Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

Time to write another tedious defense piece. But I feel compelled to argue with people on the internet – thus is my curse.

I’m not going to go into an explanation of the Pulp Revolution right now (though that warrants a post in the near future), but suffice it to say there is a growing contingent of bloggers, tweeters, indie authors, podcasters, and literary critics who have come to know and love classic and pulp Scifi/Fantasy. Like any group of enthusiasts, we spend a lot of time chewing the cud. When we’re not reading or writing, we tend to be reviewing, discussing, and/or trying to preach the gospel.

And while the other activities in which we engage can contribute to the last one, I think spreading our message and drawing new fans into the fold is the most valuable service we can render. I suppose we go about this in different ways. I see positivity and enthusiasm as the most effect recruiting tools. When I found the Cirsova blog and then Jeffro’s, I felt like I’d struck gold. Here were a couple of guys who clearly loved the stuff they were writing about, and it was infectious. Jack Vance sounded awesome, and as a result I wanted to read him.

Now if the first blog posts I had come across at those two excellent destinations had been about how Harry Potter is trash, or maybe a top ten list of overrated authors listing five of my favorites, well, fair or not I probably would have been turned off and clicked away. And then, because I am a frail human being who is susceptible to hurt feelz, I would have lost out. My awakening to the classics could have been prevented (or thanks to Kaiju’s influence, perhaps just delayed). In most cases, shitting on something that someone likes isn’t going to attract them to try out your brand.

And so I first put forward that we as a movement and even as individuals are at our best when we’re touting the great and the good. Criticism and righteous indignation of course have their place. But if we want to draw more people to us – not just the disillusioned scifi fans of decades gone by, but fresh blood robbed of this stuff by the SFF generational gap – let us also exercise restrain and thoughtfulness. If you see yourself as a solider in a literary war, I’m not proposing you offer your enemy succor. Rather I am pointing out that when throwing bombs or fireballs, you may not have full view of the blast radius. If that doesn’t give you pause, or if you deem the payoff greater than the risk, or if flinging fireballs just feels good and you don’t care because they have it coming, well. Not much I can do about it – wage on, I guess.

So let’s get to the title of this particular post.

Among some fans of older SFF, Asimov has been a popular punching bag for a while. They say he doesn’t deserve to be called one of the “Big Three” scifi writers. They say that the Golden Age of scifi is a misnomer. And you know, I don’t disagree.

Well, some of my Pulp Rev friends have been taking a turn with Asimov. Some people are even writing stories about the evils of his ilk. And you know what? We’re each entitled to our own opinions.

I think the grievances being put forth against Asimov can pretty much be condensed thusly:

  1. He was a pompous asshole
  2. His name has been undeservedly hoisted above better writers
  3. He was a godless leftist punk
  4. His stories didn’t uphold traditional heroics
  5. His stories were boring and he was untalented

 

As to the first accusation, I would say that from what I’ve read and gathered, this is the case. But so what? Most typical SFF fans don’t go digging for quotes and manifestos and essays. They want to read an entertaining story, and being an asshole doesn’t disqualify one from spinning a good yarn.

isaac_asimov_on_throne

Second – this is also probably true, but difficult to objectively prove. Maybe an argument can be made based on sales numbers or some such metric, but this would be a purely quantitative indicator. Though I agree with this second statement, I wouldn’t assert it as fact.

Third – Again, yes. But again, how does this matter? There were godless, leftist punks whom the Pulp Rev crew likes. I like to point to Fritz Leiber.

Fourth – This is true, and a great argument for why you don’t like Asimov, or how he’s brought down the genre. But does it lessen his writing talent or the impact he’s had upon science fiction? I’d say not. And while many of us may prefer stories with a traditional good guy who beats the bad guy and gets the girl, there are other forms of entertainment. Silence of the LambsBreaking BadThe SopranosScarfaceOcean’s ElevenFight Club; Beetlejuice. There are plenty of popular stories and characters that don’t conform to the formulas we most enjoy.

Fifth – This is purely subjective. Many people, including myself, have enjoyed some of his stories. “A fan of the pulps cannot enjoy Asimov’s garbage” you may say. Then how do you explain me? I am a fan of the early Foundation books and the Daneel Olivaw/Elijah Bailey stories.

