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Science fiction and society

Way back when, when I started my Master's thesis, I felt quite daring in choosing to focus on books that I thought of as not really literary. I knew the theory, had read up on all sorts of people who would seem to suggest (if not stating outright) that the study of popular culture was a valid academic field, maybe even an interesting one. Even so, I clung closely to Bakhtin, shouting "carnivalesque!" and "post-modern parody!" at anyone who got close. Figuratively, of course. Mostly. And I sprinkled my thesis liberally with references to Deleuze, Derrida and other Greats. To make sure it was serious enough (in its treatment of a literature founded on laughter).

This urge to justify my focus was based in the impression, which I know I am not alone in having, that a scholarly approach to literature means studying either the very old or the very high. And that anything that smells of genre isn't far above knee height, all the more convenient for kicking.

Being an academic, for me, is to a large extent about trying to get to grips with my own preconceptions, the dissonance between theory that makes sense and the unquestioned "truths" that surround me (and which I have internalised). My PhD was an attempt to make sense of my revulsion at the thought of fan fiction in a post-Benjamin and post-Barthes world; my Master's argued for the creative potential in a parodic treatment of pop culture, but the origin of that argument was my own ambivalence.

I am of course much older and wiser now, and I would not bat an eyelash if any of my students came to me, clutching Isaac Asimov or Ursula Le Guin (again, figuratively), wanting to make them the focus of their research. In fact, I have supervised master's theses on comics, George R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien.

And this semester I created and taught a course on Science Fiction and Society (we are now getting to the point of this piece), which highlighted some things I thought I'd put out there in the digital void for random passersby and the Google bots (and you!) to enjoy.

The course counted for only about a quarter of one semester for my students. Apparently, I have a tendency to overestimate what my students can be expected to read in one semester, but people eventually talked me down to eight novels, three short stories and one largeish chunk of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Oh, and material introduced in my lectures (my chance to warp young minds).

Here are the core texts:

H. G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895)
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932)
Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" and "There Will Come Soft Rains" (1950)
Isaac Asimov's Foundation (1951)
Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
Douglas Adams' The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Terry Bisson's "They Are Made Out of Meat" (1990)
Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World (2008)
Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief (2010)

The course was restricted to English language literature (Rajaniemi writes in English, in case you were wondering), and it had to fit within the description of the "Texts, Culture, Context" course. Limitations, however, are a good thing (as any sonnet writer will tell you, I am sure): It may make you (want to) cry when you realise you cannot include Stanislaw Lem, but it also reduces the number of hard choices you have to make by making them for you.

As you can see from the list, the course spanned the 20th century, the century in which the genre comes into its own; but it includes one text from the late 19th, and two texts from the 21st. The central idea behind it was to trace the way in which visions of the future change depending on the context of writing, and the easiest way of doing this was to span a large period of time. I was also keen to include two texts from the last decade, as a focus for a discussion of how our own period influences its literature in different ways: Rajaniemi with his digital, posthuman future; Harkaway with his strong political subtext. I wanted my students to be able to look at our own period with the same critical tools we apply to the past.

Science Fiction lends itself very well to a discussion of literature and its social and historical context because it tends to fall into two camps: That which unconsciously reproduces patterns, be they literary or social, and which therefore serves to illustrate these patterns of thought; and that which uses the science fictional setting to interrogate such patterns or develop discussions of other contemporary, political or literary concerns. Most of the books we studied fall into the second camp.

I had chosen the texts specifically for how they seemed to articulate fears and concerns of their specific periods. However, the wonderful thing about a new course is that while I have an idea of how it will pan out while I am setting out the syllabus and writing the course description, it will inevitably throw up discussions I had not foreseen (especially in a course like this, with about 70 people enrolled, 50 of which showed up for lectures) and develop patterns along the way.* The major recurring discussions revolved around science fiction's societies as utopian or dystopian, the exploration of alterity in the use of "the other" (which in turn has implications for how we understand what it means to be human), and how the imagined futures were constrained by the existing technologies at the time a text was written. These were all things I had planned to discuss in relation to some of the texts, but I was surprised by just how applicable they turned out to be.

