Speculative fiction that explores psychology/sociology?
April 13, 2008 12:11 PM   Subscribe

What's some speculative fiction that uses magic or fictional technology to explore psychology, sociology, or political science in a deep way? I'm not as much interested here in fabulous monsters or space operas or even deep thinking about physics -- I'm interested in books that explore the nature of the mind and/or human society by imagining a world that worked differently.
posted by shivohum to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress is about the economic and political consequences of genetic engineering. Here’s the Amazon blurb:
Leisha Camden was genetically modified at birth to require no sleep, and her normal twin Alice is the control. Problems and envy between the sisters mirror those in the larger world, as society struggles to adjust to a growing pool of people who not only have 30 percent more time to work and study than normal humans, but are also highly intelligent and in perfect health. The Sleepless gradually outgrow their welcome on Earth, and their children escape to an orbiting space station to set up their own society. But Leisha and a few others remain behind, preaching acceptance for all humans, Sleepless and Sleeper alike. With the conspiracy and revenge that unwinds, the world needs a little preaching on tolerance
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 12:21 PM on April 13, 2008

Jack Vance's novels are full of this kind of stuff.
posted by interrobang at 12:29 PM on April 13, 2008

Einstein's Dreams
The book takes flight when Einstein takes to his bed and we share his dreams, 30 little fables about places where time behaves quite differently. In one world, time is circular; in another a man is occasionally plucked from the present and deposited in the past: "He is agonized. For if he makes the slightest alteration in anything, he may destroy the future ... he is forced to witness events without being part of them ... an inert gas, a ghost ... an exile of time." The dreams in which time flows backward are far more sophisticated than the time-tripping scenes in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, though science-fiction fans may yearn for a sustained yarn, which Lightman declines to provide. His purpose is simply to study the different kinds of time in Einstein's mind, each with its own lucid consequences. In their tone and quiet logic, Lightman's fables come off like Bach variations played on an exquisite harpsichord. People live for one day or eternity, and they respond intelligibly to each unique set of circumstances. Raindrops hang in the air in a place of frozen time; in another place everyone knows one year in advance exactly when the world will end, and acts accordingly.
posted by muddylemon at 12:35 PM on April 13, 2008

This is an almost perfect description of Richard Morgan's books. Altered Carbon and its sequels do exactly this with the imagined technology being the ability to transplant minds into new bodies. His less sci-fi, more near-future book, Market Forces is another example focused on the economic and social effects of a few technological and social changes to what is essentially contemporary society. He's also and incredibly compelling and just plain fun writer. I strongly recommend him.
posted by The Bellman at 12:36 PM on April 13, 2008

Try The Stories of Your Life collection by Ted Chiang, the only sci-fi writer I still read. Although the sci-fi ideas are refreshing and wonderful, the core of his stories is about emotions and psychology.
posted by Pantalaimon at 12:49 PM on April 13, 2008

Pat Cadigan's Mindplayers deals with personalities being bought, sold and stolen, and the 'mindplayers' working directly with people's brains to deal with psychological issues. Not sure if it matches what you're looking for in terms of depth, but it definitely imagines society working differently and the possibilities and pitfalls that go with it.
posted by carbide at 12:56 PM on April 13, 2008

"The Parable of the Sower" and "The Parable of the Talents" by Octavia Butler features a near-future America in a state of gradual decline. Very realistic psychologically and politically. Highly recommended.

"Iron Council" by China Mieville is his most political novel, featuring a rebellion in a kind of fantasy world.

"The Player of Games" by Iain M. Banks features a philosophical contrast between two very different societies.

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro has an emphasis on character, though as usual for his books it's more stylized than realistic.

"Glasshouse" by Charles Stross features social and psychological experimentation.

"The Separation" by Christopher Priest is a parallel-world novel which links character and philosophy.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:57 PM on April 13, 2008

I think David Brin's "Kiln People" did this for me.

