teaching social theory through science fiction

The following guest post by Tom Marlow is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.

With the passing of Ursula K. Le Guin this past week, many social scientists have expressed their feeling about impact her work had on their lives. I joined in, tweeting that I had always placed her at the core of my hypothetical class “Social Theory through Science Fiction”. So had Dan! He graciously asked me to write up my own version of a syllabus focusing on social theory and science fiction.

I tried to come up with my version with a couple of things in mind. First, I have stuck to mostly newer books. This is partly because that is what I have read recently and partly because many of the “classics” written by old white guys have issues. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War comes immediately to mind. It’s an interesting concept for critiquing war and the military-industrial complex, but the portrayal of future Earth where large portions of the population have voluntarily altered there sexual orientation in response to population pressures is…uh…problematic. Second, with a few exceptions, I have mostly left out the specific sociology readings. We could probably debate those forever. I wanted this to be about science fiction.

Finally, while I always imagined the class being called “Social Theory through Science Fiction”, I think we can do better. My best so far is, “Grokking Society”. Here goes!

Marx and Durkheim

Ursula K. Le Guin – The Dispossessed

I’ll agree with Dan’s assessment that Ursula Le Guins book The Dispossessed is pretty much a can’t miss here. There was a lot of excellent writing on The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness this week so I’ll just say go read them both if you have not already.

Le Guin Capitalism
Quote from Le Guin’s 2014 National Book Award speech, available here. Image from The Internet.


Charlie Jane Anders – All the Birds in the Sky

This one felt like a bit of stretch as the metaphor is perhaps too straightforward. Science is draining the world of magic and a group of witches must fight a rich guy and his scientists to stop it. Really though, the story focuses on a complicated relationship between two people on either side of this battle. Here, there is much more depth than the one liner would indicate.

Structural Functionalism

Isaac Asimov – Foundation

In Foundation, Hari Seldon hides himself away in his office to develop a mathematical model of all of society called “psychohistory” or “mathematical sociology”. Seldon uses this model to predict the decline of a seemingly stable empire and construct a new society aimed at creating stability during a dark age. Right or wrong, that is also pretty much what I think of when envision structural functionalism. Besides being a classic that reads almost like a mystery novel, I find Foundation interesting that even with Seldon’s ability to characterize every aspect of a functioning society via mathematics, he saw crisis and conflict as unavoidable.


Annalee Newitz – Autonomous: A Novel

I always found Discipline and Punish to be the most science fiction like non-fiction book. I remember thinking, “The Minority Report is the perfect panopticon!”. It’s no surprise then that there were tons of options to go with Foucault. I ultimately decided to go with the very recent book Autonomous: A Novel by Annalee Newitz. It deals with a lot of Foucauldian themes such as biopower, sexuality, surveillance, and resistance. Also, we are obviously watching Minority Report.

Reflexive Modernization and Risk Society

Don Delillo – White Noise

The post-modern storytelling makes it a tough read, but it is both hilarious in its satire critiquing modernity and full of insight about how people deal with anxiety and unquantifiable risk that gradually encroaches on their entire life. I’ve always thought that if Ulrich Beck wrote a novel (he didn’t did he?), it would be this.

Sex and Gender

Ursula K. Le Guin – Left hand of Darkness

Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice

Again, Le Guin’s book is hugely influential and a joy to read. However, some have pointed to Ann Leckie and her Ancillary series as worthy successors of the Le Guin legacy. Gender isn’t so much at the core of the story the way it is in The Left Hand of Darkness but it does play an important and interesting role.


Nnedi Okafor – Binti

N.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

Afrofuturism is having a moment. The hype around the Black Panther movie for example, is setting records. So I’ve included two of the more well known authors from this genre right now. I found Binti to be particularly enchanting for the way it portrays it’s 16 year old protagonist as she becomes the first person to leave her secluded culture and attend university off planet. Both are worth checking out though and both put race at the center of their storytelling.

I was also tempted to include Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves here. For those who haven’t made it through it’s 900 pages, at the end of the book Stephenson steps outside his safe zone of describing the technical details of space travel and starts writing about genetics, race, and behavior. To be honest, a lot of science fiction blunders into this territory so it might be useful to confront it head on.


As an environmental sociologist I’m partial. So environment gets the last say and two weeks! The first week is on the political economy of environmental degradation. The second focuses on environment justice.

Week 1 Sociology: John Bellamy Foster – “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology”

Jason Moore – Capitalism in the Web of Life

Week 1 Scifi: Paolo Bacigalupi – “The Water Knife”

A ton of science fiction deals with a future where we’ve destroyed earth’s ability to sustain life. Frank Herbert’s “Dune” is often considered the seminal “environmentalist” piece of science fiction and could easily have been selected here. However, “The Water Knife” and other recent “climate fiction” books are different because they seem scarily plausible within our lifetimes. It doesn’t rely on crazy technology or alien planets to make the story work. It is just about what might happen when water becomes privatized and scarce. We should probably watch “Wall-E” after this one.

Week 2 Sociology: David N. Pellow – Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement

Week 2 Scifi: Walidah Imarisha & adrienne maree brown – Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements

David’s book is really great and pushes us to think about environment and justice in new ways. I actually have not read Octavia’s Brood yet, but this collection of short stories came recommended to me by David himself so it seems like the obvious choice.

One last note. I really wanted to get “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu into this list. Cosmic sociology! But I couldn’t figure out where to put it. Otherwise that’s it. Let me know what I’ve missed in the comments.

Tom Marlow is a PhD student in Sociology at Brown University. 

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

2 thoughts on “teaching social theory through science fiction”

  1. You didn’t say good science fiction, did you? Good. So then I suggest “The Bee Movie” for structural functionalism and/or organic solidarity; “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” for postindustrialism and/or STS; and of course “Blade Runner” for the link between modernity and postmodernity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the idea of teaching with *bad* fiction, especially if it’s short stories or movies. A bad novel seems like too much to force onto a student, but a bad episode of Star Trek or kids movie ….


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