Re: Social Science Fiction?

Robin Hanson (
Mon, 15 Mar 1999 10:19:53 -0800

On 3/14/99, Doug Bailey wrote:
>While I've been impressed by the host of authors that have attempted to
>extrapolate current trends in science in technology to write books couched
>in science fiction, I've noticed a paucity of books that attempt to
>extrapolate on social systems. Many great "hard" science fiction novels
>appear to be set in a far future with social systems that are essentially
>the same as the ones we see today or have seen in the past. I suspect this
>is a product of most good "hard" science fiction writers not being
>extremely versed in sociology, economics, and political science.

I've noticed and complained about this failing too. And science fiction author' areas of expertize are an important proximate cause. But that expertize choice is itself no coincidence. I think the deeper cause is the fact that the public will defer to a remarkable extent to claims of physicists, and the public is extremely unwilling to defer to economists. Other academic areas fall in between these extremes.

Physicists can declare the universe has eleven dimensions, based on the slimmest of evidence, and media coverage basically says "isn't that cool." Economists can say price limits probably reduce the supply of an item like labor, standard economic wisdom for centuries, and if the media mentions it at all it is described as controversial, being sure to quote disagreeing experts. And this is no more the fault of the media than the SF pattern you describe is the fault of SF authors.

SF readers mostly swallow an SF description of an encounter with a black hole, complaining perhaps if this slows down the plot or if it disagrees with expert descriptions of such an encounter. Story descriptions of an encounter with a price limit are less vivid, and so more likely to slow a plot down. More important, an SF description of an economic effect of a similar level of speculation would be met with far more reader skepticism. The author would have to put a lot more work in to justify its plausibility to readers.

Robin Hanson   
RWJF Health Policy Scholar             FAX: 510-643-8614 
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 510-643-1884 after 8/99: Assist. Prof. Economics, George Mason Univ.