Entry updated 13 September 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Sociology is the systematic study of society and social relationships. The word was coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was then that the first attempts were made to divorce studies of society employing the scientific method, on the one hand, from dogmatic political and ethical presuppositions, on the other. Social studies in a more general sense have, of course, a much longer history, going back to Plato. Sociology and sf have a common precursor in Utopian philosophy, which often used literary forms – most commonly the imaginary voyage – for the imaginative modelling of ideal societies (see Fantastic Voyages; Proto SF). The evaluation and criticism of such models may be regarded as a crude form of hypothesis-testing. As utopian fiction evolved, more reliance was placed on literary techniques; the modelling of characters and personal relationships became a means of evaluating the "quality of life" in these hypothetical societies. The increasing use of such purely literary strategies in the late nineteenth century is also highly relevant to the evolution of Dystopian images of the future.
Insofar as sf involves the construction of hypothetical societies, both human and nonhuman, it is an implicitly sociological literature and many observers – including Isaac Asimov – have described the sophistication of Genre SF encouraged by John W Campbell Jr in terms of its becoming "more sociological". Any assumptions which are consciously or unconsciously deployed in the building of hypothetical societies are sociological hypotheses, and any attempt to construct a narrative which analyses or tracks changes within imaginary societies is a form of sociological theorizing. This is very rarely the primary purpose of sf writers, of course, but it is a significant aspect of their work. The investigation of "sociological themes" in sf has to be an examination of the fruits of this process rather than an exploration of the influence of academic sociology itself upon sf, because such influence is clearly negligible. Even works of sf which mirror formal sociological hypotheses – such as Keith Roberts's Pavane (coll of linked stories 1968), which recalls the thesis of Max Weber (1864-1920) that a complicit relationship connects the Protestant Ethic and the rise of capitalism, in its depiction of an Alternate History in which modern Europe remains under Catholic domination – almost invariably do so unconsciously. Some sf writers have borrowed extensively from academic Anthropology in constructing Alien societies, but almost all have preferred to rely upon their own intuitive judgements regarding human society and social relationships.
Some sf stories are quite straightforward thought-experiments in sociology: Philip Wylie's The Disappearance (1951), Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) and Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) are notable examples investigating issues of sexual politics, while the brief account of a factory-society run according to the tenet of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (1957) aspires to prove the impracticability of socialism. Poul Anderson's "The Helping Hand" (May 1950 Astounding) carefully compares the fortunes of two conquered cultures, one of which accepts economic aid from its conquerors while the other – the "control group" – does not. Many of the classics of UK Scientific Romance – including Grant Allen's The British Barbarians (1895), J D Beresford's The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935) and Eden Phillpotts's Saurus (1938) – introduce an outside observer into a society in order to evaluate its merits and faults "objectively". If the society is contemporary, then the observer must be an sf artefact, like Allen's time-travelling anthropologist, Beresford's and Stapledon's Supermen, and Phillpotts's alien; if the society is exotic then an ordinary human being will do. Such social displacements are a staple strategy of Satire, another common precursor of sociology and sf; works like the fourth book of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) and The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1828) by Benjamin Disraeli can embody scathing social criticism. Other modern sf novels using this strategy include Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1990) and Robert Silverberg's The Masks of Time (1968; vt Vornan-19). An interesting Mainstream novel in which sociologists investigate a cult whose Mythology is science-fictional in kind is Imaginary Friends (1967) by Alison Lurie (1926-2020). Stories of the type that construct hypothetical "human studies" projects for alien sociologists – like S P Somtow's Mallworld (1981) and Karen Joy Fowler's "The Poplar Street Study" (June 1985 F&SF) and "The View from Venus" (in Artificial Things, coll 1986) – tend to be darkly humorous and satirical.
