The Greening of Isaac Asimov: Cultural Change and Political Futures

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Author: Clyde Wilcox
Editor: Scot Peacock
Date: 2002
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,706 words

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Many science fiction writers attempt to create plausible future worlds by extrapolating scientific, technological, and social trends into the future. Such extrapolations are often quickly out of date, since scientific and technological advances often quickly outstrip the powers of the imagination. Although this problem is particularly acute for writers whose forecasts focus on science and technology, it is also relevant to those writers who emphasize social and political matters.

Forecasting the short-term political future can be an uncertain enterprise: science fiction writers habitually picture political futures much further removed from the present, sometimes thousands of years in the future. These writers, of course, do not attempt to actually predict the political future, but attempt to create plausible political futures (Nourse). One important strain in science fiction writing, which gained popularity in the early 1950s, sought to extrapolate the sociological and psychological effects of technological change.

Since the political future cannot be known, these writers project important social and political trends, structures, and ideologies onto their imagined future. Some have argued that from these political futures, the ideologies and beliefs of the writers can be inferred. In addition, however, the social viewpoints expressed may represent an attempt to satisfy a segment of the mass culture audience. In this way, changes in the nature of created political futures may represent changes in the ideologies and viewpoints of writers and/or their readers.

We expect that cultural norms will influence the nature of the political world which science fiction writers project, and that changes in these norms will be reflected in the future political and social worlds that these writers portray. Such change may influence the beliefs of the writers, and will certainly mold the expectations of the target audience. The fiction of Isaac Asimov provides an excellent opportunity to examine the impact of cultural change on a writer's vision of the political future.

Asimov has written a set of 13 novels which comprise a relatively coherent future universe. Eight of these novels were first published in the early 1950s, although some were serialized during the 1930s and 1940s (Aldiss 1973). These novels were divided into three separate series, each separated from the others by a sizable gulf of fictional time. Asimov returned to this future universe in the early 1980s, writing five novels which tied together these earlier series. Because many of the novels in the unified series were written in the 1940s and 1950s and others written in the 1980s, the combined series of novels provides an excellent opportunity to examine the impact of changing cultural conditions on the shape of the projected social and political future. The changes in the politics of these novels is clearly a function of cultural change between the 1950s and the 1980s.

In these novels, Asimov attempted to create a "social science fiction," which he defined as "that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings" ("Social Science Fiction" 158). During the 1950s, when the sociological-extrapolation school of science...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420044186