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Sci-Fi and Social Justice: An Overview

Paul March-Russell

In thinking about the relationship between science fiction and social justice, a useful starting-point is the novel that many regard as the Ur-source for the genre: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). When Shelley’s anti-hero finally encounters his creation, the Creature admonishes Frankenstein for his abdication of responsibility:

I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. … I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, who thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. … I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.

Popularly misunderstood as a cautionary warning against playing God (a notion that Shelley only introduced in the preface to the 1831 edition), Frankenstein’s meaning is really captured in this passage. Shelley, influenced by the radical ideas of her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, makes it clear that the Creature was born good and that his evil was the product only of his mistreatment. Echoing the social contract of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Creature insists that he will do good again if Frankenstein, for his part, does the same. Social justice for the unfortunate, the misshapen and the abused is what underlies the radicalism of Shelley’s novel. Frankenstein’s experiments give birth not only to a new species but also to a new concept of social responsibility, in which those with power are behoved to acknowledge, respect and support those without; a relationship that Frankenstein literally runs away from.

The theme of social justice, then, is there at the birth also of the sf genre. It looks backwards to the utopian tradition from Plato and Thomas More to the progressive movements that characterised Shelley’s Romantic age. And it looks forwards to how science fiction – as we would recognise it today – has imagined future and non-terrestial societies with all manner of different social, political and sexual arrangements.

Shelley’s motif of creator and created is one way of examining how modern sf has dramatized competing notions of social justice. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950) and, even more so, The Caves of Steel (1954) ask not only the question, ‘can a robot pass for human?’, but also more importantly, ‘what happens to humanity when robots supersede them?’. Within current anxieties surrounding AI, Asimov’s stories are experiencing a revival of interest. One possible solution to the latter question is the policing of the boundaries between human and machine. This grey area is explored through use of the Voigt-Kampff Test, which measures the subject’s empathetic understanding, in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and memorably dramatized in Ridley Scott’s film version, Blade Runner (1982). In William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer (1984), and the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1995), branches of both the military and the police are marshalled to prevent AIs gaining the equivalent of human consciousness.

Running parallel with Asimov’s robot stories, Cordwainer Smith published the tales that comprised ‘the Instrumentality of Mankind’, collected posthumously as The Rediscovery of Man (1993). A key element involves the Underpeople, genetically modified animals who serve the needs of their seemingly godlike masters, and whose journey towards emancipation is conveyed through the stories. It is surely no coincidence that both Asimov and Smith were writing against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, but it is also indicative of the magazine culture of the period that both had to write allegorically. In N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy (2015-7), an unprecedented winner of three successive Hugo Awards, the racial subtext to the struggle between ‘normals’ and post-humans is made explicit.

Jemisin, like Ann Leckie’s multiple award-winning Ancillary Justice (2013), is indebted to the black and female authors who came before her. In particular, the influence of Octavia Butler, as indicated by the anthology of new writing, Octavia’s Brood (2015), has grown immeasurably since her premature death in 2006. Butler’s abiding preoccupation was with the compromises that the powerless would have to make with the powerful simply in order to survive. Her final sf novels, Parable of the Talents (1993) and Parable of the Sower (1998), tentatively posit a more utopian vision. This hard-won prospect owes something to both Joanna Russ’s no-nonsense ideal of Whileaway in The Female Man (1975) as well as the ‘ambiguous utopia’ of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). Leckie, in particular, has acknowledged her debt to Le Guin, but whilst most attention has been paid to the representation of non-binary sexualities in both the Ancillary novels and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), what binds both authors is their anarchic sense of individualism and communitarianism.

Whilst sf has, like many of its recent award-winning recipients, diversified over the decades, there is little sense of it having abandoned the Creature’s plaintive plea in Frankenstein: ‘I am malicious because I am miserable.’ It is the imaginative reiteration of this plea that makes sf into a viable form for speculating upon the future bases of citizenship and social justice.

Paul March-Russell teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Kent and is editor of the sf journal, Foundation.

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Paul March-Russell teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Kent and is editor of the sf journal, Foundation. Share: Twitter Instagram Facebook