Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Three Kinds of Science Fiction

Let's digress from style for a moment to consider science fiction as a whole. I've been growing dissatisfied with the hard sf vs. soft sf spectrum as it is misleading at best, and a slur at worst. Soft sf as a term is linked to the soft sciences, and as Anderson's "Uncleftish Beholding" or Heinlein's Starship Troopers show, can possess the same rigor as expected in hard sf. Hal Clement's game of making fewer mistakes merely changes from physics and engineering to psychology and sociology. And where does that leave space opera, which uses the future as a milieu instead of as a vehicle for exploration of theory? Star Trek, Jack Vance, Asimov's Foundation, and Halderman's The Forever War may hide social commentary and theories of societal change behind rockets and rayguns, but Star Wars is pure adventure.

An alternative can be found on TV Tropes:

In 1953, Isaac Asimov published an article titled "Social Science Fiction" in Modern Science Fiction. In that article, he stated that every science fiction plot ultimately falls into one of three categories: Gadget, Adventure, or Social.
  • Gadget: The focus of the story is the invention itself: How it comes to be invented, how it works, and/or what it is used for. The invention is the end result of the plot.
  • Adventure: The invention is used as a dramatic prop. It may be the solution to a problem, or it may be causing the problem itself, but the main focus is on the caper and how the invention's presence helps or hinders it.
  • Social: The focus of the story is on how the presence of the invention affects people's daily lives, whether for good or for ill. The chief distinction between this and the other two types is that the presence of the invention influences the plot rather than causing it or being the goal.

To demonstrate what he meant by each, he used the example of three different late nineteenth century authors all being inspired to write new stories about the automobile, each going in one of three directions:
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. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")
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. (ibid.)
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. (ibid.)

Asimov's theory explains the split between Verne's technological adventures and Wells' scientific-marvelous, as the latter's speculation into the unknown inevitably means changes to society--and thus becomes social science fiction.

It also explains the change in fashion brought on by Campbell and his descendants, as prior to Campbell's run at Astounding, science fiction stories tended to be adventures or Gernsback-inspired gadget stories. Campbell and his New York clique accelerated an existing preference for social science fiction (see: scientific-marvelous) into the dominant form for English markets. Those who did not or would not make the shift from adventure to social science fiction were ridiculed by the social science fiction writers, like in Asimov's inaccurate swipe at adventure stories above--and eventually excluded.

Finally, the three kinds of science fiction provide a framework for understanding why many popular works have such a "devastating effect upon science fiction as Gold and Campbell and Knight and Sturgeon and Kornbluth and the other Futurians loved and built it." Since Campbell, the primary form of science fiction has been social. But adventure science fiction has been beating down the doors, from classics from the past, the rise of new subgenres, new media franchises, and exposure to science fiction from other languages. Knight-style social science fiction does not hybridize well with adventure in the same way as Campbelline, French, and Japanese social science fiction, and its advocates maintain a frantic rearguard action to keep the adventuresome barbarians from the gates.

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