Science, Social Problems, and the Stories That Notice


An academic paper written while I was attending college.  The paper focuses on presenting science fiction’s use of satire to represent people’s corruption and social problems.

Originally written in 2012.  Some MLA formatting may be lost.


Even now in modern times there are groups that argue for the harm technology potentially poses to humanity.  However, numerous groups merely target the science and technology itself as the root of the problem.  Others though, particularly writers for the science fiction genre, see science as a means to end to uncover the inherent and larger social problems that are at stake when it comes to science and technology.  It is no surprise, then, that one would run into pieces that bypass the science itself, and rather draws attention to (and perhaps exaggerates) the social vices.  In doing so, they hold these flaws up to critique and bring awareness to readers of these social problems.  For those paying attention, this is the exact way in which we define satire (“Satire”).  Despite imagery of UFOs, aliens, and crazed machines that science fiction may inspire in the mind at mention, numerous pieces demonstrate their ability to turn that science to a higher purpose of attacking problems in the world.  Ultimately, science fiction can be seen as a distinct form of satire in which the science of the story is used to draw attention to the corrupt people behind it and the various social problems in the world.

Undoubtedly, one of the easiest social critiques to utilize in science fiction boils down to the simple matter of how humanity treats fellow members of humanity.  An exemplary story that seems to touch on this subject can be seen in one by Rudyard Kipling titled “As Easy as A.B.C.”  In this particular short story, readers are thrown into a world where transportation efficiency technology seems to have shifted political control to a special board called the A.B.C..  However, as the story soon shows rather strongly, ill side effects have occurred and people have gained an intense fear of crowds.  “’We’ve finished with Crowds!  We aren’t going back to the Old Days!  Take us over!  Take the Serviles away!  Administer direct or we’ll kill ‘em!  Down with The People!’” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).  There lies a morbid humor in this riot induced sentiment, but it also holds up the folly of people giving away governmental power for convenience sake.  Additionally, the fact that they will barbarically kill “the Serviles” if their whims are not met is exaggerated to the point the audience is led to critique people’s nature to destroy each other without societal order.

Moreover, the short story attempts to go deeper with its satire in how people treat each other that far surpasses power shifts.  Much of the story revolves around the people of Chicago wanting to get rid of some unwanted members who are, mostly, just doing things a bit too differently for their way of life.  “’Our Serviles got to talking—first in their houses and then on the streets, telling men and women how to manage their own affairs.  (You can’t teach a Servile not to finger his neighbour’s soul.)  That’s invasion of privacy, of course, but in Chicago we’ll suffer anything sooner than makes crowds’” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).  Part of the satire of this element comes from the sheer ironic fact that this does socially exist in our world with how people conduct with one another.  On one level, one could see the folly in “fingering his neighbour’s soul” since the harsh wording suggests unfair judgment on the Serviles’ part, and consequently the folly of real people who exhibit this nature of dictating other’s lives.  On the other hand, however, this also suggests a social critique of judging other people in general, since by our standards, this different way of life is humorously normal.  Another passage towards the end exemplifies this judgment and treatment of people who are different when the Serviles are offered up for amusement.  “He threw the General Communicator open so that we could all hear, and in a few minutes the chatroom filled with the rich, fruity voice of Leopold Vincent, who has purveyed all London her choicest amusements for the last thirty years” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).  While the exaggeration and almost lively word choice inflicts some humor, what we are truly seeing is a world where the only use people who are different have is being judged and amusing entertainment for others.  Inevitably, the story has a strong twinge of satire and critique as it illustrates methods by which people are intolerant of each other; it also uses this technologically enhanced world, open to the science fiction genre, as a tool to insert worries about people’s desires for separation.

