Social Science Fiction

Social science fiction is a subgenre of science fiction concerned less with technology and space opera and more with sociological speculation about human society. In other words, it ‘absorbs and discusses anthropology,’ and speculates about human behavior and interactions. 

Exploration of fictional societies is a significant aspect of science fiction, allowing it to perform predictive (H. G. Wells, ‘The Final Circle of Paradise’) and precautionary (Ray Bradbury, ‘Fahrenheit 451’) functions, to criticize the contemporary world (Russian author Alexander Gromov’s ‘Antarctica-online’ ) and to present solutions (B.F. Skinner’s ‘Walden Two’), to portray alternative societies (World of the Noon, a fictional future setting for a number of hard science fiction novels written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky) and to examine the implications of ethical principles (the works of Russian science fiction author Sergei Lukyanenko).

Some roots of the genre may lie in such social speculations as utopian and dystopian fiction, which could be considered as extreme special cases of the genre. One of the first writers who used science fiction to explore sociological topics was H. G. Wells, with his classic ‘The Time Machine’ (1895) revealing the human race diverging into separate species, Elois and Morlocks, as a consequence of class inequality: a happy pastoral society of Elois preyed upon by the Morlocks while needing them to keep their world functioning. Wells’ ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ (1899, 1910) predicted the spirit of the 20th century: technically advanced, undemocratic and bloody. In 1888, American author Edward Bellamy penned ‘Looking Backward: 2000-1887,’ a hugely influential utopian novel with socialist themes that outsold all but two books of the era.

In the U.S. the new trend of science fiction away from gadgets and space opera and toward speculation about the human condition was championed in pulp magazines of the 1940s by authors such as Robert A. Heinlein and by Isaac Asimov, who coined the term social science fiction to describe his own work. The term is not often used today except in the context of referring specifically to the changes that took place in the 1940s, but the subgenre it defines is still a mainstay of science fiction.

Many of the best known dystopias were inspired by reality: Aldous Huxley’s ‘negative utopia’ ‘Brave New World’ (1932) and, alluding to the Soviet Union, ‘Animal Farm’ (1945), and the Western world in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) by George Orwell. In 1921 Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote his bitter novel ‘We,’ forecasting the ‘victory of forces of reason over forces of kindness’ in Soviet Russia; prior to perestroika (reformation in the 1980s) it was known only in the West and influenced both Orwell and Huxley. ‘The thought-destroying force’ of McCarthyism influenced Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953). ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) by John Wyndham explored the society of several telepathic children in a world hostile to such differences. Robert Sheckley studied polar civilizations of criminal and stability in his 1960 novel ‘The Status Civilization.’

The modern era of social science fiction began with the 1960s. Authors such as Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote novels and stories that reflected real-world political developments. Ellison’s main theme was the protest against increasing militarism. LeGuin in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (1969) explored non-traditional sexual relations. Kurt Vonnegut wrote ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969), which used the science fiction storytelling device of time-travel to explore anti-war, moral, and sociological themes. Frederik Pohl’s series ‘Gateway’ (1977 — 2004) combined social science fiction with hard science fiction. Among the modern exponents of social science fiction in the Campbellian/Heinlein tradition is L. Neil Smith who wrote both ‘The Probability Broach’ (1981) and Pallas, which dealt with alternative ‘sideways in time’ futures and what a libertarian society would look like. He is considered the heir to Robert A. Heinlein’s individualism and libertarianism in science fiction.

Kim Stanley Robinson explored different models of the future in ‘Three Californias Trilogy’ (1984, 1988, 1990). ‘The Saga of Recluce’ (1991), by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. represents a fusion of science fiction and fantasy that can be described as social science fiction. The 13 books of the series describe the changing relationships between two technologically advanced cultures and the cultures of a primitive world to which each is involuntarily transported. Themes of gender stereotyping, sexism, ethics, economics, environmentalism and politics are explored in the course of the series, which examines the world through the eyes of all its protagonists. Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature. Although mostly known for her mainstream works, she wrote numerous notable works of social science fiction, including ‘Memoirs of a Survivor’ (1974), ‘Briefing for a Descent into Hell’ (1971), the ‘Canopus in Argos’ series (1974–1983), and ‘The Cleft’ (2007).

