Examples of Social Commentary in Science Fiction

So I can’t really get the events of Frankenstein out of my head and it is still giving me much to ponder, not in and of itself, but how science fiction is such a major and important conduit for social commentary. If I had studied sociology instead of archaeology at university, I would like to have written a dissertation on how science fiction is the most effective medium for raising awareness of, or commentating on, social issues.

1984 and Brave New World

I have already discussed Frankenstein at great length so I’m going to say no more on it here. Instead I am going to deal solely with 20th century fiction and issues that will be most familiar to us.

I guess the most famous examples of social commentary through science fiction are the dystopia novels of 1984 and Brave New World. Both deal with issues that were immediate concerns at the time of writing.

1984 is a bleak and unrelenting critique of totalitarian government inspired by the abuses of Hitler and Stalin. Even those who have not read it are familiar with the terms it invented and arguably no other book has introduced more words into the vernacular: Big Brother, doublethink, doublespeak, thought-crime, thought police and more that escape my memory.

Brave New World is a slightly different kettle of fish. This focuses on the new industrial world and the worship of capitalism and industry as the new gods. There is a tone of satire about the writing style, though it is by no means humorous. In Huxley’s world, “Fordism” is the philosophy and religion on which society is based, the principles of industrialisation from production through to consumption created in the image of Henry Ford. Enforced consumerism and a “throw-it-away-for-the-greater-glory-of-the-market” attitude makes this as relevant today as it was when mass production began.

Ray Bradbury & John Wyndham – Social Science Fiction Visionaries

Ray Bradbury is the master of social commentary in scifi. He uses the mass availability of rocket technology in The Martian Chronicles as a catalyst for the civil rights movement. We may chuckle at the quaint idea that we might have in 1950s believed that by the 21st century we would wander around a showroom for a rocket for our travels as we do with cars, but the wrong-headedness of this sort of thinking is irrelevant when we consider the sort of social impact such a change in technological availability might give us. Obviously the civil rights movement was not born of technological revolution, but there are examples of social change that have come about as a result of technological advancement.

John Wyndham is another such writer, I recently discussed ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ and mulled over whether the issues that the writer tackles in that book is a critique of Communism, or of anti-Communist sentiment that would have been contemporary at the time of writing, or whether it was a critique of fear mongering in general.

His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ which has attracted much scorn from the religious right for its negative portrayal of Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church, is ultimately a fable about free will and the inherent tyrannical nature of organised religion. One of Pullman’s most vocal supporters is no less than the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Doctor Rowan Williams. Where I disagree with Williams is that he argues that the story is a critique of how religion can be corrupted by the failings of humankind, I feel that Pullman is saying that religion by its very nature is tyrannical. Further, Williams is ignoring the critique of the concept of “free will” and how HDM demonstrates that it is an illusion.

Babylon 5

Social commentary needn’t be tackling grand ideas about politics, religion or society. They can also handle smaller issues and those on a personal scale. My favourite TV series of all time is Babylon 5 and three episodes in the first series were initially not aired by the channel that showed it in the UK. They are TKO, Believers and Deathwalker.

Channel 4 refused to show TKO on the basis that it was too violent. A ‘Karate Kid’ clone about a world champion boxer looking for a new challenge, it wasn’t that good and the subject matter is irrelevant to this discussion so I will not comment further.

Believers deals with a highly delicate issue that may have been considered offensive to some religious people, particularly Jehovah’s Witnesses. The story was about a family of aliens who had recently arrived on the station looking for medical help for their sick son. Doctor Franklin explains that it is an illness that would require only a minor operation… and therein is the problem. Their religion forbids the body being cut open as it may permit an evil spirit to enter the body. At first Doctor Franklin tries to reason with them but in the end he gets frustrated and asks Commander Sinclair to make the boy a ward of the station so that the medical staff can perform the operation against the wishes of the parents.

Deathwalker is controversial in a different way. Jha’dur is the last of her species, a Dilgar. Unfortunately, she is also a war criminal responsible for horrific Mengele-esque experiments on G’Kar’s people, the Narn. When G’Kar’s aide Na’Toth attacks Jha’dur, it is revelaed that she has derailed an attempt by the Narn government to profit from some of her research. A struggle ensues between the parties on board the station to gain exclusive access to her discovery. What it is and how she achieved it is absolutely horrific but that doesn’t stop all of the races fighting for exclusive access to her elixir. Clearly, this is a simile for how the allied powers struggled against one another to gain access to Nazi technology following World War II despite that some of this technology was acquired and developed through the most inhumane and horrific means.

… And It’s Successor Battlestar Galactica (2004)

There is arguably no greater contentious issue in the world today than abortion and though Babylon 5 (as far as I can recall) never tackled the issue on-screen, its natural successor Battlestar Galactica had no such qualms as it handled the issue twice.

