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Does Science Fiction Encourage Narcissism?

As a sci-fi critic, I think most fans are just looking for a genre where they can understand and be understood

“The Great Fantasy Migration Hypothesis”…? Just the name makes me, a humble sci-fi film reviewer, wanna roll my eyes with an aggravated sigh.

A University of Glasgow lecturer warns us, “… while psychology may not exactly diagnose fans as mentally ill, the insinuation remains—science fiction evades, rather than confronts, disappointment with the real world.” As that view is expressed in a 2015 University of Georgia study, he dismisses it:

Science fiction wasn’t about evading reality – it was a literary anthropology which made our own society into a foreign culture which we could stand back from, reflect on, and change.

Rather than ask us to pull on our anti-gravity boots, open the escape hatch and leap into fantasy, science fiction typically aspires to be a literature that faces up to social reality. It owes this ambition, in part, to psychology’s repeated accusation that the genre markets escapism to the marginalised and disaffected.

Gavin Miller, “Fan of sci-fi? Psychologists have you in their sights” at The Conversation

Yeah. Just when you thought you could relax after work and enjoy the latest in wild and improbable futures…

Geeks vs. Nerds? Maybe …

An in-depth academic study isn’t something I usually put on my must-read list. But when a bunch of nerds are taking sociological jabs at us geeks, I tend to have an investment. From reading through the study, however, I don’t think McCain et al. are really implying that the science fiction genre as a whole “evades, rather than confronts, disappointment with the real world”? Or not exactly. They distinguish the focal point for their “Great Migration Fantasy Hypothesis” as merely a characteristic rather than a personality disorder:

In the United States, narcissism has been increasing since the 1970’s, while traditional ways of supporting narcissism such as prestigious jobs and credit (e.g., the debt bubble collapse) are becoming less viable for the majority of Americans. The result for individuals is discomfort (or cognitive dissonance [20]) with the incongruence between inflated sense of self and deflated reality [13]. One solution for resolving this dissonance is to migrate into a fantasy world via role playing games, fandoms, and fantasy media.

McCain, Jessica et al. “A Psychological Exploration of Engagement in Geek Culture.” PloS one vol. 10,11 e0142200. 18 Nov. 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142200 (open access)

In other words, the researchers don’t claim that science fiction as a genre is prone to evasion or that it functions a means of avoiding confrontation. Rather, they are suggesting that certain kinds of people who are a part of the science fiction community tend to use the genre as an outlet for narcissism. The authors highlight this conclusion at the end of their study:

Our findings suggest that geek media is especially attractive to narcissists, independent of demographic variables. Given the trend of rising narcissism in the United States [6], understanding geek media may shed light on the function media plays in the narcissistic process.

McCain, Jessica et al. “A Psychological Exploration of Engagement in Geek Culture.” PloS one vol. 10,11 e0142200. 18 Nov. 2015, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142200

From what I can tell, the authors’ intentions were merely to study the kinds of people who engage with science fiction, not to characterize the genre, as some psychologists have. In fact, their study looks at a variety of fictional universes from furry fandom to Harry Potter to Babylon 5.

Is there anything we should try to do about science fiction?

While Miller may have slightly missed the mark in his criticism of McCain et al’s “Great Fantasy Migration Hypothesis,” I believe he is right that psychology (or popular culture as a whole) tends to equate fantasy genres with escapism for the “marginalised and disaffected.” His defense is that rather than evading reality, science fiction has tended to be a “literary anthropology which made our own society into a foreign culture which we could stand back from, reflect on, and change.”

From my own experience, I can attest that genres like science fiction and fantasy do provide a mode of escape. Throw in gaming and you have an entirely new and distinct culture. Of course they provide an escape. So does Vegan culture, adrenaline junkie culture, and (yes) academic culture, among many others. What makes science fiction and fantasy more appealing to many is the degree of escape.

So if science fiction and fantasy offer a greater degree of escapism, does that mean they are more likely to attract those who feel “marginalised and disaffected”? Well, yeah. It does. Does that make those who are a part of the community weak and evasive? No, not necessarily. It means that many of them feel like outcasts or feel disconnected from mainstream popular culture. And many of them feel welcome, loved, accepted, and validated in the sci-fi community. They don’t feel rejected or ignored, as they may have been in popular mainstream culture.

Should science fiction strive for a cultural Utopia?

But now, does science fiction “…stand back from, reflect on, and change” the current cultural climate, as Miller believes? To some degree, yes. However, and this may be where Miller and I part ways, I don’t think it’s always right when it does so.

I’ve taken a step back from culture and observed it as a spectator many times in my life. Does that mean my introspective prescriptions for culture were correct? Maybe, maybe not. I certainly wouldn’t assume that my way of viewing the world is superior to that of anyone else. So do the introspective examinations of science fiction open the door to revelations and prescriptions for our current condition? Maybe, maybe not.

One thing that troubles me about science fiction today is the assumption of what the future “ought” to be rather than what it “could” be. Over the past several months I’ve reviewed TV shows and movies that consistently portray a future that is the utopian result of a brutal cultural war. Is it really our right to change culture in that way?

Do you want to change science fiction and fantasy culture? Sure, go right ahead. It’s your culture anyway. But change western culture as a whole? Yeah slow down a bit, western culture is richly diverse. It’s an eclectic mess of subcultures and countercultures. If we are to ever “set our phasers to stun”’ we have to agree as to why. Utopia for one person may look completely different from utopia for another.

Note: For someone like myself who believes in absolutes, there is always a question of right and wrong. It’s not all just relative. However, I cannot impose my morality on a culture that is opposed to or disinterested in my moral framework. I remain an observant critic, at a slight distance.

