Category: Literature
Satire in Science Fiction

As a kind of literary device, satire in science fiction is important in the creation of change as well as mocking people’s foolish behavior through ridicule, humor, irony, sarcasm or hyperbole to criticize as well as expose vices and people’s foolishness and stupidity. Principally, science fiction deals with the actual or imagined effect of science upon individuals or societies. Like in any other modern genre, the use of satire in science fiction is inevitable. It is important for giving stories about technological and scientific plausibility. Moreover, a satire that is applicable in science fiction takes the form of strange voyages, titanic disasters, political agitation, utopian aspirations, prophetic warnings, and imaginary worlds. Satire remains an important literary device not only in science fiction but also in other kinds of fiction to ridicule the subjects with the intent of either preventing or provoking particular changes. However, not all examples of science fiction have satire, and not all satire is funny. Using satire, science fiction authors find new technical and scientific inventions with the intent of prognosticating the techno-social changes freely.

This essay will have a specific bias towards satire in science fiction. The paper will delve into The Phoenix Pick Anthology and examine four stories from this anthology. The essay will demonstrate the satire nature in The Damned Thing by Ambrose G. Bierce, The Empire of the Ants by H.G. Wells, The Red One by Jack London and In the Year 2889 by Jules Verne as the examples of science fiction. Through a succinct analysis of these short stories, the essay will attempt to demonstrate the role of satire as well as the way the authors have used it successfully in science fiction. Lastly, through a laconic examination of these short stories, the essay will attempt to delve into the use of satire as a literary device. These short stories are bound with latent radicalism due to its affinity with an aggressive satire. Alongside parodies, allegories, sermons, and meditations, satires exhibit all conceivable attitudes towards techno-social change processes through the cosmic bliss and cynical despair.

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The Damned Thing

In The Damned Thing, Ambrose G. Bierce puts emphasis on the manner in which people do not take nature seriously. He focuses on the things found in our natural world but is physically invisible and inaudible. The four subtitles of science fiction are comical. At the beginning of the story, local people surround Hugh Morgan’s battered corpse. Their intent in the cabin is to inquire regarding his demise and his erstwhile companion. Towards this end, the coroner admits an oath to William Harker – a witness. This is an attempt by local men to understand the bizarre circumstances leading to Morgan’s death. William and the deceased hunted and fished together. In the course of earning their livelihoods, they encountered innumerable disturbances. As a result, Morgan called them ‘that damned thing.’ In their last encounter, the deceased fired his handgun. He then fell down with a thud and moaned in utter mortal agony. The Damned Thing has incalculable implications upon Hugh Morgan.

William saw Morgan moving both erratically and violently while simultaneously shouting as well as making disconcerting cries. In fact, William thought that Morgan had convulsions since he was under no attack. Unfortunately, Morgan was dead for long. Ambrose G. Bierce uses satire when a juror calls William’s testimony as indicative of insanity. This irritates William, who abandons the inquest in a huff. The jury in the inquiry concluded that a lion had killed Morgan. In our natural world, there are invisible and inaudible things that evoke startling emotions in men. Therefore, human ears and eyes are imperfect instruments. This necessitates the use of scientific instruments. Instead of using antiquarians and adventurers, Bierce does not use knowledgeable and brave men. Bierce satires the jury’s blatant disregard of William’s account on the death of Morgan. Their small-town mentality is marked by the lackadaisical day-to-day routine. Their collective ignorance and small-mindedness make them disapprove of William’s account. They believe something does not exist if it is invisible:

The account that you posted to your newspaper," he said, ‘differs, probably, from that which you will give here under oath. ‘That,’ replied the other, rather hotly and with a visible flush, ‘is as you please. I used manifold paper and have a copy of what I sent. It was not written as news, for it is incredible, but as fiction. It may go as part of my testimony under oath. (Cook 58)

Bierce utilizes satirizing the jury’s disregard of William’s account. He criticizes their ignorance, stupidity, and small-mindedness. To them, ‘the damned thing’ did not exist in their realms of reality. The jury treats the account provided by William with sheer contempt. They end up making a faulty conclusion that a lion killed Morgan while hunting. The story is punctuated by sarcasm and sharp wit. Bierce culminates through cataclysmic conclusions. He says that Hugh Morgan is an expired woodsman. In his third chapter, he utilizes black humor by arguing that a man may be naked albeit in rags. Such pun is used to refer to Morgan’s shredded remains. Bierce realizes that both humor and horror can effectively play off one another superbly. Morgan’s fight with ‘the damned thing’ is short-lived. His sardonic artistry leaves the reader bursting into pearls of laughter due to his use of satire and comedy.

