Social Satire in Science Fiction

Many great science fiction and fantasy works use their imaginative structures to make fun of the conventions of literature and society. Shakespeare protected himself from the anger of British royalty by setting his plays (which often had political sides to their humor) in a different country, such as Italy, which then came out looking exactly like Elizabethan or Jacobean England. Fantasy and science fiction writers do something similar, but they take their stories even farther away from home, to other planets and other universes, so that the shock of recognition is even greater when we realize we're reading about ourselves. Authors from Edwin A. Abbott to Margaret Atwood have exploited this technique. Sometimes the author's intent is less satirical than warning. In H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), a late-nineteenth-century inventor travels ahead in time to the year 802,701 A.D. The Time Traveler discovers a society in which the human race has evolved into two separate species: the Eloi (graceful, childlike beings who run around in the sunshine and sleep in hordes because of their fear of the dark) and the Morlocks (creepy underground dwellers who do manual labor for the Eloi, and who sneak above ground by night to kidnap sleeping Eloi, bring them back underground and eat them). By displacing his story into the unimaginably distant future, Wells was able to ask difficult questions about his own time. Beyond the analogies he may have wanted to create between the Eloi, the Morlocks and class relations in late-nineteenth-century England, "The Time Machine" also explores the absurdity of human art, literature and even thought, in the absence of human ingenuity. What good is it to write books if, millenia later, they will only wind up decomposing in a museum somewhere, useless to a culture who are no longer literate? (interesting related sidenote: for a website devoted to a different kind of social commentary, namely feminist science fiction, please click on those words.)