Ethics in science fiction: Butler, Wells, and Stapledon

Darrell Allan Jenks, Salve Regina University


Science fiction is a literary response to the social challenges arising from the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent changes of the contemporary technological age. The science-fiction response involves a mythmaking function, which is at once a search for stability and social cohesion, as well as a critical response to failed efforts to achieve those goals. The approach of this paper accounts for the dual nature of science fiction, as exemplified by the dialectic between utopian and dystopian literature: between authors who lay out blueprints for a perfect society and those who criticize such schemes. This dissertation examines the ethical principles of three influential authors: Samuel Butler, H. G. Wells, and Olaf Stapledon. Butler wrote a satiric utopia that reflected the ravages of industrialization and overzealous reformist schemes. H. G. Wells created the opposite of utopia, dystopian worlds where technological progress has led to ever more unhappiness. Olaf Stapledon created a transcendent cosmos with a place for humanity, albeit an extremely insignificant one. The three authors came to reject the notion of progress, and the idea that technological development will cause more human happiness. The methodology uses the comparative approach of literary theory applied in the context of a dialectic between technological change and literary response. The conclusions point to the significance of ethical systems in science fiction. The genre is neither prediction nor apology: it reflects the search for security and stability in a world where technological development has repudiated traditional myth and morality.

Subject Area

Literature|Philosophy|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Jenks, Darrell Allan, "Ethics in science fiction: Butler, Wells, and Stapledon" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations. AAI9961198.