Science Fiction as Social Commentary

Despite its far flung settings and futuristic subjects, the best SF still has ties to the here and now

The very best science fiction, whether it be literature or in the movies or on television, the kinds of science fiction that resonates most strongly with the readers and viewers, is not the science fiction that merely shows us the wonders of the world of tomorrow, but the science fiction that comments on the world of today.

Despite a recent loud and disruptive movement within science fiction fan circles that proclaimed that science fiction should only focus on rocketships and rayguns, robots and whiz-bang action and decried any other type as propaganda from rabid leftist social justice warriors, science fiction and social commentary go hand in hand. It has done from the very beginning.

From the fantastic adventures of Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in 1735 to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to today’s fiction in print and on movie screens and television, science fiction that reflects and comments on current events usually has a more profound impact. Indeed, some will argue that is the very purpose of science fiction, to illuminate aspects of our world and our lives today. Science fiction holds it up to a funhouse mirror, distorts it, stretches it, and then examines it in ways that cannot be done without current cultural biases interfering. By couching a subject in the language of the rockets, rayguns and whiz-bang action, greater insights can be wrung from certain subjects and issues that are too “hot button” to talk about directly.

But how much of this is deliberate? As the aforementioned loud and noisy movement has accused the establishment of science fiction of doing so, how much of this “message” is deliberately inserted into modern science fiction as a form of “propaganda” and how much of it occurs naturally, an unavoidable by-product of writers who are keenly aware of our contemporary society’s ills and wish to provide commentary on such, if not prescribing their so-called SJW remedies?

This, it turns out, is not a new discussion. Nor is science fiction’s penchant for presenting social commentary disguised as fantastical adventures.

SOCIAL COMMENTARY

I mentioned Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels earlier. Anyone who has taken a literature course in high school or college knows that Swift’s fanciful adventure was not merely a rousing tale of a hapless traveler in far flung lands. Swift constructed his fantasy world of Lilliputians, Brobdingnagans and Houyhnhnms not as a mere distraction, but to make pointed observations about contemporary European society. He did this deliberately. Indeed, Swift himself is quoted as saying that he wrote Gulliver’s Travels “to vex the world rather than divert it”.

His criticisms of contemporary society did not impinge upon the book’s sales, fortunately. Indeed, the book became popular as soon as it was published. John Gay wrote in a 1726 letter to Swift that “It is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery.”

Mary Shelley’s debut novel, Frankenstein, is considered to be one of the first science fiction stories. The English science fiction writer Brian Aldiss has argued that it should be considered the first true science fiction story because, in contrast to previous stories with fantastical elements resembling those of later science fiction, the central character “makes a deliberate decision” and “turns to modern experiments in the laboratory” to achieve fantastic results.

But what does Frankenstein say about society? Shelley says that the world is cruel and monsters will not be tolerated but shhe also asks how will technology change us? The character of Victor Frankenstein is modern man, poised on the cusp of great discoveries that will challenge God, but also poised at the point at which we become the monsters. Victor rejects his creation, goes back to a world that does not embrace change. But change, in the form of Adam, has other ideas.

This battle with change will define the next two giants of Science Fiction: Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Verne portrays scientific change as a wondrous process that will bring adventure. He often does not show how this will affect human lives. (Captain Nemo is perhaps the closest he comes to it.) Wells rejects Verne’s naiveté and returns to Shelley’s grim view. Change will be painful. Traveling in time, becoming invisible, alien invasion, giant monsters, all will be terrible. Wells is not afraid to make social commentary, in fact, did nothing else at the same time that he predicted tank warfare, aerial bombing and other future realities. His novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau, for instance, was written as a fundraiser to stop animal vivisection. Wells moved away from narrative as he progressed, abandoning the Science Fiction adventure for proselytizing novels and non-fiction.

In the wake of World War I, society as a whole began to change in earnest. Mechanical inventions had been seen on the battlefields of Europe and now, in peacetime, they were making their way into people’s homes. Certainly the early twentieth century was not devoid of social criticism, but in the aftermath of the Great War, it was mostly in the purview of art and culture movements. The surrealists, the Dada-ists, the Bauhous movement. These were, for the most part, intellectuals talking to other intellectuals, and not making many inroads into popular culture. Indeed, that these movements set themselves aside from and opposed to popular culture was a point of pride.

But in 1920 a unique stage production in Russia was about to change all that.

ROSSUM’S UNIVERSAL ROBOTS

R.U.R. is a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer, Karel Čapek. R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). It premiered on January 25, 1921 and introduced the word “robot” to the language and to science fiction as a whole.

The word “robot”, which displaced older words such as “automaton” or “android” in languages around the world would itself become a trope that would offer science fiction writers copious opportunities to play, poke fun at, or otherwise satirize a host of society’s foibles, not the least of which, mankind’s desire for institutionalized slavery. Indeed, in Czech, robota means forced labour of the kind that serfs had to perform on their masters’ lands and is derived from the word rab, meaning “slave”.