However, this is a pretty broad question -- by definition, speculative fiction accomplishes this goal.
posted by SpecialK at 12:58 PM on April 13, 2008

According to my wife, who is writing her dissertation on postcolonial speculative fiction, you should start with Octavia Butler's Patternmaster series, her Parable Series, Leguin's Wizard of Earthsea books and Samuel Delaney's Dahlgren, which is very long.

On preview: I shouldn't have taken a walk before posting this.
posted by billtron at 1:00 PM on April 13, 2008

Gene Wolfe's "The Death of Doctor Island."
posted by Iridic at 1:34 PM on April 13, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

I knew this thread was going to fill up with LeGuin recs. A lot of her work will provide what you're looking for.
posted by kristi at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2008

Asimov's seminal Foundation Trilogy are heavy with sociology and psychology.
posted by namewithoutwords at 1:37 PM on April 13, 2008

This Alien Shore deals with the evolution of a civilization in which madness is accepted and incorporated into the fabric of society.
posted by winna at 1:38 PM on April 13, 2008

Le Guin's already been mentioned twice, and most of her work delves into this sort of thing, but I wanted to mention The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed as two more of her novels, the better-known of the Hainish cycle. Left Hand of Darkness in particular has a great essay (in newer editions; my old Ace paperback doesn't have it) where she talks about the context of the work, "Does Gender Matter? Redux" on the assumptions that went into the book and the ongoing role of gender in science fiction. I could probably go on recommending her other novels but I think I'll stop.

Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz I guess deals with an extreme form of this, examining how immediate reactions to huge, sf-scale events play out over millenia. Although, as SpecialK noted, speculative fiction should by definition do this.

on preview: heh, and another le guin recommendation while i typed this up.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 1:51 PM on April 13, 2008

I enjoyed the heck out of Air, or Have Not Have, by Geoff Ryman, which describes the impact of disruptive information technology on a small, remote village. Ryman's observations of human character and village life are lively, tender, and exact.
posted by ottereroticist at 2:04 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anything by John Varley. Good to start here. Lots of interesting stuff about cloning, preserving memories, new bodies on demand, etc.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:07 PM on April 13, 2008

Larry Niven wrote a bunch of short stories that explored the psychological and sociological consequences of cheap, convenient teleportation.
posted by coffeefilter at 2:08 PM on April 13, 2008

I would suggest Ursula K. LeGuin as well, but also look at Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. It's very readable and short.
posted by aheckler at 2:34 PM on April 13, 2008

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein taught me more about libertarianism than any text book.
posted by lilac girl at 2:37 PM on April 13, 2008

His Master's Voice, by Stanislaw Lem is a terrific exploration of the manipulation of science for geopolitical reasons.
posted by cog_nate at 2:50 PM on April 13, 2008

Elizabeth Bear's The Speed of Dark deals with a near-future "cure" for autism, told from the point of view of an autistic man.
posted by media_itoku at 2:51 PM on April 13, 2008

seconding & thirding all the Le Guin recommendations - she really is one of the best as regards this request - i'd like to add her collections of short stories to the mix, especially her latest "The Birthday of the World" - some really superb pieces of anthropological/sociological speculation in there

and Octavia Butler as well - can't recommend her enough - much of her Patternmaster series (earlier mentioned) & her Xenogenesis arc of stories are about sociological & psychological changes in response to extraordinary technology/biology - also, Kindred (a novel that mixes time travel & race relations with incredible results)

an excellent book concerning the nature of autism, and therefore of the mind in general, is Elizabeth Moon's "The Speed of Dark"

Eleanor Arnason's "Ring of Swords" is an insightful look into how gender roles can make for very different sociological structures

"The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger is an interesting & often moving novel about how time travel might affect human relationships

Dorothy Bryant's "The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You" is a classic regarding a society where dreams form the primary focus & structure for society

another classic from the 70s is Marge Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" abotu a woman in an insane asylum who is timetravelling to alternate sociological futures - or is she? (incidentally the first appearance of the internet in sf that i know of)

James Hogan had an interesting book called "Voyage from Yesteryear" about a space colony that decides to take freedom seriously

and Dennis Danvers book "The Watch" is a great piece of sociological speculation (what if Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist prince was re-born in mid-80s Atlanta?)

