Science fiction is rarely just about science. Even the hardest of hard science fiction is a reflection on the people and society and is judged as such. Perhaps it really can’t be helped, it is a failure of human imagination to build something truly different.
Science fiction has failed in one overwhelming way, it hasn’t produced any truly revolutionary way of describing society. Writers of every era have instead sought to project the hopes and fears of that era on a starry canvas.
Consider Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 about a fireman whose job is to set fire to books and other ‘dangerous’ ideas. It was a reaction to the McCarthy era threat of book burning in the US.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World perhaps did better than most in that it predicted oppression not by the state through the inflicting of pain but rather a sort of self-oppression through inflicting pleasure. A hedonistic society where effortless excellence and comfort have deprive people of any meaning to their life. Instead of a captive culture feared by George Orwell and Ray Bradbury, Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture which distracted itself from addressing deeper questions by an unending stream of triviality.
A look at TV or movie ratings is enough to make one wonder if this horror has already come to pass. Debates on vital subjects like the future of the world and religion instead focus on trivial tangents and partisanship. In other aspects, however, the world of the book remains as alien to us as to its original readers in 1931.
A few years ago, I came across the works of the Stugatsky brothers who wrote science fiction in the USSR. Since science fiction is a reflection of how the author views society and is in some form a social commentary, it is not surprising that these stories have a remarkably different tone from western works. The bureaucratic workings some of the protagonists have to move through could only be conceived by someone from a socialist background. To put it another way, the way people act in these stories is different from what you would see in the west.
One remarkable example of this was in the bleak novel Roadside Picnic where Earth undergoes an alien visitation. But unlike all other versions of this ‘initial contact’ theme, mankind is only incidental to the aliens’ plans. They come and depart for their own unfathomable reasons leaving bizarre debri in their wake. This leads some to speculate if the whole event was just a roadside picnic for them.
Also, before George RR Martin started writing his Game of Thrones series, the Stugatsky brothers took a hard unblinking look at the brutality of a feudal society in Hard to be a God. I regret to say I have only seen the movie of this one.
I recently finished Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem. I was amazed at the number of fascinating ideas he managed to fit into one book. It is also the first Chinese Sci Fi novel I have read. The book is essentially a very intelligent thriller but also contains a large amount of technical detail and physical understanding. Character development is uneven but there are at least a couple of well fleshed individuals.
Finally, the social commentary in the first couple of chapters about the Cultural Revolution is pure gold. It exemplifies the idea brought out by Volker Ulritch in the context of Nazi Germany where insanity results when everyone tries to “work towards” the official line. Each tries to outdo the other in embodying the perceived “values” of the regime, and also in suppressing anything even possibly perceived contrary to these. Even physical sciences like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are seen through an ideological lens.