Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov’

Ian Sales, in Don’t Look Back in Awe wrote “Here we go again. I’ve complained before about the undeserving admiration given to many science fiction novels and short stories of earlier decades.”

Hat Being Worn: Snide & Dismissive.

Could that have anything to do with jealousy over (take your pick) – awards they’ve won, market presence they command or always being told that ‘so-and-so’ has ALREADY written that story?

Hat Being Worn: Fair and Balanced

Truth be told – I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Ian and his subject focuses not directly on the entire OLD works of the genre but on the recommendation of those works as a tool to get people to read SF.

Hat Being Worn: Investigative Journalist

Ian justifies his statement with: “Such fiction is no longer relevant, is often written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers, usually has painfully bad prose, and is mostly hard to find because it’s out of print.”

Point by point: No Longer Relevant.  OK.  Relevant to what? The history of the genre?  Seems pretty relevant to me on that score.  To a writer looking for new ideas?  Pretty relevant there too unless you really do want to cover old stories with new tricks that will be outed in the most painful and embarassing manners possible. To the reader of the contemporary author who said ‘I read and was inspired by (hoary old non-relevant SF author born before TV was invented)’?  Seems pretty relevant to them.

Written with sensibilities offensive to modern readers?  Maybe. If modern readers are A: hung up on political correctness and B. Totally incapable of understanding that history is context and things do change with time.  Of course, if both of those things are true for our hypothetical reader for whom old SF is not relevant, they aren’t readers of science fiction.

Usually has painfully bad prose: Oh, so you’ve read each and every last old non-relevant short story, novella, novelette, novel and series and haven’t found a single sentence of well-written prose?  Doubt.  Serious doubt – about which I’ll get to more in a minute.

Mostly hard to find and out of print:  Actually, completely untrue.  ABE, Amazon, EBay and individual collector/providers – not to mention SFRA, NESFA Press and a host of other resources are available and you can find just about anything you might be looking for.

Four declarative statements, all of which are either broad, essentially meaningless opinion (presented as fact) or untrue.

One really wonders about the motivation of an author who is actively promoting the idea that we should all run screaming away from our roots. Shame? Why? Sales didn’t write that awful stuff and won’t be held accountable.  Oh, except for those people who will hear that he writes SF and immediately associate his works with a centuries worth of awful writing.  Except that those people will not be familiar with those old works.  So who the hell is Sales talking to?

Sales offers up Nightfall as his strawman and then proceeds to burn Asimov in effigy.  All the while, Sales misses the point, surprising, because he himself says that such stories are ‘historical documents’. (Fear the historical documents my son.)

Of Nightfall (the award-winning short story by Asimov that was later turned into a novel by Silverberg) Sales says: “By all criteria, ‘Nightfall’ fails as a good short story. And yet it’s still regarded as a classic. Some people will even suggest it’s a good example of science fiction. Rubbish. It’s built around a single, not very interesting idea – a world has never seen darkness… and then it gets dark. Wow. There’s a comment on the boom-bust nature of civilisations in there, but it’s pretty much thrown away.”

Ahem. (Tap tap tap on the shoulder) Ian, it’s an HISTORICAL DOCUMENT. When Isaac wrote that story in 1941, all previous stories that had featured planets with multiple suns treated them just like Earth, except that there were two (or more) suns in the sky and multiple (many-tinted) shadows on the ground. No one before Ike had taken the idea to its furthest extreme, a world where the sun never set – except once in a great long time. 

And Ian also missed the meta-story inherent in Isaac’s tale: there are things out there of which we are completely unaware, that can and will bite us hard if we don’t put aside superstition in favor of fact.  Seems to me that’s a pretty relevant story concept that is STILL very much alive in ‘modern’ SF.

But see, this is what happens when you’re not familiar with the HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS.  You miss nuance. Fact that you are blissfully unaware of come back and bite you.  Hard.

Ian goes on to further attack the ‘primacy of idea’ in old SF: “In part, this harkens back to my earlier post about the primacy of idea in science fiction. ‘Nightfall’ contains a very obvious idea and it appears to me that many think the sheer in-your-face nature of it overrides all the story’s faults.”

