Science Fiction and Psychology – In Conversation with Gavin Miller

Gavin Miller’s Science Fiction and Psychology, a new addition to the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies series, offers an in-depth exploration of science fiction literature’s varied use of psychological discourses. We discussed this study with the author.

Could you tell us a bit about Science Fiction and Psychology and what drew you to focus your research in this area?

I’ve been researching the history of psychology since the early 2000s, focussing on so-called ‘antipsychiatry’, and the history of psychotherapy in Scotland. Independently of that interest, I began teaching science fiction to undergraduates, and saw lots of overlaps with my historical interests. For instance, Marge Piercy’s feminist SF classic, Woman on the Edge of Time, is clearly very much influenced by 1960s and 1970s critiques of biomedical psychiatry, particularly by feminist scholars such as Phyllis Chesler. The more I happened to read of science fiction, the more overlaps and continuities I saw with psychology: from B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist utopia, Walden Two, to Kurt Vonnegut’s satire on evolutionary psychology in Galápagos. Yet, there wasn’t a book from a literary critical perspective on the relationship between psychology and science fiction – although there were a few that offered science fiction as an educative medium that dramatizes psychology for undergraduates.

The book is the first to use the history of psychology to enrich our understanding of science fiction. Why do you think this topic has been overlooked in academic scholarship?

It’s a puzzle to me. Darko Suvin, one of the founding figures in science fiction studies, pointed explicitly to the human sciences as a reservoir of ideas for science fiction writers. Perhaps one explanation is that literary criticism has performed a fair bit of psychoanalytic reading of science fiction, and so has ‘done’ the psychology of science fiction to its satisfaction. But psychoanalysis is just one psychological school among many, and science fiction writers are usually pretty eclectic in their influences. Also, psychoanalytic reading of science fiction isn’t the same thing as investigating how psychology is deployed by science fiction. Even with psychoanalysis alone, we see this particular psychology being adapted, modified, and critiqued in science fiction. Barry Malzberg’s The Remaking of Sigmund Freud imagines a replicant Freud let loose on a spaceship threatened by an alien species. The resulting story is a very self-conscious indictment of psychoanalysis, at least in the Freudian mould.

How have you defined science fiction in the book?

Science fiction scholars will recognize that I’ve followed Darko Suvin’s foundational definition in which science fiction is characterized by one or more novums, i.e. scientifically plausible innovations that dominate the storyline. I’ve departed though from Suvin in my account of what science fiction does, since he emphasises science fiction’s implied comparison between the fictional setting and our own social world. I certainly see this as very important for the use of psychology in science fiction.

But I also explore other ways that science fiction can make use of psychology. One of these, which I think is rarely explored in literary criticism, is how science fiction supports or unsettles the authority of psychological ideas. Psychology purports to describe and explain the human mind, but human beings are notoriously adept at internalizing and living up to what they believe themselves to be. Science fiction can assist the process. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is practically a manual in psychoanalytic self-help; its super-intelligent protagonist uses a self-directed psychoanalysis which helps him overcome his childhood demons. Something similar goes for B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist utopia, Walden Two: if you buy into Skinner’s vision of heaven on earth, then you’re more likely to be persuaded by behaviourism, which he says can get you there. On the other hand, science fiction can resist and undermined the supposed truth of psychology. William Sleator’s young adult novel House of Stairs is a direct riposte to Skinner’s behaviourist utopia: the teenage protagonists are stuck in a giant lab experiment run on behaviourist principles, where they are programmed to obey a dystopian US government that wants to turn them into happy little assassins.

Could you introduce us to one of the five key psychological schools in your study?

Cognitive psychology is a particularly interesting case study, with its fundamental model of the mind as an information processing system. The meaning of this psychology might seem plainly obvious: it underwrites the ‘mind as computer’ metaphor that runs through cyberpunk from William Gibson to The Matrix. But we when we shield our eyes from the dazzle of posthumanism and cyberpunk, we can find a longer, more complex history of SF engagement with cognitive psychology. One of the most revealing sections in the book is my re-reading of Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers, a story which is clearly informed by and conscious of early cognitivist ideas. There’s one passage in the novel which is a lightly veiled quotation from a well-known work of popular psychology from the 1920s. The story’s big anxiety is how we can resist our psychological inclination to construct our perception of the world according to pre-formed schematic patterns that exist in the mind – patterns which we pick up from all kinds of sources, including mass culture like cinema. That’s what the body-snatching doubles reveal to us: Finney’s heroes are the small-town inhabitants whose sensitive perceptions can sense the subtle differences in the alien doubles.

What will you be working on next?

I’m working with two co-editors on a large collection of essays, Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities, that aims to bring science fiction studies into a close dialogue with the medical humanities. We’re aiming for about 40 chapters. I’m also in the early stages of planning a monograph on contemporary illness, health, and medical narratives. With my historian’s hat on, I’m doing a lot of work on psychology in the post-war British mass-media, particularly Penguin and the BBC, and that – I hope – will be another monograph.

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