this isn’t neccessarily true, and comics can succeed to a quite high literary level according to the writers, so science fiction, as you point out, should be even higher. Of those authors I cited, Ballard, Bradbury and Ellison, have emerged as elegant, literary stylists. I’ve read a fair amount of mainstream literature lately, which I find fault with it, as I don’t think it’s really as great as is claimed, and nor is it that enjoyable. You shouldn’t be ashamed of reading your SF short stories.

            A comic book artist can of course be greater than the writer of a comic, but it isn’t much good unless the writing and story are good too. There have been and are some extremely good comic book artists whose stuff can be called art in the sense of being a fine artist or graphic illustrator, but that doesn’t mean they’re great comic book artists in the sense that they can tell a story in pictures along with the writer, although some have bridged the gap between both. The same holds true for the best comic book writers I think, who have to work with the artists to tell a story rather than just being a literary writer.

            I don’t like to compare fiction with non-fiction, you can’t I don’t think. You probably can achieve more challenging things through reading books like the biographies you cite rather than the SF short stories, but you could probably say that about all fiction. Jorge Luis Borges is a great author, but I think the best SF overlaps with his literary style.

            Thank you for your interesting and enjoyable post.

  4. Many thanks for your reflections, as always, Jim. My own reading is mostly fantastic literature (using the term in a broad sense, including science fiction), evenly divided between genre fiction and literary fiction, if you will. In any case, at my age (57), I feel that, as long as one pays attention to the situation in the real world, and tries to do something about it (to the extent that this is possible), one doesn’t need to justify reading whatever one likes. Also, doesn’t much science fiction already focus on reality, whatever one thinks of the point of view of a given work or writer?

    1. We all have the choice of doing something for ourselves or something to help others. I could have done a whole lot of constructive work with the time I use for reading and watching TV, but I don’t. I seldom help others. And I’m not beating myself up with guilt. I accept my selfish self-interests. Very little science fiction addresses reality, even the stuff that attempts to be serious.

      1. I’m not sure that “very little” SF addresses reality, but regarding helping or failing to help others, in whatever fashion (political activism, etc.): does it really have to do with the contents of what one reads or watches? One can read and watch lots of SF while also doing things to help others, and fail to do so while reading nineteenth-century novels, etc.

        1. That’s true. One could work at something eight hours a day, and then pursue forms of entertainment for eight hours. But since I retired, I don’t do that. I now fill all my time with hobbies. I probably don’t have the physical stamina to do real work anymore.

  5. I’ve been a sci-fi reader and fan since I was a kid in the 1960s-70s, but not of the whole genre. The sci-fi of the Heinlein-Clarke-Asimov ‘golden age’ from the 1940s-50s was about the joy of exploring the dream, but a lot of what followed was about how that dream was broken by human realities, which I found far too depressing. I don’t have Apple TV and haven’t seen the Foundation adaptation, but to me that was pretty much of its time. My own favourite, incidentally, out of the great triumvirate is ‘all of the above’ – to me they were all brilliant in their own ways.

    1. I’m a fan of the whole triumvirate too, as well as many other writers from the 1950s. I just had big fun reading The Best of Walter M. Miller Jr.. The more SF I read from the 1940s on, the more I discover to admire, but for some reason, the 1950s stand out the best, and to a lesser degree, the 1960s and 1970s.

  6. Like you, I became a fan of SF around 1960 when I started reading those WINSTON SCIENCE FICTION novels with their great covers (and stories!). The first one I remember clearly is Poul Anderson’s VAULT OF THE AGES. From there, I graduated to ACE Doubles. The 1960s featured an expansion of SF publishers–Pyramid, Lancer, Ballantine, Paperback Library, etc.–and I bought many of them since the price was so low: 35 cents. I also read SF magazines. GALAXY and IF and AMAZING/FANTASTIC were favorites. I still read SF because I love the Sense of Wonder the best SF delivers to readers like you and me.

  7. Hi James

    I found some great lines here that clarified my own feelings.

    The whole endeavor is a kind of self-psychoanalysis of a lifetime addiction to science fiction.

    Reading science fiction in my old age makes me realize I never grew up, but then I’m also realizing most of the people around me never have either. As a species we’re not very good at maturing and facing up to reality.

    One conclusion I have come to is I am probably too old to grow up. And that is fine with me. And besides reading SF seems a lot more harmless than what a lot of things people channel their energy into like picketing hospitals or trolling people on the internet. For me reading, whether it SF, Weird Tales entertains but also often makes me think about different situations, points of view or possibilities.

    Reading non fiction is my attempt to under stand how things world whether it is the universe or the economy. Both fiction and non-fiction has always been a refuge. Good non-fiction fuels the mind, fiction the imagination I love both.

    Happy reading

  8. I worry that this love won’t last.

    Dear Sir,

    Worry not: you’re not losing anything – you are simply awakening (and that will leave you empty, as it should.)
    Be happy that this is happening when you no longer have to fulfill your expectations about others’ expectations. Be prepared though, because your former self will fight you tooth and nail.

  9. Hi Jim,

    I’m writing my thesis right now and using science fiction as a conceptual lens to examine addiction. I appreciated your reflection on how you are “using” science fiction to escape / detach and think we have some common ground that could be fruitful to discuss.

    I’d love to connect more, maybe you could shoot me an email?

    – Marina

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