The name Rossum is an allusion to the Czech word rozum, meaning “reason”, “wisdom”, “intellect” or “common-sense”. It has been suggested that the allusion might be preserved by translating “Rossum” as “Reason” but only the Majer/Porter version translates the word as “Reason”. R.U.R becomes one of the first examples of science fiction using a new technology and a fantastical future world to say something profound about the contemporary society from which it sprang.

The play begins in a factory that makes artificial people, called roboti (robots), from synthetic organic matter. They are not exactly robots by the current definition of the term: they are living flesh and blood creatures rather than machinery and are closer to the modern idea of clones. They may be mistaken for humans and can think for themselves. They seem happy to work for humans at first, but a robot rebellion leads to the extinction of the human race.

Again, the social commentary does not hurt R.U.R.‘s public reception. The play was successful in its day in both Europe and North America. R.U.R. quickly became famous and was influential early in the history of its publication. By 1923, it had been translated into thirty languages.

Perhaps by today’s standards using a play about mechanical creations to send the message that slavery is bad may not seem like a very controversial move. It’s pretty well de rigueur today. If you have robots or artificial people in your story, at some point you’re going to have to talk about slavery and how it is bad and how all sentient beings should be free to make their own choices, etc., etc. That message can be found in at least one episode of any of the various Star Trek iterations.

But, of course, the using of science fiction to comment on society would not end with R.U.R.

THOUGHT PROVOKING

There is a phrase that always seems to accompany science fiction of this type. “Thought provoking”. That was always kind of a code phrase that the science fiction you are about to read or see, which may have all the cool, whiz-bang trappings of science fiction that fans love, will also have a “message”

Science fiction that was described as “though provoking” could also be synonymous with “heavy handed” or worse, “boring”.

As L. W. Michaelson observed in his article for The Antioch Review in 1954, “Social Criticism in Science Fiction”: “What better way to reach the adolescent mind than with a glorious action story filled with blasters and super-rockets and energizers and what not and then carefully sandwiched in between the action, some little gems of information that will impart a perspective on our society as a whole?”

There are obvious works that can be described as “message” fiction. Orwell’s 1984 is an obvious warning against totalitarianism. Huxley’s Brave New World is a warning about the dangers of utopia.

This is in contrast to the science fiction published in popular magazines. From Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine and to the many others that popped up in its wake, science fiction was a venue for telling fantastic stories of brave industrialists who overcame society’s indifference or disbelief, and built powerful rocket ships to travel into the far reaches of space. Early science fiction tales were rightfully disregarded as little more than chewing gum for juvenile imaginations.

THE POST WAR ERA

But that began to change. In the post war era of the 1950’s, science fiction writers had transformed from happy-go-lucky champions of technology to gloomy prophets of doom. Indeed, in the nuclear era the “Frankenstein’s Monster” of the day was the atom bomb. It was a powerful and terrible weapon with devastating consequences that raised moral concerns among even the most hawkish of writers.

In this post-war era many science fiction writers felt compelled to include a healthy serving of social commentary along with the aliens, robots and ray-guns. Indeed, it was argued that science fiction was one of the few genres that could do this without too much fear of public censure.

L. W. Michaelson in his essay for “Social Criticism in Science Fiction”, makes plain that the use of science fiction as a cloak or a disguise in order to more freely speak about subjects which were not generally brought up in polite society is a deliberate and an inherent feature of the genre:

“The channeling of man’s critical sense, via science fiction, from the currently inhospitable field of the present to a more secure area of the distant future or past, is due in part to the increasing sensitivity of Americans to criticism of any kind. Al Capp, the cartoonist, noted this in his article in Life (March 31, 1952) and concluded that his comic strip, Lil’ Abner, would have to eliminate social satire entirely and concentrate upon “trivialities” and/or the matrimonial difficulties of his hero.

In regard to this sensitivity, perhaps we feel our way of life is engaged in some ceaseless competition, or is continually on trial before the eyes of an indifferent or hostile world. Thus, if the science-fiction Gulliver mentions the year 2186, or better still 3547, this sensitivity is correspondingly dulled. In other words, there is an inverse ratio to our dislike of criticism; the farther away in time and space the criticism seems to lodge, the less the irritation or concern.”

In the 1950’s science fiction had become so caught up in moralizing and philosophizing about society, that in 1951, editor Raymond J. Healy felt compelled to publish a collection of science fiction tales, New Tales of Time and Space, that were deliberately more positive and light-hearted than the majority of what had become the “message” fiction of the day. In the introduction to the book, magazine editor Anthony Boucher noted about the stories in the collection: “For all their positiveness you’ll find many of these stories markedly critical of the present state of man’s world – many of the authors markedly unconvinced that contemporary American culture is the ultimate and unchangeable Way of Life.”