Continually, another method one could use when satirizing people’s treatment of each comes from a feministic, gender standpoint.  “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ taps into this particular social critique, using science to create a setting in which a colony is successful, but filled with only women-at least until some Earth men arrive and cause a little dismay.  “I said, ‘Yes, here you are,’ and smiled (feeling like a fool), and wondered seriously if male-Earth-people’s minds worked so very differently from female-Earth-people’s minds, but that couldn’t be so or the race would have died out long ago” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 184).  Passages like these make the story a bit humorous, and they seem quite reminiscent of lines comedy TV shows would use to illustrate how there are communication problems between the genders.  However, as one reads deeper into the story, one can see Russ’ serious take on how women are treated in a society.  “Sometimes I laugh at the question those four men hedged about all evening and never quite dared to ask, looking at the lot of us, hicks in overalls, farmers in canvas pants and plain shirts: Which of you plays the role of the man?  As if we had to produce a carbon copy of their mistakes!” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 185).  The imagery in the passage is exaggerated, but forces one to acknowledge, again, the folly of judging others by appearance.  In this case, though, there is an inherent reflection of anxiety that women will always serve the subservient role, as even their appearance is contrasted with the general and futuristic ideas presented in the passage.

Lastly, part of the science of the story does lend to this social critique of women.  The men’s goal in this story becomes quite clear early on:

“’I’m talking to you, Janet,’ he said, ‘because I suspect you have more popular influence than anyone else here.  You know as well as I do that parthenogenetic culture has all sorts of inherent defects, and we do not—if we can help it—mean to use you for anything of the sort.  Pardon me; I should not have said ‘use.’  But surely you can see that this kind of society is unnatural.’”  (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 184)

The science fiction genre is heavily known for portraying some of the more “unnatural” elements of science and the effects they produce.  Here, however, the scientific term “parthenogenetic” is tied to women with the same word usage of “use.”  Clearly, there is a strong implication that in the same way science is “used,” women are being used as well.  By using the setting and science as such, the story demonstrates the social problem of women’s placement in society and how they are judged and viewed men.  Inevitably, this gender heavy social critique is very satirical, and the science fiction genre is able to utilize technological anxieties to draw parallels to make the satire of this gender biased society work.

Contrastingly to the previous examples, satire is quite more famous for attacking larger institutions, particularly political ones who generally seem to treat everyone badly.  Science fiction is no stranger to this type of satire, as it clearly seems to recognize technology often rests in leaders’ hands.  One particularly interesting short story involving critique of the system is “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison.  In this dystopian future, time (and by consequence the technology of clocks) has become so central to the culture that it dictates just about everything to ridiculous levels, as the Harlequin in the story demonstrates with his contrasting antics:

“The System had been seven minutes’ worth of disrupted.  It was a tiny matter, hardly worthy of note.  But in a society where the single driving force was order and unity and promptness and clocklike precision and attention to the clock, reverence of the gods of the passage of time, it was a disaster of major importance.” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 178)

Seven minutes is most certainly a hilarious quantity to slow the system down to that extent.  Yet, the satire is clearly pointing out a parallel between people dictating themselves by time and operating within a system to the machine function of a clock.  If seven minutes can throw such disarray into the world, one cannot say that such operating efficiency is socially good.  Even further, one can see this may be an even bigger problem in contemporary society, as the internet has added new facets to keeping up with time constraints and the bigger time crunch is bigger.

Likewise, the story even gets even more explicit with demonstrating the folly of people in operating like a machine.  The Harlequin, described as a “personality,” has only the goal of disrupting this machine and pointing out to people their dependence on time.

“When the Harlequin appeared on the still-being-constructed shell of the new Efficiency Shopping Center, his bullhorn to his elfishly laughing lips, everyone pointed and stared.  He berated them.  ‘Why let them order you about?  Why let them tell you to hurry and scurry like ants or maggots?  Take your time!  Saunter a while!’ … ‘Who’s the nut?  Most of the shoppers wanted to know.  Who’s the nut oh wow I’m gonna be late I gotta run…” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 180-181)

Despite the people’s desire to figure out who the Harlequin is (who coincidentally is a hunted criminal by this point), the efficiency and mechanization forces them to move on to their next tasks.  Though silly, the Harlequin’s point is clearly made in that same passage, and readers are prompted to think about whether they have committed these same acts, and if socially the efficiency science is giving them is not causing them to neglect the simpler things.

