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Social science fiction is a term used to describe a subgenre of science fiction concerned less with technology and space opera and more with sociological speculation about human society. In other words, it "absorbs and discusses anthropology", and speculates about human behavior and interactions.

Exploration of fictional societies is one of the most interesting aspects of science fiction, allowing it to perform predictive (H.G. Wells, The Final Circle of Paradise) and precautionary (Fahrenheit 451) functions, to criticize the contemporary world (Antarctica-online) and to present solutions (Walden Two), to portray alternative societies (World of the Noon) and to examine the implications of ethical principles (the works of Sergey Lukyanenko).

Social science fiction in English

Some roots of the genre may lie in such social speculations as utopian and dystopian fiction, which could be considered as extreme special cases of the genre.

One of the first writers who used science fiction to explore sociological topics was H.G. Wells, with his classic The Time Machine (1895) revealing the human race diverging into separate branches of Elois and Morlocks as a consequence of class inequality: a happy pastoral society of Elois preyed upon by the Morlocks but yet needing them to keep their world functioning. The Sleeper Awakes (1899, 1910) predicted the spirit of the 20th century, technically advanced, undemocratic and bloody.

In the U.S. the new trend of science fiction away from gadgets and space opera and toward speculation about the human condition was championed in pulp magazines of the 1940s by authors such as Robert A. Heinlein and by Isaac Asimov, who coined the term social science fiction to describe his own work. The term is not often used today except in the context of referring specifically to the changes that took place in the 1940s, but the subgenre it defines is still a mainstay of science fiction.

Many of the best known dystopias were inspired by reality: Aldous Huxley's "negative utopia" Brave New World (1932) and, alluding to the Soviet Unionmarker, Animal Farm (1945) and the Western world in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell. In 1921 Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote his bitter novel We, forecasting the "victory of forces of reason over forces of kindness" in Soviet Russia; prior to perestroika it was known only in the West and influenced both Orwell and Huxley. "The thought-destroying force" of McCarthyism influenced Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953).

The Chrysalids (1955) by John Wyndham explored the society of several telepathic children in a world hostile to such differences. Robert Sheckley studied polar civilizations of criminal and stability in his 1960 novel The Status Civilization.

The modern era of social science fiction began with the 1960s, when authors such as Harlan Ellison, Brian Aldiss, and Ursula K. Le Guin wrote novels and stories that reflected real-world political developments. Ellison's main theme was the protest against increasing militarism. LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) explored non-traditional sexual relations. Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which used the science fiction theme of time-travel to explore anti-war, moral, and sociological themes. Frederik Pohl's series Gateway (1977 — 2004) combined social science fiction with hard science fiction. Among the finest modern exponents of social science fiction in the Campbellian/Heinlein tradition is L. Neil Smith, who is considered the heir to Robert A. Heinlein's individualism and libertarianism in science fiction, and who wrote both The Probability Broach (1981) and Pallas, which dealt with alternative "sideways in time" futures and what a libertarian society would look like.

Kim S. Robinson explored different models of the future in Three Californias Trilogy (1984, 1988, 1990).

The Saga of Recluce (1991 — now), by L. E. Modesitt, Jr. represents a fusion of science fiction and fantasy that can be described as social science fiction. The 13 books of the series describe the changing relationships between two technologically advanced cultures and the cultures of a primitive world to which each is involuntarily transported. Themes of gender stereotyping, sexism, ethics, economics, environmentalism and politics are explored in the course of the series, which examines the world through the eyes of all its protagonists.

Doris Lessing won the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature. Although mostly known for her mainstream works, she wrote numerous notable works of social science fiction, including Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), Briefing for a Descent into hell (1971) the Canopus in Argos series (1974-1983), and The Cleft (2007).

The genre in the Eastern Bloc

All science fiction of the Sovietmarker era had to subscribe to communist ideology, or else the author could face serious consequences — from a ban against being published to death under Stalin, imprisonment or psychiatric treatment under Brezhnev. There were poor and opportunistic works, there were works of talent touched by ideology (e.g. 1923 Aelita or 1926 The Garin Death Ray by Alexei Tolstoy), there were non-ideological works describing the happy future of humankind (some works of Kir Bulychev and Ivan Efremov), but also such writers as Bulgakov, Shvarts and Strugatsky who chose the hard way of "balancing" on the edge, struggling not to betray their views while avoiding punishment for expressing them.

The 1920s brought Platonov and Zamyatin, but it was not until the time of Perestroika that their works were published in the Soviet Union.

One exception is an example of critique under Stalin — Evgeny Shvarts play The Dragon (1944), showing how totalitarianism thrusts its roots into the hearts of the people.

The next period of science fiction in the Soviet Union was shaped by the greater liberalization of the Khrushchev regime, advances of science, and the beginning of the space age.

In 1957 Ivan Efremov wrote the utopian Andromeda, revealing a harmonious space-exploring civilization of the distant future, whose culture took much from antique art. His further works included Razor's Edge (1963) emphasizing narrowness of the way of successful development of a civilization, and the dystopian The Bull's Hour (1968).

Amongst the best known social science fiction is the Noon Universe of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, designed to be a future world of "communism", where creative work is considered the highest purpose, but unlike utopian worlds, Noon Universe is settled by real people. The rise of reaction, initiated by Khrushchev's public criticism of modern art and literature in 1963, showed to Strugatsky that "while for us communism was a world of freedom and creativity, for them it was the society, in which the population fulfilled immediately and with pleasure all precepts of the Party and the government". This largely affected their Hard to be a God (1963).

Suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 ultimately ruined Strugatsky's dreams about the Soviet rule. Another Noon Universe novel, Prisoners of Power (1969), somehow alluding to Soviet Unionmarker describes Maxim Kammerer, crashed on an unknown planet in the wrecked Land of Fathers, and his attempt to destroy the system of transmission which deprived his new friends of ability of critical thinking.

Social science fiction turned out to be a powerful means to respond to real situation in communist countries. While communist rules didn't allow any critique, one of possibilities was to veil it as that some science fiction-ish world. In the 1980s the genre called 'sociological fantasy' (fantastyka sociologiczna) arose in the People's Republic of Poland. It focused on the development of societies, generally dominated by totalitarian governments. This genre was represented by writers like Janusz A. Zajdel (Limes Inferior, Paradyzja), Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński (Apostezjon trilogy), Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg or Marek Oramus. Books from that genre were based in different times (usually in future), and usually were pretext for analysing structures of the described societies, having been full of allusions to reality. After the revolutions of 1989, when using real world examples became as safe in former Eastern Bloc countries as in their Western counterparts, this genre mostly transformed itself into a political fiction, represented by writers such as Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz.

Post-Soviet social science fiction

Anti-communism was a sort of national idea in Russiamarker only for several years — it was well explored, so usually only small amounts of it can be found:

  • Arrows of Perun with separable warheads, a 1994 novella by Braider and Chadovich depicts a small totalitarian state, founded by personnel of a Soviet missile shaft.
  • Search for designation or Twenty seventh theorem of ethics (1994) and Devil amongst people (1991) are late novels of Strugatsky, exploring often the tragic Soviet epoch.
  • Evgeny Lukin's [152743] 2000 novel Scarlet aura of a protopartorg is set in a "horizontal" world of little peer countries — debris of collapsed Russia. Background involves satire on Russian politicians and PR battles of 1990s — lie and truth means nothing, but people's trust does. Totalitarian Christian Orthodox Communists and democratic League of Wizards use different methods to gain popularity, which in turn gives them a magical ability to commit marvels. The action concerns intrigues between two states which reveal more similarities than may seem.
  • Vyacheslav Rybakov in 2003 novel In the adjacent year in Moscow explores a sickening world of Russia torn apart into tiny countries, ruled by Darths and Vaders of the West and having no own sincere desires. Rybakov lais emphasis on culture studies and a trial to regain national unity and idea, as an old scientist Ivan Obiwankin goes in a mission to install an anti-gravity device on the old Buran shuttle.

An important study of consumer capitalism on the Russian soil was carried by Victor Pelevin, who described Russian "wild capitalism" in his 1999 Generation "П", and continued this theme, describing the situation in his 2006 novel Empire V as "anonymous dictatorship", aimed to trap people's minds in a rush for riches.

Since disbandment of KGBmarker in 1991, dissident trend in science fiction transformed as well. Government in 1999 Rejection (Wybrakovka) by Oleg Divov responded on rise of crime in 1990s by creating the service rejecting millions criminals out of life; the book raised discussions which hardly subsided now (inaccurate quote of the main hero, "the world envies Slavian Union, because it's the only country where human rights are really guaranteed — but rights of law-abiding citizens."). Hero of Sergey Lukyanenko's Spectrum (2002) prefers not to seek troubles cooperating with FSB, though taking it half-ironically (Or do you consider that government is able to exist without counterintelligence?). Looking broader, society ruled by intelligence services disturbs citizens, but democracy is unable to react on sharp threats, as shown in the duology Soft Landing, Year of the Lemming by Alexander Gromov. But what about personal freedom? Here comes a revelation, because it's a function not only of condition of society but of person's will as well. As a polar case, Pavel Gusev considers himself free in harsh world of Divov's Rejection. Freedom doesn't make happier lives of several male refugee's in matriarchal world of Gromov's The First of the Mohicans, but it makes them people; the male oppositioner finds it possible to fight for this world against alien threat, remembering Helots who became mentally free fighting for Spartians. Moreover, true democracy may be build only by responsible people able to refresh the tree of liberty with their blood, as Gromov showd in Antarctica-online. This approaches theme of individualism; world dying since people's assurance there's definitely someone to care for them is theme of several late stories by Leonid Kaganov. However this fails to be the essence of modern Russian sci-fi, only a slice cut in this plane.

Social science fiction as investigation of various social systems without evident political subtext is well represented in works of many writers, such as Alexander Gromov, Sergey Lukyanenko (Knights of Forty Islands, The Stars Are Cold ToysStar Shadow), Marina and Sergey Dyachenko. In some sense writers prolongate human-centered tradition of Russian classic literature of XIX century in contemporary themes and prose.

"Eurochinese humanist" Holm van Zaichik (pen name of Vyacheslav Rybakov and Igor Alimov) is known for the world of Orduss, a fictionary country unifying China, Russia, Near East, forming a humane society with rich culture.

Examples of social science fiction from the 1940s


  1. " Archaeology in Fiction, Stories, and Novels". May 28, 2008
  2. In his essay appearing in Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future (ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1953).
  3. Boris Strugatsky, Comments to the traversed, 1961-1963

Further reading

  • Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, eds. Reginald Bretnor and John Wood Campbell, 2nd edition, 1979, ISBN 0-911682-23-6.

See also

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