Reading for the curious

In about a week’s time, I shall be leaving my place of toil and heading off to the 77th World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, where I expect to attend various panels on current trends in science fiction, current themes in the sciences that stand behind my favourite literature, and most probably hobnobbing with writers, publishers and agents. There will be some sightseeing, and possibly a Dublin bookshop crawl. Drink may also be taken.

Why do I mention this? Well, there has been a thread in the Ministry of Testing discussion groups that asks “What non testing book are you reading (or have read) that influence your testing? “, and a couple of posters have admitted a liking for detective novels, or courtroom dramas. I added that I think it went deeper or further than that. I think that enjoying any sort of story with a ‘puzzle’ in it – a detective story, a mystery, or some of the older sorts of science fiction – is perhaps an indicator of the sort of mindset that indicates someone who will be an effective tester.

Science fiction is a highly misunderstood genre. Often, people who don’t know it will say “You can do anything you like – it’s sci-fi!” (Note: “sci-fi” is a term generally derided by proper fans, who consider that it is usually an indicator of bad science fiction. The preferred short term is “SF”.) Or they will accuse SF of being mere escapism, or conflate it with fantasy. But the point about science fiction is that there is science in it; not in the sense of “Tell me, Professor, what makes your spaceship go so fast?” (another trope of “sci-fi” according to my earlier definition), but rather in the way that there is consistency in the way that events in a science fiction story either adhere to the known laws of the universe, or are consistent with the defined rules of the universe that the story takes place in. This is generally taken to be the thing that separates science fiction from fantasy. (We shall ignore the sub-genre of ‘science fantasy’ here; that has been the subject of a lot of debate over the years, and is indeed the sort of thing that I might anticipate having heated discussions about over a few Guinnesses next week.) (Other beverages are available.)

So we see stories where the focus is “why does this species behave this way?”, “how do we survive on this planet?” or “how do we get ourselves out of this situation?” and where the solutions depend on the accurate application of rational thinking within a framework of defined physical laws. These, along with detective or mystery stories, are the sort of stories that I suggest may be attractive to people with a tester’s mindset; and indeed, the sort of people I know through the science fiction community often have uncannily similar tastes as to the sort of literature they enjoy, embracing those other genres. It may even be an identifier of someone who would make a good tester even if they aren’t currently working within the discipline.

I described this sort of SF story as “the older sort of science fiction” because, starting in the middle 1960s, a new style of SF arose which looked more at how individuals reacted to fantastic or futuristic scenarios and how those scenarios affected their lives, personalities or states of mind. This was called “the New Wave” and, as with any new approach, it caused controversy in some quarters. That’s now fifty years in the past, and the sort of SF being written now aims to combine the analytical approach to world-building with the personal reactions of well-defined and well-rounded characters. The overall effect of that has been to produce stories which can stand on their own as well-crafted pieces of literature but which still possess the “sense of wonder” that writers and editors were seeking to evoke back in the 1930s and 1940s, a period now known as the “Golden Age” of science fiction, though many say that the “Golden Age” of anything is when you were fourteen, and many critics and commentators use “Golden Age SF” as a term of derision.

Nonetheless, the connection remains true. Many testers I know have an interest in the literature of the fantastic, and there are still stories that present the reader with an intellectual challenge to figure out what exactly is happening and why. And I still treasure attending a talk by the theoretical physicist Michio Kaku at the Hay Literary Festival a few years back. Hay is usually the preserve of the literary mainstream, the sort of audience who still believes some of the misapprehensions about SF that I mentioned earlier. Kaku has no such qualms. He started his talk by saying “How many of you here read science fiction?” About a third of the hands in the tent – out of a total audience of some thousand people – went up.

“Great!” he enthused. “The rest of you – get with the programme!!!”

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