Hilariously, though, the end of Ellison’s story takes a clear turn and almost points out the hypocrisy in some of those that dictate this very demand for efficiency.  The mysterious Ticktockman serves as the villain of the story, and through the course we see him dictate all manner of time, to the point of killing people for tardiness.  The end, however, shows that he may perhaps be abusive of his position.  “’Uh, excuse me, sir, I, uh, don’t know how to uh, to tell you this, but you were three minutes late.  The schedule is a little, uh, bit off.’  He grinned sheepishly.  ‘That’s ridiculous!’ murmured the Ticktockman behind his mask. ‘Check your watch’” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 182).  The reader is left to wonder who was wrong about the time: the employee or the Ticktockman himself.  The irony of the passage still manages to open up a large social question of whether or not those who dictate efficiency in the world are the least efficient at all.  Are leaders turning regular people into efficient machines while only they are allowed to maintain humanity?  In either case, though the story was of a science fiction nature, it was able to become a satire and utilize the machine and its metaphorical relation to time to illustrate social problems in demand of efficiency and what future consequences may be.

Unsurprisingly, one could not have a discussion of satire, even in science fiction, if one did not have a story that went at the leaders that dictated larger political systems.  Roger Zelazny provides us with such a short story in “The Great Slow Kings.”  The story centers around two saurian like leaders, the last of their kind, as they attempt to garner new subjects.  As the title suggests, they are not the swiftest of leaders:

“Drax had been musing for the past four centuries (theirs was a sluggish sort) over the possibility of life on other planets in the galaxy.  Accordingly, ‘Dran,’ said he, addressing the other (who was becoming mildly curious as to his thoughts), ‘Dran, I’ve been thinking: There may be life on other planets in the galaxy.’  Dran considered his reply to this, as the world wheeled several times about its sun.” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 160)

The slowness of these two leaders is laughable and quite satirical of leaders we may see in real life.  Afterall, how often is it that one wonders why leaders are taking so long to debate even the simplest of issues?  In spite of the exaggeration, though, there is a clear critique on debate length, and one can infer the author is implying leaders feel like aliens due to these lengthened debates.  As the story continues, one can also see a critique on leaders being plain uncooperative with each other.  “’Drax,’ warned Dran, ‘you are arrogating unauthorized powers to yourself once more.  You should have conferred with me before issuing that order.’  ‘I apologize,’ stated the other.  ‘I simply wanted to expedite matters, should your decision be that we conduct a survey’” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 160-161).  In some sense, there is a critique on the fact that leaders insist on being conferred for every single matter, even if this one may perhaps be a larger one that calls for it.  More importantly, though, is the critique on leaders just plain bypassing each other at points, and then excusing their actions with such watery arguments as “expediting matters.”  Visibly, the slow and alien nature of the leaders is the author’s attempt to satire and show how leaders in general behave.

Unfortunately, humans are not left out of this particular satire, as they become subjects for Drax and Dran.  After the robot Zindrome rescues a man and woman from nuclear destruction, they are left to maintain themselves while Drax and Dran write up, slowly, a proclamation against war.  By the time they finish this proclamation, though, their new subjects have met an ironic end as reported by Zindrome.  “’It is already too late, great Lords.  This race, also, progressed into civilized states, developed nuclear energy and eradicated itself while you were writing’” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 163).  In general, Zelazny is satirizing the entire progression of the human race and its seemingly ridiculous desire to kill itself with nuclear weapons, probably reflecting the Cold War anxieties that were about during the time of the story’s publication.  However, keeping with consistency, there is also a critique going on of the leaders knowing bloodshed is bad, but taking forever to stop people from doing it because of their sheer slowness on the matter.  In the end, the alien and the nuclear weapon tropes common to science fiction become vehicles to satirize leaders, their slowness, and mankind’s general teetering towards using science to destroy itself.

