It strikes me that if there's one thing that SF does relatively poorly, it is in creating believable societies. I don't mean societies that are believable in the scope of the tale; I mean societies that can really stand up to more than a couple minutes' examination and avoid the tendency towards fridge logic that can take up residence in fictional stories at the drop of a hat. Star Trek is very much the poster child for this, as it is basically a universe built around a single ship and filled in on an ad-hoc basis. The Federation doesn't seem to really work so much as simply exist, which is forgiveable within the tale but falls apart if one spends any time pondering it on the way to the kitchen.
The classic SF authors avoided this through a simple expedient of writing their own society into the future. This isn't a cop-out, not in the slightest, because they knew at the very least that something had to change to maintain a modicum of suspension of disbelief while keeping familiar environs. I would call Asimov's Foundation series a prime example, from a 21st century perspective, because, once one strips away all the spacecraft and interstellar-ness, the dialogue and setting is a little archaic to modern sensibilities. Heinlein did this often, particularly with his Future History tales, but he also adopted another conceit: an ideologically triumphant society.
What I mean by an "ideologically triumphant society" is a society that is less an attempt towards belivability and more an attempt to transform one's personal belief system into a viable and transcendent system. In Heinlein's case, Starship Troopers is the exemplar (I seem to recall Stranger in a Strange Land as being one, too, but it's been a long while, and I didn't much like that book in any case). The society of Starship Troopers is, well, one of soft facism, what one today might call Libertarian Paternalism. The chaos of the past has been banished by application of Heinlein's belief in individualistic responsibilities, so much so that they look upon 'past' systems with a mix of fear and pity. A lecture by a professor in the book is actually a lecture by Heinlein himself about the failings of the juvenile justice system; it's all in the past, in this book, and this quietly confident society sails on through rough waters of warfare and tragedy to a calmer sea of peace.
This kind of society is generally easy to read if the rest of the story is up to the task. Starship Troopers is very much a product of genius and is undeniably a science fiction war novel before anything else, and as such succeeds. However, I see this as being only one side of the coin. Heinlein used it positively, to portray what he believed should be, but it can be used negatively, as well, in dystopian fiction. This is the most common method today, I think, and it is hard not to see why: drama feeds off of disaster. Things going wrong is ever a catalyst for heroism.
Movies have very much adopted this perspective, mostly because it allows for explosions. In V for Vendetta, a militant fascist society, Norsefire, controls all of England, and has carried out various iniquities upon its people until brought down by the machinations of V. Alan Moore, the writer of the graphic novel, is very much a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, and it shows (The graphic novel is far more careful and interesting, by the way, but condensation is necessary for a movie. Remember what I said about reducing interpretations?).
All of this does not mean that there is not hope for belivable societies in SF. Neal Stephenson's latest book, Anathem, avoids most of this ideology. The reversed perspective of what are basically technologically philosophical monks thrives within its limits, never quite allowing the reader to see past the prejudices of the protagonists while still allowing details of realism seep through. Arbe is obviously--and literally--a literary stand-in for Earth, to the point of almost innumerable parallels, which allows Stephenson the luxury of combining the simple fuctionality of writing modern society with the more-or-less neutral ideological views of his protagonists.
Despite what I said before, I see that Science Fiction does actually do fine with society, but only to a point, the point to where it serves the story, and not the other way around. Neal Stephenson wanted to write about philosophy; Asimov wrote about people and technology; Heinlein wrote about the effects of lifestyle and war. Different skills and talents produce different results, leaving the SF field scattered with methods that are varyingly believable and may or may not be worth embracing. Learning from a fictional tale is possible, but adopting it wholesale is impractical...because there IS nothing else other than the story. More on that later!
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