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Entry updated 15 October 2021. Tagged: Theme.


From the earliest days of Proto SF, satire was its prevailing mode, and this inheritance was evident even after sf proper began in the nineteenth century. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as literary work "in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule". Proto sf is seldom interested in imagining the societies of other worlds or future times for their own sake; most proto sf of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (by, for example, Cyrano de Bergerac, Daniel Defoe, Francis Godwin, Eliza Haywood, Robert Paltock, Restif de la Bretonne and Jonathan Swift) created imaginary settings, commonly on Islands or on the Moon, as a kind of convenient blank slate upon which various societies satirizing the writer's own could be inscribed – commonly a travesty of some particular aspect of it (still a common strategy in sf by Mainstream Writers and in Genre SF as well). Therefore, by extension, satire is ancestral to the Dystopia, and even the Utopia often contains satirical elements. Many critics believe that Sir Thomas More intended the reader to take some aspects of Utopia (1516 in Latin; trans 1551) with a grain of salt. The satire may also take the form of debunking other kinds of literature, as in The True History (second century CE) by Lucian. The wonderful exaggerations of this story poke fun at travellers' tales generally, though its zestful telling suggests a certain sympathy with the inquisitive mind which dotes on such imaginings.

It is almost impossible to write a work of fiction set in another world – be it some alien place or our own world in another time – which does not make some sort of statement about the writer's own real world. Thus most sf bears at least a family resemblance to satire. In his critical study New Maps of Hell (1960), Kingsley Amis argued that dystopian satire rather than technological extrapolation is central to sf (perhaps because his own fiction is largely satirical). It is an easy argument to support, at least in terms of the number of texts that can be cited as evidence.

Samuel Butler and Mark Twain were supreme among the prominent satirists of the nineteenth century who used sf imagery to make their points; even when we turn to the work of writers considered more central to the development of modern sf, such as Jules Verne and H G Wells, we find the satirical element prominent. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), for example, focuses in large part on the relationship of the working classes and the leisured classes, and The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) can be read as an ironic tale in which the UK, the great, technologically advanced colonizing power of the day, is herself subjected to colonization by a technological superior. Satire need not be good-humoured (indeed, that brand of satire said to be descended from Juvenal [AD 60-circa 130] is commonly biting), and both these works by Wells are notably savage, especially The War of the Worlds in its portrait of a demoralized and cowardly population.

Among the mainstream writers of the twentieth century who have written important sf satires are Anthony Burgess, Karel Čapek, Anatole France, Aldous Huxley, André Maurois, George Orwell, Gore Vidal and Evelyn Waugh. It would be impossible to list the innumerable sf satires by less-known writers, but we can pick out Archibald Marshall's Upsidonia (1915), Owen Johnson's The Coming of the Amazons (1931), Frederick Philip Grove's Consider Her Ways (1947) and Stefan Themerson's Professor Minaa's Lecture (1953). The latter two contain many pungent comments on human society by insect intelligences, both being examples of one of the most popular satiric strategies in sf: the use of an alien perspective to allow us to see our own institutions in a fresh light. Indeed, there is a sense in which all satire depends upon just such reversals of perspective, which sf is peculiarly well fitted to supply; satire forces us to look at familiar aspects of our lives with a fresh vision, so that all their absurdity or horror is, so to speak, framed, as in a picture. Jonathan Swift used intelligent horses in Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735), Voltaire a visiting giant alien from Sirius in Micromegas (in Le Micromégas de Mr. de Voltaire ..., coll 1752; trans anon 1753), Grant Allen a man from the future in The British Barbarians (1895), Lester Lurgan a visiting Martian in A Message From Mars (1912) and Eden Phillpotts a visiting alien lizard in Saurus (1938). (The same strategy is now common in sf television comedy; e.g., My Favorite Martian [1963-1966], Mork & Mindy [1978-1982] and ALF [1986-1990].) Aside from visiting aliens and future dystopias there are many other strategies for producing such shifts of perspective. One such is evident in The Stepford Wives (1972) by Ira Levin, filmed as The Stepford Wives (1975): sexist masculine attitudes are satirized in a thriller centring on the attractions of passive, substitute robot wives. Indeed, the satirical creation of imaginary societies in which the horrors of our own are writ large is especially common in feminist sf (see Feminism), as in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985).

Robots are often used in sf satire for a different reason: for their innocence. Because robots are, in theory, not programmed with prejudices, and are given simple ethical systems, they may have a childlike purity that cuts through rationalizations and sophistications. In Philip K Dick's Now Wait for Last Year (1966), for example, the hero's moral quandary is amusingly but touchingly resolved by advice from a robot taxi-cab. Children in SF are occasionally used in a similar manner. Both these are simply special cases of the "innocent-observer" strategy first popularized by Voltaire in Candide (1759), in which a naive man, with few expectations of life and a likeable character, is consistently abused and exploited in his travels. Modern sf examples include The Sirens of Titan (1959) by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, in which the hero is a millionaire brainwashed into innocence on Mars, and Robert Sheckley's Journey Beyond Tomorrow (1962; vt Journey of Joenes 1978), where the traveller is a naive islander who has a terrible time in a future USA. Sheckley was for a time among the finest genre-sf satirists, and a great deal of his work depends on the introduction of a similar innocent viewpoint.