In contrast to leaders specifically, satire can also target government in general and show the vices in people’s relationship to it sometimes.  “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is a quite funny and exaggerated short story where technology is ultimately used to establish a completely equal world.  The descriptions of the characters focused on in the story, namely Harrison Bergeron’s parents, exemplifies the state of the world in which they live in:

“And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear.  He was required by law to wear it at all times.  It was tuned to a government transmitter.  Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 157)

Some of the language play, such as “unfair advantage of their brains,” has a humorous tone, but the content of the text presents government as the ultimate big brother.  It is from moments like these early on that the reader is prompted to question social desires to be completely equal.

To further illustrate the harm of equality, George and his wife are shown that they cannot even fully manage to sympathize with their own son’s plight.  “’Right,’ said George.  He began to think glimmeringly about his abnormal son who was now in jail, about Harrison, but a twenty-one-gun salute in his head stopped that” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 157).  Despite the morbid hilarity of the twenty-one-gun salute, we are presented with a world where one cannot even garner the aptitude to sympathize with fellow people because of the government’s enslavement of them with this transmitter technology.  Even the ballet dancers whom are being viewed on television are subjected to some of the more negative aspects of complete equality.  “And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use.  Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody.  ‘Excuse me—‘ she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive” (Cook, Main Anthology 4: 158).  By modern standards, this passage is quite ridiculous in the regards that the dancer has what we would consider positive qualities.  Yet, the desire to be uncompetitive and equal with everyone else has dulled these qualities into the shadows.  Predictably, the short story satirizes the government’s use of enslaving people with technology, as well as critiques people’s desires for equality.  It inevitably reflects, through this same satire, tension in the fact that as science brings equality about easier, people must not forget that differences are sometimes nice.

Without doubt, even science fiction has its tales that satirize the controversial subject of religion.  One such tale, “The Machine Stops” by F.M. Forster, uses the exaggeration of science to largely demonstrate some of the vices of humanity.  In the contexts of the story, the characters live in a technologically advanced underground where physical contact is irrelevant, and people are more than content to let technology rule their lives.  The machine, as it is called, has become such an essential part of their lives that its existence is given a slight twinge of divine prevalence.  “By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter-one book.  This was the Book of the Machine.  In it were instructions against every possible contingency.  If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to the book, and it told her which button to press” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).  It is quite nearly impossible to miss the parallels between this “Book of the Machine” and the Bible.  Subsequently, it is hard not to see the critique of blind devotion to religious institutions since they essentially provide the same guidance as the Book of the Machine.  Unless one does not consider following an electronics manual ridiculous, then the story clearly throws a critique to these types of people who will not question status quo.

Similarly to some of the previously discussed stories, though, the story also satirizes the increasing void that machines are tearing between people.

“And of course she had studied the civilization that had immediately preceded her own-the civilization that had mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead of for bringing things to people.  Those funny old days, when men went for change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!” ( Cook, The Phoenix Pick)

After reading such a passage, one might ask what exactly is wrong with going outdoors and travelling.  Unfortunately, though, the passage does point out and hold up the attitudes of certain people where appreciating nature and people is subservient to stagnating with technology.  The story seems to inherently throw question onto whether or not people’s dependence on the technology will lead to harmful desires for isolation.

Of importance is to address how the story also uses the devotion to the machine to show another social problem: compliance.  Towards the end of the story, the machine begins to break, and while people are irritated at first they eventually just become apathetic to the changes:

“Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer.  The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine.  The sigh at the crises of the Brisbane symphony no longer irritated Vashti; she accepted it as part of the melody” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).

