Science fiction and pseudoscience share a surprisingly (yet logically) high number of beliefs. Andrew May’s Pseudoscience and Science Fiction, published by Springer Press, explores this relationship in detail.
The book consists of eight essays, each devoted to a specific topic such as flying saucers, conspiracy theories, or mental superpowers. May explores the history of each topic in the context of both fiction and real-world pseudoscientific beliefs. Through his examination of the inter-connectivity of the two fields, May provides a provides a primer on how modern beliefs regarding the so-called unexplained came to be. Does May do this in a way that is both informative and enjoyable to read? Is Pseudoscience and Science Fiction good?
May addresses far more than just themes in fiction, exploring why believers of conspiracy theories and the like think the way they do. Frequent mentions are given to the famous X-Files line, “I want to believe.” The difference between much scientific speculation and pseudoscientific speculation can largely be summed up as the difference between drawing conclusions from evidence versus seeking out evidence to support a preexisting belief. It’s easy to believe in something far-fetched when one automatically rejects any discourse contrary to their belief systems.
It’s May’s focus on the scientific versus the self-serving that is perhaps most enlightening.. For instance, the chapter “Technology of the Ancients” tackles the sort of unfounded claims about extraterrestrials visiting prehistoric mankind that many have heard of thanks to the popularity of Ancient Aliens. Pseudoscientists tend to analyze historical writings and artifacts using a contemporary (not to mention stubborn) lens. Professionals who study the ancient civilizations in question, however, tend to dispute pseudoscientists’ claims by analyzing ancient artifacts in their more specific cultural contexts.
From an enjoyability standpoint, Pseudoscience and Science Fiction is very well-written. May’s diction is professional and engaging, academic without ever being pompous. There’s a clarity to the prose that makes even detailed discussions of scientific principles easy to understand.
Not only does May choose his words well, he’s also fantastic at showing how different pieces of historical information are linked. Shifts in public perceptions over time are well-documented throughout, as when May references how the aliens actually reported in sightings have historically changed in appearance to match the aliens depicted in their respective time periods’ popular culture. These sorts of relationships between fact and fiction are engagingly presented, and it’s a lot of fun to track the development of paranormal beliefs across time.
May’s references to pop culture are among the book’s most engrossing passages. From film to comic books to television to novels, May tracks science fiction concepts across virtually every medium imaginable. He doesn’t just cite works of fiction whose connections to the subject matter are obvious (e.g. talking about films with aliens in them during the “Flying Saucers” chapter). He also walks the reader through subtler cultural themes, making clear the connections between works that are less obviously similar on the first glance. It’s also enlightening to track the history of lesser-known science fiction tropes that have carried on, almost imperceptibly, through the decades.
I have very few complaints about this book. On one hand, even more citations of cognitive psychology would have helped make the discussions of the nature of belief feel more fleshed out. There are also some breakdowns of highly technical concepts and devices that are more obtuse than the rest of the writing. Nevertheless, none of these passages last very long, and no essays feel incomplete. I’m left wanting more because of how good the book is, rather than May’s coverage of a topic being too shallow.
Overall, Pseudoscience and Science Fiction is as engaging as it is informative. May handles his historical subject matter commendably with well-researched, academic prose that remains easily accessible and fun to read. The histories of the two titular fields are explored in depth, and the connections between them are well-illuminated.
Also impressive, if a bit unexpected, is the degree to which May delves into the human psyche and the reasons that skeptics and scientists process the world in the ways they do. While I have some small qualms with this book, I would still recommend it to anyone interested in science fiction, history, pseudoscience, pop culture, or the interplay between these topics.
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