Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fact or (Science) Fiction?

Key words: fact, fiction, science fiction, suggestion, panic

Deciding fact from fiction can sometimes be quite a challenge. Just ask listeners of the October 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Due to the new medium of radio which allowed information, news or otherwise, to be instantaneously broadcast into millions of homes, listeners were not sure if they were tuning into CBS’ weekly Sunday night entertainment or to a emergency news broadcast warning the nation of the sudden arrival of Martians in New Jersey. Jackie Orr investigates the nature of the panic caused by the broadcast and the parallel research that was happening at Princeton University connected to radio.

Orr summarizes some of the early 20th century studies on groups, crowds, and panic. As Robert E. Park explains, a group is not a real entity until it is formed by social relationships through shared understanding and occasionally laws. Once the group is formed, the social group becomes a “real entity” and subject to be explained scientifically. Essentially, the process moves the idea of the group from fiction to fact. Once this fabricated group appears, the crowd has the ability to suggest ideas and actions, “collective motivations and movements” (Orr 41). Suggestion can become so powerful, that it’s “mutual infection of thought and feeling, and its intensification of emotional and mental states through the medium of social interaction, are the casual mechanisms that can define a crowd as a homogeneous unit accessible to scientific explanation.” (Orr 41) The dilemma of group suggestion was so troublesome that researchers spent countless hours and dollars trying to discover what made people more likely to take suggestions (or believe fictional radio broadcasts about Martians) and cause group panic. Orr discusses the group and its contradictory nature, comprised of the other and the outsider, but also the most nationalistic sentiments of the race and the group mind.

Just as the group make up seems to be at odds with itself, the genre of science fiction itself brings about a series of contradictions. The very term “science fiction” seems to struggle within itself between the real and the imaginary. Science, a study of rules and laws proven by theories and experiments, continuously striving to find what is true and provable in our world, is paired with fiction, literature that describes imaginary events and people. The genre asks us to believe that something is real and not real, possible and impossible all at once.

Both the stories, “Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “We can Remember it for you wholesale”, contain strong themes surrounding what we believe as fact, how we know it’s true, and what happens when something contradicts this truth. For example, Gallinger discovered both a high and low tongue of the Martian language. Braxa must reconcile the teachings of a god and the disbelief of a prophecy with the arrival of Gallinger. Doug must struggle to accept his own memories as fact or fiction, unclear what has actually happened in his past and what has been placed in his mind by Rekal.

The reading this week brought up themes of fact and fiction that we will most likely be dealing with for the entire semester. To what extent do we believe what we read, especially when these books are presented as fictional texts (unlike the war of the worlds broadcast which was partially presented as truth)? How much suggestion are readers susceptible to when a genre like science fiction is rooted in so much fact?


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