To me, the war between pulpy, actiony raygun romance and hard SFF is asinine. It’s like telling someone they can only like hard-boiled detective crime fiction or else legal thriller, but not both. One cannot enjoy both epic fantasy and fairy stories.

Say what you will about Asimov, but his writing was interesting enough that he still has many fans.

The fact that Asimov was a petty, obnoxious, intellectual, craphead of a man doesn’t matter to people who just want to read a fun scifi story. I’ve read that Lovecraft held and voiced many anti-black and anti-Catholic opinions. But that doesn’t make the Cthulhu mythos any less cool. Nor should it. I hold the same to be true for Asimov. Where a sharp mind (probably honed by regular political and literary analysis) may see Foundation as a story of an intellectual class lording over a people incapable of ruling itself – the ultimate elitist big government! – others of us just see a future story with cool fake science, planning, and problem solving. Doesn’t have to be sinister.

If the messaging you dislike is in your face, I can understand and respect taking a pass. No one wants to fork over their cash to someone who’s spitting in their face. But for many of us, Asimov and a lot of these writers aren’t in our faces. Maybe that’s because we’re blissfully unaware, but you know what they say about ignorance.

If you don’t enjoy Asimov because you find his stories boring or overbearing or loaded, I can understand that. But that doesn’t make him a bad writer, nor unworthy of literary accolade and recognition. For my part, I find Stephen King to be highly overrated. I found the Stand, for example, to be way too much buildup for a disappointingly paltry payoff. But I also recognize that he’s a SFF giant, and I’m not about to tell millions of people that they’re wrong and I know better. Just rubs me the wrong way.

And putting my money where my mouth is, I guess now I have to acknowledge that, HP, the Force Awakens isn’t garb. I simply didn’t care for it, on the whole. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

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Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

57 thoughts on “Asimov was an asshat, but so what?

  1. I find Asimov to be pretty boring, by and large, which is why I usually just don’t talk about him. I think my only specifically Asimov-related posts were when I’d hit a piece of his back in my earliest Short Reviews days.

    I’m ready to spend more energy talking up good stuff than tearing down bad. Speaking of which, back to my review of The Moon that Vanished!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for commenting, Alex. That reminds me – I need to get Brackett back on my shortlist. She fell off at some point after I read a short story I wasn’t too keen on. But can’t judge fairly from just one.

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      1. Which was it?
        I recall Brackett more or less admitting that some of her earliest stuff wasn’t very good (the context being that the negative feedback she’d received had never been because she was a woman, the implication being that even she knew she wrote some duds).
        Most of the stuff I’ve read by her has been from mid-to-late 40s, and all of it has been really good, but I haven’t read any of her earliest stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It was the first story in the “Best of” collection. “The Jewel of Bas” I think? It wasn’t a bad story, but I wasn’t really impressed with the characters. It picked up near the end, though. I think perhaps my expectations were ramped up too high. But Keith West mentioned this story was pretty different from her typical fare, too.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it really comes down to ignorance being blissful. Once you’ve pulled back the curtain and seen certain threads, you can’t unsee. Reminds me of songs I’ve enjoyed until I found out what they were about.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I think Asimov really is, largely, a matter of taste – some people care more about the ideas and concepts explored by stories than the characters or the stories themselves. I love his non-fiction but have hated all of fiction I’ve read by him. He’s really good at explaining concepts and ideas of science, but that’s not really what I’m looking for when it comes to fiction, and he just doesn’t do a good enough job of dressing it up there for me.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s fair. There really is no accounting for taste!

        Kind of reminds me of a Twitter convo I was having yesterday – Alexandru Constantin and I both agreed that we’re not huge fans of CS Lewis’ SFF. We both love his apologetics, though. Brilliant guy and a masterful writer, just not really to our tastes.

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      2. Just like how I loved Tolkien’s fiction, but found his “On Faerie Stories” the most curmudgeonly ‘get off my lawn’ thing I’ve ever read.

