The Social Importance of Literature

In reading Death Spiral, a new science fiction novel by CL Gregoire, I was struck by the political nad social commentary embedded in the story, action and characters. On the one hand, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Social commentary has been an important element of science fiction for a long time. I don’t always think of social commentary when I’m reading other forms of fiction, however, but I should. Good stories involve conflict, and conflict almost always involves a moral dilemma of some kind that must be resolved. The nature of this resolution is implicit commentary on a society or community’s values and ethics.

Sometimes, this commentary is is subtle, like in the story of 13-year old Andy Broome in M.R. Street’s award winning book Blue Rock Rescue. Andy must navigate the complexities of adolescence while redefining his relationship with his father after his mother dies a terrible death. The way Andy confronts the demons that haunt him from his mother’s death is a form of social commentary focused on acceptance, forgiveness, fear, and ultimately bravery. The story ends up being a quintessential coming of age story for Andy, and it’s thoroughly American in context and point of view. Andy resolves his problem, not the town or his father. Andy’s individualist journey is an American one and imbeds a form of social commentary through his character’s ethical behavior.

My novels tends to be more self conscious. Isabella in the Pirate of Panther Bay struggles quite explicitly with her individual identity as an escaped slave commanding a rogue pirate ship. The moral and ethical dilemmas she faces over the value of life and her choice of profession are fundamental to the conflicts the drive the story and its ultimate climax in the heat of a bloody high-seas battle. Similarly, Luke and Lucy must grapple with fundamental questions of right and wrong while confronting physical violence in A Warrior’s Soul. How far one should go in using violence, even for self-defense, reflects choices and values made by individuals and communities more generally.

But this really isn’t new. Social commentary has been imbedded in fiction of all kinds, including the pulp fiction of Horatio Alger, Jr. and Jules Verne in the 19th century and Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Edgar Rice Boroughs in the 20th century.

I discuss these issues more extensively in a longer post over at Blogging Authors for those interested in reading more.

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