The utopian (and dystopian) tendency of the science fiction genre is nothing new. Utopias are much older than what would normally be considered Science Fiction, though it is worth noting that Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World (1666) contains submarines; and there is some disagreement as to whether one should be classified as a subgroup of the other or vice versa, but there can be no doubt that they share key tendencies: The construction of a perfect society entails a criticism of your own in so far as the two differ, and the anti-utopian or dystopian tendency (here, the terminology gets a bit muddled) will tend to draw on problems already extant. The way in which a science fiction book constructs its fictional society, and how that society is portrayed, is therefore quite interesting.

H. G. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks serve as a dire warning against entrenched social stratification; Aldous Huxley's superficial, hedonistic World State is all the more worrying because of the structure that treats people as cogs (albeit happy cogs), a trait reflected in Nick Harkaway's sinister Clockwork Hand Society. The ability of science fiction to move the discussion of the problematic to a non-space, or a future-space, makes it possible to be political without becoming mired in specifics, to point to structural problems without reducing them to the particular instance.

Likewise, science fiction's use of "not-here" setting, and the liberties that go along with that, allows it to discuss alterity in a way in which other literatures cannot: The figures of the alien and the android can stand in for any number of "others"; and in addition, the non-space setting gives licence to reorder perceived "natural" structures in our own society. "The other"**, be it female, homosexual, oriental, black, disabled or poor, takes part in a series of thought structures which because of their ubiquity have become naturalised. "The other" has always been an integral part of the genre: first as that against which the white, Western, heroic man could fight and define himself; and increasingly, as the critical sophistication of the genre has increased, as something to be interrogated, discussed.

Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is possibly the perfect text in this context: While interrogating gendered structures in our own society by portraying a world on which they are a non-issue (because its people only gain primary sexual characteristics once a month, and then always in relation to whoever they are with, meaning that any one person can both give birth to and father children at various points in their lives), and by using the human outsider perspective to show how the dichotomies adhering to gender guides thinking, Le Guin also ends up using the male pronoun and "man" as a universal in order to describe the people of Gethen -- thereby undermining the ungendered world, but providing an excellent focus for discussion (watch this space for a separate piece on this book).

The funniest aspect of studying science fiction in history, however, is its treatment of technology: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that any new an interesting technology will dominate the future: the indecent zippers of Huxley's novel, the nuclear bracelets of Asimov, or the electronic book of Adams (not to mention the uploadable and copyable (post)humans of Rajaniemi). The way in which the internet clearly snuck up on people is a classic example: While people keep saying that Arthur C. Clarke predicted the internet in 1974 (incidentally a few years after the mother of all demos), he did not -- the interview is still premised on a very hierarchical structure, in which you can access your local library from home, whereas the really interesting thing about the internet is its rhizomatic nature, the way in which Google serves up blogs as well as libraries and sanctioned academic knowledge -- and that appears to have come out of left field.

Thinking the as yet unthought is a tricky business, and the course kept highlighting how the constraints of the present intruded. The most interesting aspect of the whole venture was to trace how the assumptions changed, how what had been taken for granted in one period became the problem of the next. And to try to apply this to our present period. The way in which science fiction allows you to (attempt to) step outside your own historical period, your own world, is perhaps the most revolutionary trait of the genre. By removing its stories from our immediate context, it can allow us to look at what we take for granted in a new light. Just as literature is supposed to.

*) This was all the more true in this case, as I eventually had to share the course with Yuri Cowan, who lectured up to the Golden Age, leaving the second half for me (which would have made me bitter if he were not a total geek (and worthy scholar) to whom I could safely entrust such a precious task). I suppose it helps that I have always loved going to lectures, and I rather enjoyed seeing another take on the texts I had chosen to include in the course: I was gratified to see him focus on the same topic I would have, but with an additional sprinkling of points I might not have made.

