A discussion on stories where society itself is the villain.


This was the first panel I attended during Ret-Con 2023. Below are my notes from the panel with the attribution as I noted it. The words are my own as I am not a fast enough note taker to be able to quote directly except for where specifically noted. While it is my intention to be true to the intent of the speaker it is going through the filter of my listening, my note taking, and a couple weeks of time separating this post and the panel itself. If you are one of the panelists, or attended the panel, and you would like to clarify or discuss then by all means feel free to do so in the comments.

On To The Panel!

So what is it that makes Society the Villain? Robyn picked out three items that make society as the villain in fiction. First, society is comprised of entrenched systems that are self sustaining. Second, technology reinforces society. Finally, labeling society as the villain excuses us of our culpability in regards to societal problems. Ultimately, technology fits with societal needs to maintain a status quo and allows people to avoid responsibility for the problems in society because it is too big for individuals to fix, and to make structural changes flies in the face of everything that makes a society work as it has done so historically.

Rachel added to this by pointing out that humans find their people. Similar interest groups will come together and compete with other groups whether by intention or by proximity. In a society of limited resources there will always be conflict.

According to Robyn, near future societal villains hit harder because of how possible it seems. Far flung futures feel deniable or embraceable depending on the perspective if the right choices are made along the way, but it is harder to see the chance for change when the possible future is right around the corner.

Rachel put it in terms of near future societies holding a mirror up to our own.

Paying attention to the little change makers is a good way to address society as the villain or an engine for societal change per Robyn.

Mikea suggested that readers get upset when a light is shined one society’s uncomfortable spots.

Rachel said that the more you identify with current standards the more you see yourself as a part of society. An example of this would be that if you have a job, a home, and participate in government even if only in the form of voting, you are a part of the system and invested in society. While a homeless person who has to steal to survive will see themselves as decidedly outside of society. Truth hides in the history learned through education. Society needs static history and morality to maintain the status quo.

Robyn pointed out that if you look at old morality and question its meaning and the changes to it you can see what the norms were in society and why they changed.

Mikea took this a step further and said society enables villains.

One of the guests at the panel asked if alien xenophobia is actually society as a villain because of the different social structures.

Robyn asked why people have to make a choice? Compromise can be found through understanding.

A guest said that viewing society as the villain is complicated. We learn history but ignore it.

Robyn agreed and said that how we are tought history matters. We use characteristics to assign values to society.

Rachel, who is a fan of punk, said that punk is all about uncovering society.

A guest offered that heroes are shaped by society for better or worse.

Invisible labor lets the heroes and villains be the heroes and villains per Rachel. If not for the commonplace in society there would be nothing for heroes and villains to stand out against.

Mikea reminded us that heroes are the villains to someone else’s story.

Robyn shared an example using Tuvok from Star Trek Voyager to show that society takes work. In the example she points out that Vulcan’s have to meditate and work at the logical approach of their society.

A guest pointed out that kids like to study World War II in school because there is a big bad in the lesson. Considering the social causes for World War II is uncomfortable because it places some responsibility on other than the big bad.

Rachel expanded on the thought by saying that society allows villains to rise and that absolute free speech can lead to a toxic society.

Mikea and Robyn asked about the hatred of specific groups and what makes a group the chosen target, and Rachel expanded on this by asking about why is the group doing well? Success creates an other for hatred and hatred creates unity.

As a conclusion, Robyn talked about how people group together because they are alike, but that grouping is usually by surface connections. Finding someone is alike on the surface, but different underneath can be shocking.


In the broadest terms I would say that society as a villain is complex and can trigger discomfort in a reader that, when done right, can bring a story to life in a more visceral and impactful way. Doing so takes a degree of understanding as to how society works, what it means to disrupt the society, and the foundations of society and the groups that comprise it.

Post Script

I apologize for the delay in getting this posted and with the continuing post in this series. The Kickstarter for my new book has kept me very busy, but I’m getting back into the groove and will get these posts out on a weekly basis.

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