11 June 2007

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Isaac Asimov

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, February 2007

Isaac Asimov, 1954
Isaac Asimov, 1954 Foundation, Isaac Asimov (Gnome Press, 256pp, hc) 1951. Cover by David Kyle; (Bantam 0-553-29335-4, $7.99, 320pp) 1991; (HarperCollins UK 0-586-01080-7, £6.99, 240pp) 1994.

The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, 224pp, hc) 1954. Cover by Ruth Ray; (Bantam 0-553-29340-0, $7.99, 288pp) 1993. Cover by Stephen Youll; (HarperCollins UK 0-586-00835-7, £5.99, 206pp) 1997.

The End of Eternity, Isaac Asimov (Doubleday, 192pp, hc) 1955. Cover by Mel Hunter; (HarperCollins UK 0-586-02440-9, £6.99, 189pp) 2000.

I, Robot, Isaac Asimov (Gnome Press, 254pp, hc) 1950. Cover by Edd Cartier; (Bantam 0-553-80370-0, $7.99, 240pp, hc) 2004.

For me, as I'm sure for many people, Isaac Asimov's science fiction was the gateway drug. I first ran into his work in the summer of 1987, when I was 14. I had just graduated from Doctor Who novelisations and Dungeons and Dragons to my school library's limited selection of Ray Bradbury. In retrospect, I suppose, what I was getting from The Illustrated Man and Dandelion Wine wasn't particularly the thrill of SF, but the thrill of vivid writing. (Bradbury's a topic for another column, though.) Asimov's work was something entirely different, a picture of a future world that made sense — for which, in the Laws of Robotics and the idea of psychohistory, he presented scientific-seeming tools for measuring and controlling his future. For a kid with an aptitude for maths, science, and not much else, this was precisely what I was wanting to hear. Soon after, I moved on from Asimov to Sturgeon's More than Human and Delany's Nova — both reissued by Gollancz that year — and the then-new paperback of Gibson's Neuromancer. With such a strong dose of visual writing, I found myself forgetting Asimov's work, or at least finding there were further and further fields of SF to investigate. When I went back to Asimov in my 20s, I found his work pallid and unsatisfying next to the authors I had read since, in SF and outside. He seemed too hung-up on demonstrating a narrow kind of cleverness in his work, and too committed to that that kind of cleverness as a sufficient tool for understanding everything that humans might run into in their lives. So I approached re-reading him in 2006 with a certain amount of ambivalence. To put it crudely, if I thought his SF was so deficient, why do so many other people continue to find it satisfying? (Here in the UK at least, Asimov has continued to have more of his books in print than any of his Golden Age contemporaries, even Heinlein.) And how has Asimov become so influential in culture in general?

Starting again on Foundation, one runs into Asimov's weaknesses before his strengths. The account of the "country boy" Gaal Dornick arriving on Trantor, the central planet of the declining Galactic Empire, feels too transparently similar to a small-town kid from the Midwest seeing Manhattan for the first time. That may be Asimov's point, a small parallel to set up the much bigger ones he later invokes between this empire's fall and Gibbon's account of the Roman Empire's later days. But one expects more imaginative concentration from SF, more of an experience of difference. I'm trying hard not to measure Asimov by contemporary standards here, to judge him by the standards of, say, Stross or Sterling. But some of Asimov's contemporaries — Heinlein, van Vogt, and Sturgeon, just for starters — were in varying ways trying to render that kind of strangeness in their fiction. Asimov is curiously flat as a descriptive writer, curiously uninterested in showing the future as anything other than the present in drag.

But he's clearly far more comfortable when it comes to dialogue: almost all of his stories work themselves out through discussion, and one of the early sections of Foundation consists of a transcript of an interrogation of psychohistory's founder, Hari Seldon. I think it was this that my teenage self must have latched onto. Seldon had, in psychohistory, a way of explaining the world, and the book was so obviously on Seldon's side that you wanted to be too. After the introductory section set on Trantor, the four remaining parts of Foundation follow the fortunes of Seldon's outpost on the distant planet of Terminus. Here, his "Foundation" is designed to sit out the long interregnum as the Galactic Empire falls into decline, and to restore civilisation as soon as possible. Each section depicts the Foundation surmounting one or other of its political problems in accordance with Seldon's psychohistorical predictions; the Foundation's leaders, beginning with the mayor Salvor Hardin, find themselves inevitably forced towards the resolutions that Seldon has predicted. Seldon frequently pops up in hologram form at the end of a section to explain what has just transpired, and what the coming problems are.

So Asimov is presenting a series of puzzles, in a sense: puzzles in economic and power relations between the Foundation and the states or planets around it. The premise of the book is that psychohistory is a sufficient tool to unravel these puzzles in advance; it succeeds to the extent that we accept that premise. Here, for instance, is one of Seldon's patches of explanation to the Foundation:

I might warn you here against overconfidence. It is not my way to grant you any foreknowledge in these recordings, but it would be safe to indicate that what you have now achieved is merely a new balance — though one in which your position is considerably better. The Spiritual Power, while sufficient to ward off attacks of the Temporal is not sufficient to attack in turn. Because of the invariable growth of the counteracting force known as Regionalism, or Nationalism, the Spiritual Power cannot prevail. I'm telling you nothing new, I'm sure.