        “Fie on anyone suggesting a beast fable might be a fairy story!”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Nathan says:

    Asimov was part of a crowd that squeezed out soft SF and then hard SF from science fiction in favor of stories about impersonal social forces. SF Master Race lording it over those pulp casuals. One can point out that some decent ideas and stories came from that group while pointing out that their influence was ultimately a mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Nathan, thanks for the thought.

      You’re right – I don’t think what we’re saying is necessarily conflicting. Perhaps I’m calling for a little temperance (not that I really have the influence to effect any) above all else here. I think it’s a shame that the industry and the genre took the turn that they did, and that’s worth calling out. But I see that as distinct from the quality of his stories and whether or not they’re enjoyable.

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      1. Nathan says:

        I’ll agree with the conversation upstream that taste factors into a lot of this conversation. Most of the PulpRev voices aren’t going to demand that people not read anything after 1937, or that people stop reading what they like. But like carnivores in a vegan restaurant, we might disagree on personal ideas of what enjoyable is.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The Daytime Renegade says:

    Excellent post. I feel much the same about music: If you like it, the creator’s politics or personal life don’t really matter.

    As an aside, I confess that the only Asimov I’ve read is “I, Robot” and the only Jack Vance I’ve read is “The Blue World,” both almost 20 years ago. I could tell you nearly everything about “The Blue World.” I remember nothing about “I, Robot” except that I read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I agree. I love the Decemberists’ stuff, but man do I disagree with their politics.

      And I’m on the same page with “I, Robot” too. I don’t remember any of the stories, really. I enjoyed the Elijah Bailey books a lot more. “The Blue World” eh? Yet another Vance story I need to check out!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Daytime Renegade says:

        My dad told me about “The Blue World” because his chemistry professor in college suggested he read it, which he did. He then tracked down a used copy years later. Read it and you’ll understand. Great little story.

        On the music front, I feel that way about Zappa. He’s one of my musical idols, and I’m with him on about 90% of things. But man he became a pretty hateful, anti-Christian bigot and doctrinaire leftist late in his life. From ’66 to about ’84 though, he was as libertarian as a rock star could get.

        The weird thing is, he considered himself a small-gov’t, low tax, non-intrusive or interventionalist conservative but felt the religious right hijacked the GOP and that the Democrats better represented freedom and individuality. I sincerely wonder what he’d make of today’s political scene.

        This comment has gone on long enough. And is off-topic.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. The Daytime Renegade says:

        Cool! I’ll have to add Suldrun’s Garden to my list.

        See, I enjoy sci-fi from all eras, but that old-school stuff scratches an itch that a lot of modern fare doesn’t.

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  4. LastRedoubt says:

    While I’ve joined in on pounding on Asimov, the issue here is that for one of the “big Three” who I’ve lost count of how many of his books I read – fiction and non – in my teens, my repeated winnowings when moving flushed all but three of his books out of my shelves. And Clarke – and that was years ago, before the puppies and superversive stuff came along.

    He does not age well for me. Not because he didn’t have some interesting ideas, but because his attitudes toward people poisoned his stories. Both in their content, and in my willingness to deal with it to play with the ideas. Some, like my favorite of his, The Martian Way, are excellent. The story of the positronic cars that murder someone trying to reposess them and scrub them, is just chilling. His short story about a time – travelling shakespeare, broken because english professors misinterpreted his work, was funny. I still have “I Robot” and Nine Tomorrows on my shelves. He actually has a good book of Gilbert and Sullivan’s plays.

    That said: out of dozens of books of his I’ve owned, I’ve got more John DeChancie “Castle Perilous” books, still, from three decades ago. Also, more Alan Dean Foster books from same, and of course my first run of “There Will be War”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Rod!

      If you dig detective stories, I’d probably recommend the Caves of Steel. If you’re more into galactic empire stuff, then Foundation. Personally I thought the first few Foundation books were really fun. After a while they started to get kind of weird and onerous.

