Thursday, April 7, 2016

Asimov's Three

The March 1939 issue in which Asimov's first published
story, Marooned Off Vesta appeared, 77 years ago!
April 6, 2016 marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Good Doctor, who sadly died in 1992 of heart and kidney failure.

Having been writing science fiction for 15 years, and having cemented his reputation with an impressive bibliography that included what is sometimes considered science fiction’s most famous story, Nightfall [1] Isaac Asimov was tapped to provide an essay for Reginald Bretnor’s [2] volume Modern Science Fiction: It’s Meaning and It’s Future (1953) where he was published alongside other big names of the era such as John W. Campbell, Rosalie Moore, L. Sprague de Camp, and Arthur C. Clarke.

The whole volume was of course mainly dedicated to the ways in which the authors imagined science fiction would impact society [3], including such titles as Science Fiction: Preparation for the Age of Science (Clarke), Science Fiction and Sanity in an Age of Crisis (Philip Wylie), and Science Fiction, Morals, and Religion (Gerald Heard).  Asimov’s own contribution, Social Science Fiction, is perhaps most notable for its effort at a taxonomy of science fiction stories – which results in his assertion that there are ultimately three categories of science fiction story: Gadget, Adventure, and Social.  To illustrate, he imagines three 19th century authors writing about an “imaginary” device they tentatively call an “automobile”:
“Writer X spends most of his time describing how the machine would run, explaining the workings of an internal-combustion engine, painting a word-picture of the struggles of the inventor, who after numerous failures, comes up with a successful model. The climax of the yarn is the drama of the machine, chugging its way along at the gigantic speed of twenty miles an hour, possibly beating a horse and carriage which have been challenged to a race. This is gadget science fiction. […] 
 “Writer Y invents the automobile in a hurry, but now there is a gang of ruthless crooks intent on stealing this valuable invention. First they steal the inventor's beautiful daughter, whom they threaten with every dire eventuality but rape (in these adventure stories, girls exist to be rescued and have no other uses). The inventor's young assistant goes to the rescue. He can accomplish his purpose only by the use of the newly perfected automobile. He dashes into the desert at an unheard-of speed of twenty miles an hour to pick up the girl who otherwise would have died of thirst if he had relied on a horse, however rapid and sustained the horse's gallop. This is adventure science fiction. […] 
 “Writer Z has the automobile already perfected. A society exists in which it is already a problem. Because of the automobile, a gigantic oil industry has grown up, highways have been paved across the nation, America has become a land of travelers, cities have spread into the suburbs—and what do we do about automobile accidents? Men, women, and children are being killed by automobiles faster than by artillery shells or airplane bombs. What can be done? What is the solution? This is social science fiction.” (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")
This can all of course be neatly summarized:
  • Gadget story: describes how some hypothetical thing might work.
  • Adventure story: describes how some hypothetical thing might be used to solve a problem.
  • Social story: describes what society might look like when some hypothetical thing exists.
As anyone familiar with Asimov's work and his advocacy for SF to aim for literary achievement might predict, his essay largely advocates for the social story as being the pinnacle.

There are a couple of curious things about this position though, even ignoring the quibble (which I'm sure the Good Doctor would actually have agreed with) that it's a rare story indeed that neatly falls into just one of these categories.

One of the first thing that springs to mind is that, while Asimov doesn't obviously dismiss other kinds of fiction as unworthy, it's clear that in his opinion "social SF" is best placed to reach the "heights" of literary fiction.

While I'm right alongside Dr. Asimov in agreeing that social SF can be much harder to write, and certainly requires more writing skill than simply sketching out a neat idea in a flashy fiction wrapper, even in the era he was writing in and before it should have been obvious: the basic fact that writing a saleable story of the first two species doesn't require the type of literary skills Asimov advocated for in SF doesn't actually preclude their application.