The first instance was when it was discovered that Sharon ‘Boomer’ Valerii was pregnant with a hybrid baby (Boomer was a cylon). There was some discussion about how they could afford the luxury of such an abomination being born. Many people were angered and there was some suggestion that Boomer, who was a prisoner at the time, and her child should not be afforded the same rights as humans. In short, they wanted to forcibly abort her baby against the parents wishes. The irony of the storyline was that the stem cells of this hybrid baby ended up saving the life of a cancer patient.

In the second storyline, we have the issue of a young girl who claims political asylum from her colony of birth and wants an abortion under Twelve Colonies law. The colony she came from was very religious, though abortion was not actually illegal. The girl wants an abortion, she has the legal right. End of, right? Actually no. The problem being that the whole premise of Battlestar Galactica is that millions of humans from 12 colonies had fled – not a war – but a genocide that no more than 40,000 humans survived. With constant military action, surprise attacks both by and against the human race, numbers are dropping faster than babies are being born. Can they any longer afford the legal luxury of aborting a healthy baby?

President Laura Roslin, who was pro-choice before, has now taken the opposite stance. I always found President Roslin a deceitful character and this episode demonstrates perfectly my reasons for having this opinion of her. You see, though she claims that her reason for opposing this abortion are purely for the numbers and the continued survival of humanity, by this point Roslin has become a bit of a cult figure to the religious groups as she is expected to fulfil a prophecy of a dying leader finding the lost 13th colony. President Roslin has fostered this view, and perhaps has even come to believe it, but either way she relies on these religious groups for votes in the upcoming Presidential election.

Battlestar Galactica also tackles suicide bombing perpetrated by both sides. In an early episode, a cylon that looks human detonates himself in a crowded hallway on board Galactica. This is the first confirmation for the survivors (though not for the audience) that there are cylons that look human. This confirmation sows discord as suspicions arise – now anybody could be a cylon.

In the third series, the shoe is on the other foot. The human colony has been discovered and they are now occupied by the Cylons. There is a resistance led by Saul Tigh and Laura Roslin… and now they are encouraging people to strap bombs to their bodies and kill as many collaborators and cylons as possible.

In the first instance we are clearly feeling the fear of what the cylons can do and how they are now undetectable. In the second instance, we are seeing it through the eyes of freedom fighters and forced to confront the morality of their actions.

Which brings me finally to the role of religion on Battlestar Galactica and the subversive criticism of it. Both the cylons and the humans have religion in which they profoundly believe, there are fanatics on both sides and both are convinced of their righteousness through their god or gods of choice. Through the evil actions perpetrated by both sides against the other in the name of religion, we are perhaps forced to ask ourselves a question that television rarely dares to confront us with: Are gods created in the image of man as an attempt to justify the horrific things we are capable of doing to each other?

I’m not finished on this issue, and I promise to return to it at a later date.

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2 responses to “Examples of Social Commentary in Science Fiction”

  1. It strikes me that social commentary in science fiction is often abused by the writers who, more often than not, gratuitously transplant contemporary social issues into the future. BSG, while I enjoyed it, suffered badly from this. Are we really meant to believe that a civilization that can create starships and intelligent machines has NOT cured cancer and perfected birth control? It seems much more likely that we will have done those things long before we create starships. No attempt is made to even try to justify why people are still getting cancer. (Or, for that matter, why they all dont have cancer from the constant onslaught of nukes). There are many examples of these kinds of inconsistencies in much of SF, and they amount to a critical failure of the imagination, or perhaps a lack of perspective (The issues of today are not nessisarily the issues of tomorrow). As a result, the messages often seem forced and heavy handed. I suspect the complaints against “message fiction” are mostly complaints against the hackeyed transposing of contemporary concerns into future senarios where it does not make sense why those concerns are still relevant. I think this is often motivated by the author’s desire to be relevant now, at the expense of creating a compelling vision of a plausible future. 1984 on the other hand, does not suffer these failings because the issues addressed are CONSISTENT with the society Orwell has created.

    1. You raise some good points, thanks. I wonder if the writers who insert contemporary issues are attempting to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. I think many people do not get that sci-fi is speculative in nature, and not just about spaceships blowing shit up and aliens with funny noses. When it really comes down to it, sci-fi is about ideas.

      When we insert elements such as terminal illness, terrorism, corporate corruption, abortion and extremist religion, we are writing about things that people can relate to now without thinking too hard about the future. We are humanising the story for as many people as possible.

      I’m not saying that’s a good or a bad thing, but I think looking at the present through the lens of sci-fi is more common now and I sometimes wish it would return to being more speculative in nature. Interstellar worked for that reason.

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