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.
Let's complete our tour of social science fiction that we began in the last two installments...
Science fiction is a great platform on which to build thought-provoking stories that examine gender roles. Ursula K. LeGuin did so expertly in her classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Though part of a much larger universe explored in several books, this particular one looked at nontraditional sexual relations through the unique biology of the people of Gethen, who are neither male nor female, except once a month when they do have gender identities and sexual urges. The Female Man by Joanna Russ follows four women on four parallel worlds with gender roles that are shown to be radically different from one another through the eyes of a woman who travels between them. Samuel R. Delany puts a spin on the Utopian theme by offering several of them in his novel Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, where technology allows people to change physical appearance, gender and sexual orientation. In Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, a divided, post-holocaust United States includes a nation where women and children live within the protection of town walls while being served by men. Meanwhile, Ammonite by Nicola Griffith explores gender through the story of its anthropologist protagonist sent to explore a disease that kills mostly men. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, serving as both a Utopian and feminist novel, is about a woman recently released from a mental institution who begins to communicate with a possibly imaginary androgynous person from a Utopian future.
Science fiction novels often explore theological themes, usually without being overtly religious. (One notable exception is C.S. Lewis' Cosmic/Space Trilogy, beginning with 1938's Out of the Silent Planet, which, although it reads more like planetary romance, is a theological fantasy firmly grounded in Christianity.) The most influential is probably A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., who describes the role played by the church in rebuilding a society nearly destroyed by a nuclear holocaust, employing much food for metaphysical thought in the process. In James Blish's classic novel A Case of Conscience, a Jesuit applies the rules of his faith to determine that an alien world is the creation of the Devil, and must therefore be exorcized. The characters in Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny have adopted the roles of Hindu gods. Messiahs were the topics of a few books: Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man, whose protagonist travels back in time to meet Jesus of Nazareth; Philip K. Dick's The Divine Invasion, which featured several messiahs; and James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, the story of Julie Katz, the Messiah and daughter of God, who must confront her own identity.
Sometimes the religions depicted in sf are not as recognizable. In Robert Silverberg's Downward to the Earth, humans seek salvation from their sins by engaging in the religious rituals of alien cultures. Octavia E. Butler's duology Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents feature a young woman who possesses the ability to feel the sensations of others and who develops her own philosophical and religious system.
...But That's Not All
At the end of the fist part of this series of articles, I said I was just scratching the surface. There are still several other soft sciences not yet mentioned that are given the social science fiction treatment by sometimes-classic novels. Notably:
- Ray Bradbury's classic novel about firemen burning books, Fahrenheit 451, is a story long believed to have been a statement about censorship, but was revealed by the author to actually be about how TV has taken away our interest in reading.
- Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged seeks to prove the impracticability of socialism.
- Frederik Pohl's and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants is a satirical treatment of economics and consumerism.
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess examines the rehabilitation of criminals.
- Linguistics and the different methods of communication play heavily into Ian Watson's The Embedding.
- José Saramago's duology consisting of Blindness, which depicts social breakdown after a worldwide epidemic of blindness occurs; and Seeing, which offers commentary on government oppression.
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.