I'm not of course suggesting that Isaac Asimov was ignorant of what came before him - on the contrary, looking at his early work in particular you can almost see the impact of previous writers in its inverse: Asimov's prose is consciously direct and unornamented, and while he develops over the course of his remarkably prolific career [4] even to the end his stories lack so much in the way of literary flourish that he has proven a slippery target for the ordinary literary critic. [5] For many, this is a huge plus: in fact, the ruthlessly plot-and-idea oriented writing that is Asimov’s hallmark is one of the things that made him so popular. [6] I’m not even suggesting that Asimov was himself without literary skill – in fact, despite constantly breaking cardinal rules of fiction (minimize exposition, show don’t tell, write natural, believable dialogue, and others) he demonstrates that he’s capable of some amazing characterization at important points in his plots (look at Liar! for example, or Second Foundation), not to mention the skillful way in which he contrived the narrative of (especially) longer tales, nesting plots and snapping together timelines in fascinating non-linear ways. [7]

No, Asimov certainly knew what he was about in developing his personal style, and I feel sure he had a good grasp of what had come before (indeed, what was still being produced by his peers when he started and into the 50s).  Where I disagree with him is really in his own words, which he gives us in his 3 paragraph author’s note at the beginning of Nemesis (1989) [8]:

“I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing – to be ‘clear’. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally [9], or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize.  I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics –Well, they can do whatever they wish.”

You see, he is making a fundamental mistake here, I think – eschewing poetry and symbol and “art” in writing isn’t the only way to achieve clarity.  Certainly, it’s easy to become unclear if you rely too heavily on these things, but the bright imagery of Leigh Brackett’s descriptions, the rich language of Jack Vance’s satirical tweaks are anything but unclear in my mind.  And this mistake is where I think he gets his sense that social SF is where the genre is best placed to achieve literary quality.

He has taken the stance that only through clarity – by which he specifically means “unadorned writing” – can good SF stories be told (at least by him) and a relationship built with the readers.  From the perspective of this stance his idea that social SF has the best potential for literary quality makes perfect sense, I think, but it’s because the “artistic flourishes” he chose to avoid are what give stories of the first two varieties life, and his own style was in fact best adapted for painting the complex future stories he ultimately went on to write in his Robot series and in the Foundation books.

But this brings me to my second point: that I think Asimov’s idea that social SF is the realm in which science fiction was best able to aspire to literary achievement betrays the “class angst” shared by so many genre writers. 

In trying to find ways in which SF might “one day” aspire to literary greatness, Asimov makes himself complicit in placing SF – and other “genre” writing – as somehow automatically unliterary…and by extension unworthy.  In arguing for literary merit in SF he flies the flag high, but in the same motion tears it down again, somehow blind to the fact that SF was already literary: authors like Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Francis Stevens, Abraham Merritt and many others had already proven that, contemporaries of Asimov like Catherine Moore and Leigh Brackett [10] or the better known Ray Bradbury were still proving that, while they might not reach the heights every time (who does!) they were fully capable of it.

So where does this self-consciousness come from in genre?

I think it’s clear:

Somewhere along the line we have been convinced that stories that “merely” paint a picture of a complex object or scenario don’t count as literature.

Somewhere along the line we have been taught that stories that “merely” recounts an adventure don’t count either.

Genre writing – and science fiction in particular – have quite a lot of these kinds of stories, so obviously they don’t count as literature, right?

But of course we accept the military fantasy of the Illiad as literature, we accept the satirical travels of Gulliver as literature, we accept prose poems (which are surely no more than vivid descriptions of a scene, of a feeling), and Shakespeare’s murder mysteries (and what did you think Macbeth and Hamlet were?), we accept Beowulf, and most ironically we accept things like Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Poe and Welles and Doyle and (ahem) Shelley as literature.

It’s long past time we realised that it isn’t (necessarily) the writing that makes people dismiss SF&F, detective stories, westerns, romance, etc as unworthy – it’s the formats they’ve been traditionally associated with.  Formats that were cheap, mass produced, and hungry for as much content as they could get: pulps.