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Empire of the Ants

In the Empire of the Ants, H.G. Wells examines the tenuousness of dominance enjoyed by ants on Earth. Captain Gerilleau got instructions from his seniors to take ‘Benjamin Constant’ – his boat – to Badama with the intent of assisting people to fight with ants. He was appareled thinking that this was a joke made by the authorities. However, he took it as God’s will. The gunboat crew traveled along Amazon to many other towns infested with ants. The leaf-cutter ants were deadly. These ants developed a snake-like venom and possessed a high intelligence level. Eventually, the crew and the gunboat realize that they cannot do anything about the ants to rescue the people. Their guns cannot help them in fighting the tiny ants either. As a result, these ants continue expanding their domain. The satire is compounded with the hyperbole that the evolution of the ants culminated in their eventual dominance.

In the short story, the author says that Captain Garilleau was a Creole. H.G. Wells applies satire to demonstrate Captain Gerilleau’s ignorance not only about the ants but also about the language of communication. Communication amongst the people in the mission becomes a tall order due to language barriers. Only Holroyd accompanied Captain Gerilleau in his mission to fight ant armies. However, Holroyd was trying to learn Spanish. The Portuguese took a toll on him and hindered his communication. The author uses satire to demonstrate the effect that the Portuguese had on his language:

He was a Creole, his conceptions of etiquette and discipline were pure-blooded Portuguese, and it was only to Holroyd, the Lancashire engineer who had come over with the boat, and as an exercise in the use of English—his “th” sounds were very uncertain—that he opened his heart. (Cook 81)

Gerilleau learned a number of things concerning ants. These ants were extraordinarily big. However, he was not convinced that they had been sent to collect and help the local people fight the insects. He could not understand how men could be sent to fight ants instead of men, which is not the reason why he joined the service. The ants were seasonal according to him. However, with time, he began developing an interest in ants and their organization. The ants considered the forest to be their own property. According to the ants, men were merely intruders. The mission instructed by the seniors was to fight the ants. The author uses satire when he claims that they even had guns to kill the ants. This is sheer ridicule. H.G. Wells utilizes satire to ridicule Gerilleua. It is foolish and stupid to fight the ants using guns. This is even unfathomable.

The Red One

In The Red One, Jack London utilizes the perception of Bassett, a scientist. Bassett embarks on an expedition in the Guadalcanal forest with the intent of collecting butterflies. In the forest, Bassett heard the sounds he could not fathom in the forest. During his time at the Ringmamu beach, Bassett had tried to establish what sound that was. This yielded innumerable speculations, and this terribly frightened him. He was in a state of wantonness. The title refers to some gigantic red sphere with an extraterrestrial or celestial foundation. The area’s inhabitants worship it like their god. In the forest, a daredevil attitude is important. This is all that Bassett needed. The forest people even offered many human sacrifices to it. Fortunately, Sagawa accompanied Basset to the Guadalcanal forest to assist him in collecting butterflies. After a couple of days in the forest, Basset could not trace Sagawa. Fortunately, Bassett found Sagawa, though he had no short gun and his master’s naturalist gear. He was badly injured (Cook 167). Jack London applies irony to mock Sagawa. He could have used his master’s naturist gear and a shotgun to save himself from his adversaries. It was ironic for Sagawa to be injured with all the weaponry in his hands. This is satirical.

In the forest, Bassett killed a bushman trying to execute Sagawa. They had to run away together with his hunters, whose number he could not tell. Basset is so obsessed with the forest life and the gods that he eventually ended up as a sacrifice. Stinging gnats, mosquitoes, and insects tormented him. His bleeding wounds did attract loathsome flies. Indeed, is forest adventure completely wrecked his body. At night, he had innumerable nightmares. In the bush village, everyone had fled away apart from one person. Bassett had terrible wanderings in the forest. He had the image of a noisome and dank jungle in his mind. Later, this jungle terminated. At the end of it was the god, who made Bassett so obsessed. In fact, he wept below it involuntarily. Jack London’s description of Bassett’s sweating is satirical. His sweating was not because of reference but due to the breath of relief. He felt so relieved to be out of the forest. The writer also satirizes Bassett’s obsession with the god in the forest. The author uses satire to explain how Bassett did not fear death:

