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Mad Science: Science Fiction Becomes Mainstream

Post by Duncan Smith
Posted May 22, 2012 in Readers' Advisory News

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In a recent Mad Men episode, Ken Cosgrove, one of the account managers at Sterling, Cooper, Draper and Pryce, has just had a story accepted for publication. Everyone is excited and happy about this until they learn that the story is science fiction. At one point in the episode, Kenny is called into a manager's office and told that as an executive at the firm, 100% of his time, talent, and attention is owed to the company. He should not be wasting his time writing -- and it is implied, especially not science fiction.

One of the many Mad Men themes is how much our present world is influenced by the 1960s. It was a time when our culture was undergoing a seismic shift. The Civil Rights Movement was underway, women's roles in society were changing, and the knowledge that smoking was hazardous to our health was beginning to be understood and discussed.

In music, we had the Beatles. On television, shows like Bonanza and Rawhide were giving way to The Man from U.N.C.L.E and The Avengers (the one with Diana Rigg, not Thor). The tried and true Western was also under siege by shows like The Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, and Star Trek. Speculative fiction was gaining legitimacy in the literary world and in order to recognize works of exceptional quality, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America launched a new award: The Nebula. The first Nebula was awarded in 1965 and the book that won was Frank Herbert's Dune.

Like the changes chronicled on Mad Men, the long struggle for science fiction to move from being a "marginal" genre to a mainstream one would take decades. Today, science Fiction is a vibrant and relevant literature for today's libraries and readers. But we still have work to do in order to ensure that this literature finds its readers and that its readers find it in our libraries.

Dr. Bain, my American Literature professor at the University of North Carolina, once told our class that Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be read at least three times: once as a young adult, once at midlife, and once in old age. I wonder what Dr. Bain would think if he knew that the book I've read and re-read the most is not Huck Finn but Dune.