Space & Innovation

8 Stories of Sci Fi and Future Shock

The U.K. sci-fi comedy 'The World's End' draws from a long tradition of social science fiction.

Among the last of this summer's sci-fi themed movies, "The World's End" is latest installment from the U.K. team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, who specialize in genre satire like "Shawn of the Dead" (zombie movies) and "Hot Fuzz" (buddy cop movies). "The World's End" begins as a comedy about five friends returning to their hometown for one final pub crawl. But then it takes a hard left turn into science fiction and, beneath the gags, barbed social satire concerning extended adolescence and cultural homogenization.

In fact, the filmmakers have described "The World's End" as being squarely in the tradition of social science fiction, which uses future-shock scenarios to explore issues of sociology and anthropology, rather than technology or hard science. Co-writer Simon Pegg, a self-described sci-fi geek and "child of pop culture," has spoken in recent interviews about the film's roots in classic social science fiction. Here we take a look at some of the genre's most enduring stories in books and film.

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H.G. Wells' 1895 novel tells the story of a nameless time traveler who uses an unlikely Victorian contraption to journey to the year 802,701. Here he finds a society divided into the decadent ruling class Eloi and the subterranean laborers know as the Morlocks. Wells' story, a none-too-subtle critique on unchecked capitalism, has since been adapted into several films, TV specials and radio dramas.

Wells' book is considered one of the first works of social science fiction. Coming at the turn of the century, as the Victorian Age faded, writers such as Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson began taking stories of science and society in entirely new directions.

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Already a popular social satirist, writer Aldous Huxley wrote "Brave New World" in part as a response to H.G. Wells' later utopian stories. The novel depicts a cold and efficient future society in which art, literature and even family are considered disruptive to the social order. Protagonist John the Savage attempts to lead a revolt, but things do not end well.

Huxley was concerned with the effects of industrialization and consumerism, in particular the implications of Henry Ford's assembly line. In fact, the official calendar in "Brave New World" resets the old system with the new designation A.F. ("After Ford"). "Brave New World" has seen several TV and film adaptations, and a recent radio revival on the BBC earlier this year.

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Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall," published in 1941, concerns the fate of the planet Lagash, which exists in a solar system with six suns. As a result, the planet has never known total darkness and the population has never seen a starry night sky. About every 2,000 years, however, the suns align in such a way that night falls on the planet -- with profound consequences for the people of Lagash. "Nightfall" wonders aloud about what happens when an insular society suddenly realizes it's part of a much, much bigger universe.

According to legend, the story came out of a debate between Asimov and John W. Campbell -- his editor at the magazine Astounding Science Fiction -- concerning a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God." Asimov and Campbell, suffice it to say, have a much more pessimistic take on the scenario.

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When George Orwell's famous novel was published in 1949, it was regarded a klaxon alarm about the clear and present dangers of totalitarianism. But its remarkable prescience would only become clear in later years, as Orwell's vision of a future surveillance society started to look uncomfortably familiar. The book has inspired literally hundreds of adaptations, responses and derived works in popular culture.

"Nineteen Eighty-four" is among the most overtly political of social science fiction novels and many of its terms have entered the popular lexicon -- Big Brother, thoughtcrime, newspeak. In fact, the author's very name has become an adjective in these Orwellian times. And how about this: When the Edward Snowden case first broke, concerning secret surveillance programs in the United States and Britain, sales of "1984" spiked more than 6,000 percent in just 24 hours.

Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel "Fahrenheit 451" presents a future society in which books are outlawed completely and enforcement is carried out by book-burning "Firemen." While most clearly a criticism of state-sponsored censorship -- it was written in part as a response to McCarthyism -- the book is also filled with broader speculation about the thinning social fabric of the times.

The book's social resonance was so strong that French director François Truffaut discarded nearly all the science fiction elements of the novel when he made his classic film adaptation in 1966. The story has since migrated to theater, radio, comics and even video games. Ironically, the book itself was later reissued in a partially censored edition by its publisher. (The number 451, by the way, represents the ignition point of paper in degrees Fahrenheit.)

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Often referred to as one of the first works of feminist science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin's novel "The Left Hand of Darkness" introduces the planet Winter, whose inhabitants have no gender but instead assume male or female identities for a few days, once a month. The book is told in a kind of anthropological sci-fi style, through the eyes of an envoy from planet Earth.

Unlike more straightforward books in the social sci-fi genre, "The Left Hand of Darkness" avoids any conspicuous commentary on contemporary social or political issues. Instead, the book's ideas percolate up through ruminations on Winter's history, environment and culture. One detail resonates, however: The genderless people of Winter have never known war.

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Author Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game" presents what seems, at first, like a typical hard science fiction scenario of invading aliens and space fleet battles. Young pilot Ender Wiggin is conscripted into an elite Battle School to train for combat against an alien armada. But by the time the novel ends, it's clear that the story has much more on its mind.

"Ender's Game" is often classified as military science fiction -- in fact, it's often on required reading lists at military academies. But the story is also squarely in the realm of social science fiction, with its investigations of war, morality and the culture of the military itself. The long-awaited film adaptation, starring Harrison Ford, hits theaters in November.

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