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08 July 2012

Statistical analysis of science fiction authors and fans

The classic science-fiction related excerpt that follows after the jump is neither up to-date nor analytically robust. I tidied it a bit, but to do a decent job would require re-running the data, not to mention collecting data with a more recent vintage. But it is entertaining, and the concept may be of use to others. To whom? Well, I have spent a fair amount of time on Stack Exchange sites recently. Let me tell you all about it.

What is Stack Exchange?

Question and answer websites are popular. Stack Exchange is a free, mostly user-run Q&A site. It was co-founded and managed by Jeff Atwood a.k.a. @Coding Horror and Joel Spolsky. EDIT: Joel now runs Stack Exchange, as The Coding Horror has departed.

The prototype version of the site was known as Stack Overflow, and continues to thrive. There are many stacks on Stack Exchange. Most are computing or analytically-themed e.g. programming, systems administration, website design, mobile applications development, mathematics and quantitative finance. Others are more eclectic, and thus of a more experimental nature. They are labelled as such, by a beta designation, and guided along by the whimsically named Area51 Stack Exchange site. Now that you've been enlightened by that tangential aside, I'll get to the point. I was thinking of Literature Stack Exchange in particular.

The problem at hand

Literature Stack Exchange was initially overrun by book-recommendation inquiries. This was unfortunate. Why? Because suggestions about subjective matters are nearly impossible to provide to friends and relatives, let alone on an online forum. Fortunately, the issue has resolved itself for the time being, through better site administration.

Update - The issue has resolved itself permanently, because the site was closed due to a general lack of interest in early May of this year. Stack Exchange does have a thriving Science Fiction community, which enjoys a great deal of activity! So let us continue, along the same, still relevant theme.

Perhaps the following approach might provide inspiration for those seeking reading material recommendations.

Via io9:
Politics has not only reared its ugly head, but pushed much of its slimy body into the world of science fiction.

A Political-Scientific Mapping

chart of sci-fi sub-genres with political preferences of fans
Correlation between sci-fi sub-genres 
by author and reader political viewpoint

Classic science fiction writers and reader politics

Politics is the horizontal dimension, with the right-wingers at the right and the left-wingers at the left. Hard-science science fiction is the vertical dimension, with hard-science authors at the top and anti-hard-science authors at the bottom. While hard-science tended to be somewhat Righty, New Wave was strongly Lefty, having a correlation of -0.51 with politics. Not surprisingly, there is a correlation of -0.25 between hard-science and New Wave.
We learned all kinds of odd facts about fans and the things that inspired them to like different authors and styles.
  • Student fans like both Ellison and Heinlein more than  average, and like Vance and McCaffrey less.
  • Female fans are more likely than men to prefer McCaffrey and sword-and-sorcery fiction.
Source: New Maps of Science Fiction by William Sims Bainbridge and Murray M. Dalziel, first published in Analog Yearbook 1977, pp 277-299.

To summarize, the chart captures the political leanings of sci-fi fans circa 1977, not the authors. H.P. Lovecraft is a good example, see the lower left quadrant of the chart. Lovecraft fans tend to be liberal sorts, supportive of all manner of progressive liberal ideology. H.P. Lovecraft has lain dreaming in R'yelah (or on Pluto, or in New Englander heaven) since 1937. If he were with us today, he'd probably support the Tea Party.

I find the heavy use of negative correlations rather confusing. (There are ways of remedying that though.)


New Maps of Science Fiction took this a step further, by cross-correlating each of the 27 authors, under 26 different preference categories. This was mapped to a much simpler line diagram, see Figure 5.  If you like one of the authors, maybe you will like other authors with whom his or her name is connected!

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