Except, of course, since Nightfall is only an historical document, you missed what the REAL idea of the story was.  You failed to place it in proper historical context. No one, least of all me, is going to try and claim that Asimov wrote sterling prose that tripped lightly off the tongue. Just for contradiction’s sake, here’s Scalzi’s recent take: “Generally I like Asimov’s work quite a bit and fully acknowledge its (and his) importance to the genre, but speaking from a writerly point of view I don’t find his fiction writing skills hugely impressive. He is probably one of the best examples of a “classic” sort of SF storytelling that is heavy on very cool ideas but weak on things like character development — his writing is a vehicle to tell the story rather than adding to the story itself. There’s nothing wrong with it (I lean more toward that direction of things myself, after all), but on balance I wish there was more there there when it came to the writing itself.”

Let me remind you that Sales’ initial proposition was that it is WRONG!recommend old science fiction to new people.  Here we have Scalzi, a contemporary and award winning NEW SF author saying that he likes Asimov, recognizes his importance, knows that Ike was an ‘idea man’ and wishes his writing was a bit more there.  But he likes him.

Ian – there just may be a few potential SF readers out there who just like Scalzi.  Maybe a few thousand.  Readers who are perfectly capable of liking an idea based story just as much (or maybe more) than they like a prose based story.  Maybe they like both. Maybe their tastes are so eclectic that it won’t matter what you stick in front of them.  Or maybe they prefer idea based stories and just absolutely hate all that high-falutin lit’rury crap that so many NEW SF writers seem to want to turn out.  Maybe.

Just who are you recommending books to, Ian? 

Ian does try to redeem himself a bit at the end by saying “I don’t think we should refuse to read old classic works, but we must recognise that they’re historical documents. And add that caveat to any such recommendations or commentary. Further, modern sf readers shouldn’t need to be aware of everything which has gone before, but modern sf writers certainly ought to.”

This is all I have to say about that: “Here’s this really old, out of date, badly written, idea-based historical document, Billy.  Not only must you read it, but you MUST hate it. Later, we’ll have milk and cookies while I read you a modern SF tale with wonderfully written sentences in it.”

Good idea for writers to read that stuff though, Ian.  That’s a really good idea.  They might want to take a little historical context with them when they do.

But there’s more.  Several people riffed on Ian’s piece, like this one: “When I first joined GSFWC I went on a bit of a crusade so I could get up to speed with the “background knowledge” that everyone else seemed to have. I made a list of the classic writers and hit Obelist Books and Future shop for examples. I read one Clarke (Childhood’s End – enjoyed the idea-quota, but couldn’t believe how quickly the story was skimmed), two Le Guin (Dispossessed and LHoD – loved them), a Delaney (Nova – again, loved it), and got on okay with Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith and James Blish too. On the other hand I found Asimov and Heinlein unreadable. But that’s just me.”

“I read one Clarke…”

Ok, now this guy seems a bit more reasoned (“…it would seem a bit pointless to still hold those texts up as the best we have to offer, but on the other hand we’re looking at them out of context. At the time, they made a big splash for good reasons. They were all about challenging the ways people thought about the world, the universe, about science and the future. They were about challenging people – writers and readers alike – to expand their imaginations. They weren’t about good literary standards. No-one pretended they were, or indeed really cared much.”) – but we were originally talking here about ‘recommending these works’ as a way of introducing readers to SF and I’m sorry, but reading ONE story by Clarke does not by any means equip you to make recommendations to anyone else. (Nor does Ian’s background reading equipm him either, apparently, since he dismisses everything pre 90s out of hand.)

Childhood’s End is kind of dark, open-ended and requires a fair amount of background sophistication to really ‘get’ if you want our proto-SF Lit-Virgin to understand why it was a recommended piece and what was to be gained from it.

If I really wanted to get someone ‘into’ Clarke, I’d probably start them off with Tales From the White Hart.  They’re innocent stories, short, often amusing and successfully convey the idea that an SF tale is about having FUN exploring possibilities. 

The truth is that readers of SF DESERVE to be exposed to the classics – the right classics, in the right way, at the right time and in the proper context.  Their appreciation of the genre will be enhanced, their perspective on the genre wil be enhanced and (perhaps dangerous to some modern writers) they will be better able to judge newness, originality, relationships and whether or not that thar ritin has got improvification.  Plus they’ll be better (SF) people.

