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McMahon, D.F. (1989). The Psychological Significance of Science Fiction. Psychoanal. Rev., 76(2):281-295.

(1989). Psychoanalytic Review, 76(2):281-295

The Psychological Significance of Science Fiction

David F. McMahon, M.D.


The words “A long time ago in a galaxy far away …” introduce us to Star Wars, one of the most successful motion pictures ever made. The film industry was astonished at the success of this “space fantasy,” as its creator, George Lucas, calls it. What in our late-twentieth-century Western culture explains the psychological magnetism of such a film? What explains the plethora of college courses examining science fiction literature as a serious form of artistic expression?

In the final section of this article I shall address the question of the psychological function of science fiction in our culture. As a foundation for that discussion, I shall first define science fiction1 and highlight its historical terrain, and then review specific psychological themes found in science fiction literature and cinema.

Author Sprague de Camp defined science fiction as “fiction based upon scientific or pseudo-scientific assumptions (space travel, robots, telepathy, earthly immortality, etc.) or laid in any patently unreal although not supernatural setting (the future, or another world, and so forth) …” (cited in Bernabeu, 1957). DeCamp suggests that stories of Utopias and unusual worlds are included in the field of science fiction. The complicated nature of this description underscores the broad range of subjects or settings that forms the genre.

Another aspect of the field is identified by John Harrington in his essay, “Science Fiction and the Future”:

Paradoxically, SF is one of the least scientific of fictions because it owes hardly anything to the facts of experience.

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