The quasiscientific activities featured in these kinds of sf are impracticable in the real world (although there are analogues in cultural anthropology) both because culture-bound sociologists find it virtually impossible to become "objective observers" and because they cannot construct actual societies by way of experiment. Natural scientists do not, for the most part, encounter problems of these kinds, and so the relationship between the social sciences and speculative fiction is markedly different from that involving the natural sciences; that is, sociological fiction may try to accomplish what the practical science cannot, and thus is a generator of ideas rather than a borrower. Ideas from speculative fiction are occasionally "fed back" into ways of thinking about the real world: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have had considerable influence on attitudes to social trends and actual political rhetoric. Some modern social theorists have built literary models to dramatize their theories, notably B F Skinner in Walden Two (1948) and Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). Where Skinner's work is a utopia, Young's is a Dystopia – he promotes his own ideas by displaying the folly of opposite ideas in action. The US sociologist Richard Ofshe compiled an anthology of sf stories, with appropriate commentary, as a textbook on The Sociology of the Possible (anth 1970); John Milstead, Martin H Greenberg, Joseph D Olander and Patricia S Warrick's Sociology Through Science Fiction (anth 1974) and Social Problems Through Science Fiction (anth 1975) are similar but less competent.
The simple classification of hypothetical societies into satires, utopias and dystopias serves moderately well for models built outside genre sf, but Genre-SF writers are very rarely concerned with trying to design ideal societies, and, although they do have a tendency to offer dire polemical warnings about the way the world is going, the extent to which their visions may be described as satirical or dystopian has also been exaggerated. Sf writers often try to envisage forms of society which are quite simply conceivable; they invent for the sheer joy of invention, and often it does them some disservice to invoke the commonplace category labels. For example, although the first significant model of a purely hypothetical society, H G Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901), has definite dystopian aspects, such a classification would be too narrow, and the same is true of many subsequent novels which take the ant-nest as their model (see Hive Minds).
Another interesting early example of a hypothetical society which is really neither a satire nor a dystopia is The Revolt of Man (1882) by Walter Besant, the prototype of a whole subgenre of stories depicting female-dominated societies. Its assumptions regarding the structure and fortunes of the society clearly reveal the main tenets of Victorian male chauvinism, and it makes an interesting comparison with more recent explorations of the same theme, including Edmund Cooper's Five to Twelve (1968), Robert Bloch's Ladies' Day (1968 dos) and Thomas Berger's Regiment of Women (1973). This is one of the commonest themes in social modelling. Its early phases are tracked by Sam Moskowitz in When Women Rule (anth 1972), and further relevant fictions include J D Beresford's Goslings (1913; vt A World of Women), Owen Johnson's The Coming of the Amazons (1931), Philip Wylie's The Disappearance (1951), Richard Wilson's The Girls from Planet 5 (1955), John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" (in Sometime, Never, anth 1956, ed anon), Charles Eric Maine's World without Men (1958; vt Alph), Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet (1959) and Edmund Cooper's Who Needs Men (1972; vt Gender Genocide). Sf stories in which the social roles associated with the sexes are in some fashion revised have become a highly significant instrument of ideative exploration in the hands of Feminist writers. Outstanding works of this kind include Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In the UK The Women's Press has an sf line, and many of the books published by the radical lesbian Onlywomen Press are sf.
Both The Revolt of Man and The First Men in the Moon show "distorted societies" constructed by altering a single variable in a quasi-experimental fashion. Outside Genre SF such distortions are almost always invoked for dystopian or satirical ends, but inside the genre distortion often seems to be an end in itself. Alien societies have been used in sf for satirical purposes – Stanton A Coblentz made a habit of it in such works as The Blue Barbarians (Summer 1931 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1958) and Hidden World (March-May 1935 Wonder Stories as "In Caverns Below"; 1957) – but this is comparatively rare. The most memorable nonhuman societies in sf – they are so numerous that any list has to be highly selective – reflect a far more open-minded kind of creativity: Clifford D Simak's City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981), L Sprague de Camp's Rogue Queen (1951), Philip José Farmer's The Lovers (August 1952 Startling; exp 1961), James Blish's "A Case of Conscience" (September 1953 If; exp 1958), Poul Anderson's War of the Wing-Men (1958; with restored text vt The Man Who Counts 1978) and The People of the Wind (1973), Brian W Aldiss's The Dark Light Years (1964), Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves (March/April-May-June 1972 Galaxy; 1972), Stanley Schmidt's The Sins of the Fathers (1976), David J Lake's The Right Hand of Dextra (1977), Ian Watson's and Michael Bishop's Under Heaven's Bridge (1981), Phillip Mann's The Eye of the Queen (1982) and Timothy Zahn's A Coming of Age (1985). Distorted human societies are even more numerous, but some notable examples are: Wyman Guin's "Beyond Bedlam" (August 1951 Galaxy), Frederik Pohl's and C M Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953), James E Gunn's The Joy Makers (fixup 1961), Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao (1958), Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage (July 1963 If as "Down to the Worlds of Men"; exp 1968), John Jakes's Mask of Chaos (1970), Robert Silverberg's A Time of Changes (1971), Samuel R Delany's Triton (1976), Luděk Pešek's A Trap for Perseus (1976; trans 1980), George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979), Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix (1985), Keith Roberts's Kiteworld (1985) and Philip José Farmer's Dayworld (1985). Implicit in all these stories, whatever their immediate dramatic purpose, are arguments about directions and limits of social possibility.
