One of the characteristics of great literature is that it says something meaningful about life. Science fiction does that, too, except that the perspective is usually seen from an outsider's viewpoint and is often focused on society in general.
Being fond of subcategorizing as we are, science fiction fans call such fiction "social science fiction," and it's concerned less with the tropes usually associated with sf (like spaceships and technology) and more concerned with human activities and how people interact in groups. Or, to tie it back to the "science" label, it's concerned with "soft" sciences like sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, theology, linguistics, cultural studies and more.
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Let's take a closer look at social science fiction.
Characteristics of Social Science Fiction
To begin, it's worth noting a few characteristics of social science fiction. First, social sf rarely deals with the hardcore academics of the soft sciences. Instead, it tends to focus on the application of those ideas. Second, since it's grounded in the less-technical soft sciences, social sf has more widespread appeal—not necessarily mainstream, but generally social sf includes stories that are more accessible to the mainstream masses. Additionally, much of the social science fiction I will cite here are reactions to real-world social change at the time it was written and are thus seen from the perspective of hindsight. Finally, like all fiction, stories cannot always be conveniently rat-holed into one bucket—they often deal with multiple, overlapping themes such that a single novel may deal with multiple social sciences.
Social SF as Social Commentary
Much of social science fiction can be said to be social commentary to some degree, but there are some classic go-to examples. Jonathan Swift's satiric Gulliver's Travels is social commentary of British society at the time of its writing in 1726. It's comprised of four stories, some using exaggeration to make its point, others using an outsider's perspective to convey its themes of government, religion and corruption. H.G. Wells' classic The Time Machine (1895)—often dismissed by mainstream readers as a mere time-travel novel—is actually social commentary about class differences between the working class (represented by the subterranean Morlocks) and the elite (represented by the elegant Eloi). Karel Capek's classic 1920 science-fiction play R.U.R. deals with a working-class rebellion, only here the workers are robots. (Capek actually coined the term "robot" in this play.)
The Long View
Many social science fiction stories focus a single time period, but science fiction alone possesses the ability to span years or even eons. That's the all-encompassing time span of Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, comprised of five books, each portraying different societies in different stages of development. Shikasta is the history of the planet Shikasta (or as we know it, Earth) as it exists under the influence of three galactic empires: Canopus, Sirius and their mutual enemy Puttiora. The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five posits a society where the values of men and women are inextricably linked to their gender and cannot be changed. The Sirian Experiments retells the story of Shikasta from the point of view of Sirius. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 depicts a society whose world is facing extinction. The final book in the series, The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, is social satire that focuses on the debasement of language in political rhetoric and propaganda. These five novels individually portray a still-life picture of different societies. But by virtue of it being part of the same history, together they depict how societies change over long periods of time.
Just Scratching the Surface
We're just getting started. Next time, we'll take a look at rebuilding society, Utopias, Dystopias and more.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo-nominated group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.