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Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction

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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.)

Or, to paraphrase it briefly:

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.

Prior to the rise of John W. Campbell and his Astounding Stories, the vast majority of science fiction fell under either Gadget or Adventure science fiction, with most of the characters being flat and stereotyped (though there were a few exceptions). Campbell wanted good stories, not merely good science; he wanted people to write science fiction that could stand on its own literary merits and seriously examine the consequences of technology on future society. His philosophy influenced authors such as Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. Asimov, Heinlein, and a few others in turn influenced New Wave Science Fiction of the 1960s and 70s, which leaned heavily—some might say almost exclusively—into the Social (Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, and Ursula K. Le Guin being the most prominent examples).

Most modern science fiction stories do not exist exclusively in any one category; they have elements of all three present to some degree or another. However, many clearly place more weight on one emphasis than the other two.

Note that this is not Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness. That is a measure of how closely a premise sticks to real-world scientific theories; this categorizes a story on how it uses that premise, wherever it may fall on the scale.note  Do not confuse this with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics either.


Examples:

Anime & Manga

  • AKIRA: Its category is Adventure by virtue of being fairly character-centric and more about stopping a super-powered kid with a broken psyche and a penchant for mass destruction. How does the kid get the ability to ravage New Tokyo? He's a test subject of the eponymous project, which aims at granting Psychic Powers to humans through Goal-Oriented Evolution.
  • Psycho-Pass is the Social type and the invention is the Sybil System, which instantaneously analyses a person's psychological profile and calculates the likelihood of that person committing a crime. Then any threat to society is the Public Safety Bureau. The anime's Central Theme is whether the Sybil System and the Bureau are worth their cost since they rob people of their freedom, privacy, and security; and the former can be as narrow-minded and bigoted as the humans programming it.

Literature

  • Isaac Asimov himself has written stories of all three types of science fiction.
    • Played With in his iconic Foundation: Fictional Field of Science Psychohistory is created to prevent the Galactic Empire's fall. Unfortunately, it's already beyond salvation. Barring a brief encounter while The Chessmaster Hari Seldon is still alive, the specifics of Psychohistory are not elaborated upon until the very end of the saga. Meanwhile, the plot revolves around the Foundation which is created by Seldon as the seed for a new, more solid Galactic Empire, and how it's manipulated from the shadows by Seldon's pupils to ensure it succeeds. So, the focus is largely on social conflicts but not ones that are caused by the "invention". Instead, Psychohistory is used to solve said problems, even if it has to provoke some of them to ensure the survival of the Foundation.
    • In The Gods Themselves, the characters converse about a trans-dimensional reactor that supplies the energy needs of at least humankind and an alien race, each inhabiting their own universe. The extensive conversation allows the reader to learn the intricacies and dire, long-term, unintended consequences of the use of such technology. The reactor exploits the (fictional) isobar exchange, where two identical substances can be swapped between two parallel universes to generate energy — the problem is that it causes one of the universes to approach its heat death sooner.
    • In his collection I, Robot, the Three Laws of Robotics are the invention in question — the series start detailing how the Laws are invented as well as their kinks, then move on to some adventure stories relying on the Laws, and end up with social science fiction about the impact of Three Laws-compliant AI on society, setting up his Robot novels.
  • The Asterisk War focuses on the social aspects of the "Starpulse Generation" (people born with magical abilities after an Apocalypse How that nearly extinguished humanity). In the wake of superpowered individuals, the government believes keeping tight control is the best way to maintain a peaceful society—not to mention a profitable one, since it's One Nation Under Copyright—and what better way to ensure that than by making the "Starpulse Generation" fight themselves to entertain the masses?
  • Long before Asimov spelled his essay, Gulliver's Travels was making a satire of the social impacts of the mind-blowing technology that makes Floating Continent Laputa possible. In the third story about Laputa, its residents are revealed to be pretentious xenophobes that Feign, waste money on useless gadgets, and oppress the people outside their city.
  • Have Space Suit Will Travel establishes semi-Casual Interplanetary Travel, and is a ripping good yarn, but has very loving descriptions of how the titular spacesuit works and why it works the way it does, combining Gadget (a technological marvel of a one-man spaceship) with Adventure (a Secret War between hostile and benevolent alien races).
  • Janusz Zajdel is one of the premier examples of then so-called sociological fantasy, a Polish take on soft/social Science Fiction. Arguably a Soviet Bloc equivalent of Cyberpunk, this genre used sci-fi trappings to discuss realities of life in societies inspired by Commie Land these writers lived in.
  • The majority of Jules Verne's books explore the mechanics and social implications of technology, often concluding that Science Is Bad, and Ludd Was Right.
    • 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea contains all three: The Nautilus is a technological marvel described in loving detail (some of which haven't stood the test of time, having been extrapolated from what was the cutting-edge of science), allowing the exploration of the seas more closely than any other method, and the implications of a rogue submariner running around sinking British ships in revenge for their colonial mishandlings.
  • All sci-fi written by William Gibson (i.e. Sprawl Trilogy, Bridge Trilogy, Bigend Books, and the "Jackpot" novels) falls squarely in the Social camp. While Gibson does his best to research his contemporary technology, he has stated many times that he is neither interested in its nitty-gritty, nor in predicting the future. Instead, his focus is on how technological progress affects the present, reflected in his imagined futures to highlight what he perceives as the most important. This focus on humanity is what gives his books a timeless quality despite the tech in them always marching on and makes them time capsules of the concerns of the respective decades when they were written (Sprawl in The '80s, Bridge in The '90s, Bigend after 9/11, and Jackpot in The New '10s).

