13 November 2015

Isaac Asimov's Typology of Science Fiction

Recently I came across an allusion to the "three primary postulates" of science fiction, described as "what if," "if only," and "if this goes on." I immediately recognized them from the reading of my youth, specifically Isaac Asimov's introduction to the 1962 anthology More Soviet Science Fiction. This was one of many Asimov books passed down to me by my father, and so I imagine I read it at least half a dozen times as a child (though I do not own and have never read the Soviet Science Fiction to which it is a sequel).

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
I haven't read that, like I said, so I don't know exactly what Asimov imagines fitting into each stage, but you can kind of infer it from his comment that "the best of contemporary American science fiction [is] in Stage Three, dealing with the possible societies of the future that might or might not develop in response to new gadgets, rather than with the gadgets themselves" (7).

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--
It's not really obvious from the gambits themselves, but he imagines each as being a very specific type of sociological extrapolation. Stage Three-A is the "what if" story that is totally divorced from present-day reality, not actually about extrapolation per se, but more like a generalized thought experiment; the example he gives is "What if a human colony on Mars lacks water and cannot get it from Earth?" (8). He claims that this is a "strictly contemporary" move, arising in the 1920s (8), but I think this overlooks some of the proto-sf we call "utopian" that is not about imagining idealized societies, just different ones, such as Edward Bulwer Lytton's The Coming Race (1871) or Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872). Of course, these stories still manage to pack in some commentary on their contemporary societies, albeit more obliquely (as one could imagine happening in Asimov's Mars example).

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.)

Stage Three-C, then, is the dystopian extrapolation, the "this" of "If this goes on--" is a thing the author considers to be bad. Asimov cites (of course) 1984 and Brave New World; in early science fiction, I feel like almost every H. G. Wells story fits into this mold. The Time Machine (1895) is "If this division of the laboring and intellectual classes goes on--" and The War in the Air (1908) is "If this building towards a European conflict along with the development of air-power goes on--" and The Sleeper Awakes (1910) is "If this increased urbanization and stifling of democracy goes on--".

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:
There's plenty more, but that's the first couple pages of Google results. None of the citations-- not even those to Asimov-- are specific enough to name an actual source, so I feel justified in maintaining my belief that they are an original Asimov coinage, even if they are not necessarily original to the introduction to More Soviet Science Fiction; it seems pretty obscure to be the root of all this. Then again, maybe that's why so many people know Asimov coined it, but not where he did it!

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!

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