How science fiction tackles the advancement of society.
The core elements of science fiction all revolve around progress. These stories concern the progress of technology, science, space travel, and more. One of the aspects some writers forget to consider, however, is how society progresses.
As technology evolves, so does society. Societal structures and interpersonal relationships change and adapt. Just in the past few years of technological advancement, there are more people meeting online than in person. There are also jobs that didn’t exist twenty or thirty years ago, such as social media influencers and SEO professionals.
Below, we’ll discuss how science fiction typically tackles societal advancement, subgenres of science fiction and how to tackle societal advancement as a science fiction writer.
How Star Trek Tackles Society
Star Trek is notorious for handling heavy subjects of society such as racism, gender, sexuality, and sexism. Many of its episodes turn a critical lens on current society from the perspective of a futuristic setting.
For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the heroes come across an androgynous alien society that does not tolerate gender specificity. While modern Earth society tends to put great importance and debate on gender, this alien race does not. This adds depth to the characters, as one of the main characters William Riker falls in love with one of these androgynous aliens. Not only that, but it shows an understanding from the writers that not every society will be a reflection of our own. Even different civilizations on Earth have different perspectives on gender identity, sexuality, etc. It is reasonable (and important) to expect that any alien race you imagine may have significant differences in their traditions than our own.
Now, consider the economic situation of Star Trek. The universe of Star Trek is primarily based on a post-scarcity society. This refers to a (theoretical) society in which goods can be found are in great abundance. Goods in this type of society have become cheap or even free to consumers. As a futuristic society with much space travel, you would hope to see economics more sustainable than our own. While some science fiction stories focus on more pessimistic possible outcomes, such as post-apocalyptic stories (more on these later), Star Trek and other similar stories instead choose to portray a more optimistic progression of economics.
This, in turn, affects how the characters act. Instead of fighting over food, they are happy to share. When they see someone in need, they are eager to help.
Knowing the ins and outs of your story’s society not only influences the depth of your reader’s understanding, but it also can affect the actions and personality of your characters.
Society in Different Science Fiction Subgenres
Dystopia is a very popular subgenre of science fiction that portrays a world that is the opposite of utopia in which survival is the name of the game. In a dystopian society, you will typically see government control, environmental destruction, a loss of choice or individualism, etc.
Some popular examples of dystopian novels include The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
In these societies, the characters are oppressed by a form of power or government. This means that the characters have little to no free will and are punished for stepping outside the lines of their society’s boundaries. As you might expect, this influences nearly every aspect of the story and its characters. Many dystopian societies, for example, thrive on scarcity. As opposed to a universe like Star Trek where products are abundant, a dystopian society has a scarcity of products that typically require either government permission to purchase or forms of bartering.
This influences the interpersonal society as well. People who are desperate and focused on survival are less likely to trust each other or share their resources. A lot of these types of societies in literature revert backward socially, taking on more traditional roles, such as the women being used to breed in The Handmaid’s Tale.
On the other side of science fiction, a utopia provides an idyllic version of society where there is no fighting, no war, no poverty—nothing even remotely inconvenient. Everything is perfect in these societies, meaning that the characters do not typically want for anything.
As you may expect, utopian societies are often difficult to write about as the main setting, as settings in a novel often present conflict. In a utopia, there is no conflict. Some examples of utopian societies depicted in literature include A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells and The Giver by Lois Lowry.
Many novels set in a utopian society concern the characters leaving (or attempting to leave) the utopian society in hopes of finding their individuality.
Cyberpunk is a science fiction subgenre that marries together a high-tech society with a low quality of life. This type of setting presents a stark line between those who are wealthy and those who are destitute.
As you can imagine, this can influence a character and a story in a variety of ways. For example, Alita: Battle Angel presents two different societies within the same universe: Zalem, a wealthy city floating in the sky, and Iron City, which is a destitute city below. Those in the destitute city struggle to survive, and many wish for the safety of Zalem.
How to Portray Society in Your Science Fiction Book
So what does all of this mean when it comes to your own writing? That is the easiest—and the hardest—part. Worldbuilding should already be on your roadmap for your science fiction novel, so here are a few factors to consider as you flesh out your outline or pen your first draft.
1. Is My Society Thriving or Struggling?
Consider your characters and their wants and needs. Do they match with a society that provides everything they could possibly need? Or could their world present yet another roadblock?
2. Are My Characters Satisfied with Their World?
In many stories, the action begins because the main character is unhappy with where they are in life, whether that means they are unfulfilled emotionally or there is an exterior force pushing them away from comfort. Is your character happy with where they are? In this case, an outside force or uncovered secret can push the action. If your character is unhappy with where they are, their own unease or a related outside force (such as suddenly losing their last bit of money) can start the action.
3. Who Lives in This Society?
What kind of people live in this type of society? Are they holier-than-thou individuals who believe that the rich are superior to the poor? Are they struggling families and thieves just hoping for their next meal and willing to do anything to put food in their bellies?
4. How Does Money Work?
Money makes the world go ‘round. Or does it? Does your book’s world survive off of a barter system, or do they use credits? What about time itself? There are endless possibilities when it comes to how money moves through your world, and each of these can influence the rest.
5. What is Accepted—and What is Not?
What are societal expectations? Whether you feature these aspects in your actual, written work or not, it is important to know in your mind (and in your notes) how society views certain aspects of culture. Are there disagreements or prejudice between groups of different people? Are certain people not respected? What about how your society manages marriage, adoption, or birthing children?
In all of this, remember that building a world is difficult, exciting, and incredible. Your world should take on a life of its own to immerse your readers and challenge your characters.
About the Author: Madelyn Knecht is a writer and freelance editor who specializes in fantasy and science fiction novels for Middle Grade, Young Adult and Adult age groups. She lives in Texas with her two beloved Australian Shepherds. You can find out more about her editing services at https://madheditorial.com and follow her on Twitter @MadelynKnecht.