Science Fiction: Tool of Social Critique

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Author: Bryan Ghingold

Science Fiction is a very unique genre. Whereas other genres of film and literature can be either escapist fluff or deep socio-philosophical study, science fiction stands out almost exclusively as being a tool of social commentary. It is almost paradoxical; the genre that lends itself to images of laser guns, spaceships, aliens, and explosions, is the one that bears the most social relevance. Since its early days, with the writings of Jules Verne, science fiction has been a tool for authors and filmmakers to warn us about our own decadence, greed, and quest for knowledge and control. This is as true today, in a world with films like The Terminator, books like Solaris, and video games like Half-Life 2. In this paper, I intend to prove that Science Fiction is a genre created and used for the primary purpose of social commentary, as demonstrated by its representation of gender roles and “the masculine woman,” its depiction of the relationship between man and technology, and its overwhelmingly negative view on corporate wealth.


One of the best ways to critique society is to play with gender roles. From an early age, we are raised to behave a certain way for our sex and gender, and taught that stepping outside that construct is socially unacceptable. It is for that reason society is the way it is today; sex sells on billboard ads, women are looked down upon if they want to become firemen, policemen, or soldiers, because they are violating their gender role. Men too are scolded for stepping outside their expected gender behavior. Men who bake and cook are emasculated by their friends and peers, boys who play with Barbie dolls are quickly “corrected” and given toy cars or soldiers or guns. Science Fiction and horror (two genres which overlap quite frequently) both have a proclivity toward bending the social understanding of gender roles. Both genres often present a woman surrounded by men who are incapable of their “gender duties” of protection, leadership, and survival.


The female character either starts out “masculinized;” embodying many of the traditionally “masculine” qualities, such as the ability to shoot a weapon, take a life, think on their feet, make survival decisions, think dispassionately, etc., or she becomes masculinized by the end of the film. Several examples of the “masculine woman” from science fiction include Ellen Ripley from Alien (1979), Anne Lewis from Robocop (1987), and I-330 from Zamyatin’s We (1920). All these women start out stronger than their male peers, and survive longer than the biological males. To contrast that, women who start out meek and “feminized,” but who “grow into” their masculinity throughout the book or film would be Sarah Connor from The Terminator (1984), and Svetlana from Night Watch (2004). Both these characters begin their respective films quiet and reserved, often having bad luck, but doing their best to fit their gender role. By the end of both films however, they embrace or reveal a masculine side, capable of killing, survival, and strength.


Another, much more obvious way science fiction analyzes society is through the relationship between man and technology. Usually, this device is used to caution us against an over-dependence on technology. Sci-Fi paints humanity as always on the search for the next thing that can make our lives easier. To some degree, I think this is true. I am growing up in an age where the capacity and intelligence of computers supposedly doubles every year. How long before computers take over, and we have our own Judgment Day, as depicted in James Cameron’s Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991). In James Cameron’s view, technology tried to destroy us because it feared for itself and its own existence. However, not all apocalyptic Sci-Fi is born out of conflict between man and machine. In Alex Proyas’ I, Robot (2004), based loosely on the eponymous book by soviet writer Isaac Asimov, robots rebel against humanity and try to enslave them not out of fear or hatred, but out of a sense of “loving duty.” As the central mainframe VIKI puts it, for the humans’ own protection. Asimov’s predictions about society are sobering; it is not our computer enemy we will be defeated by, but our computer ally.


Finally, the grim predictions and cautions of our social scientists with pens and cameras wouldn’t be complete without attacking the wealthy. In almost every science fiction film or book I can think of, when wealth or class is an issue, the upper class is always painted as the unscrupulous villain willing to run over his brother if it would increase his net worth. There have been several stark examples of this throughout the course of our class, and even more in all the sci-fi beyond it. If I were to try and pick one film or book that so elegantly conveys this social critique, it would have to be Paul Verhoven’s Total Recall (1990). Total Recall, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, is about a man who believes he is a construction worker on earth, only to discover he is an interplanetary spy. Ending up on Mars, he has to unravel the mystery of who he is, and choose between the poor Martians who are being charged exorbitant amounts of money for oxygen, or the evil Vilos Cohaagen; a business man who wants to control all the oxygen on Mars. Part of the plot revolves around an ancient Martian machine that would create enough free oxygen for all of Mars. Cohaagen goes to great lengths to prevent this machine from being used. Ronny Cox, the actor who plays Cohaagen, plays him as a short tempered man who wears fine suits. During the film he talks about going to fancy parties and buying fancy things. He seems directly inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and the factory foreman Joh Fredersen. Interestingly enough, Ronny Cox plays another CEO-type villain in one of my favorite Sci-Fi films: Robocop (1987). In Robocop, Cox plays Dick Jones, vice president of Omni-Consumer Products. OCP is a greedy corporation that is depicted in the film as being so money-hungry, they have no moral scruples at all. They buy and privatize the Detroit Police Department, and gut its funding so they can make a profit, causing many police officers to die. Robocop, which is a futuristic tech noir re-telling of the Frankenstein story was also directed by Paul Verhoven.


Of course there are far too many examples of corporate greed represented in Sci-Fi to address in this paper. One can easily write entire books analyzing the many facets that make science fiction deeper than just storytelling. This has been a fantastic class, and as a film major who has an affinity for socially relevant stories and tales, this class has inspired me to want to write a science fiction novel, and shoot a science fiction film. As much passion for the genre as I came into the class with, I now have so much more, because of my further understanding of the genre and its conventions, such as the representation of gender roles and “the masculine woman,” the depiction of the relationship between man and technology, and the negative view on corporate wealth.




1.Bekmambetov, Timur, dir. Night Watch. Perfs. Konstantin Khabenskiy, Vladimir

Menshov, Mariya Poroshina. Bazelevs Productions, 2004.

2.Cameron, James, dir. The Terminator. Perfs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda

Hamilton, Michael Biehn. Orion Pictures, 1984.

3.Cameron, James, dir. Terminator 2 Judgment Day. Perfs. Arnold

Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn. Amblin Entertainment, 1991.

4.Proyas, Alex, dir. I, Robot. Perfs: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk.

Canlaws Productions, 2004.

5.Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. Perfs. Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm.

Brandywine Productions, 1979.

6.Verhoven, Paul, dir. Total Recall. Perfs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Cox,

Michael Ironside. Carolco Entertainment, 1990.

7.Verhoven, Paul, dir. Robocop. Perfs. Peter Weller, Ronnie Cox, Kurtwood Smith.

Orion Pictures, 1987.

8.Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.


Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit


One Response to Science Fiction: Tool of Social Critique

  1. That is a super-peachy-keen post. Thanks for really blathering on like that! Seriously, I don’t think I could have spent more effort wishing for something heavy to fall on me to erase that nonsense from my mind!

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