You must pardon me, by the way, for speaking to you in this vague way. The terms I use are at best approximations, but none of you is qualified to understand the true symbology of psychohistory, and so I must do the best I can.
The second paragraph is the same kind of handwaving any SF author has to do to denote an imagined bit of science. After all, if there wasn't handwaving, it wouldn't be SF. But the first paragraph indicates quite how wide is the void Asimov has to paper over. All those capitalised abstract nouns don't help either, and make one more and more suspicious that the problem isn't a lack of understanding of the true symbology of psychohistory. The problem is the plausibility of psychohistory itself, the idea that one mathematical system could embrace the complexity of the world. It's even harder to believe in our post-chaos theory days, when we have a formal mathematical language for sensitive dependence on initial conditions, for the butterfly in Siberia tipping the system into creating the hurricane in Florida.

So Asimov's premise is, for me, too difficult to believe. If you accept it, then the action of Foundation (and its successors) is that of the progressive lifting of veils, as Seldon's plan is revealed little by little. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for Asimov's success: the certainty he promises, the idea that the world is ultimately susceptible to calm and rational thought. And perhaps this is why I find it difficult to accept, looking at the news or out of the window: the world is too much subject to contingency to believe that humans can ever fully order it.

It's no surprise, given Asimov's love of the rational solution, that he often turned to the detective story — both inside and outside SF. One of the best known is The Caves of Steel, a novel-length testing of his famous Three Laws of Robotics. Detective Lije Baley is assigned to solve a murder together with a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. They inhabit a future New York so thoroughly insulated from the outside that the thought of the open air is disturbing — hence the title. The murder has taken place in the offworlder enclave of Spacetown, and its eventual solution is neatly conducted within the cat's cradle of the Three Laws and within the constraints of the future Asimov has created. It's entirely readable and — perhaps Asimov's greatest virtue — followable; but again, my reservation is about the limited ways in which it's conveyed. Almost nothing is experienced in Asimov except through talk and thought about talk. Comparing The Caves of Steel with its near-contemporary, Bester's The Demolished Man gives a sobering idea of how many more possibilities there are for telling a story. I'm not just referring to Bester's famous typographical tricks, but also to his command of setting, the range of his interest in people, his openness to extreme emotional states.

Asimov does push The Caves of Steel to a higher emotional pitch in its climactic scene, though, as Baley has to explain his solution of the crime to his boss, the New York Police Commissioner. Given that Baley is in the process of being framed, and that he is talking against the clock, the book's ending does finally achieve a satisfying earned closure. But there's no sense, unlike with the Bester, that it's testing the limits of anything but the ability to construct and solve a puzzle.

One thing that the contemporary reader registers about Asimov is the men: these are stories entirely about men talking to each other. There's a sort-of exception in The Caves of Steel: Bailey's wife Jessie plays a mid-sized role in the plot, but there's a strong sense that his failure to comprehend how women live is normal and explicable:

"Please, Jessie. What's frightening you?"

She said, "I just guessed he was a robot, Lije."

He said, "There wasn't anything to make you guess that, Jessie. You didn't think he was a robot before he left, now did you?"

"No-o, but I got to thinking..."

"Come on, Jessie, what was it?"

"Well... Look, Lije, the girls were talking in the Personal. You know how they are. Just talking about everything."

Women! Thought Baley.
The great exception, of course, is Susan Calvin, the central character of the Robot stories. The most famous collection of these, I, Robot, still carries in the UK a cover tied-in to the godawful Will Smith movie of a few years ago. One can only imagine the reaction of someone who has, say, seen the movie on DVD and picked up the book expecting more of the same. The tone of Asimov's cerebral, talk-driven stories is signalled on the first page, when Susan is introduced: "She was a frosty girl, plain and colorless, who protected herself against a world she disliked by a mask-like expression and hypertrophy of the intellect. But as she watched and listened [to a demonstration of a robot], she felt the stirrings of a cold excitement."

The second story in the book, "Runaround", is a perfect demonstration of Asimov's approach. Colonists on Mercury are baffled when their robot, Speedy, ends up circling a pool of selenium he has been ordered to. It turns out that the pool is dangerous to the robot, and so he is trying to balance the Second Law (obeying human orders) and the Third (self-protection). He is tracing out a circle where these competing demands are in balance for him, like the solution of an equation. Much of I, Robot is, precisely, case law: the measuring of specific situations against abstract principles — the three laws.

There are exceptions, most obviously "Liar", in which Calvin encounters a mind-reading robot who tells her falsely that a man loves her back. Again, this is just an application of one of the Laws, in this case that a robot should not harm a human. The robot has learned the eminently human art of avoiding being hurtful. But the end of the story has an emotional force rare for Asimov as Calvin realises how and why she has been lied to. There are some areas of experience, even in Asimov, more charged than scientific debate.