Yes, this format paid little and produced a lot – not only was it hard for a writer to make a living [11] unless they produced astounding volumes for a multitude of venues, but the publications themselves had a challenge: they had to be cheap enough for nearly anyone to afford, they had to be substantial enough to seem good value for money, and they needed to produce often enough to remain visible in an incredibly competitive market.  These two factors pushed authors and publishers to pump out enormous volumes of text each and every month, so while the best writers could produce truly amazing work the fact was that any random story was probably merely mediocre. [12]

The economics of this era colours our perceptions and and the attitudes of people of the time, though I feel sure that there was an element of elitism involved as well: for the most part the pulps were dismissed as “yellow journals” without interest to authors who could publish in “legitimate” ways – and beneath the notice of the academy.  It wasn’t that there were no literary quality authors writing for the pulps, it was that they were tainted by turning to the pulps to facilitate their desire to write a kind of story that has captivated human beings for as long as there have been stories. [13]

Interestingly, I can see this phenomenon emerging again with the explosion of digital media.  It will be interesting to see if we can overcome the prejudices of our own era to see the gems hidden in the digital pulps.


1. Amazingly, published a mere 3 years after he had been inspired to try his hand at SF writing Nightfall was already Asimov’s 32nd story, though apparently only his 20th published (admittedly a remarkable acceptance rate).

2. Although little talked about today, Brentnor himself was an interesting character, whose career included writing propaganda to be sent to Japan during WW2 and membership in The Order of the Trapezoid in the 50s.  Yes, that one.  In SF, he’s mainly remembered today for his symposia and essay collections on the craft of writing it.

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there seem to be a few Futurians in the credits…

4. Seriously: 500 books in 54 years? Even with story collections included that's remarkable. More astoundingly, he seems to have produced more than 100 of them just in his last 10 years!

5. Though not entirely impossible: Professor Emeritus James Gunn (University of Kansas/English Literature) seems to have done quite well, for one.

6. In an article published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (July 1980) Gunn noted two very interesting points about Asimov’s style: character is almost never significant, and the plot is driven forward in functional dialogue rather than action.  To quote his summary of the style: “The robot stories, and as a matter of fact almost all Asimov fiction – play themselves on a relatively bare stage.”  When I first read this comment I had an interesting thought: could it be that Asimov’s style reflected the “laboratory aesthetic” of his early era – the 40s and 50s? Anyone who has actually worked in a lab would of course sneer at the ideal as fantasy, but there can be no doubt that the whole minimalist lab filled with expanses of gleaming stainless-steel counters broken only by the occasional sleek machine and lit with the clear white of fluorescent strips was a powerful image.

7. Not that this is universally loved – personally, although I’m not a big Asimov fan (I like rich language and characterization) I think this is the most intriguing aspect of his writing, the way he could fit things together like the parts of some complex machine and make them mesh smoothly.  In light of his incredible output, the skill involved here is amazing.

8. In which, it should be said, he also takes the time to warn the reader that a) the story doesn’t (yet) connect to any of his other universes, and b) that the narrative structure is “odd”

9. And what does he think his non-linear intersecting timelines are if not experimental!?

10. Though their work was losing visibility at the time Asimov wrote his article.

11. We’re so much more fortunate now…

12. Thinking just of the venues that survived – because they realized that no matter how hungry they were to fill their pages, publishing actually bad work would be suicide.

13. Ironically, Ray Bradbury reputedly wanted to be a pulp legend like his mentors Moore, Kuttner, Brackett and Hamilton – and his failure to achieve his goal is a big part of what allowed his writing to be taken as literary rather than dismissed as pulp.  The same might be said of Orwell, whose best known works should surely be filed under SF&F.


unwesen said...

An author friend of my has a fun little parable in which Form and Content debate which of them is more important in literature, and Moneybag weighs in as well. All in German, unfortunately, or I'd post excerpts.

The thing that makes it one of my favourite stories of his is that it's very well written, and explores the writers dilemma, thus satisfying both Form and Content. If only he'd sell it more, Moneybag would also be happy :) if you read German. He's well worth a read or three.

Kevyn Winkless said...

Ha! I believe I've seen similar tales by other authors as well - and yes, the argument is a universal one, I suspect. Sadly, I don't read German anywhere well enough to attempt Mr. Liebold's work, but just enough to get a sense of the blurbs on his website and other places on the web - I look forward to seeing him in translation!