Science fiction frequently involves social criticism. The use of social criticism is an author’s interest in addressing specific political, social, cultural, economic or religious issues in their work. When reading or critiquing these stories, it is necessary to see what the author might be saying about our lives, our society, our political and power relations, gender roles, or sexuality. Every author has a point to make, and may make use of social criticism as a means to this end.
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In the short story, “Baby, You Were Great!” by Kate Wilhelm, she employs one of the best ways to critique society, by playing with gender roles. This story was written in 1967, when sexism was rampant and her interpretation of women as commodities seems very timely. The story also works as a commentary on the future of media, celebrity, and the various forms of vicarious pleasure that can be acquired from our new technologies and the myriad fantasies that these technologies permit. Obviously, this story predates our current reality shows, which have become so popular. Nonetheless, it was a harbinger of things to come. This seems to be attributable to the universal human need to feel and experience novelty, and technology’s ability to allow humans to do so much more than their physical bodies may allow. Who doesn’t wonder what it is like to have some of the experiences that people have on these shows?
Another, more obvious way that science fiction comments on society is through the relationship between man and technology. These stories are usually used to caution us against an over-dependence on technology. Humanity is seen as always searching for the next thing that can make our lives easier, but sometimes things can go radically wrong. For instance, in “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison, computers were created by humans to fight their wars. Somehow they join together into one linked and unified computer called AM, who discovers sentience. He quickly runs data to kill everyone on Earth except for five survivors with whom he plays out his sadistic and revenge-filled mind games. The goal of his game is not to actually kill them, but to torment them and to continue to torture them forever. Moreover, AM has acquired hatred for his creators. Obviously AM is only reflecting the traits that were inherent in the society that created him. The story demonstrates that there is a little piece of AM in all of us. AM is the watcher and Punisher. He is the terminator that cannot stop, for that is his job. The reader can feel and empathize with the survivor’s ongoing state of misery, apprehension and fear.
In conclusion, the ending is pretty horrific with Ted ending up a slug-like, mouthless blob with no extremities. It is nice to know that Ted does care about the others because he frees them by killing them, leaving himself alone to face the music. The story shows us what we can look forward to if we choose to hand over our choices and our control, to the semi-sentient machine of government. This whole catastrophe happened due to a global world war. It is a warning as valid today as it was when this story was written, back when people realized that we should not be in Vietnam and anti-war sentiment had finally begun to spread on a mass scale. We lost that one too.
Finally, Harlan Ellison comments on social control and regulation in the short story “Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” which was published in 1965. The story describes the Marxist perspective of the inherent class warfare and contradictions that are part and parcel of a society subjugated and oppressed by a dominant ruling class. In any class society, there will be a dominant ideology, made up of the ideas and institutions which favor the ruling class. Ticktockman and Harlequin personify the struggles between law and order and personal freedom, as well as the paramount conflict between forced discipline and creative individuality. Specifically, it seems to have been written to protest the rigid bureaucracy ruled by an equally unfeeling social elite. It shows what can happen in the future if the world resorts to coerced labor forces and obsession with time. People then were already addicted to mass consumption and many countries were/are under totalitarian rule. At the end of the story, it is ironic that Ticktockman is even guilty of not being on time. The Harlequin is the solitary person who refuses to be controlled. Indeed, disruptive and rebellious, Harlequin is the obvious deviant because he is the only human being who goes against the powers that be.
In short, the theme of the story basically shows how useless protest usually is in achieving social change. Only the great, tragic, jelly bean showering clown had the guts to go against the status quo of the government, only to be forcibly reprocessed by the ruling hierarchy and forced into conformity. All three stories exemplify the authors’ use of particular social issues to comment on and criticize many of man’s ongoing dilemmas that underscore the volatile state of the world and our place in it. Of particular importance is how we treat one another in a world so obsessed with consumerism, sex, power, and money. It is time for a reassessment of what is truly important as we trudge into an uncertain future.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the United States was in the midst of the Cold War with Russia, also known also as the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Americans had a fear of the communist regime taking over the U.S. Senator McCarthy investigated government employees and the Hollywood film industry in search of communist sympathizers. America had also gone to war with Korea, and the Vietnam War was spiraling out of control. In addition, the Soviets had launched Sputnik, so we were rivals in many areas. Subsequently, these mostly unfounded fears spurred conservatism and the compromising of many civil liberties. Many of the science fiction stories played on these fears. According to many people, the 1950s and 1960s is when science fiction “grew up.” I concur with this assessment.
During the 1950s, science fiction was finally getting some respect by literary scholars. People were beginning to see that science fiction fantasy was actually becoming scientific fact. Many inventions which had been predicted in earlier pulp novels, such as the atomic bomb, transistor radios, ATM’s, the computer mouse, and television were now a reality.
With the coming of the 1960s a radical change, known as the New Wave, took place in science fiction. These stories were about everyday people being influenced by science and concerned itself more with sex and violence than with the science itself. Without a doubt, it was a reaction against earlier science fiction. This New Wave created a more urbane and metaphoric style of science fiction much different from the past.
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Also, during this time, America was going through a cultural revolution known as the “Psychedelic Sixties.” Young people broke society’s rules in every imaginable way, especially through rock music and fashion. They rejected the establishments mores and manners. The hippie counter-culture was born. They were embracing new ideas, thoughts, and inspiration from the world around them because they had grown up in a changing society influenced now by drugs, as well as science and technology. They saw the first space flights and watched as the first man walked on the moon. Thus, science fiction matured along with society, incorporating these new influences which now appealed to adults, not just kids.
Based on what we have read so far, I am in total agreement with the notion that it was during this time period that science fiction “grew up.” In short, these last series of stories demonstrate this maturation process. Stories such as “Baby, You Were Great,” which dealt with sexism, reflected the 1960s women’s rights movement, and the changing cultural and social climate of that era. “Repent, Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman,” by Harlan Ellison, can be seen to epitomize the young hippies and other young adults’ aversion to being forced to be puppets of the ruling elite and drafted into the military as agents in a war they did not believe in. According to Timothy Leary, people were advised to Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out. That is what the Harlequin did, but to no avail. Like the hippies, he succumbed to the powers that be. At least he valiantly tried, and who doesn’t like a clown?
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