The criticism of society as a whole from science fiction writers was so obvious that in 1953 conservative editor, Thomas. P. McDonnel, wrote an article for Catholic World Magazine on “The Cult of Science Fiction”. In that essay, he complains that “liberals in general are now using science fiction as a kind of intellectual underground communication system or as a semi-secret club lecture platform.”

And you thought that loud and disruptive movement was a new thing.


This is actually only about half of the article that I wrote. You can read the entire thing and more in the latest issue of DARK WORLDS QUARTERLY. Download issue # 2 for FREE right here, or click on the image below!

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Ex Machina (2015)

Ex-Machina So, I’ve been watching the science fiction films that Netflix has to offer. I started with the restored version of Metropolis and then moved on to 2013’s Gravity, but I really should have watched 2015’s EX-MACHINA after Metropolis. That’s not because it has similar themes, but it does share one major element and that is a female robot.

Where Maria from Metropolis is merely the mechanical servant of Rotwang, her inventor, here the robot is named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and her relationship with her creator, Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac) is… a little more complicated.

Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer who works for Nathan’s software company. Caleb wins a week at Nathan’s secluded home. What he is actually there for is to conduct a turing test on Nathan’s android to see if she really does possess artificial intelligence.

The discomfort begins almost right away. Nathan’s house is remote. So remote it can only be reached by helicopter. The helicopter pilot informs the hapless Caleb that the miles and miles of land that they fly over to reach the house is all owned by Nathan.The helicopter lands a distance away from the house. Caleb is instructed to just keep walking until he sees the house.

Nathan’s house has automated security which lets Caleb in. Here he meets Nathan whose aggressive physicality, his shaved head and thick black beard provides another level of discomfort for the slight framed Caleb.

He is soon introduced to Ava and the relationship between the programmer and the android begins to develop.

Naturally, all is not as it seems. Nathan, although outwardly garrulous and up-front, has many secrets. The first hint of these is a cracked glass panel. Ava is separated from Caleb by glass panels. One of these is clearly cracked from within. Caleb seems oblivious to this disquieting piece of foreshadowing, but it is certainly not lost on the viewer.

From here the creepiness factor just keeps increasing. From the claustrophobic hallways of Nathan’s underground bunker of a house that suffers unexplained power blackouts, to a mute Japanese servant (Sonoyo Mizuno) whose blatant sexuality is unabashedly, yet seemingly unconsciously, on display. Nathan’s piercing stare, his brutish physique and his constant drinking provide even more discomfort for the hapless Caleb.

In fact, the level of creepiness, the constant discomfort is so redolent in the first half of the picture that by the time Ava tells Caleb (during one of the house’s power blackouts) that he shouldn’t trust Nathan the viewer is hardly surprised.

It was at this point that I began to think about how much the scenario reminded me of the classic “gothic haunted house” story. When Caleb discovers Nathan’s earlier android models hidden behind the walls I knew that EX MACHINA wasn’t a rumination on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise,as it was a riff on the classic story of Bluebeard.

Bluebeard is a French folktale about a violent noblemen in the habit of murdering his wives. In the case of EX MACHINA the young bride is substituted for a young male programmer. Nathan is Bluebeard (It’s probably not a coincidence that Nathan’s software company is called Bluebook). There is even a sequence that parallels Bluebard giving his young wife the keys to his castle when Nathan gives Caleb a keycard. “If it doesn’t open a door, then it’s off limits. If it opens a door, then it is for you.” Nathan assures Caleb.

Instead of dead wives, Nathan is hiding older versions of the android, all of them female, all of them sexualized by Nathan and all of them abused and tortured by him until he is forced to shut them down, copy the code, wipe their memories and start again. Their derelict chassis are kept like souvenirs behind mirrored panels in Nathan’s bedroom.

But here the story changes. The heroine of the Bluebeard story is the young bride whose only ally is her sister and help, in the form of her brothers, comes when her need is greatest. Here Caleb shifts from the role of the bride to the role of the helpful brothers. Ava is the one who needs help escaping and she has used Caleb to help her in that goal. Ava even has a sister, the Japanese servant who, it turns out, is an android herself. Together they manipulate Caleb to help them kill Nathan and aid Ava’s escape from the house.

In the Bluebeard tale, the young bride ends up in possession of Bluebeard’s house. In EX MACHINA Caleb ends up in possession of Nathan’s house, although not in any way he wanted. Ava traps him inside when she makes her escape.

So, is Alex Garland’s film really about artificial intelligence? Is it really science fiction? Or is it just another slant on the old gothic tales? Evidently it is the latter as the viewer doesn’t really gain any insight into the nature of intelligence except that it does take human-like intelligence in order to lie and manipulate one’s way to freedom.

Nathan describes his house as a research facility, but it is only a modernized gothic mansion in which unspeakable events occur. It’s more a morality play than scientific treatise. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it has more superstition about it than science.

Despite a visually appealing look and some outstanding performances, EX MACHINA ended up being a bit of a disappointment.