Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | January 14, 2011

Visualizing Change (…and not in a self-help kind of way)

First, a self-indulgent plug: my Uncertain Futures web exhibit won the National Council on Public History’s Student Project Award for 2011! NCPH is the primary organization for public historians, our own AHA, and they only give out one student project award each year. Needless to say, I’m pumped to have won.

But I’m also pumped because this confirms my previously untested hypothesis that PEOPLE LOVE OLD SCIENCE FICTION. Even non-fans get into the cover art, and the general aesthetic, of Cold War-era sci-fi. This is really good news for my next project.

This semester I’ll be skimming through roughly 1,200 science fiction stories from three major magazines: Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The stories will cover the period 1945-1965. I’m going to classify each story according to a home-made taxonomy of themes (up to four themes per story). Then I’m going to work some statistical black magic with the help of the UMass math department’s squad of mercenary statisticians, and when the smoke clears I am going to–stand back, now–VISUALIZE CHANGE OVER TIME. I have in mind something like this, a dynamic visualization that shows how themes in major science fiction magazines shifted in the first two decades of the Cold War era:

Will keep this blog updated as the project unfolds. Right now, I have approximately a kajillion more stories to read and classify.

Now, a preemptive defense of my project. I understand that reducing a story to a category or two isn’t fair to the story or the author or the genre. To this I say: too damn bad. Reducing people to their ethnicities or their tax brackets is no more fair, but we need the data to make policy. How else can we draw conclusions about large groups of things, if not by extracting relevant data and ignoring everything else? And besides, I’m a fan. I’m one of the good guys. I grew up with science fiction, and I care about the genre. This project is an insider’s labor of love, not an outsider’s ruthless deconstruction.



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