Tuesday, March 07, 1995

The Portrayal of Scientists in Science Fiction


Authors such as Marcel LaFollette and Dorothy Nelkin have documented how the mass media has portrayed scientists and how these portrayals have affected public perceptions and government policies. But comparatively little research has been done on the portrayal of scientists in science fiction.

Many people dismiss or ignore science fiction, perhaps because they see SF as being irrelevant to what happens in the real world. But many scientists and science enthusiasts consider SF to be "their" fiction. SF fans naturally have an interest in science, and a significant minority of SF writers historically have been scientists themselves.

Over the years, SF has been a sort of gateway through which young people have been introduced to the excitement of scientific discovery. In this way, SF has encouraged people to learn about science and, in some cases, to become scientists. In his 1990 article "Scientists in Science Fiction: Enlightenment and After," Patrick Parrinder recounts astronomer Patrick Moore's suggestion at the 1955 UNESCO conference that "scientifically sound" SF would be a good recruitment tool for countries to use to encourage young people to pursue careers in science.

Going beyond the scientific circle, SF affects how people view science. While relatively few people read SF books, SF movies and TV series are hugely popular. And, current SF influences aside, our more deeply-rooted cultural attitudes toward and fears about scientists have been shaped by SF characters such as Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Strangelove.

Discussion and Methods

It is difficult to figure out exactly how much SF's portrayals of scientists affect public perceptions, mostly because little research has been done to even figure out how scientists are portrayed by SF authors. The main research in this area was done by Walter Hirsch in 1958.

Hirsch analyzed 300 stories published in science fiction magazines between 1926 and 1950. He noticed a steady decline in the number of stories that featured scientists as main characters. He also noted that there was a marked decline in the portrayal of scientists as heroes as opposed to their portrayal as villains, although on the whole heroic scientists still outnumbered the villains 18 to 2.

Hirsch's study was a good one, for its time. But the problem is that nobody has done a qualitative/quantitative follow-up study on Hirsch's findings. Parrinder's 1990 article "Scientists in Science Fiction" was the only substantive recent treatment of the subject that I was able to find.

And I found it to be lacking quite a bit in the way of real analysis. Parrinder frequently cites Hirsch and states matter-of-factly that "One of the most striking features of the science fiction of the last twenty years is that scientists are far less commonly represented in it than they used to be." Later on, Parrinder asserts,

Not only do scientists in science fiction often appear as lurid, melodramatic and evil, but they frequently ... evoke the pre-scientific past. That is, the evil scientist -- or the future scientist surviving into a post-industrial society -- carries with him the trappings of sorcery, wizardry, and alchemy.

Parrinder does not qualify which science fiction he was referring to; while his comments are perfectly valid descriptions for the SF written as late as the 60s and 70s, they do not mesh well with what I have been reading in more recent SF magazines.

My doubts about Parrinder's research increased when I reached his comments on cyberpunk at the end of the article. He argues,

It would seem that the image of the hero as discoverer has given place to the hero as information-processor, operating on knowledge that already exists. The hacker's function is not to increase knowledge but to keep it circulating, sapping the power and wealth of the corporations which monopolise it. Science as social currency is taken for granted in these novels, but it is no longer seen as a disinterested pursuit and the age of the great discoverer has long vanished. Science-fiction writers under fifty no longer seem to believe that scientists have the future in their bones. It could be that this message is getting through to the readers, too.

Oh, the gloom! Parrinder completely misses the fact that cyberpunk hackers are no more portrayed as scientists than were the old time rocket jockeys like Buck Rogers. The fact that the hackers in William Gibson's Neuromancer are referred to as "cowboys" should have tipped Parrinder off to the fact that hackers "ride" the data stream, making them analogous to the old-time astroheroes who ride faster-than-light spaceships. Hackers are not scientists and no reasonably intelligent SF reader sees them as such.

My grumpiness with Parrinder increased as I scanned his notes and bibliography. He primarily took notes from secondary sources, and I saw no sign of him having done a lick of original qualitative/quantitative research of the type that Hirsch had done. It seems like awfully sloppy methodology to have extensively cited thirty-year-old research (Hirsch) to make critical comments about a constantly-changing genre like science fiction.

Once my irritation subsided, I decided I'd do my own research to see how far off mark Parrinder's article is when it comes to more current SF.