**) If confused, look it up. I may get back to it in the next article, but this is really something you should know.

Next: Science fiction and diversity (a.k.a. Mea Culpa)


Also, here is the list of future reading we compiled for our students. Let me know if you think we should add to it.

Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker Trilogy (in five parts). (1979-1992)
While you have only been assigned the first Hitchhiker novel to read, the four that followed (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980), Life, the Universe and Everything (1982), So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) and Mostly Harmless (1992)) will be compulsory reading when the revolution comes.

Isaac Asimov. Foundation. (1951)
– . Foundation and Empire. (1952)
– . Second foundation. (1953)
– . I, Robot. (1950)
Asimov remains one of the central figures of Golden Age SF, and reading only part of one book out of his literary production would be a shame. There are two further books in the Foundation trilogy (an additional prequels and sequels, which are also worth reading). Asimov's most lasting legacy, however, are perhaps the Three Laws of Robotics, which you can encounter in I, Robot (which collects nine of his many Robot stories).

Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale. (1985)
– . Oryx and Crake. (2003)
The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel set in a future in which there has been a theocratic conservative, totalitarian back-lash against the movements of equality of the mid-twentieth century. Oryx and Crake is a post-apocalyptic novel dealing with environmental degradation and genetic manipulation.

Alfred Bester. The Demolished Man. (1953)
Another Golden Age master, here exploring the idea of committing premeditated murder in a world where the police are telepathic.

Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. (1953)
Named for the temperature at which paper catches fire, a novel about a fireman whose job is to burn all books.

Edgar Rice Burroughs. A Princess of Mars. (1917)
Seminal pulp fiction classic, in which an American Civil War veteran is transported to Mars, with much swashbuckling and romance to follow.

Octavia Butler. Lilith's Brood. ([2000])
A trilogy, containing Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). Explores race and gender in a world where humans are all but extinct and aliens intervene to save them and change them.

Margaret Cavendish. The Blazing World (1666)
Early utopia making the point that women are capable of rational thought and can be educated. Contains a submarine.

Arthur C. Clarke. 2001: A Space Odyssey. (1968)
– . Rendezvous with Rama. (1972)
Clarke is one of the SF greats and these two are probably his most famous works. 2001 was written alongside Kubrick's film with the same title. Rendezvous is a classic example of hard science fiction.

Samuel R. Delany. Babel-17. (1966)
–. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. (1984)
Delany is one of the cleverest SF writers, and certainly the most famous queer black SF author. His works show a strong sense of the power of language (Babel-17 posits a language that can be used as a weapon, and Stars in my Pocket undermines the reader’s preconceptions of gender norms by among other things a clever system of pronoun use), and his blending of themes of race, slavery, and sexuality are intricate and interesting.

Philip K. Dick. Ubik. (1965)
-- . Time Out of Joint (1959)
These are both novels with Dick's tendency to destabilize the perception of what is real or not.

Suzette Haden Elgin. Native Tongue. (1984)
Written by a linguist, this book is primarily interesting because of its attempt to construct a female language as part of its depiction of a society in which women are oppressed.

William Gibson. Neuromancer. (1984)
– . Pattern Recognition. (2003)
Neuromancer is the first novel in the dystopian Sprawl trilogy. A seminal cyberpunk novel, depicting a world in which corporations hold power and humans can connect their minds directly to cyberspace (a word coined by Gibson). As time has gone on, the world of Gibson’s novels have become more recognizably like our own, until a book like Pattern Recognition, with its themes of branding, identity, and globalization, is almost – but not quite – realistic.

William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The Difference Engine. (1990)
The novel that popularized the “steampunk” tradition, blending the cyberpunk fascination with the control of information with Industrial Revolution technologies. Also an example of the alternative history genre.

