The Psychologist in SF: Part One

How the Scientific People branded me Nomad, OR: The Stars my Destination

It’s easy to take shots at psychologists. I used to do it. Even while I was reading Jung and absorbing cerebral SF that was mostly concerned with psychology (The Demolished Man, Valis), I managed to reserve some spit and spite for – well, to be honest, mostly for psychology majors. Now, of course, I am a psychology major, and I’ve begun to see more clearly some of the ways the world treats “my kind.”

Scientists often dismiss us for not having verifiable results.  Entire swaths of the population engage in a kind of meta-projection, focusing the disappointment and resentment they harbor for mental-health professionals in their pasts into a white-hot beam of assumptions about our sense of self-worth and importance. And they’re not crazy to do so. Some professions have a personality profile that tends to be true a little more often than in other fields. Doctors, for instance, tend to be a little cold and unsympathetic. Cops tend to be bullies. Right-wing politicians tend to be homosexual homophobic drug-abusing finger-waggers. And psychologists do have an unfortunate tendency to be self-obsessed, self-important, and beyond reproach.

As I mentioned, I had a lot of these negative feelings before I decided to join the dark side. I have my own resentments stowed away toward a slew of psychologists and psychiatrists in my life. When I was having a bad time as a child (for reasons I shall not expand upon here, though let it be said, they were not the result of any failing or bad behavior on my part), a rotating roster of terrible family therapists and assorted other quacks managed to assume my wrongdoing without fail or pause. They informed me of my faults, and, as I was even then smart enough and confident enough in myself to know when someone was being an asshole, I didn’t buy it. Thus, they also informed me of the absurdity, the literal insanity, of the adult mind – unable to contextualize, to presume the innocence of those most likely to be innocent and guilt of those who know enough to be capable of deceit. It is a piece of luck I am most aware of that I did not come out of these experiences isolated, untrusting, and depressed.

Oh wait. I did.

But it is truly a piece of luck that I didn’t stay that way.

I was once subjected to a Rorschach test, and that other infamous tome of a questionnaire, the MMPI, which poses such stimulating orientations as “I would like to be a firefighter” and asks that you agree or disagree. From my responses, the professionals who had been entrusted with my care determined that I had no interests – a notion endlessly amusing, even now. Ask anyone who has ever known me, from birth until this moment, if you don’t believe me. My imagination was seen as morbidity, my focused passion seen as a failure to make mundane goals, my sense of aesthetics interpreted as something dangerous to my health and, quite possibly, the health of others.

And, of course, as I grew older, I had occasion to meet the odd Psych major. Need I say more on this front?

But, all the while, my own interest in psychology was growing. My own talents regarding empathetic human interaction became more apparent – especially to those closest to me, whose attention served to point me in the right direction. And my interest in SF grew as well.  I became acutely aware of the inherent involvement of psychology in good SF. SF is, really, the literature of psychology.  In some ways, I think this moniker does more service to the field than “literature of the future” or “literature of the imagination.” I don’t mean psychology in some technical sense – I mean human experience. I mean the way you or I or the best of us or the worst of us would react, adapt, grow, diminish in any world you can conjure up. It’s the literature of sociology, too – but in the end, it’s about one person. Psychology is just what we call the process of understanding what happens to one person. Even if LeGuin, Bester, Dick, Tiptree, Ellison, weren’t actually using “proper” psychological concepts in their works (they were), we as readers certainly benefit from utilizing them in our assessment and interpretation of both the individual piece and of SF as a whole.

So I chose to go into psychology. I hope, by not dealing the damage I had been dealt, I might prevent another kid somewhere from losing faith in the world around him. Because once that happens, you’re going to need a very good psychologist indeed.

Which leads me to the other side of my own experiences: I’ve had some truly amazing head-shrinkers in my life. The man who diagnosed me with Tourette Syndrome, whose name I really hope I can dredge up someday, is probably responsible, in some way, for my interest in psychology. He made my condition seem interesting, and I found out quickly that it truly was. It never felt like just some disorder. I knew I had tools other people didn’t have, too – a fact that has become more and more apparent in recent studies.

I also had a wonderful psychiatrist who managed to clear at least one potentially distressing comorbid condition – OCD – out of the way before it really made things tough. So far, I’m still mostly free of it – though I know it’s hiding in the darkness on the edge of town. I had another psychiatrist, most recently, who truly trusted me and trusted my intelligence – and who was seemingly as interested in my weird variety of sleep paralysis as I was. All these people left seeds of interest in me, and seeds of trust in psychology as a field. I always knew it was a volatile thing, easily misused with or without ill intent. But isn’t everything worth doing a little dangerous?

Now I find myself pursuing two careers, though that word seems too stiff here. It might be closer to the truth to say that I’ve finally identified and committed to two fields of study, thought, and application that I anticipate doing regularly and, with any luck, professionally, for a long time. And they seem to fit together perfectly. But the relationship between SF and psychology is a tumultuous one, rife with extreme opinions and misunderstood intentions. Within the walls of the genre, you find inverted salvation through literalized Freudian conflict (The Demolished Man), victims of the slippery slope (The Lathe of Heaven), and social-surrogate PR agents for a society of the mentally ill (Martian Time-Slip).  In much the same way that SF houses every kind of extremism when it comes to the value and role of technology (Luddites, informed skeptics, futurist romantics, and unconcerned post-moderns), it houses a slew of attitudes toward various schools of psychology, as well as the field as a whole.

In part two: enough about me, let’s talk about THE ENTIRE FIELD OF SCIENCE FICTION.

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