[July 20, 1961] A CULTURAL DIVIDE (A UK fandom report)

By Ashley R. Pollard

This month, our London correspondent looks upon the rifts in the British science fiction community and despairs for the world as a whole…

Fans gathered at The White Horse in the 1950s—before we moved to The Globe

I have previously mentioned that London science fiction fandom is engaged in a feud that started three years ago, but which hasn’t stopped us from all meeting up at the pub once or twice a month for a drink and a chat. The feud is rather boring and has become increasingly tedious with disputes and tempers flaring over trivial things like membership cards — who needs membership cards anyway?

I mention this again apropos of this month’s title: A Cultural Divide.

For those who don’t know me, I’m a psychologist, and therefore people interest me, and understanding their behaviours is all part and parcel of my job.  Still, I’m amazed at what I see happening within fandom when quarrels break out.  Given science fiction fans have a lot in common with each other you might think that a sense of community would lessen divisions rather than stir them up.

Still, there’s always a Gin & Tonic with ice and a slice for when things get too hot and bothered in the pub.  Besides, as a woman, my opinions are rarely sought by the men who are arguing away over the various trivialities that consume them.

Our perennial fannish storm in a teapot proved a fine backdrop for the larger one described in C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 Rede Lecture The Two Cultures, which transcript I was able to recently secure, and which I read with great interest in a quieter corner of the pub.

In Cultures, Snow discusses at great length the divide he sees between the scientific and the arts and literary communities.  In particular, the way each perceives the world and the growing divide where one side is unable to comprehend what the other side says. 

The primary example Snow uses is the inability of the arts and literary culture to grasp things like the importance of the second law of thermodynamics: the idea of entropy increasing over time.  His argument being that the political and social elites are no longer taught science and technology, which effectively makes them modern day Luddites opposed to industrialisation, at a loss to cope with the changes technology is bringing.

Because of this, Snow argues there has grown a divide between arts and literary intellectuals and scientists/engineers.  Neither side being able to comprehend the other or finding the points of view expressed nonsensical to their ears.  Each side seeing the other as deluded.

Snow goes on to argue that social changes have been driven by the industrial revolution, which has changed society in ways the political leaders of the country fail to appreciate, because they come from the arts and literary side of the intellectual spectrum.  As such, they’re unable to see beyond the change in their lives, and don’t understand the best hope for the poor is industrialization despite the problems that occur as a result of people leaving the countryside and living in the cities.

After all, would one really want to go back to working the land as an agricultural labourer?

Now, Snow argues, we are standing at the beginning of a new revolution, a scientific revolution, heralded by the harnessing of the atom.  Yet our leaders, both political and social, are brought up in the domain of arts and literature not science and engineering.  Rich and poor, however, while divided by wealth, share a cultural assumptions from the historical narrative, but this, while good in one way, is also problematical because of the assumptions from the historical narrative affect how one sees the world.

So, the rich fail to comprehend science and technology, while the poor treat science and technology as things equivalent to magic: beyond their comprehension and understanding.

However, the poor experience the benefits that science and technology bring and are affected by the social changes arising in a visceral way that the rich are insulated from by their wealth.  In short, the rich live their lives with values derived from an arts and literary education where social change is slow, whereas the poor have to contend with both the benefits and costs from a rapidly changing cultural milieu.

And now we face the possibility of another change, with Great Britain, Denmark and Ireland applying to join the European Economic Community.  While Britain and the countries of EEC share a cultural heritage the leaders of all the countries have failed to recognize the implications of the socio-economic changes that will occur from a union which will accelerate technological change across Europe.  A change that will be magnified if the cultural elites fail to pay attention to the scientific revolution.  Snow argues these social changes will divide populations and the only thing that can address the problem is better education with a greater emphasis on science. 

The narrative of science is based in evidence, whereas the arts and literary narrative is based on mythology.  If were are to develop, not just new machines, but to to gain insight into the most valuable of resources, ourselves and what makes us tick, then we have to embrace the scientific method, put facts before feelings and develop theories that account for our natures, rather than mythologizing the human condition based on beliefs held onto through faith. 

Perhaps science fiction is the answer.  I like to think that our genre serves as a bridge between the abstruse texts of science and the spiritual fantasies of the uninitiated.  Science fiction, as educating entertainment, is the “spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.” 

On the other hand, looking at fandom, which I would argue is society writ small, we can’t seem to agree on anything.  And if we can’t agree on our own narrow issues, how can we expect a more fundamental divide, such as the one described by Snow, ever to be healed?

I can only conclude human nature drives peoples reaction to change and differences of opinion, which education alone may not be able to address.  No matter where you go in this world, ultimately people are just people.

6 thoughts on “[July 20, 1961] A CULTURAL DIVIDE (A UK fandom report)”

  1. As a (nonChristian) CS Lewis fan, I’ve always thought science was as embedded in mythology as the arts. And other peoples do have other mythologies.

    1. Seeing the world through the lens of mythology is still seeing the world while immersed is a sea of cultural assumptions that are not based on testable evidence.  You may choose to mythologize science, but if you do so then everything looks like story.  The same problem of having a hammer and everything looking like a nail.

  2. > fans

    Science fiction fans (and readers; the two groups don’t necesessarily intersect) aren’t really a coherent group.  They’re just what was left after the publishers drew their genre lines.

    1. And to clarify my comments about the London Circle, as the editor says it’s not clear, the past three years have seen argument develop over whether the London Circle is a club or a meeting of friends or people with like minded interests.

      The revolt, if it can be called that, is over whether the London Circle is just a group of friends who just meet up or having a formal a club with a hierarchy.  The former can appear insular and cliquish, but the latter involves become a member and paying a subscription.

      I’m of the opinion that less is more, and don’t fix what isn’t broken.

  3. Someone once said of, I believe, university politics that they are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low. I think this applies equally well to fannish strife.

    As for Snow, I’ve read his lecture and he has some good points. I feel though that he errs somewhat in his efforts to make the divide a completely two-way street. I have known many scientists and engineers, and I have yet to meet one who wasn’t interested in art, music, literature, or some combination of the three. Scientists can be moved just as much by mythology as non-scientists. It’s just that they can usually be persuaded away from that sort of thinking by hard evidence. (Perhaps usually is going too far; let’s say more often than not.) It is, however, true that science types tend to forget that others are not so easily persuaded and that they need to have things explained by means different from those used to convince scientists. That’s where somebody like Dr. Asimov is so important. I think of the various popular science writers out there, he does the best job of putting science on a level that the non-initiate can understand.

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