In the introduction to MSSF, Asimov first recapitulates his argument from SSF, that American science fiction has three stages:
- Stage One: adventure dominant
- Stage Two: technology dominant
- Stage Three: sociology dominant
In the introduction to MSSF, Asimov develops three gambits for Stage Three science fiction: (like any good scientist, he loves his categories and lists)
- a) What if--
- b) If only--
- c) If this goes on--
Stage Three-B he does admit a longer genesis for, as the "If only" question is meant to be a positive one, basically "If only this thing that I think is terrible was not actually true"; his examples include "If only men were truly religious" or "If only I could fly" (9). Basically, this is (as he admits) the utopian story, and he traces its genesis to (duh) Thomas More's Utopia (1516). In the early sf I study, one can see the Stage Three-B story in tales such as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888), which one could imagine asking, "If only we had a centralized government that provided jobs and credit for everyone and also electric furniture" or William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), which asks "If only we were all art-loving socialists who were kind to our neighbours." (Asimov actually uses Erewhon as an example of Stage Three-B, but I think Erewhonian society is more complicated than that; it has its positives, yes, but it swaps them for some negatives that Victorian British society didn't have.)
Like all typologies, it has its uses and limits, and Asimov himself makes some goofy statements, such as suggesting that Stage Three science fiction stories are difficult under communism because you might have to admit there's something wrong with communism to pull them off. A previous owner of my copy of MSSF (one Michael Lippman, apparently) underlined this statement: "Modern American science fiction makes virtually no use of the Stage Three-B story, however. Part of the reason is the the bitterness against society is lacking" (10), and then wrote "HAH!" in the margins.
Upon recognizing the "postulates" in the book that I was recently reading, I googled them to see if they had some pre-Asimov roots that I was unaware of. The three gambits of Stage Three are attributed to a lot of different people, or often go completely unattributed. Furthermore, most everyone refers to them as describing all science fiction, not (as Asimov did) a specific subtype of it, sociological extrapolation. Others fail to recognize what each of the gambits actually means; even though you could plug something positive into "If this goes on--", that's not how Asimov actually meant it. Some examples:
- This April 1992 obituary for Asimov in the LA Times gets it mostly right.
- They pop up unattributed (and with the extra "How can this be--") in this quite frankly awful-looking teacher's guide to Lois Lowry's The Giver. The science fiction page looks like someone assembled it in two minutes with Wikipedia, though frankly I think Wikipedia is probably better than this.
- This 2001 ALA guidebook to sf cites them to someone named Betty Rosenberg in the first issue of something called Genreflecting.
- This 2002 interview with Octavia Butler has her call them "an old idea." She calls her Parable books "If this goes on--" stories. She also calls the Parable books that in this 1999 paper, claiming a distinction between that story type and "social prophecy." This 2015 essay about Butler by Tananarive Due (the wife of Steven Barnes, whose novel sent me off on this quest to begin with) claims they are Robert Heinlein's questions. Gerry Canavan's introduction to Green Planets (2014) cites Butler as citing them to Heinlein, so maybe that's where this (mis)attribution begins. Some later writers have just attributed the three questions to Butler herself!
- In a 2005 essay, James Gunn says that "What if--" and "If this goes on--" are "conventional wisdom," and that "If only--" is the coinage of Theodore Sturgeon!
- David Brin attributes them to Asimov in this 2012 facebook post, but then uses "What if--" to describe a book that is a clear example of "If only--"!
- In this conversation between Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman (reprinted in 2015), Gaiman says he "remember[s] reading an essay at some point about classic science fiction" that mentioned them. Gaiman also draws on them here, in an essay about where his ideas come from, though here he uses them less about science fiction, and more about fiction in general. "What if--" is the important one here, and then "If only--" and "If this goes on--" are a couple among many other questions that include "I wonder--" and "Wouldn't it be interesting if--"
- In a 2015 tweet, Arthur Chu gets the utopian/dystopian thing right, but doesn't mention a source for the three gambits.
The most consistent citation of a non-Asimov source is Robert Heinlein, and I think that's because he actually wrote a 1940 short novel called If This Goes On--, which seems (from the synopsis) to really be an "If this goes on--" story; I'd imagine it's where Asimov got that particular wording from to begin with!