I decided to examine current science fiction stories in the top three SF magazines (based on circulation and the amount they pay writers): Asimov's Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, and Omni. I decided on SF shorts instead of novels or movies because:

  1. most SF fans agree that SF movies and TV shows are not representative of cutting-edge SF, and
  2. short fiction provides the same diversity in subject matter and authorship as do novels in a much more manageable format.

Comparing my results to Hirsch's seemed like a reasonable thing to do, but I also realized that his research might have been flawed by bias or incompleteness. So I decided to do a brief comparison analysis of SF shorts from the 50's by looking at two "Best Of" anthologies from 1952 and 1956. I picked the SF from the 50's as a comparison partly because this is when Hirsch did his research and partly because this was the time of the big post-war government push to funnel huge amounts of money into scientific research all over the country.


In The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1952 anthology, the stories are filled with gloomy predictions of the future, often predictions of nuclear holocaust (27.7% of the stories). This is to be expected, since it had only been seven years since Fat Man and Little Boy ended World War II. Stylistically, the stories are fairly primitive (but are still a good read). The characters seldom rise above the first dimension, and sophisticated descriptions and internal metaphors are pretty much non-existent.

Of the 18 stories in the anthology, six (33.3%) featured scientists as main characters. Of these scientists, four were physicists (probably more fallout from the Manhattan Project), one was a physician, and the other two were physical scientists. And of the six stories, three portrayed the scientists in a distinctly negative light.

The most damning story was "Balance" by John Christopher. In "Balance," the world is controlled by competing scientific factions who resort to spying, theft, and murder to keep or gain power. The main character, a retired chemist, is ordered by his bosses, United Chemicals, to find and murder a super-genius child who has been created by the Geneticists to insure and increase their power. All the scientists in this story come off as greedy, evil, crude, paranoid beings who are barely evolved from apes. This theme of governmentalized scientists destroying the world was echoed in the other negative stories, though not to this degree.

The Best Science-Fiction Stories and Novels: 1956 was another story, however. The 14 tales in this anthology were more complex than their 1952 counterparts. These stories show more fleshed-out characters (though they're not completely three-dimensional) and spend more time on description.

In agreement with Hirsch's findings, the 1956 anthology has a smaller percentage of scientific characters than does the 1952 anthology: in the 1956, four (28.5%) of the fourteen stories feature scientists as prominent characters.

But the scientists are of a distinctly different sort. Of these four stories, one portrays a white male physicist, one portrays a beautiful, alien, female psi-therapist (a psychologist who uses psionics to heal her patients -- perhaps a forerunner of Star Trek's Deanna Troi?), and two others portray psychiatrists. With all this focusing on the mind, it is no wonder that the stories have better-developed characters.

Only one of the four stories portrayed its scientist negatively, but this story was supremely negative. "Judgement Day" by L. Sprague de Camp is a character study of Dr. Wade Ormont, a physicist working at a nuclear research facility who discovers that a particular type of nuclear chain reaction would blow the crust off the earth. The physicist is portrayed as a cold, bitter, socially inept, slightly psychotic man: in other words, he is a stereotypical mad scientist, harking back to turn-of-the-century science fiction. But de Camp crawls inside the stereotype, explores it, and makes it chillingly believable, perhaps in an effort to explain the mentalities of the physicists who willingly created the atomic bomb.

In summary, the 50s anthologies I sampled portrayed scientists as main characters in 10 out of 32 stories (31.3%), and out of those ten, 4 were negative portrayals. This basically matches what Hirsch and Parrinder claim SF is like.

But once I started to look at recent SF, Parrinder's claims seem much less valid.

I went through six consecutive months of Analog and analyzed the stories in the same way that I had the 50s anthologies. Of the 36 total stories in these issues, sixteen (44.4%) featured scientists as main characters. And of these portrayals, none were negative except in the fact that scientists were shown to be fallible human beings.

The scientists who behave heroically are typically young and a little reckless, while those who are meek and perhaps a little cowardly are older and are shown to have good reasons for their behavior. The only scientist who does something shocking and nasty (hunting down a beautiful tree faery and ripping it open and eating it raw and perhaps alive) is shown to be acting from deeply-ingrained human instinct. On the whole, the scientists portrayed in Analog are likeable, highly intelligent, and occupy a sort of moral high ground. There is also a much greater diversity of scientists in these stories as compared with the 50s anthologies. In addition to the traditionally-portrayed medical doctors and physicists, the stories featured liberal doses of paleontologists, ecologists, and other biologists.