All science fiction of the Soviet era had to subscribe to communist ideology, or else the author could face serious consequences — from a ban against being published, to death under Joseph Stalin, and imprisonment or psychiatric treatment under Leonid Brezhnev. There were poor and opportunistic works, there were works of talent touched by ideology (e.g. 1923’s ‘Aelita’ or 1926’s ‘The Garin Death Ray’ by Alexei Tolstoy), there were non-ideological works describing the happy future of humankind (some works of Kir Bulychev and Ivan Efremov), but also such writers as Mikhail Bulgakov, Evgeny Shvarts, and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky who chose the hard way of ‘balancing’ on the edge, struggling not to betray their views while avoiding punishment for expressing them.

The 1920s brought Andrey Platonov and Yevgeny Zamyatin, but it was not until the time of Perestroika that their works were published in the Soviet Union. One exception is an example of critique under Stalin — Evgeny Shvarts’ play ‘The Dragon’ (1944), showing how totalitarianism thrusts its roots into the hearts of the people. The next period of science fiction in the Soviet Union was shaped by the greater liberalization of the Nikita Khrushchev regime, advances of science, and the beginning of the space age. In 1957 Ivan Efremov wrote the utopian ‘Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale,’ revealing a harmonious space-exploring civilization of the distant future, whose culture took much from antique art. His further works included ‘Razor’s Edge’ (1963) emphasizing narrowness of the way of successful development of a civilization, and the dystopian ‘The Bull’s Hour’ (1968).

Amongst the best known social science fiction is the Noon Universe of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, designed to be a future world of ‘communism,’ where creative work is considered the highest purpose, but unlike utopian worlds, Noon Universe is settled by real people. The rise of reaction, initiated by Khrushchev’s public criticism of modern art and literature in 1963, showed to Strugatsky that ‘while for us communism was a world of freedom and creativity, for them it was the society, in which the population fulfilled immediately and with pleasure all precepts of the Party and the government.’ This largely affected their ‘Hard to be a God’ (1963, the premise of which is that human progress throughout the centuries is often cruel and bloody, and that religion and blind faith can be effective tools of oppression, working to destroy the emerging scientific disciplines and enlightenment).

Suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 ultimately ruined Strugatsky’s dreams about the Soviet rule. Another Noon Universe novel, ‘Prisoners of Power’ (1969), somehow alluding to Soviet Union describes Maxim Kammerer, crashed on an unknown planet in the wrecked Land of Fathers, and his attempt to destroy the system of transmission which deprived his new friends of ability of critical thinking. ‘Kin-dza-dza!’ is a Soviet comedy taking place on other planets which makes fun of capitalism, classism, and cultural centrism.

Social science fiction turned out to be a powerful means to respond to real situations in communist countries. While communist rules did not allow any critique, one possibility was to veil it as a science fiction world. In the 1980s the genre called ‘sociological fantasy’ arose in the People’s Republic of Poland. It focused on the development of societies, generally dominated by totalitarian governments. Books from that genre were based in different times (usually in the future), and were pretexts for analyzing structures of the described societies, being full of allusions to reality. After the revolutions of 1989, when using real world examples became as safe in former Eastern Bloc countries as in their Western counterparts, this genre mostly transformed itself into a political fiction, represented by writers such as Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz.

In Post-Soviet social science fiction anti-communism was a sort of national idea in Russia only for several years — it was well explored, so usually only small amounts of it can be found: ‘Arrows of Perun’ with separable warheads, a 1994 novella by Braider and Chadovich depicts a small totalitarian state, founded by personnel of a Soviet missile shaft. ‘Search for designation or Twenty seventh theorem of ethics’ (1994) and ‘Devil amongst people’ (1991) are late novels of Strugatsky, exploring often the tragic Soviet epoch. Evgeny Lukin’s 2000 novel ‘Scarlet aura of a protopartorg’ is set in a ‘horizontal’ world of little peer countries — debris of collapsed Russia. Background involves satire on Russian politicians and PR battles of 1990s — lie and truth means nothing, but people’s trust does. Totalitarian Christian Orthodox Communists and democratic League of Wizards use different methods to gain popularity, which in turn gives them a magical ability to commit marvels. The action concerns intrigues between two states which reveal more similarities than may seem. Vyacheslav Rybakov in his 2003 novel, ‘In the adjacent year in Moscow,’ explores a sickening world of Russia torn apart into tiny countries, ruled by Darths and Vaders of the West and having no own sincere desires.


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