Science Fiction and Psychology: Book Review

Posted On By Beata Gubacsi

Beata Gubacsi reviews Gavin Miller’s Science Fiction and Psychology (Liverpool University Press, 2020).

Science Fiction and Psychology by Gavin Miller (LUP, 2020)

Gavin Miller and Anna McFarlane, introducing the BMJ’s Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities special issue as part of the 2016 Wellcome Trust funded Seed Award project of the same title, write: “The task for studies of science fiction within the medical humanities is to articulate interpretative frameworks that do justice to medical thematic within the genre. This means challenging horizons of expectations that encourage unduly narrow readings of science fiction.” (Web) Miller’s latest monograph, Science Fiction and Psychology, published in 2020 – at the cusp of the Covid-19 lockdown in the UK – as a recent addition to the Liverpool University Press’s Science Fiction Texts and Studies series, is a timely and exciting continuation of this work that fulfils this task.

Bridging two sizeable fields, Miller provides an extensive definition for both “science fiction” and “psychology”. Establishing what the book regards as “science fiction” relies on Darko Suvin’s scholarship and the subsequent criticism of it: “[science fiction] refers to narrative make-believe depicting a non-mimetic reality … an alternate version of our own reality -past, present or future – transformed by a fictional innovation, or novum, of a broadly scientific nature.” (2) Accordingly, the book is preoccupied with how “science fiction authors can imagine” psychological novum such as “perfected techniques for behavioural conditioning of the personality; artificially intelligent machines that offer psychoanalytic psychotherapy; radically enhanced self-knowledge and empathy with others; … and the transformation of cognition by artificial languages.” (4) Defining “psychology”, Miller utilises Roger Smith’s “social definition”, “proceeding from the observation that from the late nineteenth century onward, Western academic psychology is established as a discipline with subject-matter and an institutional an occupational identity” (12) which narrows down the scope and history of psychology. This provides a good starting point since it coincides with the early development of science fiction as a genre.

Answering the question “what is psychology doing in science fiction?” Miller identifies five distinct roles of psychology in science fiction narratives: (1) the didactic-futurological; (2) the utopian; (3) the cognitive-estranging; (4) the metafictional; and (5) the reflexive. He points out that “the first three of these functions are familiar from existing traditions of science fiction criticism” (21) since they are meant to enhance the reader’s critical engagement with psychological novums, and encourage imagining ways these technologies and practices might develop in the future, or the utopian/dystopian consequences of their wide scale application in fictional worlds that extrapolate the reader’s own social reality. Miller goes further, however, arguing that the metafictional and reflexive roles of psychology in science fiction “with [their] elements of contestation of psychological knowledge, begins to encroach upon a further area of provisional investigation in this monograph – the rhetoric of science fiction as it appears within formal psychological discourse” (21). Besides being instrumental in navigating the argumentation of individual chapters as well as the overall narrative, these five functions can also be adapted to other studies of science fiction in the context of medical humanities.

The body of the book consists of five chapters, each introducing and exploring a particular psychological school, representing a specific way of interrogating and describing societal and individual development and experience: evolutionary psychology; psychoanalysis; behaviourism and social constructivism; existential humanism; and cognitivism. At the beginning of each chapter Miller offers a brief but sufficiently detailed overview of the history and development of each disciplinary field before moving on to discussing the psychological novums in selected primary texts. The textual analyses are delightfully crisp despite blending the historical and literary perspectives and drawing from relevant medical and seminal science fiction scholarship. They offer new readings to classic science fiction texts.

The book goes beyond merely providing a prosopography of psychologist-science fiction writers, and instead examines the way psychology infiltrates and shapes cultural imagery, with science fiction being instrumental in popularising psychological novum. According to Miller, “…the primary texts in this monograph have been selected on the basis of: their capacity to show a diversity of psychological schools and extrapolated deployments; their sustained engagement with psychological discourses; the merits of their promotion within the selective tradition of science fiction; and the intellectual excitement in the discovery of neglected psychological meanings within them.” (11) Not surprisingly then most of the selected texts are from the approximate era as the type of psychological thinking they represent originates or when that type of thought became popular. Consequently, Science Fiction and Psychology features and engages with Golden Age (roughly the late 1930s through the 50s) and New Wave (1960s-70s) science fiction writers.