Robert A. Heinlein. Stranger in a Strange Land. (1961)
– . The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (1966)
Heinlein is a good example of the male writers of the Golden Age and after who innovated the genre with a tough- but open-minded brand of libertarian SF that may not hold up too well politically today, but whose works remain well-written and iconic examples of the genre. Stranger in a Strange Land describes a “nest” of friends centred on a young man who grew up on Mars and whose way of thinking promises spiritual renewal through language. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress may be his best book, describing the revolt of a lunar penal colony from the oppressive shackles of Earth.

Frank Herbert. Dune. (1965)
Space opera or epic science fiction classic depicting dynastic intrigue in an inter-stellar feudal society.

Rokeya Sakhaway Hussain. “Sultana's Dream”. (1905)
Early Bangladeshi feminist utopian science fiction which imagines an inverted society in which women rule and men are shut inside the houses.

Gwyneth Jones. White Queen (1991)
-- . North Wind (1994)
-- . Phoenix Café (1997)
These three novels form the Aleutian trilogy, which offers a somewhat satirical look at gender and imperialism.

Ursula Le Guin. The Dispossessed. (1974)
Subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” Set on a small anarchist moon that orbits around a rich capitalist planet. Part of the Hainish cycle, in the same universe as Left Hand of Darkness.

Doris Lessing. Shikasta. (1979)
The first in the Canopus in Argos series. Sees the development of the planet Shikasta over a large period of time, presented as a case study.

C.S. Lewis. Out of the Silent Planet. (1938)
The first book of the Space Trilogy about a philologist Dr Elwin Ransom (allegedly based on J.R.R. Tolkien) who is kidnapped and transported to Mars.

China Miéville. The City and the City. (2009)
A crime novel about two different cities that occupy the same geographical space, but are very separate, and where residents of each city must learn to “unsee” those who are in the same space but in the other city.

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. (1960)
Post-apocalyptic novel in which a nuclear war has destroyed civilization. The novel follows the rebuilding of civilization through monks who are preserving the remnants of knowledge for the future.

Alan Moore and David Gibbon. Watchmen (1987)
–. V for Vendetta (1982-89)
Graphic novels, one set in a parallel universe in which the creation of a superhuman changed the course of history and Nixon remained in power; the other a reimagining of an Orwellian Britain of the 90s.

C. L. Moore. “No Woman Born” (1944)
Short story in which a woman's brain is placed in a metal body.

George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four. (1949)
Dystopian novel depicting a totalitarian future England (Air Strip One) in which language is Newspeak, Doublethink is essential and Big Brother rules.

Kim Stanley Robinson. The Mars Trilogy. (1993-96)
Consists of the three novels Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994) and Blue Mars (1996). Hard SF focused on the idea of terraforming Mars and the development of a new society on the planet.

Joanna Russ. The Female Man. (1975)
Feminist SF in which four women from different universes and times meet. Explores different perspectives on what it means to be a woman.

Olaf Stapledon. Last and First Men. (1930)
Imagines a future history of the human race, across two billion years and eighteen future species including our own.

Neil Stephenson. Snow Crash. (1992)
– . The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. (1995)
– . Anathem. (2008)
Three enormous and complex books in the postcyberpunk mode with a strong focus on mathematics, linguistics, cryptography, philosophy; the first is straight-up cyberpunk with a Sumerian edge. The second deals with nanotechnology and is vaguely neo-Victorian. The third is still more baroque, with monks. All suffer from the “flat ending” issue that cyberpunk as a whole seems to share, but each is richly imagined and not to be missed.

Theodore Sturgeon. Venus Plus X. (1960)
A 20th Century man is taken to a utopia in which there is only one gender.

James Tiptree, Jr. The Girl Who Was Plugged In. (1973)
-- .“The Women Men Don't See” (1973)
-- . “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976)
Stories by the woman behind the James Tiptree Jr Award. The short stories in particular interrogate 1970s' gender structures. The novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In imagines a society in which someone with an imperfect body can remotely control a perfect body.

