Please welcome Louise Marley to the blog! Louise Marley, a former concert and opera singer, has published sixteen novels. Writing as Cate Campbell, her recent books are historical fiction. As Louise Marley, she writes fantasy and science fiction and occasionally young adult fiction.
The State of Social Science Fiction
by Louise Marley
Theodore Sturgeon, writer and critic, wrote, ”A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content.” Although he probably didn’t intend it, this is an apt definition of the subgenre of sf Ursula K. LeGuin dubbed “social science fiction.”
It’s the sort of science fiction I write, and which I love to read. I was drawn to sf in the first place by writers like Sheri Tepper, Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, and Ursula K. LeGuin. I wanted to read feminist sf, character-driven sf, stories that were less about the “gadget”, as Asimov put it, and more—much, much more—about the people affected by it. As a young reader, I loved A Canticle for Leibowitz, and On the Beach. Devoured The Gate to Women’s Country and The Left Hand of Darkness. Respected The Handmaid’s Tale, even if I couldn’t like it. I was thrilled when Elizabeth Moon’s stirring, sensitive novel The Speed of Dark won a Nebula Award, and her Remnant Population is not to be missed.
Elizabeth’s Nebula-winning novel was published in 2003, an eon ago in popular culture. In recent years I have trouble finding stories like it. Science fiction seems to have gone down a different—not worse, I hasten to say, but different—road. Has the market for this sort of science fiction—which is not fantasy, or science fantasy, but true social science fiction—dried up?
Goodreads, that all-but-indispensable tool for readers and writers, devotes a reader-generated “listopia” to social science fiction. The nearly three-hundred title list is a bit of a mishmash, with fantasy and horror titles mixed in with books that actually fit the definition of social science fiction. What strikes me, though, is how many of the novels on the list which are truly social sf are old ones. My own about-to-be-reissued novel, The Child Goddess, was first published in 2004. Not ancient, of course, but a solid eleven years ago.
Of course, we could always quibble about genre definitions. Kay Kenyon’s amazing quartet of The Entire and the Rose novels is sometimes called fantasy, or even space opera, but because of its solid scientific underpinning and its lack of magic or psi power or the other hallmarks of fantasy stories, I think it fits the definition of social science fiction. Nancy Kress is thought of as a science fiction writer, and has done plenty of so-called “hard” sf, but her recent Nebula-winning novella, “Yesterday’s Kin,” fits perfectly into my idea of social sf. A contemporary master of the literary science fiction short story, James Van Pelt, is the author of a great example of social science fiction: Summer of the Apocalypse. Fortunately for his avid fans (like me) there’s a promised sequel. (If you can’t wait, his new young adult novel is coming soon from Fairwood Press.)
Some books can more or less squeeze into the genre if we’re generous about the description. (Charlie Jane Anders posted a wonderful collection of definitions of science fiction—quotes from sf writers—at iO9. If you’re a science fiction fan, it’s worth reading how some of our greats defined the genre.) For example, Brenda Cooper, who writes excellent hard science fiction, has penned a trilogy of novels that treat with the concept of the generation ship, focusing on how a society develops in that environment. I find Justin Cronin’s The Passage to be constructed like a thriller, but he does amazing work with characters. We could, just possibly, call those books social sf.
Amazon’s list of science fiction genres designates steampunk, space opera, hard science fiction, and so forth, but there’s no mention of social science fiction. Does that mean the subgenre is too small to be noticed, or too vague to be marketed? I hope not. There are stories still to tell.
About The Child Goddess:
Winner of the 2005 Endeavour Award
There is something mysterious and terrifying about a young child, discovered and imprisoned by Port Force workers on the ocean planet of Virimund. Mother Isabel Burke, of the Priestly Order of Mary Magdalene, a medical anthropologist, is called to be the child’s guardian, but Isabel finds she must also be the girl’s protector against the powerful corporation trying to exploit her. Isabel leads the effort to discover who the child is, and how a young girl could be the only survivor of a colony assumed lost for more than three centuries.
Though Isabel has sworn never to see Dr. Simon Burke again, she needs him to help her solve the enigma of Oa of Virimund, and to try to thwart the powerful people who suspect that Oa’s small body holds the key to extended life.