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‘Social’ science fiction, and the continued relevance of the genre

The commentary of sci-fi.

Art by Altay Han

A great selling point of science fiction, whether a novel, film, or television series, is that it presents worlds distorted in structure and ideology. The very best of the genre, the utopias and dystopias that resonate most strongly with readers and viewers, are not, however, stories that merely invent marvels of tomorrow, but the science fiction that also comments on today’s social issues. Science fiction has a habit of surrounding hot-button topics with aliens, spaceships, and time-travel, where insights and conclusions can be drawn from these subjects that are perhaps not possible in a more traditional debate setting.

Is the commentary intentional? Or are they merely inferences overly ambitious writers such as myself are creating by delving too deep into the machinations of the novelist’s mind? There has been much discussion on the topic, Jack Mackenzie similarly querying “how much of this ‘message’ is deliberately inserted into modern science fiction as a form of “propaganda” and how much of it occurs naturally, an unavoidable by-product of writers who are keenly aware of our contemporary society’s ills and wish to provide commentary on such, if not prescribing their so-called remedies?”

Classics, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for instance, adopted the language of change without commenting specifically on any single events coinciding with the publication of the novel. The scientist Victor Frankenstein turns to still-modern experiments to make discoveries that will challenge God’s power of creation. Here, Shelley makes the point that technology has the power to facilitate advancements of mankind, but also has the potential to change humans on an ideological level. Indeed, when Frankenstein rejects his creation at the point where he realises radical change creates monsters, he comes to not embrace change on a structural level, being the existence of his ‘monster’ in society.

There are obvious examples of science fiction works that carry the social commentary tag. George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 clearly warn of the dangers of totalitarian regimes, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World considers the fallacies of utopias. Films too have not-so subtly addressed issues of growing populations and environmental disasters: Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Logan’s Run to name a few. There are less obvious examples as well – Star Trek is about the pursuit of a better world and way of being, the characters not looking to fight the new species they encounter but befriend them – in the pursuit of social justice. Star Wars represents, and in places mocks, the rise and fall of a fascist Empire, the stormtroopers deriving their name from German soldiers, and are frequently chastised by fans for their inability to fire a laser rifle accurately.

So how intentional social commentary is in science fiction? A comparison of two of the renowned author Robert Heinlein’s works provides some direction. Starship Troopers is perhaps one of the most overt novels I have ever read when it comes to commentary. On the surface, it follows a man named Johnny Rico through his military service in the Mobile Infantry, participating in an interstellar war between humans and an alien species known as the ‘Bugs’. However, scratch the surface and find social commentary woven throughout: suffrage, civic virtues, and war. The society it describes, in which only military veterans have the right to vote, is fundamentally fascist, and is satirised in the 1997 film of the same name. The novel has also been criticised for its depiction of the aliens, their treatment arguably an example, and criticism of, racial epithets.

In stark contrast, Heinlein’s short story All You Zombies is devoid of such commentary. The story involves several paradoxes caused by time travel and is revered as one of the most perfectly consistent time travel stories ever written, one that astronomer Carl Sagan notes “forces the reader into contemplations of the nature of causality and the arrow of time”. The story follows a man, who is revealed to be intersex, taken back in time by a temporal agent and is tricked into impregnating his younger, female self (before he underwent gender reassignment surgery). The man is revealed to be the offspring of the relationship, resulting in himself being his own mother and father. The female child is taken to an orphanage in the past, who eventually becomes the intersex man. In the present day, the man is recruited by, and consequently becomes the temporal agent, working to prevent disasters across different time periods, until it becomes time for him to repeat the cycle.  

In its nine pages, the story encounters issues of gender equality and perspective, sexual identity, and consent, yet focuses narrative-wise on the mechanics of time-travel. Perhaps the relatively short length of the story did not allow for such discussion. Yet, even unintentionally, there are hints. The story details the man’s childhood and early adult years as a woman, as marred by superficial standards of beauty, and limited capacities for women to work and support themselves. After becoming a man, the film highlights the difficulties of being a man without having supposed ‘manly’ qualities; “a ruined woman” in Heinlein’s words. The issues feel very current and relevant, without having any contemporary parallels.

A more recent example, The Expanse, a television series based on novels of the same name, similarly makes comment on current political and social events without clear links to specific events. Daniel Abraham, who is one of the author’s novel and an executive producer for the show, has stated the themes that arise throughout the show are part of “being alive in the time we are now and having that access to the zeitgeist that we all share and reading enough history to draw from situations – refugee crises, social and economic inequality, multivalent political struggles – that are kind of evergreen… There’s no conversation about trying to make any of it topical. That some of it is speaks more to the zeitgeist than to any intentionality on our part.”

Science fiction remains a critical genre of literature, for its innate ability to provide an engaging and sophisticated backdrop for stories to easily talk about current issues. Arguably, it is so inextricably tied to the commentary process that it is almost impossible to write without at least making some remark about modern social issues. Whether intentional or not, it seems even without effort, science fiction and social commentary are part and parcel in their discussion of today’s world.

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