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.
We've already been introduced to social science fiction. Let's take a deeper look at social science fiction and give some more examples of it.
We Built This City
If social science can be said to deal with the interactions between people, the task of rebuilding society from the ground up can be held up as a perfect example of it. One of literature's classic portrayals of building society comes from a book not normally classified as science fiction. William Golding's Lord of the Flies puts a group of shipwrecked children on an island where they attempt to live together for the long term, with enlightening and provocative results. S.M. Stirling's Emberverse series (beginning with Dies the Fire) takes place after an unexplained, worldwide breakdown of technology, thus disrupting what people have taken for granted all their lives—an organized society. Meanwhile, Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series retells the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in a futuristic setting (with a Galactic Empire sitting in for Rome), where a mathematician develops the made-up science of "psychohistory" to predict the fall of mankind.
Utopias and Dystopias
Utopias and dystopias fit nicely under the heading of social science fiction—each one examining the veracity of a perfect society (utopia) or one repressed and controlled (dystopia). Some of science fiction's most popular novels are dystopian classics. There's Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, which portrays a futuristic society that employs reproduction technology (since natural reproduction is a thing of the past), caste systems and devices that teach you while you sleep. George Orwell's classic dystopia, Nineteen Eighty-Four (written in 1949), depicts a deindividualized society under constant surveillance by an oligarchical dictatorship led by Big Brother. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is set in a dystopian future police state, and the book has the distinct honor of being the first work banned by the Soviet censorship board. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood depicts women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency. Meanwhile, Malorie Blackman's 'Noughts & Crosses series of young adult novels is set in a fictional, racist dystopia. There are plenty more examples—you can get a head start on such reading from a recent anthology with 33 excellent examples of dystopian short fiction in Brave New Worlds, edited by John Joseph Adams.
Often, worlds that are presented as utopian prove instead to be dystopian. Despite the subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia," The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is actually a dystopian novel that compares the two societies of the twin worlds Urras and Anarres in regard to their individual political and economic systems. The Giver by Lois Lowry is a dystopian young adult novel where the world appears at first glance to be utopian—people are happy because they don't know any better. Their mandated "sameness" means they lack the emotional depth and experiences to know anything else.
Utopias are less common than in sf literature, likely because dystopias offer more drama. (If everything is so perfect, there's no story!) True utopias are fewer, but some of them are really good ones. Odd John by Olaf Stapledon, though perhaps not well known outside sf circles, is about a mutant superhuman who starts his own utopia. More famous is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, about a man who awakens from a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep after a hundred years to find himself in the future, or the year 2000, where the United States has been transformed into a socialist utopia, a premise in which to play out problems with capitalism. More recently, Iain M. Banks writes books about an interstellar anarchist, socialist and utopian society known as The Culture. The Culture series (beginning with Consider Phlebas) features a postscarcity society where no shortages of resources exist, a situation administered by very powerful artificial intelligences.
More to Come!
Next time, we'll take a look at more social science fiction, particularly gender studies, theology 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.