I just don’t get this NEED to attack the classics.  Doing so doesn’t make you any better as a person. It certainly doesn’t improve your own writing or sales. You don’t want to read the classics?  Don’t. Someone else does?  Let them.

If the issue really is ‘how to introduce new readers to the genre’, well, that’s an highly individualistic enterprise, isn’t it?  I mean, at least if you want to be real (and effective) about it. Every single successful convert is going to require a tailored capture methodology.  This friend likes SF film – find a book tie in. That friend is into Hard Boiled Detective Pulps – find some writers who worked in both genres.

It’s HISTORY man. That which has gone before has MADE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN NOW. As too many would-be writers have discovered, those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it in writing. An that gets you a rejection slip for UNORIGINALITY. 


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Rick Novy has been addressing the question of “where is SF going” (more properly posed as ‘where can it go?’) over his past few blog posts.

In short he says “One small but vocal group clambers for what is known as “mundane” SF. This is an artificial subgenre, defined by restricting the speculative element to what is possible today. But mundane SF is nothing new, only the name is new. This is not our future.

As I mentioned the other day, pretty much all the boundaries have been pushed out so far there isn’t much chance of pushing them anymore. I don’t think so, but horizon-pushing is going to become more and more rare. If not mundane or dangerous, what then?”

Please note that Rick does not seem to be subscribing to the notion that there isn’t anywhere to go – he’s merely posing the question that others are apparently asking.

That others are asking the question seems to me to denote an extreme lack of imagination on the part of a group of writers and readers who, at least at one time in our history were nicknamed ‘imagineers’.  The paucity of real imagination is revealed merely by voicing the question. 

Likewise, the ‘mundane’ sf comment bespeaks such a deep negativity that it makes me wonder why its proponents don’t simply take the next logical step by declaring fiction to be a dead end. Nothing new under the sun, nowhere else to go but an ever-diminishing pedestrian experience as the human race winds itself down towards extinction. So why bother at all?

As I mentioned a day or so ago, I picked up a Winston Publishing Company anthology edited by Lester Del Rey (The Year After Tomorrow). Published in 1954, it includes an introduction by Lester that is appropriate to Novy’s questions.

Lester offers this in his opening paragraphs: “Science Fiction is both the oldest and the newest for of literature…Science Fiction will always be new, however. It is the only type of fiction which can never grow stale, because there are absolutely no limits to it. There are millions of years and probably billions of of worlds still waiting for us in the future. No matter how much we learn or accomplish, there will always be something left to discover or to do.”

“We are only in the kindergarten of science, and e haven’t yet begun to explore the universe around us.”

“The events and things predicted in the fiction of twenty-five years ago (which would have been 1929-1930: ed note) were supposed to happen in a hundred years or so–but many have already happened. We have television today; we have already cracked the atom, though not for the useful purpose most people had wanted; and rocket ships are flying, even though they haven’t yet reached the moon.”

Here’s the really interesting part.  Remember, this is 1954: “Unfortunately, though, most of the magazines of today have grown too far away from their audience. They have lost the sense of wonder and enthusiasm which first captured the imagination of the readers of the older stories. They don’t have the happy mixture of real science and stirring adventure which science fiction should have. They speak of speeds faster than light and the workings of sociology and psychology, but they often neglect the romance behind the development of new things.”

“Some of the things in the stories are no longer imagination. We have ships that fly by rocket power and go faster than sound. But our civilization hasn’t adjusted itself to them…”

In the past twenty-five years, the world has changed a great deal, and will change even more in the next twenty. But good science fiction will always go on giving something just a little more than any other fiction can give.”

(From earlier): …it’s a genuine pleasure to turn back the clock and read again the stories that caught our imagination a decade or more ago in the science fiction magazines…”

It’s interesting to me that Lester found himself in the same boat Novy, Ellison and others are talking about now. Fifty-Four  (54) years ago. Rather than tolling the death bell for the genre, he remains excited and positive about the future – both the real future and the fictional future portrayed by science fiction literature.

