Learning from the master: Isaac Asimov’s future visions

I posted last week on Robert A Heinlein and asked my readers - why did a very great writer of his calibre build such transparent evangelisation of US founding values into his future world? The answers got me thinking about other sci-fi writers.

Pulp magazine cover with classic ‘evil’ robot – a stereotype Asimov eschewed. (Public domain).

One of my favourites is Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). He was one of the three giants of twentieth century science fiction – but he was much more than that. He was a writer. A talented all-rounder, equally at home in non-fiction as fiction. On top of his science fiction novels and stories he wrote rude limericks, studies of the Bible, murder mysteries, science essays and books. He had an unadorned, clear style that conveyed precisely what he intended. He also – very clearly – had the knack of being able to keep a story in his head, complete.

He had the science chops – he was a biochemist – but science was never a particular raison d’etre for his fiction, which was always about people.

We can learn a lot from the way Asimov wrote. Sure, he was criticised for having ‘no style’ – for not writing lyrically. But as he said, he wasn’t trying to impress literary critics; he was trying to communicate with his audience. And he did. Brilliantly. If anybody has been a model for my writing, besides Hemingway, it is Asimov.

Asimov showed us it is possible to be prolific and yet write brilliantly across a wide range of subjects. I think his keys to it were:

1. Simplicity. Why be clever when the message can be carried with clear phrasing and simple words?
2. He knew how to deconstruct – how to find that simplicity of expression in the most complex topics, fiction and non-fiction.
3. He was incredibly talented, incredibly smart, and worked incredibly hard. Very hard – ten or twelve hours writing a day.
4. I think he also had a sharp sense of self-analysis, which (as we’ll see in future posts) is one of a writer’s best friends.

These are lessons that serve us all. Most writers have some of these ingredients. And we can learn the others.

Asimov offered us a bold vision in his fictional future. One in which gentleness prevailed. He wrote murder mysteries that began with violent death; but this was usually off-scene. The books, more often than not, then consisted of scenes in which his characters talked. Often about violent action, but they seldom did it. This interplay was the broad thrust of his future, just as US ‘wild west’ analogues were Heinlein’s.

It is a measure of Asimov’s talent that he was able to weave this around all the intense drama, characterisation and pace that novels require to be great.

Cover of another inter-war SF pulp – Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. Ray-gun violence was the staple of the genre then, something Asimov inverted. (Public domain)

His theme reached its peak in his vision of a society where robots were ubiquitous - robots with an innate purpose to protect humans. They were part of the social fabric, symbols of status, symbols of power. People couldn’t even hit each other; robots restrained them - physically, if necessary. There is a scene in The Robots of Dawn, where Fastolfe demonstrated the point to the Earth detective, Baley, by trying to hit him with a pepper shaker.

Those books captured a vaulting vision of how technology shapes societies.

That concept of restraint featured in a lot of Asimov’s work. In Foundation’s Edge, gunners in a Foundation warship were prevented from firing by mental power alone. Even when there was violence - of sorts - it was usually quiet, or simply talked about, or threatened. There was a scene in Foundation and Earth where the protagonists were trapped by a Solarian who intended to kill them. Bliss, the Gaian, had to kill the Solarian – but did so by simply shutting him down, with mental power.

What was he telling us? The dark side of the human condition cannot be overcome; we can only manage it? His answer was to postulate humanity being forced to behave – where that then became part of a society. An optimistic future in many ways.

My question: we don’t have robots like that. But we do have choices.  Asimov’s vision can be achieved, I think, with the right attitudes – and by us alone. I think he knew it too.

What do you figure?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

9 comments on “Learning from the master: Isaac Asimov’s future visions

  1. D. D. Syrdal says:

    I adore Asimov, I light candles at his picture. I’m afraid with millennia of violence behind us, I am less optimistic about a future of self-restraint. Without something like the robots he envisioned, or the “Pax” drug added to our water supply (“Serenity”) I think we’re doomed to a violent existence.

    • I think you’re right. It’s innate to humanity.My hope is that if we understand it, maybe we can manage it.

      I think Asimov knew it, too – in the end, I think, his robots were really an expression of the ‘good’ aspect of humanity. He was such an amazing writer in every respect!

  2. Guy says:

    Great bit of writing – and echoing my thoughts completely too. I’m amazed and saddened that the US military are using robot technology (drones) to target and kill people – and that no one seems to have given Asimov’s clearly thought out 3 Laws of Robotics a chance to be the basis for a logic system for robots. It is as if we / they are just deliberately aiming at the worst possible scenario, quite deliberately.

    • Thanks. Yes, there’s been no real effort I’m aware of to implement anything like the ‘three laws’, even in rudimentary fashion. Instead we’ve used robots to kill. It’s a pretty sad indictment on the reality of the human condition.

  3. naimeless says:

    Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    Time now for another series of reblogs about NaNoWriMo. from a fabulous author and scholar I’ve really come to enjoy reading. NaNoWriMo starts November 1st in the US. This one’s not exactly about NaNoWriMo, but all the same it’s very good advice.

    • I’m delighted these posts are of use for you – hope your readers find them handy too. I can’t enter NaNoWriMo myself owing to being flat out meeting contract deadlines, but I thought I’d contribute by putting up some how-to posts that I hope are useful for entrants – and for writers generally. I’ve got two a week scheduled, plus my other writing-related material, through to the end of November – then one a week after that, with the second slot replaced during December with a few weeks of ‘Hobbit’-related posts (gotta hold the side up, Jackson is a fellow Wellingtonian and it’s being premiered in my town…)

      • naimeless says:

        That’s a crazy schedule! I think it’s a great series, and definitely helpful to all my readers who are thinking about taking part in NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve had a few good comments and I think a few of them are following your blog now :).

        I’m looking forward to the Hobbit related posts, I’m also very excited for the premier (when it gets to Canada of course).

        • I’ve had more intense schedules – like the time I edited a fortnightly newspaper & was constantly scrabbling for stories! I’m bashing through two different books at the same time, among a lot of other things. But I’m keen to help & I’ve been in the business professionally for 30 years now, I’m happy to share the experience.

  4. [...] secrets for authenticity (5) Isaac Asimov’s great contribution to writing – and (6) to our visions of the future. (7) Arthur C. Clarke’s writing [...]

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