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Science Fiction as Social Criticism


Science fiction is a prose narrative that deals with a situation that could not ... Science Fiction Roots ... The term science fiction was not used to describe ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Science Fiction as Social Criticism

Science Fiction as Social Criticism
  • An Introduction

What is Science Fiction?
  • Science fiction is a prose narrative that deals
    with a situation that could not happen in the
    world as we know it, but deals with it so that it
    appears scientifically plausible and realistic.
    (Millies, 1975)

Science fiction can be seen as
  • a literary response to scientific change… which…
    can run the entire gamut of human experience.
    Science fiction, in other words, includes
    everything. (Isaac Asimov, 1971)

Science Fiction Versus Fantasy
  • Science fiction is a form of fantasy.
  • Science fiction requires some sort of scientific
    rational explanation
  • Age of Reason phenomenon
  • It must seem scientifically plausible

Is Science Fiction Pulp?
  • Some is.
  • Speculative Fiction (SF that is viewed as High,
    rather than Low art).
  • There is a difference between a good book and a
    great literary work.
  • What is it?

The Possibilities
  • Mary Shelley explained her use of the genre as
    not being interested in merely weaving a series
    of supernatural terrors but to create a tale
    that affords a point of view to the imagination
    for the delineating of human passions more
    comprehensive and commanding than any which the
    ordinary relations of existing events can yield.

Science Fiction Roots
  • How does the shift in paradigms that occurs with
    the rise of industrialization facilitate/create/pr
    edicate the birth of science fiction as a
    literary genre?

What is Social Criticism?
  • Social criticism involves the empirical study of
    society combined with a reasoned critique of
    existing conditions.
  • "The social scientist studying contemporary
    problems and the complex relationships among
    modern men knows that he can no longer discharge
    his social responsibilities by retreating from
    the world until more is known." (Transaction (now
    Society) magazine, 1963)

The Sociological Imagination
  • C. Wright Mills- The sociological imagination
    enables its possessor to understand the larger
    historical scene in terms of its meaning for the
    inner life and the external career of a variety
    of individuals. It enables hi m to take into
    account how individuals, in the welter of their
    daily experience, often become falsely conscious
    of their social positions. Within that welter,
    the framework of modern society is sought, and
    within that framework the psychologies of a
    variety of men and women are formulated. By such
    means the personal uneasiness of individuals is
    focused upon explicit troubles and the
    indifference of publics is transformed into
    involvement with public issues. C. Wright Mills

Understanding the Sociological Imagination-C.
Wright Mills
  • The sociological imagination enables us to grasp
    history and biography and the relations between
    the two within society.
  • The idea that the individual can understand his
    own experience and gauge his own fate only by
    locating himself within his period, that he can
    know his own chances in life only by becoming
    aware of those of all individuals in his

Te Social Scientist as Social Critic
  • Social science can help articulate the value
    claims and suffering of ignored and powerless
    groups. There is an important role for some
    social researchers to play here --perhaps one far
    easier to carry out than discovering cause and
    effect knowledge that can be directly applied.
    (Herbert Gans and Howard Becker).
  • "The function of social research, then is not
    simply to supply information useful in remedying
    problems already known, it serves to make the
    problems known." (Robert Merton)

Science Fiction as Social Criticism
  • In some cases, the genre of science fiction is
    consciously used to critique society.
  • Explicit social criticism ie. Thomas Moores

The Development of Science Fiction
  • The term science fiction was not used to describe
    the genre for several years.
  • Voyage Extraordinaire and voyage excentrique were
    early terms. Ie. Jules Verne writings between
  • H.G. Wells work was referred to as scientific
    romances or scientific fanatasies (1895)
  • Term science fiction appears in 1929.

  • Science fiction has long suffered from its
    reputation as pulp fiction.
  • Space Operas- early SF stories, films and t.v.
    shows that follow the same conventions as other
    pulp work from the time period.
  • Today, many significant works have entered the
    canons of great literature.
  • Please share some examples.

The History of Science Fiction
  • Looking back, one can classify many classic works
    as SF. Ie. Homers Odyssey, Platos Timaeus and
    other works (early Fourth Century BC), Thomas
    Moores Utopia (1515-1516), Francis Bacons The
    New Atlantis (1624), James Harringtons The
    Common Wealth of Oceana (1656), Jonathan Swifts
    Gullivers Travels (1726), Mary Shelleys
    Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevensons The
    Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1888).