For this particular sentiment the reader can view the machine suddenly not just as religion, but as a governmental institution in general as well.  By consequence, it is easy to see a critique of how people will not fight their leaders or system when problems arise, although they are more than willing to take the lazy route of acceptance.  Forster clearly saw error in this sort of attitude, and may perhaps have been wise in pointing this out given recent movements in the US (such as the Occupy movement).  Nevertheless, “The Machine Stops” shows another instance in science fiction where the dread of a future science brings has as much to do with people’s attitudes and conduct as it does with the technology itself, thus enabling satires to be used to demonstrate the problems.

To end with, there are further points of satire to mention in regard to the concept of apathy.  A science fiction story that particularly discusses apathy, as well as social image, is Jule Verne’s “In the Year 2889.”  The story is simply the expounding of a single day in George Washington Smith’s life, a man whose newspaper empire somehow causes him to control important affairs in the world.  The conclusion of the story examples how this man’s practical take on a science experiment to return to someone to life might not be the most positive:

“The case stood just as the reporter said.  Faithburn was dead, quite certainly dead!  ‘Here is a method that needs improvement,’ remarked Mr. Smith to Dr. Wilkins, as the scientific committee on hibernation bore the casket out.  ‘So much for that experiment.  But if poor Faithburn is dead, at least he is sleeping,’ he continued.  ‘I wish I could get some sleep’” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).

Smith is so caught up with life in the story that even the inherent implications of death are brushed off by him, as one can infer his mind has moved on to the next bigger and better advancement of science.  In this case, then, one can see a critique on the apathy caused by desire for progress in people, as it makes them almost ridiculously inhuman.

However, there is also an extra layer of satire in this particular story given the nature of Smith’s occupation.  While it may be a bit hard for the modern day reader to fathom, the newspaper was a great innovation as information could suddenly be brought to the people.  Consequently, for early readers it was no so unfathomable that a newspaperman would lead the world since, at the time, they were the leaders of progress.

“Thanks to the same lucky hit, he is to-day king of newspaperdom; indeed, he would be king of all the Americans, too, if Americans would ever accept a king.  You do not believe it?  Well, then, look at the plenipotentiaries of all nations and our own ministers themselves crowding about his door, entreating his counsels, begging for his approbation, imploring the aid of his all-powerful organ” (Cook, The Phoenix Pick).

If one looks deeper into the implication, though, one finds a satire of public image.  The ministers in this story are no longer caring about dictating policy, but rather they are letting how that will be reflected in the newspaper inform their judgment on matters.  One can imagine that inevitably, then, leaders are not looking out for the best interests of the people, but letting the media kings rule the people as long as it makes them look good.  This particular critique is quite enhanced by the presence of science, since technological innovation are the standards of progress.  By using the science fiction genre rather symbolically for progress, Verne is able to satirize and point out who the world is letting be in control, and why this may not be a desirable attribute.

To summarize, numerous science fiction stories are able to tap into satire and make useful points about the world we live in.  While science fiction is generally about expressing anxieties about the future in regards to science and technology, the satires in the genre twist this anxiety.  Rather, the satires of science fiction remind us that technology and science are not inherently evil, but rather how they are used by people and how people react to the technology may be the true social problems at work.  Science becomes a tool in these stories to set up parallels, contrasts, and symbols to draw attention to the larger social problems that may arise because of problems with people themselves.  Certainly, not all science fiction stories are of a satirical nature, nor have all the satirical elements discussed come from completely humorous stories that we normally associate with the type.  Yet, the examples that do exist still exhibit some of the exaggerative elements, and more importantly, do throw critique onto social aspects of life.  To conclude, science fiction can indeed function as a distinct form of satire in which science is used to evidence the social problems in the world.  At the very least, one can hope that satire appears more in the science fiction genre now that the internet has added new nuances.


Works Cited

Cook, Paul, ed.  Main Anthology: An Anthology of Science Fiction Stories.  4 Vols.  2012.  PDF.

Cook, Paul, ed. The Phoenix Pick Anthology of Classic Science Fiction Stories. Rockville: Arc Manor, 2008. Kindle Edition.

“Satire.” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster. Encyclopedia Britannica Company. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. <;.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s