Does Science Fiction Need to Reflect Society?

I read an article a few weeks back, and unfortunately I can’t find it now. That’s alright, because it was so full of the language of literary criticism that I almost could not understand it. Almost. So, unless you’ve taken some higher level literature courses you would probably also find it a difficult read.

The overall point of the article was that much of the Science Fiction being written today imagines a future society similar to the future societies imagined fifty years ago. We still see the archetypes of the dystopian world, the space-faring buccaneer, the science team exploring a new world, and the vastly expanding human race spreading unchecked throughout the cosmos, settling and setting up independent worlds in far flung reaches.

The writer of the article expressed the contention that these archetypes, and others common to the world of Science Fiction, are no longer logical to imagine as future possibilities with the direction our global society is going. He proposes that Science Fiction, as a genre, should not just entertain but should also inform and teach us about ourselves, about our society, and either warn against or voice in favor of a particular element or direction of our society.

In order to do so, he says, Science Fiction must accurately reflect the direction our society is heading. And he doesn’t believe the current culture of Science Fiction is doing so.

We could spend a lot of time discussing whether or not he’s right. Does current Science Fiction reflect the direction of our society? Does it not? What direction is our society headed? Can anyone know that? Most futurists (those who make a hobby/occupation of predicting what will happen in the near future) can usually only achieve about 60-80% accuracy predicting the next year. Predicting accurately what will happen in two, three, five hundred years seems an impossible feat.

So instead of trying to tackle the author’s specific contention, let’s raise a discussion on his foundational premise. Is it necessary that Science Fiction reflect the direction of culture?

Certainly, we can think of examples that have gone into history as powerful classics: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, 2001: A Space Odyssey. These, and many others, definitely reflect trends and directions in our society and teach us much about what could happen if certain things are left unchecked. They’re also extremely heavy subject matter and not something a person just picks up and reads for a little bit of diversion.

Which leads me to my point, or rather, the real question behind my discussion here: What is the purpose of Science Fiction? Is the goal to teach us about society? Or is it to entertain? Does it need to be both? Can it be just one or the other?

Many people who enjoy Science Fiction enjoy it because it offers an escape from the real world. It’s an opportunity to imagine a world beyond what I have to deal with day to day. Others just love the “gosh! wow!” thrill of imagining what life would be like centuries from today. And some do read it to learn a lesson or two about life.

So what is it for you? Do you feel Science Fiction needs to be a teaching tool? Or can it be just a diversion? Or which shade of gray would you feel most comfortable coloring it?


5 thoughts on “Does Science Fiction Need to Reflect Society?

  1. To answer your question: Yes. Science fiction can do all or any of these things and tell fine stories. I’d argue science fiction is at its best when it does all of the above. Think about some of the finest episodes of Star Trek; it not only entertains, but also comments on society. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a great adventure that also teaches (note: the book, not the movie). Serenity is not just a great movie, but comments on humans trying to make humans better.

  2. I think that Sci-Fi books should be slightly educational, but I mainly enjoy them because of their “sci-fi-ishness”. As long as you can create a good flowing sci-fi story, sure it can be educational.

  3. There’s a false dichotomy in there somewhere (as Luke suggests). So the “literary criticism” guy was arguing that only a very narrow, “realistic” projection of our future society can teach us anything about ourselves and our reaction to the world around us.

    Actually, this strikes me as very odd, given that modern literature and “realistic” aren’t exactly synonyms.

  4. I’d concur with the thoughts you all have come up with on this, that it seems more a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”.

    The author of the article specifically addressed the fact that many of the archetypes hinge on a more individualistic culture, and it was his contention that the human race has, as a species, evolved beyond the mindset that individualism is ideal. He believes that there is a growing sense of community and socialist outlook, and that archetypes like the starship captain and his privateering crew, or the independent planet with its own government, are not possible outgrowths of the direction of our cultural evolution.

    Now, I disagree with the idea that we’re becoming more socialist or communist as a people; if anything the last century has shown us a number of examples of the failure of this philosophy, the most recent being the utter bankruptcy of the majority of Europe. But my first reaction was, “Who wants to read about a communist federation of planets?” Unless, of course, it was to demonstrate the negative implications of that kind of system, which was not, I believe, what the author of the article was looking for.

    And it was that question, “Who wants to read about that?” that made me start to question the original premise. How much does Science Fiction need to accurately reflect our culture?

    I like the viewpoints that have been shared. I think that Science Fiction can very well teach us a lot about humanity, about ourselves, and about our culture, without being the least bit “realistic”.

    A recent example might be “The Elephants of Posnan” by Orson Scott Card. In the story it’s revealed that humanity was in fact a genetic experiment by the sentient elephants of prehistory, designed to cull certain other animal species that were harmful to elephant culture. Obviously, the very idea is at its face value ridiculous, certainly not realistic. But through such an imaginative story Card manages to say a lot about humanity. And it’s entertaining.

    So, I guess I come down where you all did: I don’t think anyone would argue that it shouldn’t be entertaining (because who wants to read something that’s not entertaining?), but it also ought to teach us something. However, it doesn’t need to be realistic to be insightful. And quite frankly, I think that the archetypes we have in Science Fiction are part of what makes it lovable and memorable, because it speaks to the adventurous spirit in all of us.

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