Occasionally I come across an academic article that comforts me. As an academic-in-training, I find myself often unfairly comparing my abilities to great scholars, which inevitably leaves me feeling terrible about myself. Then, once in awhile, I come across articles like “The Medical Lessons of Science Fiction” by Eric S. Rabkin, that make me think ‘oh, this isn’t so hard.’
That was probably too harsh an introduction, but Rabkin’s piece actually felt like the offhanded musings of a quantitative researcher who happens to read some SF now and again.
The article began focused around the University of Michigan Genre Evolution Project (GEP), which is an ongoing (at the time) quantitative study within what appears to be an Information Systems (IS) program. The GEP set out to determine if “cultural creations evolve in the same way as do biological organisms,” essentially — is “social Darwinism” a thing. They somehow determine this by reviewing literary works, and decided to start with SF short stories (none of this methodology was addressed). The first quarter of the article is about the quantitative method of choosing which stories to focus on based on the dominant field of science prevalent in each tale. Rabkin then seems to abandon the quant study as just a cursory substantiation of the project, to discuss a variety of short stories (including those by Tiptree, Wilhelm, and McIntyre) that feature medical physicians.
It seems that Rabkin was attempting to highlight the negative stereotypes that come along with the “mad scientist” trope (a term he never uses, although it is, I thought, common parlance when discussing SF archetypes), but then he ran out of paper. The article lacked a real argument and was cut short of any actual conclusion, but to be fair, drew a great parallelism between physicians in SF and cowboys in western mythology.