Films — Live-Action

  • Smokey and the Bandit delves into the hypothetical social implications of citizen-band radio, a recently invented real-life technology. In the film, CB radio finds itself being used for crime, law enforcement, entrapment, and social resistance. It also gets a whole community revolving around it.
  • The Truman Show ranks on the Adventure category. The invention is an environment-mimicking dome that hosts a small town-scaled filming set. How it came to be is never explained, just that it exists 20 Minutes into the Future and is used to trick a person into believing his life is real when, in truth, it's a staged Reality Show. The movie doesn't make a point of how the existence of such advanced biodomes would impact society nor how much of a Crapsack World it must be to allow such an immoral show to be produced. Instead, it focuses on the titular character's journey of realizing his life is a simulation and escaping from it.

Roleplays

  • Nexus Gate is the story of how space travel (through the Jump Drive technology) turns a peaceful World of Funny Animals into an expansionistic, colonialist saddled with space pirates. So, overall, it fits the Social type but since is a Roleplay, each roleplayer's individual stories can shift the classification to Gadget or Adventure.

Tabletop Games

  • Space 1889: The Gadget and Social types are well represented. In the sourcebooks, the new technologies are described in reasonable detail and the adventures are, well, adventures. The social effects of the inventions mentioned are small (such as the difficulty of keeping clothes in their proper places in zero-G) and Europeans treat the other planets as just other colonies. Instead, the historical conventions of the late Victorian Era are played straight.

Video Games

  • Super Mario Sunshine falls under Adventure. Whatever unexplained technology Bowser Jr. employs to disguise himself as a water-textured Mario (with occasional red eyes) is what causes the conflict — Mario is accused of and falsely punished for vandalizing Isle Delfino. And it's the water Backpack Cannon F.L.U.D.D. that solves the problem. The video game's plot is first about proving Mario's innocence then defeating the ones responsible and finally just exploring Isle Delfine at one's leisure.

Western Animation

  • Arcane: Much of the show's plot is driven by Hextech. The social conflict wedged by the life quality (the idyllic, wealthy Piltover versus the impoverished, polluted Zaun) and technology gap (clean steampunk vs. dangerous chemicals) predates the invention of Hextech, however, the latter's apparition is used to explore the former. For one, the Hexgates turn Piltover into a trading hub of a hitherto inconceivable scale, which showers the city with money and goodies that they don't even think to share with Zaun. Then, when Jayce and Viktor build Hextech-based tools that can frighteningly easily become weapons, the militaristic potential of Piltover suddenly rockets therefore making oppressing Zaun all the easier. All of that despite the two inventors wanting to use their technology to benefit as many people as possible. Eventually, this bites everyone in the ass, as the suffering provoked by Piltover and only festered by Zaun's more ruthless individuals ends up triggering the civil war nearly everyone spends the first season trying to prevent.
  • Ben 10: The show being Space Opera, it falls squarely in the Adventure classification. Kid Hero Ben Tennyson stumbles onto the alien-originated Omnitrix, a device that allows him to turn into a roulette of aliens, each with their own unique set of superpowers. The exact inner workings of the Omnitrix are spoon-fed to the audience, though never completely revealed and the social implications of such technology are never even glanced at. What the series cares about is Ben fending off extraterrestrial bad guys and sometimes going galaxy-trekking.


Alternative Title(s): Three Kinds Of Science Fiction

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