Two Diverging Trends
  • Jules Verne
  • Focused on inventions, gadgets, little social
  • H.G. Wells
  • Concerned himself with social aspirations and us
    SF in the context of its influence on humanity.

Modern Science Fiction- Asimovs Four Periods
  • 1) Nineteenth Century to early Twentieth
  • 2) 1926-1938
  • 3) 1938-1945
  • 4) 1945- Present

Nineteenth to Early 20th Century
  • Characterized by SF which is rather primitive
    because the concept of science fiction had been
    born, but the basis for the support of science
    fiction did not yet exist. Viewed as improbable
    and therefore trash.

  • Is noted by the publication of the magazine
    Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback.
  • Promoted idea that stories should be
    scientifically plausible and that logic and
    scientific consistency were key.
  • More like Verne than Wells.
  • Tended to be written by amateurs, rather than

1938-1945 Early Modern SF
  • Characterized by John W. Campbell editor of
    Astounding Science Fiction.
  • Stressed scientific plausability
  • Raised literary standards
  • Broadened subject matter to politics, business,
    war, religion and philosophy.
  • Originated idea of social science fiction with
    studies about how technology affects humankind.

  • The dropping of the atomic bomb made SF a more
    potent reality.
  • SF expands to incorporate a wide range of
    writings. Ie. Margaret Atwoods Handmaids Tale
    and The Blind Assassin to modern SF pulp fiction.

Major Themes In Science Fiction
  • Predictions about the Future
  • Aliens
  • The Relationship between humans and science
  • Journeys into the Unknown
  • Social Criticism
  • Thrillers
  • A Mirror of Human Nature (Mans Inhumanity to
  • The Evolution of Humans

  • Stock ideas- science fiction operates with a
    system of ideas that often build on each other.
    Ie. Totalitarianism, space travel, tensions
    between individualism and common good.
  • Characterization- characters often represent
  • Plots- the basic story.
  • Extrapolation- SF extrapolates of predicts
    certain conditions on the basis of existing
  • Suspension of Disbelief- SF must establish an
    aura of realism by suspending the readers
    disbelief. Ie. Frank Herberts Dune features a
    quote from historical documents at the start of
    each chapter.

Evaluating Science Fiction
  • Scientific- SF can be used to promote or
    challenge scientific ideas. Ie. Cyrano de
    Bergeracs A Voyage to the Moon (1656) promoted
    the idea that planets revolve around the sun and
    the world is made up of atoms. It also predicted
    that someday rockets may take us to outer space.
  • You can evaluate the text in terms of the
    plausibility of the science presented.

Evaluating Science Fiction
  • Literary- science fiction should be judged by the
    same standards as other literature. Is it well
    written? Entertaining? Is the plot well
    structured? Is the plot unified? Are the
    characters well rounded? Is the work consistent?
    Has it been well researched?

Evaluating Science Fiction
  • Intellectual-
  • Does it Spur the imagination?
  • Does it stretch our minds?
  • Does it serve as forum for the discussion of
    topics that plague mankind?
  • Can it help us interpret our present world?
  • Does it expand our cultural mythology?

Evaluating Science Fiction
  • Sociological- SF often offers a dramatic form of
    social content. There are several major concerns
    of modern society reflected in Science fiction
  • 1) The Possibility of the Destruction of the
  • 2) What happens to those who survive the
    destruction of the world
  • 3) Ecological Devastation- Overpopulation,
    Starvation, Pollution
  • 4) Thought Control
  • 5) Rise of the Machines
  • 6) Genetic Manipulation- the boundaries of

Evaluating Science Fiction
  • Psychological- SF reflects the wishes, hopes,
    fears, inner stresses and tensions of an era.
    (H.L. Gold)
  • Security, new frontiers, progress, superstition,
    pride, rebellions tendencies have all been
    important points to consider.

Evaluating Science Fiction
  • Philosophical- Science fiction is an excellent
    forum in which to present philosophical issues.
    Ie. H.G. Wells (1896) uses The Island of Dr.
    Moreau to question how far science should go in
    interfering with nature. (One could draw similar
    parallels with movies like Gattaca)