ABSTRACT THOUGHT AND WHY YOU’RE SO SMART

Let me start this post by saying flat out that if you aren’t watching at least a handful of TED Talk videos every week you’re a low-grade moron. There. I said it. Angry with me? You need to spend a week watching half a dozen TED Talks then come back and tell me how right I was. I’ll wait.

But in the meantime, let’s dive into one of them for a bit of pondering over what it is we do (writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror) and what either made that possible, or was made possible by it.

Start by watching “moral philosopher” James Flynn’s TED Talk on the subject of why our IQs are higher than our grandparents’:

Flynn’s assertion certainly feels valid. Granted, without a detailed study on my own part to either confirm or deny his hypothesis—especially some of the “concrete” data such as that the average IQ circa 1900 was only 70 as opposed to today’s 130, and that the principal engine of that change was the increase in abstract thinking—let’s run with it and see where it takes us.

Last week, in my Worldbuilding class, we talked about magic and technology, and in the technology portion, went over the fact that technological advance is accelerating exponentially, and the past hundred years has not only seen an explosion of technological advance utterly unprecedented in all of human history, but social and cultural advance has accelerated along with it.

This certainly seems to go side-by-side with Flynn’s examination of the rise of metaphorical, hypothetical—abstract—thinking.

As I pondered this over the course of a week or so it occurred to me that something else was happening during that same century, and that was the rise of fantasy, science fiction, and horror as popular genres. That’s not to say that any three of those genres were “invented” only after 1900—that’s absolutely not the case—but with a few exceptions, how did these genres fare amongst the majority of readers before this period of growth in abstract thinking?

I have to ask: Did the addition of what Flynn called the “mental artillery” of abstract thinking bring more readers to science fiction, fantasy, and horror or was it the development of that mental artillery in authors that brought more science fiction, fantasy, and horror to readers? Both?

Flynn characterized the nineteenth century mind as “resistant to classifying the concrete world,” “resistant to deducing the hypothetical world,” and said they “didn’t deal well with abstractions or using logic on those abstractions.” This leads to an inability to process the question “What if?” But “What if?” is at the heart of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. So does that mean the few authors out there who might have been writing in those genres back then found it difficult to penetrate those now-outdated modes of thinking?

Let’s take a moment to look at some hard facts that I think are rather telling. Though there was science fiction, fantasy, and horror being written and published before this rise in abstract thinking, how popular was it? Was it reaching the masses?

Here are the top ten best selling books of 1913, according to Publisher’s Weekly:

1. The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill

(not the British Prime Minister, a Christian realist novel)

2. V.V.’s Eyes by Henry Sydnor Harrison

(realist novel of manners)

3. Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter

(romantic realist novel of love between classes)

4. The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker

(realist novel set in South Africa)

5. Heart of the Hills by John Fox, Jr.

(realist political novel)

6. The Amateur Gentleman by Jeffrey Farnol

(romantic swashbuckler)

7. The Woman Thou Gavest Me by Hall Caine

(romantic realist novel of love between classes)

8. Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

(realist children’s novel)

9. The Valiants of Virginia by Hallie Erminie Rives

(rags-to-riches melodrama)

10. T. Tembarom by Frances Hodgson Burnett

(realist melodrama of manners)

Even the single children’s book on this list, Pollyanna, contains no elements of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at all (hence my tag “realist”). All of these books are novels, which certainly requires some degree of abstract thinking to understand, but all are rooted firmly in the real world and tend to address a keenly-felt political subject of the day: class relations in America.

Fast forward to 2103, ranked by BookScan:

1. Hard Luck (Wimpy Kid #8) by Jeff Kinney

(semi-realist, comic-book infused children’s book)

2. Inferno by Dan Brown

(thriller with SF underpinnings)

3. Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

(“historical” fiction)

4. Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander

(Christian memoir)

5. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan

(young reader fantasy)

6. Divergent by Veronica Roth

(young reader SF)

7. Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

(Christian devotional)

8. Sycamore Row by John Grisham

(realist novel)

9. The Third Wheel (Wimpy Kid #7) by Jeff Kinney

(semi-realist, comic-book infused children’s book)

10. Happy, Happy, Happy by Phil Robertson

(“celebrity” autobiography)

A century later we have one purely science fiction novel, one pure fantasy, one thriller with strong SF elements, two highly metaphorical works of Christian fiction and memoir—an awful lot of abstract thinking there—and a couple of fun books for kids that contain fantasy and SF elements aplenty, and rather more cynical than Pollyanna.

And of course if I chose a slightly different hundred-year period, one that ended with the release of a new Harry Potter book, the preponderance of fantasy on the current list would have gone much higher.

Flynn said, “Without the hypothetical it’s very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.” And he’s right about that, for sure. If you don’t believe me see the hypothetical futures of the science fiction novels 1984 and Dune and the moral arguments they make.

Food for thought.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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