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Social-Scientific Analysis of Science-Fiction

July 24, 2009 by and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Readers of this blog already know ho much I enjoy science-fiction (but NOT fantasy!) both as darn good stories but also as sociologist. I have already stated that good science-fiction is good sociology. Examining why would require a series of posts… which, fortunately, Yannick Rumpala has written. The whole series is in French. Here are the main points along with my comments and examples.

So, as Rumpala notes, scifi is not only a literary field (in the Bourdieusian sense) or plain good stories but a way of problamtizing (in the Foucauldian sense) science and technology and their applications and consequences on social and political systems. The scifi narratives allow the exploration of "what would happen if…", "if" being the consequences of scientific advances or technological innovations and their deployment in a variety of settings.

Scifi as a literary genre is extremely diverse but Rumpala identified a few fields that have been explored quite thoroughly. For instance, a lot of scifi examines the relationship between human being and their machines and their place in society. After all, developed countries are more and more thoroughly immersed in technological environments. What of the questions that scifi materials have explored is what kind of tasks should be delegated to machines? How far can such delegation go? What happens if (here is that question again) machines become "intelligent"? If they can learn, communicate, and coordinate? Heck, even Wall-E deals with that question.

Rumpala being higher brow than I am uses Iain Banks’s work (especially The Culture novels) to illustrate this point. As Rumpala describes, in these novels, mundane tasks are relegated to AIs so that human beings are free to pursue spiritual and leisure activities. It is a rather optimistic view of this theme and much darker treatments are numerous, a classical theme being the machine turning against its creator or human companions, as HAL 9000 did in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Another commonly explored theme are those of political and ethical questionsthat arise with technological and scientific potentialities (such as nanotechnology or human cloning). In the context of the risk society, scifi materials examine how social relations can be restructured if certain technologies became more widespread and part of daily life. As such, scifi materials can become part of the public discourse and debates on new technologies.

Scifi materials also, of course, create, imagine and describe the world(s) of the future, reflecting the anxieties and concerns of each era, from nuclear annihilation (Planet of the Apes), to biological threats (the Omega Directive) and other ecological challenges (David Brin‘s Earth). Frank Herbert’s Dune is, of course, the classic of the genre, with its resource wars over Spice whereas John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar is a classic on the overpopulation theme. This theme is quite often treated in a dystopic fashion: at some point in the future, everything went South and now, we have to deal with the consequences… Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock is a variation on that theme.

Similarly, a lot of scifi work reflect on the human condition and the possibilities and potentialities of the post-human future, that is, a future where human beings are "enhanced" thanks to a variety of technologies and their consequences on human sociability. Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is representative of the genre, so is the entire cyberpunk genre, with William Gibson‘s now classic, Neuromancer . Who can forget the X-Files episodes Kill Switch, written by William Gibson:

In his second post, Rumpala notes the interesting fact that two stages of the Tour de France will take place without earpieces that connect the cyclists with the team cars and their advisors in order to restore some human spontaneity to the race as opposed to the quasi-cyborg state of the other stages. Donna Haraway, anyone?

More generally though, and as Rumpala explores in his third post, scifi deals with social change as underlying and overarching theme. Indeed, the larger question that most scifi works addresses is what makes societies change? Technology? Social movements? Political upheavals? Scifi materials usually posit social conditions and set in motion series of logical consequences and events as hypothetical "what if…?" explorations. Rumpala notes a strong focus, especially in the cyberpunk genre, on the urban setting as nexus of transformational dynamics. The city becomes the testing ground and breeding grounds for technological dissemination and propagation with consequences over social relations.

In that context, and again, this certainly reflects the uncertainties of the risk society, scifi explores how much control humans have over social change processes. Is it possible to anticipate change with enough accuracy to control it or stop it or avoid its effects. Is there a saturation point in the post-human future? The work of David Marusek, for instance, clearly illustrates the point of how hard it is for societies to adapt to their own technological creations and their social consequences, be they a multi-powered surveillance society or a reconfiguration of the connections between body and mind.

As a temporary conclusion, Rumpala then suggests that science-fiction is a thinking tool and a series of mental experiments. This is especially needed, I might add again, in the context of the risk society. The presence of risks in a variety of domains and their potential effects, separately and combined, create a horizon of uncertainty for the very survival of the human species and its ecological habitat. Science-fiction then has a part to play in the public debates what we are having (or should be having) on these subjects.

Actually, being as old as I am, I can still remember, growing up in France, and watching television shows such as L’Avenir du Futur (the show would feature a scifi movie followed by a discussion with scientists on the topics presented in the movie) or Temps X:

Posted in Culture, Politics, Risk Society, Science, Science-fiction, Social Change, Social Movements, Social Theory, Sociology, Technology | 2 Comments »



2 Responses to “Social-Scientific Analysis of Science-Fiction”

  1.   Sharon E. Dreyer Says:

    This is a great article! You have really gone to great lengths to explain Rumpala’s ideas. Thanks for the information. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

    Reply

  2.   Paraic Hegarty Says:

    Read Ursula Le Guin on ‘speculative fiction’

    Reply

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