Science is portrayed as the key to advancing (and perhaps saving) humanity, and a running theme in the stories is the unfair, irritating, and potentially dangerous confinement of science by the government or corporations refusing to fund what scientists need. Two stories especially highlighted this theme.

The first was "Tide Pools" by Kevin J. Anderson. In this tale, the main character is a woman who travels through alternate times to locate medical cures that scientists in other realities have discovered. She brings back the formulas for the drugs, and her company markets them as their own. The protagonist's husband is dying of a rare neurologic disease, and her company refuses to let her try to find the cure on the grounds that the time she spent searching for it wouldn't be cost effective (only eight people in the country have the disease). She tries to find a cure in her native time, but discovers that the only neurologist who researched the disease stopped being able to get funding and abandoned his research. The heroine decides to break company rules and searches for a cure in other time lines. She eventually finds one, but by this time his disease is too advanced to be curable.

The second Analog story that deals with the dangers of under-funding is "Pibloktoq" by Paula Robinson. This black comedy is set on a cramped station on the moon in which all the inhabitants have gotten short-tempered and are prone to what look like brief fits of relatively non-violent insanity. The protagonist, a psychologist named Morgan Diersing, comes on board to try to help the inhabitants. The space station inhabitants need more room to cure their madness, but no one on Earth will send them the materials to build additions to the station.

In summary, the Analog stories are distinctly pro-science and pro-scientist. The scientists are protagonists, not heroes; the reader sympathizes with them and likes them and roots for them in their struggles against governments and corporations (businessmen, bureaucrats, and military figures are the most frequent antagonists). But these scientists do not behave "heroically" in the traditional sense: they never do anything as dramatic as saving the world a la Dr. Zarkov in the old Flash Gordon serials.

The six months of Asimov's SF stories I examined showed several similarities with the Analog stories, but there were also some interesting differences.

Of the 49 total Asimov's stories, 32 (65.3%) were what I consider to be SF. The remainder were fantasy, ranging from speculative fiction about Picasso to a tale about medieval vampires. Of the 32 genuine SF stories, thirteen (40.6%) featured scientists as major characters. This percentage is similar to what I saw in Analog, and it contradicts Parrinder's assertion that fewer and fewer scientists are being portrayed as mains in SF.

As I mentioned, there were some distinct differences between the portrayals of scientists in Analog and Asimov's, and I think that this is related to the willingness of Asimov's editors to include obvious fantasy in a SF magazine. First of all, Asimov's featured an even greater variety of scientists. Physicists were outnumbered by both biologists and social scientists. Medical doctors also outnumbered physicists, and the stories also featured computer scientists and an oceanographer.

These diverse scientists were more completely humanized than the scientists in Analog. While the scientists are mostly portrayed as doing good for the world, and three are portrayed as being geniuses, they are also shown to have basically the same mundane problems as everybody else. The scientists have family problems and wants and needs that have nothing to do with science.

In "Chemistry" by James Patrick Kelley, the protagonists are two female medical students who decide to go out to a futuristic singles bar to have a fling before finals. In "The Facts of Life" by Brian Stableford, the main character is a teenaged boy named Benjy who, when faced with a mentally abusive father and a disintegrating home life, escapes into his hobby of doing ecology/evolution experiments with microbes. In "Guardian of Fireflies" by Patricia Anthony, the protagonist is an AIDS-infected physicist who is standing watch in a field where a man has been trapped in a freakish quantum bubble. The physicist knows that the trapped man is sure to suffocate before he can be freed, and he spends much of the story contemplating this and his own impending death from AIDS.

Analog's theme of "everything would be better if they'd just give us more money" is absent from the six months of Asimov's that I examined. The stories in Asimov's portray science as a basically good and necessary thing, but it doesn't receive the same kind of unconditional love it gets in Analog.

