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Lazette Gifford, Editor
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Sociological Science Fiction Defined

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2004, Margaret McGaffey Fisk


As a reader, my genre preferences are quite broad, and range from romance to science fiction, and from fantasy to the adventures of British sea captains.  Similarly, when a story comes to me as a writer, it is first a story and only second a genre piece.  That said, I have a specific area I seek out in both my reading and writing.  My preference is for sociological science fiction.  The trouble is that this genre (or really subgenre) is hard to define and I've found the title means different things to different people.  Therefore, this article presents my definition of sociological science fiction along with some sample authors.  To understand the distinction, though, first let me parse through science fiction as I see it.

Just as the fantasy genre includes elves, wizards, nature magic, blood magic and talking animals, so too does science fiction have its own sections.  The broadest distinction I've found is between hard and soft science fiction.  Hard science fiction includes physics, mechanics, biology and other sciences where the results are supposedly predictable whether the science is pulled from thin air or extrapolated from existing research.  Soft science fiction focuses on the intangible sciences, such as psychology and anthropology.  Where hard science fiction looks at how a character uses a particular gadget or discovery, soft science fiction is more likely to look at the gadget's impact on a society or how a person reacts to the discovery.

Now, before I get any deeper, I want to make it clear these categories are all about generalizations.  Books and short stories may cross over several of these categories and the best ones often do.  The current focus on characterization shows a trend away from "my pretty gadget" stories and toward stories exploring human nature and reactions.

To get to my favorite subgenre of sociological science fiction, I have to parse science fiction even further.  This subgenre, in my opinion, takes the soft science of anthropology and explores how people exist and react in alien societies or human societies where science has caused significant change.  While the focus is on people and individuals, it is against a deep, rich social and political background.

My earliest introductions to science fiction included the unlikely combination of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, both hard science fiction writers, and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey, more soft science fiction writers.  While I loved the "what if" gung ho and interesting gadgets of hard science, the tangled social structures and interactions between people in the worlds of McCaffrey's Pern and Bradley's Darkover drew me back more often.

The societies in both Pern and Darkover involve a form of psychic powers, but that's not all they have in common.  Whereas most hard science fiction exists in a gadgetized version of our current universe with familiar robots and flying cars, Pern and Darkover are placed in societies with slightly different rules than ours.  Both adopt an almost medieval feel for completely different reasons and are sometimes mistakenly classified as fantasy, especially Pern.

Rather than focusing on fancy technology, the Darkover stories largely explore how society handles the dominance of redheads with laran (psychic powers), the presence of women who refuse to conform to their status largely as breeding stock (Renunciates) and the conflicts with subcultures such as dry towners.  In Pern, society is structured around steps taken to survive a deadly threat from the sky (thread).  The existence of genetically constructed, fire-breathing dragons is Pern's non-mechanical solution to thread but, even when the books occur during threadfall, the focus is more on people than the dragons as gadgets.  The stories explore people's place within society, how outcasts are treated and the impact of environmental change on society.

The common thread in these books is the focus on society and how individuals function within it.  This is what draws me in.  While a cool, shiny, new artifact will strike my interest, it's the rich background and the character depth that sustains it.

Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness is an excellent example of immersion in an alien culture.  Many universities recognize the value of this book by including it in their anthropology reading lists.   The book doesn't include fancy space battles or conquering new worlds that are generally associated with science fiction.  Instead, the reader follows a human as he is thrown into an alien world without clear understanding of their society.  He must muddle through while discovering it, sometimes making serious errors because of human-founded assumptions.

A series I discovered in recent years is Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain with its sequels.  While this book has few obvious ties to Darkover, Pern or Left Hand of Darkness because it is set in the near future on Earth, it shares the focus on society and the impact of change.  This would be an example of a crossover book because the change is triggered when people discover sleep can be eliminated from a developing fetus's genetic makeup.  Even though the trigger is a hard science development, the story explores how this seemingly small change affects the society.  Kress takes us through the social, political and personal impacts through the eyes of one of the original sleepless in a powerful and complex novel.

Eric Flint's 1632 is another example.  A modern town is transported into the past and the out-of-time folks must survive in their new present, a war-torn point of history.  The focus is on integrating select modern-day technological advances within the resource limits of their new world while maintaining and encouraging the philosophies of their modern society, such as democracy.

There are many more examples of works with a sociological focus, successful or not.  The common element is a rich society where the implications of events are explored in a broader context.  Characterization is definitely strong in this subgenre, but the best character against a background painted by broad brush strokes won't pull me in the same way.  A good sociological science fiction novel immerses readers into the culture so that they recognize when a character behaves in a fashion appropriate to the created culture or in opposition to it.

Books that just provide a minimalist background pale in comparison to those where you can almost feel, taste and smell the society and where you can tell how a character should react, whether or not they do.  The distinction is less obvious with a near future novel because readers can fill in the background to some degree.  The most powerful novels of this type make readers so comfortable in the other society, it feels like they are there.  I've always loved exploring other cultures, whether in person or through writing.  A good sociological science fiction novel immerses me in a culture existing nowhere beyond the page while also telling me a fascinating tale.

Mentioned books:

The Pern series begins with Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey, Del Rey; Reissue edition (May 12, 1986), ISBN: 0345335465

The Darkover series begins chronologically with Darkover Landing, Marion Zimmer Bradley, DAW Books, ASIN: 0886772346

Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ace Books, ISBN: 0441478123

Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress, Eos, ISBN: 0380718774

1632, Eric Flint, Baen Books, ISBN: 0671319728