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    2. Track down a collection with “The Martian Way” in it. That’s his best. I’ll second the recommendation for Caves of Steel. After that try the Foundation Trilogy. Don’t be shy about not finishing it, it’s really a collection of short stories fixed up. I, Robot is a collection of short stories playing with the Laws of Robotics (exploring most of the loopholes).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. LastRedoubt says:

        Had a collection titled “The Martian Way” with a bunch of Asimov stories, and would likely be on my shelves instead of Nine Tomorrows if it hadn’t been old – my moms – before my time, and fallen apart in the intervening decades

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, though I enjoyed the ideas of “I, Robot,” I liked the Daneel Olivaw books a lot more, and a lot of the Foundation stuff. Still, I’ll have a look at “God, Robot.” Thanks for recommending!

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      2. I LOVED “The Caves of Steel”. The twist ending is just fantastic, perfectly paced, perfectly executed…everything. I would write a whole post on why it worked so well except I’d give everything away!

        “The Naked Sun” was okay, but I think overrated. “The Robots of Dawn” was…meh. It had a lot of potential if Asimov got rid of the weird, creepy sex stuff, including Lije’s affair, which was terrible.

        If you read “God, Robot”, please write a review! Every little bit of exposure helps. Are you writing for Castalia right now? If so, I’d appreciate if you posted it there.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Agreed on the weird sex stuff! Asimov and Heinlein both turned me off with that stuff.

        I am doing a biweekly piece over at Castalia House right now, yup. If I get a chance, I’ll do a review for ya. Unfortunately I can’t promise anything soon – book queue is pretty full at the moment.

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      4. The problem I have with some criticisms of “I, Robot” is that, while Asimov’s philosophy in the book is very materialistic/secular humanist, they don’t give him enough credit for nuance. I think criticism of “The Evitable Conflict”, for example (where giant Machines run the earth while working under the Three Laws), over its philosophy is misguided. Yes, it’s very creepy, but so what? Asimov knew that; if you don’t believe me, read the frame section after the story. The whole point of it was to explore those sorts of provocative and interesting ideas, not necessarily to convince you that it’s his way or the highway.

        You see that sort of thing throughout “I, Robot”, like the story where the university professor tried to frame a robot for sabotaging his work in order to get U.S. Robotics bankrupted. Asimov could have made the guy a cardboard luddite, but he doesn’t. The speech he gives in his own defense is intelligent and lucid; he doesn’t exactly leave the conclusion an open question, but it certainly makes you think.

        And that’s what his Robot stories were best at: They made you think, and there’s something to be said for that.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Yup, well said. There are plenty of stories in SFF that aren’t necessarily advocating a specific point of view but rather prompting the reader to think critically. And even when they do favor a certain perspective or philosophy, that doesn’t mean their stories always push or go a good job convincing for that side.

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  5. The debate is a mix of advocating for particular books, advocating for sub-genres, and casting down idols so the advocate can put up his own idol in their place. I find the first two entertaining and third boring. There’s also the problem that someone wandering into the discussion is turned off by iconoclasm, as you described above.

    For Asimov, I’m fond of many of the stories he wrote in the 40s and 50s. After that he seemed to be breathing his own exhaust. When he connected the robots and Foundation I gave up on his fiction. Still have a bunch of his older fiction and non-fiction books.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Asimov was a far better nonfiction writer than a fiction writer. He wrote (literally) a couple hundred books about science, tech, psychology, history, and so on, most of which have aged far, far better than his fiction. In fact, I imitated Asimov when I began writing nonfiction and still consider the many essays he published in F&SF in the 50s and 60s to be models of clear explanations of difficult things.

    That said, I don’t consider most of his fiction memorable. Maybe he was a jerk–there’s never been a jerk shortage in SFF, and we now have a burgeoning jerk surplus. Compared to the political correctoids screaming at me these days, well, I think he comes off as something like a true gentleman.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Jeff. Cirsova feels similarly, as he stated above, and I can definitely appreciate that sentiment. Foundation and (to a lesser degree) some of his Robot books are still memorable for me, but that could be because I didn’t have a ton of scifi under my belt when I read them. Whatever the case, it is what it is!

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  7. anonme says:

    Asimov’s “I Robot” was one of the first pieces of science fiction I ever remember reading. His work sent my imagination soaring, and opened several doors for me. His clear voice, and habit of putting in neat little asides is something that has rubbed off on me, and I see in my own writing.