For one thing, Asimov's features two negative portrayals of scientists. The first negative portrayal is in "Blind" by Robert Reed. The antagonist in "Blind" is Dr. Jefferson, an oceanographer whose whole life has been consumed by his lust to be the first to find a deep-sea descendant of the pleiosaur. The reader sees Jefferson as a fat, slovenly, abrasive, humorless, obsessed guy you'd generally want to choke. But at the end of the story, when another team beats Jefferson to the pleiosaur find and he is reduced to tears, the reader begins to see Jefferson as pathetic rather than malicious.

The second negative story is "A Hand in the Mirror" by Sonja Orin Lyris. The main character is a computer scientist named Reskin. Reskin is doing advanced research to develop a form of virtual reality that reads the user's mind. Reskin is portrayed as a cold, unethical jerk, and he even demonstrates a hidden sadistic streak near the end of the story.

But the portrayals of Jefferson and Reskin are a far cry from the mad scientists of the 50s anthologies. Both Jefferson and Reskin are shown to have some good qualities, and, more importantly, neither of them is likely to kill or physically harm anybody, much less endanger mankind as was de rigeur for the old-time mad scientists.

And there was one Asimov's story in which the scientist acts as a genuine hero. "Kahmehameha's Bones" by Kathleen Ann Goonan charts the life of Cen, a homeless Hawaiian teenager who is visited by what is apparently the ghost of Kaiulani, the last Hawaiian princess who tried to keep Hawaii independent and died a tragic death in her twenties. Cen is befriended by a math professor who teaches Cen math and science. Cen has a remarkable talent for physics, and he realizes that Kaiulani is not a ghost but a manifestation of some kind of temporal disturbance. He decides that he must try to figure out some way to save Kaiulani from dying young.

In contrast with the complex portrayals of scientists in Asimov's, the stories in Omni were little help to my research. For a magazine whose non-fiction articles were all about slick science and futuristic gadgets, their fiction section was astonishingly low in real SF content (by "real SF" I'm referring to stories that deal with believable scientific/futuristic extrapolations rather than magic). In the 14 issues I examined, a grand total of three stories portrayed scientists, all of whom were physicists (possibly excepting a butterfly collector who I guess might have qualified as a scientist had he actually collected any butterflies in the course of the story.)

One of the three stories, "The Relativity of Chaos" by Michaela Rossener, portrays the physicist Erwin Schrödinger as a cat hater who uses the family cat in his famous cat-in-the-box observer-effect experiments (really, he's just trying to kill the cat.) This portrayal is a distinctly negative one, but since the story is told from the cat's perspective, Schrödinger doesn't get much characterization beyond all the nasty things the cat thinks about him.

Basically, it was hard to figure out if Omni's stories supported or contradicted Parrinder's claims because the magazine's stories were mainly modern fantasy and magic realism rather than SF. If somebody were to do a more in-depth analysis of current SF than I have done here, it would probably be necessary to sample the last few years of Omni to get a feel for what their fiction editors and writers were doing.


If an in-depth study were to be done, the smaller fantasy, horror, and science fiction magazines would need to be sampled in addition to the top SF magazines. I attempted to look at a few of the "little" SF/F/H magazines, but the library I used for my research did not subscribe to them (not even the regional ones) and I lacked the funds and time to purchase them on my own. But my general impression of these magazines is that when they feature horror as well as SF, the SF stories tend to run more negative portrayals of scientists.

The smaller magazines and Omni aside, it seems that Parrinder's gloominess over the status of scientists in SF is unfounded. The stories I sampled from Analog and Asimov's show about a ten percent increase in the portrayal of scientists as main characters over the stories in the 50s anthologies I examined. Even if scientists do not appear as main characters as frequently as they did in the SF of the 1920s and 30s, the mad scientist has been virtually banished from the pages of the best SF magazines. Scientists are now portrayed as real people instead of scary stereotypes.

And that's got to be worth more than numbers.


Parrinder, Patrick. "Scientists in Science Fiction: Enlightenment and After," in Rhys Garnett and R.J. Ellis, eds. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. NY: St. Martin's, 1990. 57-78.

"The Changing Political Image of Scientists in the United States" by Marcell LaFollette. Available at http://www.aaas.org/spp/yearbook/chap25.htm.

Walter Hirsch, "The Image of the Scientist in Science Fiction: A Content Analysis," American Journal of Sociology, Volume 63 (1958): 506­512.

Nelkin, Dorothy. Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology. WH Freeman & Co., 1995.