If you enjoyed these reflections by Adam Nieri, you might want to check through the film reviews below for thoughts about films that might interest you— brought to you by Mind Matters News Sci-Fi Saturday:

2019’s Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV: 2019 featured many sci-fi television and movies that were less sci-fi than political narrative. In 2019, I fell out with Netflix. I felt bombarded by more and more edgy content, as though Netflix wanted me to know how “adult” it is. Rather than producing a few amazing originals, Netflix started vomiting up a ton of terrible originals.

Ad Astra: The Great Silence becomes personal. The film images the fate of those who seek significance in the stars and may well wait indefinitely. In a world where the divine touch of extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t elevate human existence to any level of significance, we are left with Ad Astra: a slow, methodical decay of human significance.

Alita, Battle Angel A Mind Matters Review: If you love anime and felt betrayed by the flop of Ghost, I would highly recommend Alita.

Another Life All fun and games till an AI falls in love. Then it descends into a convoluted drift of uncertain storytelling. And the victim is not primarily the viewer, who has other options. The victim is the art itself.

The Expanse: A Mind Matters TV Series ReviewThe attention to detail and the realistic portrayal of space set it apart from run-of-the-mill sci-fi. I love the deep mystery surrounding the show’s central narrative device, the proto-molecule. It is somewhat sentient and is desperately trying to figure out what happened to the civilization that created it and was then wiped out while it lay dormant in our solar system for millions of years.

The Expanse, Season 4: The Best So Far? A Mind Matters Perspective: Unlike critic Zac Giaimo, I preferred Season 3 but it really depends on what you are looking for. Season 4 is, as critic Zac Giaimo notes, integral to character building and plot development for the overall series. I gave it 9/10 in an earlier review. However, I don’t know if I completely agree with Giaimo’s Amazonian optimism. Season 3 set up urgent questions that should be answered by the end of the show, preferably beginning in Season 5.

The Feed—A Mind Matters TV Series Review: I started out thinking that the show was just the usual ho-hum tyrant-AI-takes-over flick and it is so good to be wrong! Imagine a world where your mind is stored on social media. Now, what happens if someone steals, then abandons it? What will you do?

Her (2013): If you created her, is it real love? In this retrospective Mind Matters movie review, Adam Nieri ponders the questions raised by a thoughtful AI film. Unlike Catherine, Samantha is exactly what Theodore was looking for. No surprise there; Samantha is, literally, adjusted and updated according to Theodore’s preferences from when he initially began speaking to her. She exists only to be Theodore’s soulmate. Is that enough?

How To Become Human—A Mind Matters Short Film Review. This new film turns a conventional sci-fi storytelling premise upside down. Rather than an AI struggling to become human in a human-dominated world, we watch a human struggling to be more like an artificial intelligence in an AI-dominated world.

Lost in Space, A Mind Matters TV series review. I was skeptical at first, based on Netflix’s track record, but was pleasantly surprised. If I could rewind time a week and add a piece of 2019 sci-fi to my list of the year’s Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV, I would add Netflix’s Lost in Space, Season 2—which came out just after I had published. Let’s fix that now.

Love, death, & robots Despite the trash and ruined expectations, several shorts were enjoyable and downright fun to watch

Nightflyers: A Mind Matters TV Series Review Despite its flaws, Nightflyers does not deserve all the criticism it received. It’s the saga of a ship of scientists making their way through the cosmos to unlock the secrets of a mysterious entity known as Volcryn. It turns out that Volcryn is not the only mystery; the good ship Nightflyer holds many of its own secrets.

The Outer Worlds—A Mind Matters Game Review: You must discover the dark secret of the Halcyon space colony, despite the greed and corruption of a handful of powerful corporations. After the raging dumpster fire that Fallout 76 (2018) turned out to be, I hesitated to invest my time and money in another role-playing game (RPG) epic. But I am glad I did.

Picard (2020): Episode 1 Is an AI-Themed Mystery. The mystery is related to another familiar Star Trek character. Seeing the Star Trek universe from a different perspective—that is, not from the interior of a starship—was super refreshing and rewarding. It gives viewers a unique look at what day-to-day life is like for other people (much as The Mandalorian did for the Star Wars universe).

Star Trek: Picard — On second thought, some serious quibbles. Now that I’m four episodes in, I’ve gotta say, the “haters” might be onto something. Not everything but something. Why does Picard seem to be obsessed with Commander Data? And what happened to The Federation? Star Trek fans are quick to point out that Star Trek: Picard takes an unnecessary malevolent tone towards The Federation. Why do the Romulans look different? I’m still watching but I’d like some answers.

Simulation: Would a simulated universe even make sense? A well-crafted short sci-fi film suggests, intentionally or otherwise, maybe not. I’ve seen quite a few sci-fi short films over the years and Simulation is certainly one of the better ones. However, beyond that, I’m not sure this film knows what it is; it’s an identity crisis.

Sprites: Will plausible robots replace movie stars? A short film prepares us to think about it.

Terminator: Dark Fate—A Mind Matters Movie Review. Aside from the fact that it felt like a retextured version of Terminator 2, I was constantly being reminded of the film’s obvious political agenda. Movies like Terminator: Dark Fate  don’t seem to be made by people who care about the narrative. They seem to think that they need only make something that looks like a movie but acts as a medium for broadcasting their message to the masses.

Adam Nieri

Adam Nieri has interests in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind and he holds an MA in Science and Religion from Biola University. He has background in social media and marketing, photography/graphic design, IT, and teaching.

Does Science Fiction Encourage Narcissism?