The Sociology of Science Fiction

I must apologize for being away for so long. I won’t go into details; just suffice to say that I’m back and will try to keep up a better posting schedule from now on.

A couple of months back, I was asked by one of my favorite former instructors if I would like to guest lecture to her class. The course was Sociology of Literature, a course I had taken from her and it was the impetus for my starting to write and publish. She said that she had several students ask her if they could discuss Science Fiction literature in the class, and she knew that I was pretty well-versed on the subject. I was flattered and agreed. I had thought about some of the sociological implications and themes of Science Fiction literature, and even learned a bit more about some of the greats of the genre. The following is part of my presentation to the class. Hope you enjoy.

Science fiction literature

Science-fiction as an art-form and a type of entertainment (a genre) experiments with visions of alternative and future societies, and presents mind-games (thought experiments) about what could be, what should be, what might be, and/or what will be. Science fiction relates to themes that sociologists typically have been interested in, and how different types of science-fiction address themes and convey messages relating to future possibilities and threats.  Classic sci-fi literature includes enduring truths, themes, morals, and events and characters that are relevant to writer and reader alike. On the one hand, the range of sociologically relevant themes in science-fiction is enormous; on the other hand—and this constitutes a very telling paradox—there is a dearth of utopian science fiction, and sociologists rarely deal with science-fiction, or the future, except in a very general sense. Popular literature can be thought of as a barometer of what is coming, an indicator of things to come.

I am an avid sci-fi fan, both reader and watcher – Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Red Dwarf, BBT (for the geekdom) just to name the biggies. I got my start reading comic books. Graduated to novels and TV shows. First sci-fi book I ever read was David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself. (To take a trip through time? It would be a great knick, not to mention the loot to be made when you returned. That’s what Don thought when he inherited the timebelt from his uncle. What happened – to human history and personal identity, to sex and to sanity – was something else…). I was hooked.

There is a prevalence of gender and racial themes which is somewhat surprising, given that the sci-fi audience is often assumed to be predominantly White and male. Perhaps it is only because of the makeup of the audience that such themes are controversial and seen (sometimes resentfully) as a form of directive communication.

Traditionally in science fiction, writers working with STEM-field predictions have been classified as “hard SF” and those working with social science predictions—people like Gene Wolfe, Samuel Delany, C.J. Cherryh, Thomas M. Disch, Raphael Carter, and Ursula Le Guin—have been defined more as “soft SF.” But there’s no good reason to maintain that kind of prejudice. Just as Ted Chiang (Exhalation) looks beyond the secondary consequences of artificial intelligence, Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga) looks beyond the secondary consequences of reproductive technology. There’s no need to dismiss it as “soft” when it is done rigorously. We don’t have to hand-wave our social sciences like Star Trek or Frank Herbert.

Social science fiction is a subgenre of sci-fi, usually (but not necessarily) soft sci-fi, concerned less with tech/space opera and more with speculation about 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 (The Time Machine (1895);) and precautionary (Brave New World, 1932; Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949; Fahrenheit 451, 1953) functions, to criticize the contemporary world (Gulliver’s Travels, 1726;) and to present solutions (Walden Two, [based on principles of behaviorism, the idea that human behavior can be controlled by manipulating contingencies of reward and, to a lesser extent, punishment]), to portray alternative societies (World of Noon, where communistic ideals are used) and to examine the implications of ethical principles, as for example in the Labyrinth, a dark and disturbing Muppet musical.

In periods of great upheaval and uncertainty, the need for things, such as literature and movies (and later TV), to help us escape becomes greater. WWII is a prime example of this sort of social phenomenon. (Wizard of Oz, German Military Sci-Fi).


What can we learn from the intersection of science fiction and sociology? Let me offer hints of five interconnected answers.

First, science fiction can help us understand reality in much the same way as a well-constructed Weberian ideal type, a common mental construct in the social sciences derived from observable reality although not conforming to it in detail because of deliberate simplification and exaggeration. It is not ideal in the sense that it is excellent, nor is it an average; it is, rather, a constructed ideal used to approximate reality by selecting and accentuating certain elements. Some writers confine the use of ideal types to general phenomena that recur in different times and places (e.g., bureaucracy), although Weber also used them for historically unique occurrences (e.g., his famous Protestant ethic).

Problems in using the ideal type include its tendency to focus attention on extreme, or polar, phenomena while overlooking the connections between them, and the difficulty of showing how the types and their elements fit into a conception of a total social system.

For years, social theory instructors have turned to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) to showcase the excesses of bureaucracy, or to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times to help students see the alienation of labor in an unrealistically, but theoretically generative, pure form.

It provides a common language for fan communities to make sense of present events. We talk about the news, pointing to one another and saying, “That sounds just like when…!”

Second, science fiction offers a reservoir of “extreme” counterfactuals. I like to think of counterfactuals in three rough types. The easiest sort of counterfactuals are those that were really tried and tested in the historical case—roads that were considered and almost traveled, false starts that gained some momentum but were edged out by an alternative. These counterfactuals are often quite similar to how history unfolded, with, perhaps, a few consequential tweaks. Another sort are counterfactuals that were imagined and available to historical actors, but which were never seriously pursued. Finally, there are extreme counterfactuals, worlds so different that it takes a great leap to even imagine them. Sci-fi, especially in its alternate history mode, specializes in this sort. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick’s novel, is exemplary, imagining a present-day U.S. situated in a world in which the Nazis won World War II.