Satire is not only a matter of imaginary societies and shifts in perspective; it has a great deal to do with narrative tone, which cannot generally afford to be too hectoring or sarcastic, or the reader simply feels bludgeoned. An air of mild surprise is often considered appropriate, though commonly the narrator's voice is ironic or sardonic, a good example of the latter being found in a collection which contains several satirical sf fables, Sardonic Tales (coll trans 1927), assembled from Contes Cruels (coll 1883) by Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, after whose collection this whole mode of writing is often known as "contes cruels" or "cruel tales". Further examples of this chilling subgenre can be found in the work of John Collier, Roald Dahl and sometimes Howard Fast. In genre sf it characterizes the excellent work of John T Sladek, who shifts skilfully between the mock-innocent and the ironic in his stories, nearly all of which are satire.

The standard of satire within genre sf was not very high before the 1950s, though numerous pulp writers from Stanton A Coblentz to L Sprague de Camp wrote occasionally in this vein. One of the earliest sf writers to excel here was, especially in his short stories, Henry Kuttner (whose work, even when signed Kuttner, was often written collaboratively with C L Moore). Short, satirical sf stories found a natural home in the early 1950s when the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction opened up a new market. The best of the Galaxy satirists were probably Damon Knight, C M Kornbluth, Frederik Pohl, Sheckley and William Tenn. As satirical collaborators, Pohl and Kornbluth specialized in dystopian stories which extrapolated displeasing aspects of present-day life into the future: the world of Advertising was pilloried in both The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953) and Pohl's much later solo effort, The Merchants' War (1984), and of organized sport in Gladiator-at-Law (June-August 1954 Galaxy; 1955; rev 1986). It was the turn of insurance companies in Preferred Risk (June-September 1955 Galaxy; 1955) by Pohl and Lester del Rey writing together as Edson McCann. Another sharp anti-advertising book is The Big Ball of Wax (1954) by Shepherd Mead; and much of the amusing but occasionally heavy-handed satire of Ron Goulart is directed against the ad-man's mentality, and the Media Landscape generally. Lois McMaster Bujold's take on this trope of the world being run by a particular metastasized industry is the only mutedly satirical Cryoburn (2010), featuring shenanigans on a planet dominated by competing Cryonics corporations.

In the 1960s and 1970s the magazine New Worlds published many writers whose satirical skills tended more towards a rather dry irony than to overt anger or even jovial sarcasm. Notable among these were Brian W Aldiss, Thomas M Disch and the editor himself, Michael Moorcock, whose most directly satirical sequence is Dancers at the End of Time, beginning with An Alien Heat (1972). US satire, too, became less broad than before. The amusing but obvious satire of Fritz Leiber's The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962) and A Specter Is Haunting Texas (July-September 1968 Galaxy; 1969) gave ground to the work of writers like Barry N Malzberg and James Tiptree Jr, who (in completely different ways) also preferred a lower-key irony (through which in both cases a ferocious bitterness is visible) and in whose works the satirical was only one of several elements. Pure satires were becoming comparatively rare in sf by the 1970s, although Peter Dickinson's The Green Gene (1973) and Richard Cowper's Clone (1972) are examples; the latter is another story in the Candide pattern. Some important satirical work issued from the Communist bloc, notably that of Stanisław Lem in, especially, Cyberiada (coll 1965; trans as The Cyberiad 1974) and "Kongres Futurologiczny" (1971; trans as The Futurological Congress 1974), where the savagery of the wit is Swift-like.

The sf Cinema has flirted with satire quite often. The best-known examples are probably Planet of the Apes (1968), Sleeper (1973) and Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963); others are The President's Analyst (1967), Westworld (1973), The Stuff (1985), Terrorvision (1986), Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) and Meet the Applegates (1990). Dawn of the Dead (1977; vt Zombie) is unusual in marrying satire to Horror, especially in its central image of Zombies shambling around a shopping mall. Strange Invaders (1983) manages to combine an exciting alien-invasion story with considerable satire on the USA of the 1950s (a cultural era into whose behaviour patterns the aliens have been frozen) and of the 1980s (when they attempt to act).

In general satire during the 1970s-1980s was perhaps less visible in genre sf than in borderline-sf Fabulations (including some by John Calvin Batchelor, William Burroughs, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, Carol Emshwiller, Alasdair Gray, Jerzy Kosinski, Thomas Pynchon and Josephine Saxton – the list could be considerably extended). While genre sf continues to take the form of pure satire comparatively rarely, satirical elements are common in seemingly nonsatirical genre novels, especially perhaps in the work of writers for whom irony is an important part of their vision, such as Iain Banks, Terry Bisson, George Alec Effinger, M John Harrison, John Kessel, James Morrow, Rudy Rucker and Howard Waldrop. Not that irony and satire can be read as isomorphic: Gene Wolfe and John Crowley, for example, are ironists almost always, satirists almost never. [PN/DRL]

see also: Comic Inferno; Humour; Parody; Sociology; Taboos.

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