The first chapter follows the ideological fluctuation of Social Darwinist gender essentialism through the anti-utopian works of H.G. Wells and Robert Heinlein to “the more progressive” utopian fiction of Octavia Butler’s Parable series (1993-98), Kurt Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985), and Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962). In a similar fashion the second chapter juxtaposes the stages of psychoanalysis from its Nietzschean roots to Freudian and Jungian approaches with a spectrum of dystopian and utopian texts including but not limited to Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) to Ursula K. Le Guin’s adaptation of the collective unconscious in The Word for World is Forest (1972) and Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon (1966). Drawing on the metapsychological qualities of the latter, Miller concludes “the deployment of psychoanalysis within science fiction illustrates an insight drawn from the historiography of psychoanalysis … science fiction often finds utopian potential within psychoanalysis and challenges the discursive authority over the self of Freud’s bleak historical prognosis.” (126)

After exploring how subjects are constructed and motivated by survival and libidinal instincts, or how they subvert these tropes, chapter three focuses on “the extrapolation of behaviourist and social constructionist psychologies” through the themes of brainwashing and social conditioning in science fiction. In doing so, it contrasts the dystopian world of Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange (1962) or Joanna Russ’s utopian Female Man (1975) among others. The concluding question “to what extent is the re-engineering of culture the imposition of homogeneity upon on existing diversity of contingent practices” (165) provides a great transition to chapter four, dedicated to existential-humanistic psychology, challenging the “dogmas” of “post-war Anglophone psychology”, “such as a reductive approach to value, a methodical neglect of first-person experience, and presumption of mechanical psychological causality” (167). The fourth chapter juxtaposes an eclectic selection of works engaging with the more philosophical and spiritual aspects of psychology, analysing Vincent McHugh’s I am Thinking of My Darling (1945), Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City (1969) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).

Finally, with chapter five we arrive at the most recent school discussed in the book, cognitive psychology, with Miller arguing that “the cognitivist model of the mind is as a computer seems well-suited to longstanding science fiction tropes (or clichés) of machine intelligence.” (201) Instead of “dwelling on the familiar motifs of post-cyberpunk fiction” (44), however, the chapter explores the challenges of accessing reality, examining the possibilities of “[freeing] the human mind from its stereotypes and blind spots” (44) in Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), before moving on to investigate the significance of linguistic capacity in “constructing perceived reality” (44) in Ian Watson’s The Embedding (1973) and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 (1966).

An aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed was the introduction and analysis of lesser-known science fiction writers and texts such as Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites (1967) and The Space Vampires (1976) or B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), who himself was also a behaviourist psychologist. Their fiction provides a great example for Miller to explore how science fiction’s utopian and dystopian drive appropriates certain psychological concepts and how these drives are in turn transferred onto psychology. I also found the book’s extensive focus on excellent feminist science fiction and scholarship throughout the five chapters, accentuating the centrality of gender and sexuality in most psychological schools and their underlying sexism, as well as anti-psychiatric approaches upheld by feminism, an important and a definite highlight.

In his conclusion, the undeniable merit of this “pathfinding monograph” (235) lies in bridging two large fields of scholarships, highlighting already existing, fruitful dialogue between them and establishing new connections. Considering that the language and imagery of psychology and science fiction have become equally mainstream, it would have been exciting to include more recent science fiction publications among the selected primary texts (the latest works included in the work being Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents from 1993 and 1998, and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” from 1998). The book, however, is aware of its “necessarily restricted” (236) but no less carefully established scope of study (236), and emphasizes the potential for further research, particularly in the areas of neuropsychology and parapsychology in science fiction (236). Gavin Miller’s Science Fiction and Psychology is a fantastic foundation for science fiction scholars to further explore the relevance of psychological novum in science fiction, and I have no doubt scholars working in other interdisciplinary fields would also appreciate understanding the “cultural traffic between the two territories” (242) which have shaped the 20th century and continue to affect our current understanding of the human mind and its relationship to its environment.

Cited works

Miller, Gavin, and Anna McFarlane. “Science fiction and the medical humanities.” BMJ. 42, no. 4 (2016): 213-218.

Miller, Gavin. Science Fiction and Psychology. Liverpool University Press, 2020.

About the Author 

Beata Gubacsi is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool, and “SFRA Support a New Scholar Grant” holder for 2019-2020. While working on her thesis, Literature of Monstrosity: Posthumanism and Global Weirding, she is running the column, “Medical Humanities 2.0”, for The Polyphony, the UK’s largest medical and health humanities web platform, affiliated with Durham University. Her research interests are fantastic literature, video games, posthumanism, climate and animal studies in the context of medicine and healthcare.


The book review was edited by Sarah Spence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.