Science Fiction and Social Awareness

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Can science fiction function as a means of creating social awareness around technology and its future developments?

In advance of my interview on #SCIFICHAT on Friday, April 12, 2013, I thought I would write a quick article about my interests in science fiction, fantasy and how I use my love of the genre to promote and pursue ideas around science, scientific achievement, technology, social development under the guise of science fiction (and occasionally fantasy). I happen to agree with Ray Bradbury and believe a little fantasy hiding underneath one’s science fiction never hurt anyone.

I am a writer of all kinds of genre fiction including hard science fiction, social fiction, space opera, fantasy, urban fantasy, sword and sorcery, epic fantasy, and a bit of pulp and horror when no one is looking. I grew up reading the required classics from Asimov to Zelazney: Dune, Foundation, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Chronicles of Amber, The Eternal Champion Sagas, Xenogenesis, Lord of Light and The Hyperion Cantos.

My guilty pleasures included the hard science styling of Ben Bova and Larry Niven, the wild space romps of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, Steve Perry’s The Man Who Never Missed and Jack L. Chalker’s space operas, The Well of Souls Saga and the Four Lords of the Diamond series and so many others…

The failures and the cowardice of modern science fiction

Though I missed the conversation a few years ago on the internet which talked about the failings of science fiction in recent years, I could completely relate to the idea that science fiction wasn’t taking the risks it once did. Its protagonists were mostly white, mostly male and moving further away from being accessible to the readers. Some of those failings included:

  • social/racial inequalities in the writing the marginalizing other social groups.
  • the rewarding of primarily white men as the best writers of the genre and as the main protagonists
  • A failure to acknowledge writers from minority groups who may have different views of the future
  • a failure of the genre to address near-future issues due to potential scientific complexity
  • science fiction becoming more like fantasy or westerns in space
  • losing the exploration of scientific ideas 
  • the increasing marginalization of the genre due to lackluster efforts of writers to explore more risky ideas
  • the increasingly doom-centric orientation of the genre and the preponderance of dystopian fiction
  • the lack of ideas of working toward a positive future
  • The lack of scientific interest in the potential audience which reduces the potential quality of stories

As a long time reader of the genre, I am aware of how science fiction has been used to address a variety of social ills. Many such works exist. A quick sampling include:

  • The Left Hand of Darkness – deals with a world where gender is almost non-existent except for periods of reproduction. Considered a work of feminist fiction, it addresses a world where many of our planet’s polar extremes of behavior simply don’t exist.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – a tale where the rights of women are completely removed when a neo-Christian movement takes over the government and uses religion to brutally subjugate women.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – a world of perpetual warfare, psychological manipulation, mind control and the creation of a surveillance society.
  • Brave New World – promotes a society which at first glance resembles a utopia, where want has been eliminated along with a segment of free will. Population is regulated, children born in artificial wombs, a caste society is instituted with regimented behavior, drug use and recreational sex being the norm of the society.

While I don’t as yet consider myself in such august company, I have tried to use science fiction to address a variety of social ills and challenges facing humanity today in my collection of short stories called Hayward’s Reach:

  • Genetically Modified Organisms –  in my story of the same name, I posit the idea of our constant experimentation with GMOs without a real understanding of how such interactions might affect each other over time. Reinforcing of genetic traits could lead to an alteration of human consciousness.
  • Suicide Seed – In a similar vein, I posit the idea of transgenetic mutation of plants by corporate entities using transform viruses. These viruses while originally designed to affect plants cross over into human populations, potentially rendering the human race sterile in the same fashion as large agro-corporations want to do to control seed development and food production.
  • The Great White Spot – a story in which I posit an Earth whose runaway greenhouse effect cause by global warming creates a storm similar to the Great Red Spot on the surface of Jupiter. A storm of immense size, ferocity and because of the inability to cool off, eventually erases all life on Earth.
  • Pax Cyridian – a tale where genetic engineering of insect-like lifeforms results in new forms of life able to work and live with humanity in relative peace. Instead of an industrial age, the people of Cyridia use organic life to perform the work of machines until a military leader decides to create new lifeforms adapted for war and conquest.
  • Paper – a world where the internet has become infected with self-replicating virus programs, information held in books is now more important than ever. A young man in Mexico finds a cache of old magazines and has been selling them to bidders anonymously. His brother’s selfish greed puts them both at risk when he reveals the cache of reading materials and tries to sell them to a criminal enterprise.
  • Hub City Blues – in one of my largest projects I am experimenting with creating a positive near-future world where humanity is trying to put off the future of impending global warming by creating a variety of new world arcologies. These super-cities use the most advance sciences known to man in an effort to create a new way of life utilizing a variety of alternative energies. Much of the technology used in Hub City is based from technology being created daily such as programmable matter, diverse solar and wind technologies, new underground building and waste management technologies.
  • The Last Divide – I am not above using a variety of different memes to address ideas around our modern world such as the proliferation of social media and its complete invasion of all levels of our society. This piece plays with the idea of social media after death; who maintains our social profiles, could we pre-program our responses after our passing? Could programs be written to approximate our social media habits and continue them, extending our social media existence?

