Asimov’s Three Types of Science Fiction

Saturday , 12, January 2019 Leave a comment

A lot of ink has been spilled on trying to categorize science fiction into hard and soft categories, whether at the Castalia House blog, other online sites, and in print. What quickly emerges is how fluid the definitions are. Hard science fiction may refer, depending on the speaker, to fiction addressing the physical sciences, adhering strictly to the known models of universe, or projecting the consequences of a breakthrough far into the unknown. The argument on whether Jules Verne’s science-influence fantastic voyages count as hard science is now over a hundred years old. Soft science fiction is an even more nebulous term, which may refer to fiction addressing the social sciences, diverging from the known models of the universe through fanciful technologies, or using the milieu of the future. Works such as Poul Anderson’s “Uncleftish Beholding”, which uses the rigor associated with hard science on English language itself, further blend and confuse the boundary between the two types of science fiction.

What usually comes out of these discussions is frustration over the fluidity of the definitions and a growing sense that attempts to divide science fiction into binary categories are futile at best.

Enter Isaac Asimov.

Asimov was a member of many science fiction and writers’ clubs in New York, including the notorious Futurians, a club devoted to social transformations of fandom and society. Eric Raymond explains further:

The first revolt against hard SF came in the early 1950s from a group of young writers centered around Frederik Pohl and the Futurians fan club in New York. The Futurians invented a kind of SF in which science was not at the center, and the transformative change motivating the story was not technological but political or social. Much of their output was sharply satirical in tone, and tended to de-emphasize individual heroism. The Futurian masterpiece was the Frederik Pohl/Cyril Kornbluth collaboration The Space Merchants (1956).

In 1953, to promote the idea of science fiction as social exploration at the height of the Futurian revolt, Asimov penned “Social Science Fiction”, an article of criticism that divided science fiction into three categories. Rather than set the dividing line across academic rigor or scientific discipline, he instead examined how science was used in the story. To Asimov, science played three roles in the genre–as a gadget, the source of an adventure, or the examination of society. Or, as he put it:

Gadget sci-fi: Man invents car, holds lecture on how it works. 

Adventure sci-fi: Man invents car, gets into a car chase with a villain. 

Social sci fi: Man invents car, gets stuck in traffic in the suburbs.

Asimov delves further into each type:

Writer X spends most of his time describing how the machine would run, explaining the workings of an internal-combustion engine, painting a word-picture of the struggles of the inventor, who after numerous failures, comes up with a successful model. The climax of the yarn is the drama of the machine, chugging its way along at the gigantic speed of twenty miles an hour, possibly beating a horse and carriage which have been challenged to a race. This is gadget science fiction.

Hugo Gernsback’s “The Electric Duel” is but one example, as the wonder of electricity itself is the main character in an “isn’t this cool” fight between university students. It is important to note that the gadget is not limited to the physical sciences and engineering, as the cryptographic children’s book Alvin’s Secret Code, by Clifford Hicks shows. These gadgets often lead to adventure:

Writer Y invents the automobile in a hurry, but now there is a gang of ruthless crooks intent on stealing this valuable invention. First they steal the inventor’s beautiful daughter, whom they threaten with every dire eventuality but rape (in these adventure stories, girls exist to be rescued and have no other uses). The inventor’s young assistant goes to the rescue. He can accomplish his purpose only by the use of the newly perfected automobile. He dashes into the desert at an unheard-of speed of twenty miles an hour to pick up the girl who otherwise would have died of thirst if he had relied on a horse, however rapid and sustained the horse’s gallop. This is adventure science fiction.

Those familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s work will recognize the role of science in adventure fiction as the MacGuffin, a device that is used to drive the conflict of a story without being vital to the plot. Under this definition of science fiction, Star Wars is restored to its proper place as science fiction, as the hunt for a superweapon’s plans using mystical psionics, robots, and spaceships sets the stage for the planetary romance staples of a princess rescue and a raid on the enemy’s base. Furthermore, Verne’s fantastic voyages, James Bond’s spying, Dirk Pitt’s adventures, and a full host of five years into the future adventures of hero and detective join as well.

Finally, we reach Asimov’s favorite:

Writer Z has the automobile already perfected. A society exists in which it is already a problem. Because of the automobile, a gigantic oil industry has grown up, highways have been paved across the nation, America has become a land of travelers, cities have spread into the suburbs—and what do we do about automobile accidents? Men, women, and children are being killed by automobiles faster than by artillery shells or airplane bombs. What can be done? What is the solution? This is social science fiction. 

The clever will recognize this as Maurice Renard’s scientific-marvelous, “extending science fully into the unknown”, including how it will effect people. While the Futurian movement had a shorter life than the brief New Wave, it did popularize Asimov’s social science fiction, adding social extrapolation to the toolkit of science fiction writers. Examples are legion, with The Unincorportated Man by the Kollin brothers and SevenEves by Neal Stephenson as particularly recent–and biting–novels of the type.

Admittedly, hybrid stories combining two or even all three approached are common as a social aspect is now expected in speculative fiction of all kinds. But Asimov’s three kinds of science fiction offer a clarity of approach not present in the hard vs. soft model while acknowledging the substantial role of the social sciences in science fiction.

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