The Phantom Creeps (1939)
Friends, family, and people who know me recognize that I am concerned about what is happening in our world. On my Amazon author bio page it states, “…strives to do his part to make our planet a wee bit better.” Writing a self-help book to help readers chart a course to better health seems consistent with doing my part to help make the planet incrementally better. But how does one do that in the context of a science fiction novel? More specifically, what does it mean to write a sci-fi story with an underlying intention of raising consciousness?
Calling attention to social issues is a mainstay of literature. Name any particular social ill and there are probably dozens of books exploring the issue in order to raise awareness. Examples abound but here are a few:
- The horror of war—Johnny Got Your Gun
- Racial prejudice—To Kill a Mockingbird
- Government control, propaganda—1984
- Exploitation of immigrants—The Jungle
- Class warfare—Les Miserables
I did not focus on science fiction in the list above other than mentioning George Orwell’s 1984. The dystopian future and apocalyptic sub-genres often expose or somehow incorporate social messaging in their plots. Robot stories, and in particular those dealing with artificial intelligence, might call attention to the dangers of sentient AI. Erewhon, published way back in 1872, had three chapters titled, “The Book of the Machines”, in which Samuel Butler raised the issue of mechanical consciousness. Fast forward to today where movies such as Terminator raise the specter of AI dominance. Genetic engineering is another area explored as a social theme. Brave New World comes to mind. Examples in many of the other sci-fi sub-genres are plentiful.
I intentionally used a movie as one of my examples above. Often movies follow as book adaptations. One particular recent standout movie about corporate greed exploiting the mineral wealth of another planet in disregard to the technologically inferior indigenous species came as a movie first. Here I am talking about Avatar, a movie calling attention to these and other issues such as militarism and imperialism along with social justice.
This post is not meant to give a comprehensive overview of socially conscious science fiction in film and literature. I simply want to get you thinking about how these art forms incorporate social themes. Lets not lose sight of the fact that lots of great science fiction books and films do not include social messaging. Nothing against pure unmitigated entertainment, but I want my writing to convey something more. In this regard, I am trying to emulate one of the best sci-fi authors of all time, a man referred to as the “dean of science fiction writers”. Here I am referring to Robert Heinlein (of course); I dedicated Sentient to him in memoriam. The Wikipedia reference states:
Within the framework of his science-fiction stories, Heinlein repeatedly addressed certain social themes: the importance of individual liberty and self-reliance, the obligation individuals owe to their societies, the influence of organized religion on culture and government, and the tendency of society to repress nonconformist thought. He also speculated on the influence of space travel on human cultural practices.
What social themes am I raising in the novel Sentient? Isolation/separation and how this contributes to competition over cooperation, how we treat people with mental illness, and individualism vs. collectivism are just a few of the issues I touch upon. You would have to read the book or who knows, watch the movie someday (hey, a man can dream, right?) to get the complete gamut of social issues I am trying to raise awareness about. All of these enmesh in telling an engaging and thought provoking story. One of my beta readers said it all with the simple comment, “Great story! Somehow, I feel as though reading it has raised my consciousness.” Bullseye!
Enjoy this clip. What social issues does watching it call to mind?