Two Ideas of Justice

By Gautam Bhatia

As a genre committed to exploring “alternatives to how we live”, questions of justice have always been at the forefront of contemporary SF writing. One of the most frequently recurring themes has been that of crime and punishment: indeed, SF’s focus on technology has allowed writers to explore a range of questions related to criminal justice, from policing (Philip K. Dick’s “precogs” come to mind) to prisons. Some of the most interesting thinking has considered entirely alternative forms of criminal justice altogether: for example, Alastair Reynold’s The Prefect gives us a brief glimpse of a future society where policing takes place through randomly selected civic volunteer militia, which are disbanded as soon as the immediate task is done.

Issues around criminal justice fall within the broad category called “corrective justice”: i.e., at their root, they deal with how to rectify a wrongful harm or injury inflicted by one person (or set of persons) upon another. Corrective justice assumes a prior normative consensus about what constitutes wrongful injury, and then asks: how is this injury best rectified? Variants of this question are at the heart of the many volumes of science fiction that deals with policing, crime, and punishment. They are also present in some of the most famous “courtroom” scenes in SF: for example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s The Measure of a Man, Commander Data must establish that he is entitled to a right to self-determination, in order to avoid being dismantled by Starfleet. The establishment of his rights takes place through structured courtroom argument, and it turns upon the interpretation of existing Starfleet law.

There is, however, another set of anterior questions that corrective justice and courtroom set-pieces do not adequately address. These are questions of “distributive justice”: that is, the allocation of resources across society [1]. Questions of distributive justice are embedded within the political economy and the constitutional arrangements that structure a society. It is here that I think that we have not yet seen the variety and diversity of treatment in SF that we have seen when it comes to questions of corrective justice.

Consider, for example, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace. The two series are separated by seven decades, and—as Martine has noted in interviews—A Memory Called Empire, in many ways, is in conversation with, and responds to, Foundation. However, while very different in their sensibilities, the two series are united in their starting point: i.e., the choice of Empire as the overarching governing and administrative framework of the galaxy. With this initial choice, a set of other choices inevitably follow: a certain structure of the political economy, centralised administration, the distinction between a core and a periphery, and the flow of resources from the latter to the former. While both series explore a range of questions with great subtlety and thoughtfulness within this context, their basic assumptions—that go to questions of distributive justice—are unshakeable [2].

Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels and the Strugatsky Brothers’ Noon Universe are two SF series where the starting point—in terms of governance and political economy—is very different, and therefore presents us with different questions of justice. Both the Culture and the Noon Universe and imagine a post-scarcity, anti-capitalist society, where there is no more private ownership over the means of production (the root of a lot of distributive injustice). However, both the Culture and the Noon Universe come to us as fully-formed, mature societies, with the writers focusing almost exclusively on external conflict with other societies (and thus dropping us back into the well-traversed terrain of corrective justice: think of Banks’ Look to Windward or the Strugatskies’ Hard To Be A God).

One striking exception is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. The Dispossessed is an SF meditation on distributive justice par excellence. Le Guin takes us into the nuts and bolts of how Annares—an anarchist, non-capitalist, post-carceral society—would function in practice. The questions she considers range from social production (indeed, running through The Dispossessed there is an open question of whether it is just that the weight of moral consensus effectively compels everyone to spend a certain amount of time engaging in physical labour, regardless of what their other talents might be) to social reproduction (i.e., the range of activities that ensure the continuation of social life, including child-rearing). Indeed, in The Dispossessed, questions of distributive justice are presented particularly starkly, as Annares is a counterpoint to the planet Urras, where a recognisably capitalist and a recognisably state-socialist nation-state are locked in a conflict with each other.

The Dispossessed is not entirely alone in this. There is a tradition of writing—such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Blue Mars [3]—that has built upon it. It is my impression, however, that as a genre, SF still remains overwhelmingly focused on issues around corrective justice. That is not to suggest that these issues are unimportant or uninteresting; however, as we enter a time in which the climate crisis reveals to a greater and greater degree the unsustainable bases of our current society and political economy, it will therefore be interesting to see if science fiction will respond with a greater, sharper focus on questions of distributive justice.


[1] The terms “corrective justice” and “distributive justice” are, of course, reductive; I use them here as placeholders for a set of family resemblance concepts. Here I focus on these two concepts of justice, although other important distinctions include those between “retributive justice,” “restorative justice,” and “transformative justice.” Broadly speaking, retributive justice focuses on punishment and compensation, restorative justice focuses on repairing relationships between offenders and victims, and transformative justice focuses on changing both these interpersonal relationships and the wider social and economic structures within which harm occurs.

[2] Although, arguably, they are challenged to an extent at the end of Foundation and Earth, and with First Contact in A Desolation Called Peace.

[3] See e.g. Will There Be Justice? Science Fiction and The Law (2019),

Gautam Bhatia is the author of the SF duology, The Wall and The Horizon. He is the co-ordinating editor of Strange Horizons. In his spare time, he is a constitutional lawyer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s