One of the commonest forms of sociological thought-experiment in sf is that of taking society apart and building it up again. Many stories of this type are discussed in the sections on Disaster, Holocaust and Post-Holocaust; classic examples include S Fowler Wright's Deluge (1928) and Dawn (1929), George R Stewart's Earth Abides (1949) and Walter M Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz (April 1955-February 1957 F&SF; fixup 1960). The pattern of social disintegration is subject to detailed scrutiny in William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), while the building of a society from scratch is satirically featured in E C Large's Dawn in Andromeda (1956). Investigations of the theme range in character from outright Horror stories to Robinsonades, often steering a very uneasy course between realism and romanticism.
Many particular fields within sociology are not widely reflected in sf, but there is an abundance of stories bearing upon issues in the sociology of Religion, including Heinlein's "If This Goes On –" (February-March 1940 Astounding; rev in Revolt in 2100 coll 1953), Bertrand Russell's "Zahatopolk" (in Nightmares of Eminent Persons, coll 1954), Miller Jr's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Anderson's "The Problem of Pain" (February 1973 F&SF) and Gerald Jonas's "The Shaker Revival" (February 1970 Galaxy). There is no such abundance of stories relating to the sociology of science, largely because most sf – unlike most mundane fiction – treats religion sceptically and science reverently; but Asimov's The Gods Themselves includes some shrewd observations on the working of the community of Scientists, as does Howard L Myers's pointed comedy "Out, Wit!" (June 1972 Analog). An interesting exercise in hypothetical applied sociology is featured in Katherine MacLean's "The Snowball Effect" (September 1952 Galaxy), in which a sociologist draws up an incentive scheme which permits the Watashaw Ladies Sewing Circle to recruit the entire world (the technique later became known in the real world as "pyramid selling"). The definitive sf exercise in the sociology of Politics is Mike Resnick's vivid account of the Colonization and subsequent "liberation" of Paradise (1989). Sociologists working in the field of demography play a key role in Hilbert Schenck's curious Timeslip romance, A Rose for Armageddon (1982), although they rarely feature in stories of Overpopulation.
The marked shift in the emphasis of genre sf away from scientific hardware towards sociological issues has had several causes. Sheer literary sophistication is one; the expansion of the sf audience to take in many readers (and writers) who have little scientific education is another. It also reflects a growing awareness of the pace of social change and of insistent challenges to social values which were once supported by wider consensus. Elementary features of social organization like the family are increasingly subject to the erosions of individual liberty. Commonplace social problems like crime (see Crime and Punishment) and care of the aged and the sick are becoming magnified – ironically, by virtue of the very success of the technologies which have been brought to bear on the problems. The fact that social situations do and will determine the context in which scientific inventions are and will be made and used was frequently glossed over by early sf writers, but is now clearly recognized. The slowly but steadily growing interest in sf may be a symptom of wider recognition of the acceleration of social change and the imaginative utility of sociological thought-experiments; if so, the academic study of sf (see SF in the Classroom) might perhaps be a matter more suited to sociologists than to students of literature per se. [BS]
- Richard Ofshe, editor. The Sociology of the Possible (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970) [anth: hb/nonpictorial]
- Martin H Greenberg, John W Milstead, Joseph D Olander and Patricia Warrick, editors. Sociology Through Science Fiction (New York: St Martin's Press, 1974) with [anth: Through Science Fiction: hb/]
- Martin H Greenberg, John W Milstead, Joseph D Olander and Patricia Warrick, editors. Social Problems Through Science Fiction (New York: St Martin's Press, 1975) [anth: Through Science Fiction: hb/]
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