Perhaps those who are taking a negative slant are truly creatures of their time, writers who are failing to see past the immediate horizons of a world adrift. Maybe our current crop of authors failed to fully accept the mantle of their forebears by accepting the concept of the literature, but not the culture. 

The culture of SF is supposed to be a positive view of the future. Even when that view is of the direst, darkest predictions, the sense of humanity triumphant is still supposed to be in there, waiting to assert itself.  When a rogue robot did things seemingly in contravention of the three laws, Asimov’s conclusion was not ‘shut them all down’. Human ingeniuity discovered the programming error and a better, more reliable set of programming was set into the next generation of positronic brains.

In Eric Frank Russel’s tale ‘Hobbyist’, Steve, a space scout, encounters what may very well be god. The scout has been forced to land on a new world due to lack of fuel. When he encounters the being that seems to have created everything in the universe he is awestruck, fearful and overwhelmed.

And then he steals the fuel he needs from ‘god’ and makes a successful escape.

All artistic artforms are ‘products of their times’.  The virtue of science fiction used to be that its practitioners could travel just a little bit beyond before casting their eye backwards.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.”

Maybe it is…

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Don McLean’s song American Pie begins with these lines:

“A long, long time ago…
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they?d be happy for a while.”

The time, a long, long time ago, that made me dance was a day in 1969 – the day that the Eagle landed on the moon.  The futures I had been reading about in the pages of stories by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and all the rest, was suddenly real.

Gloriously, blissfully, inarguably and undeniably real.  Kennedy had told us we could do it, and we did.  All of us.

My imagined future – the space program, a career on the moon or maybe even Mars, was within my grasp.  No longer a pipe dream, all I had to do was work hard, get good grades and pass the physical. By the time I would be ready to, there would be a place waiting for me.

The remaining two stanzas of the opening of American Pie, before the break, tell the rest of the story:

“But february made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep;
I couldn’t take one more step.

I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.”

The day the music died for me was the day in 1971 when the Apollo program was cancelled.  My dream died, having lived only a few short years.

I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I hadn’t been turned down.  I hadn’t failed to make the grade. I never got to show whether I had the ‘right stuff’. 

Someone else, someone I didn’t know, someone who undoubtedly did not share my dream, had taken it all away from me.

The last two stanzas before the closing chorus:

“I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news,
But she just smiled and turned away.
I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before,
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play.

And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died.”

Like McLean, all I can do now is remember what might have been.

The images are from the Spizter Space Telescope.  Between Spitzer and Hubble, I’ve gotten about as close as I can to the dream.

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Mike Macafferty over at slice of scifi, in response to the list making mania, offers his sarcastic take in “The Seven Most Embarrassing Moments in Science Fiction”.

Not to be outdone (and to make sure that you don’t have an excellent weekend) I offer my own list comprised of the Ten Wurstest Moments in Science Fiction History

1. Bye-bye Hugo Gernsback

2. Bye-bye Stanley G. Weinbaum

3. Bye-bye John W. Campbell

4. Bye-bye H. Beam Piper

5. Bye-bye Robert A. Heinlein

6. Bye-bye C. M Kornbluth

7. Bye-bye A. Bertram Chandler

8. Bye-bye Eric Frank Russell

9. Bye-bye Isaac Asimov

10. Bye-bye Arthur C. Clarke

You know, I NEVER liked this whole list thing to begin with…



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I see a fellow wordpressian who seems to be supporting psyk’s position on the blurring of lines between science fiction and fantasy – Pawnstorm addresses it here.

And Geekdad does a capsule review of Heinlein’s Space Cadet, the juvenovel inspiration for Tom Corbett.  What’s interesting about this take on one of RAH’s classic is this:

“Even the geekiest of modern readers will be quite willing to suspend their disbelief at these unintentional gaffes, mostly because the story is compelling and moves along at a fair pace. Heinlein had a knack for telling a good yarn without overloading it with overly descriptive science or with lengthy exposition.”

Heinlein is mentioned in that piece along with Asimov and Clarke; he’s referenced as having been the ‘Dean of Science Fiction’.  Short shrift for the man who was also the first SFWA Grandmaster and probably more responsible for modern science fiction than anyone else.  But then, he’s not just old, he’s dead too… 

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