The same is true of The End of Eternity, a singleton (if I've got the complicated internal linkages of Asimov's work right), and to my mind his most effective piece of work. It's a time-travel novel whose story is based in an all-male society of "Eternals". The protagonist, Andrew Harlan, falls in love with a woman, Noÿs Lambert, on one of his trips into our world. Their romance, and the larger-scale time-paradox plot, knit together effectively. For once, Asimov's exemplary clarity in plotting is precisely suited to the material at hand, and Harlan's personal involvement in the story feels deeper than in other works. The End of Eternity is also a nice commentary on the anxieties of the then-new atomic age, which was clearly much on Asimov's mind as he was writing all these books. (In Foundation, for instance, "atomic motors" are a kind of totem for the advancement of science and civilisation.) Asimov's engagement with the present is clearer here than in his other works, as is his engagement with the human.

More so than in any of these columns, I feel in writing this the limitations of trying to get to grips with an author's body of work in a few thousand words. Asimov was so extraordinarily prolific, both in and out of SF, that even beginning to take in his central works is a huge task. Just for starters, there's the short fiction like "Nightfall" (1941), the Galactic Empire novels beginning with Pebble in the Sky (1950), and singletons like The Gods Themselves (1972) — plus the flabbier late novels beginning with Foundation's Edge (1982), for which I can't summon much enthusiasm. Rereading him wasn't as disillusioning as I'd expected, and I'd forgotten the pleasures of his unadorned directness in story-telling. But there's no question that his futures have dated in ways that those of his contemporaries haven't. I'm sure he's still the gateway drug for some fourteen-year-olds; but there are fourteen-year-olds reading Le Guin, Reynolds, or Chiang, and I'm not sure how much they'd get from Asimov. I think imagination is the key here: he only moved occasionally and with reluctance beyond his comfort zone, of depicting characters like him interacting in a limited number of ways. His mind was, perhaps, too orderly for fiction, for depicting extreme passions, the messy flux of life. I take it as an axiom that there will always be experiences that words are to weak to depict, that no story will be able to encompass everything. Asimov always wrote as if providing enough words — talking enough — would be sufficient to order the world. Maybe his non-fiction is the work that should endure: his benign positivism is perfectly suited to describing the progress of science. He had a genius — the word is not too strong — but it was for explanation, not for story.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of the ten Locus reviewers. Every issue, we cover over 50 books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.


At Thursday, June 14, 2007 6:34:00 AM, Carl Glover said...

I congratulate Mr. Sleight on the courage and insight shown in this article. Unreconstructed Asimov fans might not like it, but I believe he had made some valid observations.

I first became acquainted with Asimov via "The Caves of Steel" at about the age of 11. I was enthralled. I thought it one of the most marvelous things I'd ever read. However, after that first sublime experience, my further reading of him left me increasingly cold. I began to see his writing as awkward, mechanical and unimaginative, with thin characterization (even by sf standards) and pedestrian plotting. He was seemingly never able to shake the literary conventions of the pulp magazines he loved as an adolescent. That may have been at least partly because he apparently never read much else but science fiction and thus had no acquaintance with higher literary standards.

So, how does one explain the development of his popularity as an sf writer? One possible reason is that he was good with ideas, which are cherished by sf fans. Another, and more likely, explanation is that he was the consummate self-promoter. He had a talent for selling himself to fans and editors alike by the consistent application of boundless energy in the service of his own ego. This tendency is clearly reflected in his autobiography, "In Memory Yet Green," which reveals an eager-to-please but calculating individual who made himself a primary figure in the science fiction world by sheer force of personality. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many ultimately deserving reputations are made that way, but the quality of the work Asimov left behind pales in comparison to the audacity employed in its promotion.

However, in spite of the deficiencies both Mr. Sleight and I see in Asimov's fiction, it apparently continues to sell. But, who is buying it? The younger reader, I believe, the incipient sf fan who is fascinated by Asimov's optimistic view of the universe and man's place in it. If this means that Asimov is a gateway through which young people are introduced to sf before developing more sophisticated tastes and moving on to better authors and better stories, he will have left a substantial legacy to the field. It happened that way with me during my "golden age." If this is generally true, and I rather think it is, perhaps Asimov deserves his accolades after all.

At Friday, June 22, 2007 3:54:00 PM, Clay Evans said...

I've been waiting to see Graham Sleight's take on Asimov, which appeared in the printer version of Locus several months ago, here online.

I'll keep this short. I fully agree with Mr. Sleight: Asimov, for all he did for SF, for all his wisdom, his jolly ego, his productivity, is just not a very good writer.

Bradbury was my true "gateway" drug into SF/F (well, Mr. Ray and Tolkien and Le Guin), but more than any single book, I remember Asimov's collection "The Martian Way" as a touchstone to my early fandom. I begged my mother to buy the book for me at a drugstore (my, how times have changed) based solely on the cover. The stories set my imagination afire.

But today, I find I can read almost nothing by Asimove. His novels, especially, have not held up well at all. Stiffly written, sterile, full of silly sexism and (how can it be!?) illogic....

It's so sad. My golden age has all but passed, now. There isn't much in the field that really turns my crank any more.

Bradbury has weathered better than Asimov, but even he cannot put the stars in my eyes as he once did.



Post a Comment

<< Home