The social function of SF

“Science fiction then should be an effective literature of social criticism—but I have said that it is not. I will climb onto Limb Number Two in an attempt to explain why it is not. I believe that in science fiction the symbolism lies too deep for action to result, that the science fiction story does not turn the reader outward to action but inward to contemplation. I think the unwitting compact between the writer and reader of science fiction goes, “We are suspending reality, you and I. By the signs of the rocket ship and the ray gun and the time machine we indicate that the relationship between us has nothing to do with the real world. By writing the stuff and by reading it we abdicate from action, we give free play to our unconscious drives and symbols, we write and read not about the real world but about ourselves and the things within ourselves.”

– C. M. Kornbluth, “The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism” (1957) in The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (Chicago: Advent Publishers, 1959) (link)


“[S]cience fiction, like critical theory, insists upon historical mutability, material reducibility, and utopian possibility. Of all genres, science fiction is thus the one most devoted to the historical concreteness and rigorous self-reflectiveness of critical theory. The science fictional world is not only one different in time or place from our own, but one whose chief interest is precisely the difference that such difference makes. It is also a world whose difference is concretized within a cognitive continuum with the actual – thus sharply distinguishing science fiction from the irrationalist estrangements of fantasy or Gothic literature (which may secretly work to ratify the mundane status quo by presenting no alternative to the latter other than inexplicable discontinuities.”

– Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan, 2000)


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