Stanislaw Lem has written many great sf works that treat of society & the mind - two tow recommend are "The Futurological Congress" and "Memoirs Found in a Bathtub"

lastly, no discussion of psychology & sf can be complete without some reference to Philip K. Dick - his short story in the first Dangerous Visions, "Faith of our Fathers" is an amazing mix of psychology & political intrigue - in a similar vein & highly recommended: A Scanner Darkly - and finally his VALIS novels are pretty much the definition of a headtrip
posted by jammy at 2:52 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Phillip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle." We lose WWII. Nazis take over the Eastern Seaboard and Japan conquers the American Westcoast. Slavery is reinstituted, Africa is obliterated, everyone smokes marijuana cigarettes dispensed from vending machines and is obsessed with the I-Ching.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 2:59 PM on April 13, 2008

holy crap, i forgot Sam Delaney - check out "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand" or, as someone mentioned earlier i see, his Dhalgren series

posted by jammy at 3:00 PM on April 13, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt imagines a world where the Black Death wipes out all of Europe, and thus Christianity and European civilizations are nonexistent. It's really a series of stories taking place over several centuries in this alternate history, through a group of characters that keep getting reincarnated in different times and places. Explores Islamic, Chinese, Native American, Indian and other cultures.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 3:17 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

World War Z, like all good zombie fiction, is interesting not because of the Zeds, but because it illuminates the good and bad in humanity when placed under stress.
posted by SPrintF at 3:36 PM on April 13, 2008

A case of conscience James Blish. A Hugo award winner that examined the cost of new knowledge to both a Jesuit priest and an alien that attempts to integrate with humanity.
posted by b33j at 3:44 PM on April 13, 2008

Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow is about a wonderful Jesuit priest who goes to another planet and ends up a physically mutilated child-murderer. (Those aren't spoilers; they are given at the beginning of the book). The book questions how people can believe in a god who lets terrible things happen, and also what morality means to another species.
posted by emyd at 3:51 PM on April 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

A shorter Delany book exploring strong linguistic determinism is Babel-17. Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time is about people in a world without morality meeting people from a world defined by morality. Aldiss's Barefoot in the Head is about a world where all personal psychology has become dissociative. Burroughs's The Ticket That Exploded is about a world where domination through sexual identity transformation is effective.
posted by meehawl at 4:33 PM on April 13, 2008

your criteria are what basically differenitates spec-fi from sci-fi.
(this is also one of the best forums in which you could have asked for recommendations, IMO). Results will vary from "soft" (it's a basic hardboiled detective novel, but the murder victim has been restored from the usual brain backup taken the day before the murder - "I want you to find out who killed me yesterday.") to "hard" (it's an examination of social and political revolutions, using the lunar penal colony's declaring independence from Earth as its setting). Sometimes the speculation is the "meat", sometimes it's just the "spice".
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom = reputation/"karma" takes the place of money
Eastern Standard Tribe = life led online leads to alliances by what sleep schedule/time zone you live your life in
Jennifer Government = everything is privatized, the police only investigate if they can bill someone for it, people take the names of their employers and try to get their kids into Mattel-brand schools
Gun, with Occasional Music by Johnathan Lethem is a sort of a mash-up of several kinds of spec-fi detective stories, and is fun
There's a whole sub-genre of ecological/post-global-climate-change spec-fi, including the psychological and socialogical consequences, from TC Boyle's Friend of the Earth, KS Robinson's Wild Shore trilogy, Nature's End by Streiber and Kunetka, all the way back to Ecotopia by Callenbach.
For what-the-future-looked-like-to-the-past, the classic ,and one of the cornerstones of the entire spec-fi genre, is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (man from 1887 wakes up in year 2000, written in 1888).
posted by bartleby at 4:54 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Isn't this pretty much the definition of all of Philip K. Dick's stuff?
posted by adamdschneider at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2008

