Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A is for Asimov

This is a true story.

When I was much younger, I decide to look into the only Asimov book I possessed, ‘Foundation and Empire’, for ideas on how to improve my own writing. What I came up with was that I needed to be more descriptive. I must have hit on the only descriptive passage in the Foundation Trilogy.

Asimov is the only author that I can remember first tackling when he seemed forbiddingly cold and grown-up, liking immensely when I was rather older, and then going off of when I was older again because he seemed a teensy bit silly and shallow. This is not the case with ‘The Martian Chronicles’- which I read before I attempted ‘Foundation and Empire’. I got blueberry stains on the book, to my eternal shame, but I found it quite easy to get into then, and think it holds up well now when I am old and creaky. Ditto for Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’. Except for the blueberry stains.

Perhaps this is an illustration of C. S. Lewis’s quote about the silliest grown-ups being the most grown up and the silliest children being the most childish. Or perhaps I just ought never to have read Asimov’s autobiography, which did a lot to convince me that he was, in fact, a silly man. There is a saying of Kipling’s that I like which goes something like: ‘He who has not been faithful to the end has never been faithful at all’, and I think that sums up a kind of flippant irresponsibility that runs through Asimov’s character and a lot of his characters.

But it is not seemly for me to go on saying bad things about Asimov, when he created so many splendid things for me to enjoy. I like the new genre of robot logic mysteries he invented. I like the fact that his characters are generally rational. I like the way there are no tedious descriptions of combat in his writing. I like the idea of violence being the last refuge of the incompetent. I like the bland midwestern vastness of his Galactic Empire. I like Trantor. I like the quotations from Rabbi ben-Ezra in ‘Pebble in the Sky’. I like young Arkady, and wanted to give a daughter the same name once.

There is a nasty quote in ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief’ by a fellow science-fiction writer to the effect that Asimov has some fine ideas, but his writing is so bad he wouldn’t employ him to write junk mail. I disagree. I think Asimov’s writing is clear and colourless and doesn’t get in the way of the ideas, which is what we expect and deserve in science fiction.

I suppose that the books of Asimov’s that I like best of all are ‘The Caves of Steel’ and ‘The Naked Sun’. I am fond of R. Daneel Olivaw: being a robot, he has no choice but to be faithful and honest and true, unlike most of Asimov's human characters. Then there are those two marvellously pathological cultures, sketched lightly enough that your mind is are forced to fill in all the interesting details yourself. Very nice.

Can't think of anything more cerebral in the way of literary criticsm, so will just stop.

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