Third, and related, science fiction offers a complement to history and anthropology as a source for alternative visions of society. The social contract – our obligations as a member of society. When sociologists grapple with the big transformations of modernity, we often struggle to characterize how else things could have been. Ursula K. LeGuin’s vision of a communist society in The Dispossessed is an impressive, fully envisioned society, not just a utopic promissory note. Similarly, Black Panther asks us to imagine a world in which an African technological superpower evaded colonialism and emerged as a player in 21st century global politics.

Great science fiction is particularly good at showing us that the world we live in needn’t necessarily be so, and it does so with real, messy and multilayered humans (or their alien analogs). Some of the best works not only imagine alternative models to our own society that address some of its primary contradictions, they also attempt to grapple with the likely pitfalls of that alternative’s own solutions.

Fourth, in offering a wellspring of alternative visions of society, science fiction can offer inspiration for imagining a more just society. From LeGuin’s communist and feminist sci-fi ethnographies to W.E.B. Du Bois’ imaginings in “The Comet” of an apocalypse sufficient to bring about racial equality, sci-fi has long invested itself in the question of what a just society could look like. In its more pessimistic and apocalyptic modes, sci-fi also offers visions of futures to avoid, from the surveillance states of Black Mirror, to the patriarchal world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Finally, sci-fi is itself a social field in the world, characterized by its own norms, cultures, logics, and inequalities. These include:

Ethnocentrism – judging a culture by the standards of one’s own culture; “my way is the best way”; group unification; subjective, personal, value driven.

Cultural relativism – evaluating a culture by its own standards; choosing not to be judgmental; objective.

While it’s easy to identify a progressive orientation to many of sci-fi’s visions of the future, there is also a long tradition of sexist and racist sci-fi writing. The tension between these visions played out recently in the sci-fi fan community through a series of controversies around sexism and racism. This most visible confrontation focused on the Hugo Awards, one of sci-fi’s most prestigious honors selected by a vote of fans themselves. A faction of conservative fans, angered by their perception that the awards had been dominated by progressive “Social Justice Warriors”, mobilized an unsuccessful campaign to try to steer the awards toward “harder” sci-fi, often with military themes, written mostly by White men. More broadly, sci-fi fans and authors of all political orientations struggle with the politics of genre and classification and their ambivalent quest for recognition and distinction. Work that is “too sci-fi” gets cast as niche and unserious, while some works with obvious sci-fi themes are placed in the more prestigious “literary fiction” category. American sociologists interested in the politics of culture and in the politics of resentment could look to sci-fi as a useful microcosm of debates playing out across the country.

Sex and Gender in society are hot-button issues, at the very least. One of the best examples I can present is The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci-fi story which follows Genly Ai, an emissary sent to the planet Gethen to learn about and embed himself in the culture. It takes on the issues of gender and sex (roles), something often done in sci-fi. The Gethenians have no fixed gender: they can become male or female during each mating cycle and spend the majority of their time in an androgynous state. The core of the story consists of Ai’s interactions with and reactions to Gethenian culture. Sociology of sex roles, develop our sexual identity, these roles can be constantly redefined.

Many have written about Le Guin’s major theme, the effect of sex and gender on society. A different vantage point: the difficulty cisgendered male protagonist Ai faces in adjusting to Gethen’s lack of gender. Le Guin explores two issues: first, Ai’s struggles to interpret the behavior of people who lack the social frame he’s accustomed to, and second, the misunderstandings that result when Gethenians interact with Ai in unintentionally gender-coded ways. Both cause confusion and frustration for Ai throughout the story.

Le Guin opens readers’ eyes to the pervasiveness of our own culture’s gender binary. It is omnipresent, shaping how we think and interact in ways that are hard to fully grasp until contemplating a completely alien culture. That’s the power of good science fiction, and surely why fans have continued to discover and rediscover this novel decades after its publication.

The most difficult speculation for a science fiction writer to undertake is to imagine correctly the *secondary* implications of a new factor. Many people correctly anticipated the coming of the horseless carriage… but I know of no writer, fiction or non-fiction, who saw ahead of time the vast change in the courting and mating habits of Americans which would result.” (Expanded Universe, p. 326). Technology causes social change.

From the SF Golden Age to now, we have built brilliant stories out of trying to work out these secondary implications, but, like any science, the science of working out social implications goes faster and farther with specialist tools, not just those of STEM, but also of social science. After all, America’s courting habits did change with the advent of the automobile, and changed again with e-mail, and cell phones, but beyond secondary implications come tertiary implications, four steps, five, in chains of change in which, over centuries, there may or not be such a thing as courting, or Americans, or nationality as we know it at all.

These are just a few of the groupings that I’ve seen and photographed at comic con. I have written many times on my experiences at comic cons over the years. They can be found on my page here. Science fiction fandoms have a way of creating a sense of family, a sense of community among its members. Some of these groups are very strict about their adherence to detail; others not so much. Some groups are small, others have 100s of members. But, they all have that sense of community that comes from like-mindedness, for the love of a specific program, movie, anime, etc.

The End Result

The students were happy with my lecture. Several stayed after class and we discussed further issues of SciFi literature in the hallway for almost an hour. It was very stimulating, and I even had a few students email me afterwards to tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation. Mission Accomplished!

Plans for the near future

I’ll be going back to London in May for Comic Con (hopefully if this SciFi-like virus hasn’t stopped travel from the US to the UK). So expect sometime in mid-June for another report and some amazing costumes and cosplays. I’ll be working with a photographer this time, so hopefully will be able to bring you an even better recap.

Keep on Geekin’!

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