George RR Martin's A Song for Lya is a great look at the nature of religious faith. I can't really describe why without giving the plot away, but I think any believer or nonbeliever would be lead to a greater understanding of the opposite view by reading this story.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:44 PM on April 13, 2008

Nthing The Sparrow - one of the best books I've read in about 5 years - it literally changed my way of thinking.
posted by mazienh at 7:46 PM on April 13, 2008

If Time and Technology is your thing, then maybe S.M. Stirling? Island in the Sea of Time is the first in a series where there's a bright light and suddenly the present-day island of Nantucket switches places with the Bronze Age island of Nantucket. What to do when your small fishing port/vacation resort is suddenly the most advanced civilization on the planet?
At the same time, Dies the Fire is the first book in a series that deals with what happens to the rest of the present-day world after the same Nantucket Event - namely, electricity, explosives, and steam power suddenly cease to function, permanently. What to do when the lights go out and the entire world is suddenly back to pointy sticks and old kitchen knives? (Hint: the Renaissance Fair people see opportunities!) There are elements of sociology, politics, and nation-building in both.
posted by penciltopper at 8:59 PM on April 13, 2008

Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers is a fun novel about identity that can be programmed like software -- the main character is a recorded personality living in a persona-beta-tester's body, on the run from the corporation that wants to release her to the mass market.
posted by Guy Smiley at 10:48 PM on April 13, 2008

Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man.
A lot of Robert Silverberg from the 60's and 70's - I recommend Dying Inside, To Live Again, Book of Skulls, and Tower of Glass, among others.
posted by Wolfdog at 2:38 AM on April 14, 2008

"nthing" - is that how you say it?

ok, nthing The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, but be sure to read the sequel Children of God - the second novel works all kind of unexpected things with the perspectives of the first

not sure if John Crowley's Aegypt qualifies as specu-fi but it'll turn your head right around as regards what you think you know about history

remembered a few more:

Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch is not to be missed

M.T. Anderson wrote a great young adult novel called Feed that posits a future where everyone is connected neurally to corporate mass media (great opening line: We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.")

and Patricia Anthony's Cold Allies is an intense book about the emotional, psychological & eventual sociopolitical effects of alien encounters

p.s. thanks Guy Smiley for reminding me of Michael Swanwick - Vacuum Flowers is a great book
posted by jammy at 5:12 AM on April 14, 2008

I was hoping there'd be an answer to this for psychology analogous to Celestial Matters, a what-if physics worked according to Aristotle. i.e. what if the mind worked according to the theories of ____?
posted by bleary at 6:24 AM on April 14, 2008

In the Dune Series by Frank Herbert the main characters are dealing with repercussions of different groups trying to shape society for generation upon generation.

The latter books get more and more into what you're asking about, however even the first is shaping a society. You have major groups that have spent thousands of years plotting to get where they are. Shaping society, shaping government, and shaping individuals.
posted by TheDukeofLancaster at 8:21 AM on April 14, 2008

Nthing the Sparrow and Children of God.

Also, not sci-fi, but Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude has some very cool magical realism used to explore sociological ideas.
posted by WidgetAlley at 1:12 PM on April 14, 2008

Valerie J. Freireich's Becoming Human, examines the social impact of cloning and genetic modifications. Quite subtle and … human.
posted by signal at 8:31 PM on April 14, 2008

The first book of Peter Watt's Rifters trilogy is possibly the most focused on this. I can't remember much of the second two books; they tend to glide together in my mind. But the first book is almost entirely about the psychology of men and women cut off from the rest of humanity. And you can get it for free online.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:25 AM on April 20, 2008

Oh, the first book is Starfish.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:26 AM on April 20, 2008

'Blindness' by Jose Saramago. Extremely grim, but certainly thought-provoking.
posted by pepcorn at 1:19 PM on April 20, 2008

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