I have to admit I was a bit embarrassed to be writing stories such as these because they are so far removed from much of the science fiction I see being written today.I’m not disparaging such science fiction because it is both popular and from a writer’s perspective quite profitable. I keep hearing the litany of the writers everywhere: Readers don’t want challenge, they want escapism. So if you make them work too hard, they will put your book down. I just don’t happen to agree with it. Eventually, I believe they will want more. So I write and wait.

Can we as science fiction writers make any changes in our society through our work?

Once upon a time science fiction propelled engineers and scientists to create ideas and technologies which are only now becoming a reality.  Look at our cell phones, submarines, computer monitors, space craft, and wireless technologies, many of these started in the minds of early writers of the genre fiction. For a time, successful science fiction television inspired an entire generation of scientists, astronauts and engineers. We see far less of that today, with science fiction instead promoting a fear of technology or a return to superstition rather than embracing scientific curiosity.

Can science fiction tell potential stories about the human condition and potentially guide policies toward the effective use of science in society?

Some of our science fiction has lent itself to predicting trends in human behavior such as Nineteen Eighty-Four prediction of a surveillance state, similar to the one we find ourselves approaching in 2014. There does not seem to be quite as much of that kind of writing today. I believe part of the reason is the breakneck pace of scientific advancement. It is hard to write a novel about a piece of technology or a technological idea because by the time you finish the novel the idea has been superseded by a more advanced piece of technology in two years it took for you to finish your tale. I think it is a risk few writers are willing to risk their careers on.

After reading Should Science Fiction Die, and other such screeds on the failure of science fiction writers to innovate, to solve problems, take risks, ask questions, challenge the status quo and include complex themes within their body of work, I feel much less like I am on the wrong track and instead just working on a different kind of story-telling.

I’m done being embarrassed about asking questions or trying to find answers with my science fiction. I’m quoting one of my favorite space westerns, Firefly’s Captain Malcolm Reynolds: “So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

Other related articles: 

Science Fiction Goes McDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle; Huffington Post, 2013, 

Should Scifi Die?: In the plane of the ecliptic, 2009, 

Racism and Science Fiction; The New York Review of Science Fiction, Samuel R. Delany

Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards?: World SF Blog, 2009, Lavie Tidhar

Superficial Darkness and Luminous Ink: World SF Blog, 2013, Athena Andreadisoriginally posted at Starship Reckless

Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform; Strange and Happy, Jason Stoddard

What is Human Wave Science Fiction?: According to Hoyt, Sarah A. Hoyt

Barbarian Confessions; Asimov’s Science Fiction, Thought Experiments, 2006, Kristine Kathyrn Rusch

Mundane Science Fiction; founded by Geoff Ryman

Megastructures: Artwork by Steve Burg © 2012-2013

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12 responses to “Science Fiction and Social Awareness

  1. Yes, science fiction can raise social awareness to some degree. However, the problem sciece fiction has a sort of bad name (which is of course unjustly) by the “main stream” public, this may cancel the positive effects.

  2. The problem is the present. Few can see a positive future, or write about one, when the present is over ripe with ills. No matter how hard a writer tries his or her current mood is always reflected in their works. Not to mention that he or she has to dumb down his work to allow generations educated by television to understand what’s said and/or make it politically correct enough to get published so he or she can feed their family. Blame politicals for being too bigoted to even allow a fresh thought -right or wrong- to be heard.

  3. Pingback: Sexism in the world of writing | Jaye Em Edgecliff

  4. Pingback: The social function of SF | SFGenics

  5. As a genre, I believe that science fiction is one that pushes society forward. It forces the mid to process new concepts and in many ways, is in itself, a social commentary. Many of the most popular science fiction stories are nothing more than a reflection of the deepest fears of the society it represents.

  6. I totally agree Thadd. I try to make all my stories be “about” something beneath what I hope is an entertaining tale, no matter what form that particular tale takes.

  7. Pingback: The Sentinel (The Shadows of Night Saga) Part 3 | Excursions Into Imagination

  8. Pingback: Jeanne G'Fellers

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