    That said, I can still take the warts and all approach, and admit many of the criticisms of the man are valid. First and foremost, the man’s characters where often just cardboard cut outs, with their professions stamped on a nametag stuck to the cardboard. Usual “scientist” or “engineer.” He’s done a few memorable characters (Like Lije Bailey) but they are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Often his side characters far outshone the main characters.

    And yes, his “stop having fun guys” approach to SF has done incalculable damage to the genre. Like you said. He could be a jerk. So could Harlan Ellison (yes, this is a understatement since Harlan yelling at random people at cons used to be a badge of honor for some,) Micheal Moorcock, etc. I can find Asimov’s dismissal of fantasy just as off putting as Moorcock’s insulting of Tolkien. I can still like their books.

    I do think that Hard Science fiction is an enjoyable subgenre, and it was a mistake for it to be supplanted as the genre as a whole.

    All in all I agree with John C Wright that Asimov shines more in his short fiction than his novels, and I can see why some here found his works boring. To me the various engineering challenges, and physics puzzles were part of the fun, but I can see why it’s a very specific set of tastes. I do think Daddy warpig and others have very valid points against Asimov, at the same time I also think much of the damage done during the silver age is more appropriately laid at the feet of editors, and the various self appointed enforcers of the fandom.

    Another thing to consider is authors often engage in this kind of trash talk as a marketing gimmick to sell their books, and set them apart. (A good example is Hemingway and Faulkner trash talking each other over vocabulary. Bants about ten dollar words aside, at the end of day it boiled down to ‘don’t read that guy, read me’ on both sides of the equation.)

    So I guess the tl;dr of my rambling rant is “Yeah, he could be a jerk, but I still like him. Separate the content and creator and all that jazz.” I know there are limits to that sort of thing, but Asimov never called me a nazi, and that’s were I usually draw the line.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Blume says:

    I take umbrage with the idea that a writer who is bad at writing character’s is still deserving of accolades and honors for his writing in fiction. I am not saying every writer who sucks at writing character’s is undeserving of awards and honors. But I am saying it is a valid criticism and a valid reason for someone to say he is undeserving of honors. It is a judgement on his merits as an author. Unlike criticizing his politics and character and using that as justification for denying him accolades and awards. That being said Asimov probably does deserve the honor he got from foundation but I know many people who find it dry and uninteresting with no character’s to root for.

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    1. I mean, you’re free to take umbrage, but I think the assertion that “character” is not the chief driver of a story is just as valid as the assertion that it is. Once again it comes down to taste. We can look at Lovecraft once again. He was a giant for sure, but what memorable characters did he write? Cthulhu, I suppose, if you count that. Lovecraft was masterful at setting and language.

      I happen to think Asimov did have a couple of memorable characters, but even if he didn’t, that doesn’t mean his other strengths didn’t compensate for those of us who have enjoyed his fiction.

      Read an excellent and appropriate quote by Edgar Rice Burroughs today – “Entertainment is fiction’s purpose.” And so if Asimov has entertained, by that metric anyway, he wrote good fiction.

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  9. adventuresfantastic says:

    Well said, sir. And thanks for the shout-out on Brackett. I’ll be doing more posts on her work.

    I’ve been thinking about weighing in on Asimov and men with screwdrivers in general and may still. You’ve pretty well said what I would have said, though. It’s a matter of personal taste. Having several degrees in science, I tend to like hard science. But I also realize it’s not for everyone.

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  10. fletchav says:

    Good piece. Reviving and saving sf/f from its worst modern practitioners means remembering the best parts of its past. Asimov is important and was genuinely good a lot of the time. Same for Fred Pohl, I’d argue.

    My take on most artists is: unless you’re committing felonies and hurting folks, I don’t care much about their politics or personality. They aren’t my friends and probably never will be. If the art’s still good, then I’m happy.

    I, too, like the early Robot and Foundation stuff. I’ve been meaning to reread Foundation & Empire, but other obligations keep distracting me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Fletchav! Glad to hear I’m not alone and that there are at least a few of you guys who share my feeling on this.

      Man, with so much out there it’s hard to find the time for rereading these days!

      Liked by 1 person

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