Friday, September 20, 2013

Emotion in Science Fiction

            Science fiction, the “literature of ideas,” has a reputation for being “brainy,” for “thought-experiments,” for cerebral speculations and extrapolations.  Of course, since the genre is fiction, questioning on futuristic change must occur in a story with relatable characters.  SF is not essays about possible futures but tales on the effects of that future on people.  Still, to many readers, what makes SF unique is its intellectual appeal.  We read for entertainment, but we also read to become educated in the possible. 
            Well, okay.  All true, yes.  But real appeal is in the emotions. 
            In his book Brain Rules, brain scientist John Medina, discussing how to increase people’s attention, says that emotions get our notice first, and that “The brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect” (p. 82).  The tension we feel as we walk down an alley or through the woods at night is more remembered than an abstract discussion of the experience.  We all know this—“common sense,” right?—but Medina, with an anatomy of the brain's wiring, even shows us why (it involves the amygdala, which deals with our emotions; when aroused by an emotion, it sends dopamine into the system, a neurotransmitter which increases memory and attention [80-81]).
            So what we retain most is what’s most connected with our emotions.  Maybe that’s why our first response to a book is “I like it” or “I don’t like it.”  It’s not the details of jaunting or the workings of the future we remember most from The Stars My Destination, but Gully Foyle’s tempestuous drive for revenge (the one line everyone seems to recall is, “Vorga, I kill you filthy!”), and we react less to the rational planning and methodical details of psychohistory in the Foundation trilogy than we do to the Mule’s irrational, forceful, and singular derailing and destroying of them—a shock for me when reading those books, and the moment I recall more than any other. 
            A popular genre that relies on “ideas” needs emotion for readers to relate to them and to remember them well.  Isn’t the cross-genre of SF and romance an attempt to tap the emotions more?  And doesn’t SF crossing with mysteries use not only the rationalist sleuthing of the mystery genre but also its sense of dark threats and hidden secrets?  And any tie with horror naturally brings in fear.  So let us celebrate this emphasis in SF.    
            Finally, a recollection and the reason for this post.  Long ago, when reading what are now the classics of SF and when having those childhood dreams of writing SF myself, I imagined—I hope I wasn’t alone in doing this or it’ll be embarrassing—some interviewer someday asking me what my SF would be all about, and to say it in 30 words or less (or, today, in the Tweet version). 
            And I always gave my response as:  “The obsessed, the pursued, and the space between.” 
            I liked that.  And—I see now—it was an attempt even then to get more emotion into SF.  (And maybe I had just read The Stars My Destination.)
            And, you know, it still fits.  The rewarding realization after all this is that, yeah, it’s the goal that still guides what I’m doing. 
            Nice to know it’s still here.    

Medina, John.  Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.    
Pear Press, Kindle Edition, 2010.  

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