Kurt Vonnegut. The Sirens of Titan. (1959)
Comic science fiction in which a man enters a waveform state and can only interact with planets when they intersect with his position along an axis, but as a bonus gains knowledge of the past and the future. And Martians invade Earth.

H. G. Wells. The Invisible Man (1897)
– . The First Men in the Moon. (1901)
Wells is one of the founding fathers of the genre, and in addition to The Time Machine, these two have had a lasting influence.

John Wyndham. The Day of the Triffids. (1951)
Post-apocalyptic novel in which almost all humans are struck blind and man-eating plants take over the world

Roger Zelazny. Lord of Light. (1967)
–. “A Rose For Ecclesiastes” (1963)
Both these texts draw on religion. Lord of Light presents a group of crash-landed space travelers who have used technology to become the gods of Hinduism; “Rose” imagines the meeting with the Martian other.

Honourable international mentions
Stefano Benni. Terra! (1983)
Playful Italian post-apocalyptic satire in which WWIII is triggered by a mouse, and a convoluted plot follows.

Jon Bing. En gammel romfarers beretninger. (1992)
Bing is one of Norway's SF greats. His The Chronicles of the Starship Alexandria are marvellous young adult science fiction, but this book is aimed at an older audience.

Karel Čapek. R.U.R. (1920)
–. War with the Newts. (Válka s mloky, 1936).
A Czech writer whose social satire is imaginative and cutting. R.U.R. is the play that introduced the word “robot” into our vocabulary, and War with the Newts describes humanity’s ill-fated attempt to enslave a race of intelligent salamanders.

Stanislaw Lem. Cyberiad. (Cyberiada, 1965)
– . His Master's Voice. (Głos Pana, 1968)
– . Solaris. (1961)
Lem is closely aligned with the literary theory developments of the 1960s, and there are few SF novels that so thoroughly take on the question of what it means to try to understand the entirely Other. Both His Master's Voice and Solaris do this, while Cyberiad is a silly and wonderful sequence of stories about two robots. Make sure you get good translations.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic. (Пикник на обочине, 1971)
Imagines the Earth visited by beings who are as far beyond us as we are beyond ants. And what happens when they thoughtlessly leave behind leftovers.

Jules Verne. Paris in the Twentieth Century. (Paris au XXe siècle, [1863])
– . From the Earth to the Moon (De la terre à la lune, 1865)
– . Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1870)
Verne must be considered one of the founding fathers of the genre, and was certainly an influence on Wells and others.

Yevgeny Zamyatin. We (Мы, [1921])
Written shortly after the Russian revolution. Portrays a dystopia particularly interesting for its use of the panopticon and the reduction of people to numbers and letters.
Tor, Ole Petter likes this


Tor,  25.05.14 22:17

People like to talk about how studying science and technology is useful, but you are actually teaching young people how to think. And using science fiction in the process! Not bad. Of course, I like to believe that studying physics also teaches people to think, but clearly not in the same way.

(Besides, I used to think of myself as someone who reads science fiction, but after having a look at that list I'm beginning to suspect I'm not. Not yet, at least.)
Camilla,  25.05.14 22:22

We own most of those books, and I have no objection to buying the ones we are missing.

Ole Petter,  25.05.14 23:36

I wish I could have followed the lectures! Lots of good books on that list, and lots of book I haven't read.

If I had to suggest an addition to the list it would be "Glasshouse" by Charles Stross. It's both a good book and it seems relevant to the class/topic. I also always like to mention "The end of Eternity" by Asimov & "The City and the Stars" by Clark as classics that deserves a place on any science fiction list.
Camilla likes this
Camilla,  25.05.14 23:42

Asimov is a problem: There are just too many good ones.
Ole Petter likes this