…Ngurn made pilgrimage personally and gathered the smoke materials for the curing of Bassett’s head, and to him made proud announcement and exhibition of the artistic perfectness of his intention when Bassett should be dead. As for himself, Bassett was not shocked. Too long and too deeply had life ebbed down in him to bite him with fear of its impending extinction… (Cook 176)

Jack London’s description of the adventures that Bassett has gone through is done satirically. He applies satire to demonstrate that, indeed, the obsession with the god is not only foolish but also stupid. It was irrational for Bassett to pay so much attention to the god that the forest people worshipped. The fact that they even presented human sacrifices should have rung a bell. The author convinces the readers that Bassett was rather resentful of the forest life, and his eventual change of heart is characterized by satire. Jack London shows that Bassett's change of heart was occasioned by his obsession with the god. He utilizes satire to characterize Bassett’s stupidity and ignorance of the imminent danger posed by his obsession with the god to his life. In spite of his daredevil attitude, he does not survive. In fact, the village people eventually offer him as a human sacrifice to the god. Therefore, his demise is a result of stupidity and ignorance.

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In the Year 2889

Jules Verne is the author of In the Year 2889 science fiction. The author creates an imaginary world of the 29th century. People live in a fairyland. They are surfeited by marvels to the extent that they become indifferent to the newfangled marvels, which they consider natural. They do not appreciate the refinements occasioned by civilizations. The people of the 29th century travel through pneumatic tubes at a speed of 1,000 miles/hour. According to Jules Verne, these transformations did not seem to astound the local inhabitants. The author utilizes hyperbole to describe the innovations in the 29th century. In 2792, Oswald Nier has a great discovery regarding several vibration modes. Oswald is a great human race benefactor. This discovery yields more discoveries. The author overemphasizes the technological advancements of the 29th century. Jules Verne writes:

…modern towns, with populations amounting sometimes to 10,000,000 souls; their streets 300 feet wide, their houses 1000 feet in height; with a temperature the same in all seasons; with their lines of aerial locomotion crossing the sky in every direction. (Cook 71)

Additionally, Jules Verne writes that Joseph Jackson invented accumulators that could condense and absorb living forces within sun rays, the electricity that is stored in the ground as well as the energy emanating from various sources such as winds, streams, and waterfalls. The transformer and the accumulators represented true progress. Such inventions assisted in mitigating the winter rigors. They gave up the excess heat they stored to the atmosphere during winter. Towards this end, it overwhelmingly revolutionized agriculture. Motive power was supplied for the purposes of aerial navigation. Such technological advances gave commerce a resounding impetus. Electricity could also be produced without dynamos or batteries, and with no incandescence or combustion. Such an unfailing mechanical energy supply is good for the industry. This is outrageous. After many centuries, it was discovered that dissimilarities between physical and chemical forces were dependent on the vibration of etheric particles.

The story is indeed hard science fiction. It is some sort of ‘future history.’ Jules Verne says the Earth Chronicle – a futuristic newspaper – would cost $10, 000,000,000. The mere fact that the people did not appreciate the innovations and inventions is satirized. Instead of printing the newspaper each morning, every subscriber will have a phonograph to gather the news. Videoconferencing would also receive a shot in the arm with the technological advances. Atmospheric advertising would also come along with these technological advances. Indeed, Jules Verne’s description of the future is punctuated by satire throughout the short story. For instance, the price of the newspaper is simply a hyperbole. The author utilizes hyperbole to describe the price of the futuristic newspaper and the extraordinary innovations and inventions. Jules Verne also satirically warns against the vices that future technological advances that are posed to people. Lastly, the author mocks people’s ignorance of the technological advances of the 29th century.


The role of satire in science fiction is immense. It assists the authors in criticizing as well as condemning foolish behavior and stupidity. It also assists in exposing vices. The essay has shown that, indeed, Ambrose G. Bierce in The Damned Thing, H.G. Wells in the Empire of the Ants, Jack London in The Red One, and Jules Verne in the short story In the Year 2889 use satire for the above reasons. The essay has also demonstrated how satire in science fiction gives short stories a technological plausibility and a scientific plausibility through the use of strange voyages, titanic disasters, political agitation, utopian aspirations, prophetic warnings, imaginary worlds et cetera.

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