Sunday, February 10, 2008

Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, by James Gunn

When I found this book, I was browsing the dusty "shelves," mostly made of old cartons, of the science fiction section of my all-time favorite used bookstore, Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA. When I go there I'm generally looking to fill in holes I've identified in my reading list. I've been trying to bring myself up to date in the older realms of sf, so I'm always on the lookout for, say, Star Man's Son by Andre Norton or Before the Dawn by John Taine. I try only to buy books that are already on my To Read list. In fact, I signed up with LibraryThing, and now I can check my To Read list on my cell phone while I'm standing in the bookstore. This has saved me from any number of duplicate or needless purchases. However, the most wonderful thing about used bookstores is the unexpected find, and Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction by James Gunn more or less jumped off the shelf and insisted that I take it home, list or no list.

As a proto-scholar of science fiction, I try to read lots of non-fiction about the sf field: essays, articles, reviews, reference books, etc. However, the list of scholarly books about sf that are both informative and readable is pretty short. So far I've found Gary K. Wolfe's The Known and the Unknown to fall into that category, and about half of the chapters in James' and Mendelsohn's The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Also some parts of the somewhat dated and quirky The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. I'm sure there are many others - I've really only scratched the surface. Just a quick glance at my to-read bookcase reveals The Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss, and x, y, z, t: The Dimensions of Science Fiction by Damien Broderick, and I hope both of these will add to the informative and readable list. However, in terms of things that I've read, the newest addition to the list is this Asimov survey.

I should admit, I've long been an Asimov fan. I read the robot short stories when I was twelve or thirteen, and have filled in a lot of his other short fiction since. I enjoyed the original Foundation trilogy, and the first three robot novels. I've also read Asimov's condensed autobiography, I. Asimov. Although this may invalidate all my critical opinions for the rest of my life, I still love Asimov: his ideas, his prose style, his logical puzzles, and his characters. At the risk of all my "professional" credibility (hah), I prefer Asimov to Bradbury (I prefer Asimov shorts to Bradbury shorts by a slim margin, but prefer Asimov's novels by a mile). Also, people can say what they will about her, but Susan Calvin spoke to me when I was growing up as a geeky girl. She wasn't pretty, she wasn't social, she was just incredibly good at what she did. While she wasn't happy all of the time, she seemed fairly satisfied with her lot in life, rising to a pinnacle within her field. Especially compared to the insanely unrealisitic expectations set by Heinlein women (gorgeous nymphomaniacs, who are also smart enough to have many graduate degrees, speak or read several languages, be experts in both hand-to-hand and weapon combat, and still want to settle down and have babies), Calvin was a small source of comfort to me going through adolescence.

All of which is as much to say that I was favorably disposed towards this book when I brought it home.

Gunn opens with a chapter of biography on Asimov. He points out:

Writing about the life of Isaac Asimov is like pouring water into the ocean. Asimov has written more about himself than any living author, and generally with frankness and insight.

Truly there isn't much here that one couldn't get from the autobiographies. However, it is a good condensed version, hitting the highlights that Gunn feels are important to explain Asimov's writing: his hard-working childhood, his love of city living, and his seemingly charmed life. Also, Gunn focuses on Asimov's personal philosophy: humanistic, rational, with faith in progress and human reason. A nice thing about this standard introduction is that if you haven't read Asimov's numerous autobiographical works, you don't have to in order to follow this book. This is a philosophy that Gunn follows throughout the book: he summarizes and explains enough that even if you haven't read the work under discussion, you can still follow his analysis. This occasionally backfires. In stories with complicated plots such as The Stars, Like Dust and The End of Eternity, Gunn can get stuck "summarizing" the plot for up to six pages, which feels excessive. However, thanks to that dedication, I now feel like I can go through life without having to actually read The Stars, Like Dust, Pebble in the Sky, or The End of Eternity, since I now know more than enough about them to get by. In each case, from Gunn's analysis, it sounds like I'm just as well off getting the Cliff Notes version anyhow.

In the second chapter, Gunn steps right up to what may be Asimov's most important (for the SF world) contribution, the Foundation series. Gunn points out:

The student of science fiction who can understand the appeal and influence of the series may understand much that differentiates science fiction from other kinds of literature, and something about the basic appeal of Campbellian science fiction. The failure to provide adequate answers to these questions is the central problem of scholarship about science fiction. The circumstances of creation, for instance, may provide some measure of understanding, but much contemporary scholarship chooses to ignore such ephemera, preferring to apply to science fiction the same criteria applied to Henry James or William Faulkner or John Updike.

Gunn comes up with several possible answers to explain Foundation's appeal. The idea that psychohistory (or some science) can help us see the future is attractive, while the stories themselves continue to reinforce our notion of the future as anti-deterministic: at each turn of the story, success hangs in the balance, and is not guaranteed. As in almost all of Asimov's fiction, he presents problems that can be overcome by the application of human reasoning - something very attractive to most science fiction readership, no matter how rarely it is true in the real world.

...perhaps the most important aspect of Asimov's writing, is his rationalism. More than any other writer of his time (the Campbell era, as Asimov calls it) or even later, Asimov speaks with the voice of reason.... Rationality is the one human trait that can always be trusted, the Trilogy says, and the reader comes to believe that that is Asimov's conviction as well. Sometimes rational decisions are based on insufficient information and turn out to be wrong, or the person making the decision is not intelligent enough to see the ultimate solution rather than the partial one, but nothing other than reason works at all.

That is a theme that Gunn will return to again and again in analyzing Asimov's works and their appeal - they attract those who hope that life and the universe are puzzles to be overcome with intelligence and rationality, traits that geeks tend to have in abundance, rather than by emotionality and wisdom, which geeks may lack to some degree.

Gunn also notes Asimov's thoroughness, both with the Foundation stories and his robot short stories, analysis of which takes up the third chapter in the book. The Foundation stories just about exhaust the possibilities given by psychohistory and the collapse of a galactic empire. The robot short stories, twenty-nine of them, likewise do most of what can be done with the Three Laws of Robotics. Of course, when Gunn was writing this book Asimov had not yet written the books that would tie the Robot future and the Foundation future together, which leaves the analysis of both feeling slightly dated.

Chapter 4 examines Asimov's other short stories, spending a large amount of time, of course, on "Nightfall," perhaps the most famous short story of all time. Interestingly, Asimov himself does not regard it as even the best of his own short stories, but who are we to argue with the judgment of history? "Nightfall" contains the same particular strengths of most of Asimov's stories: the forces of science against everything else, and a puzzle to be solved. It combines these elements with some spectacularly memorable imagery, and being memorable is probably the most important first step to becoming a classic. In regards to the other short stories, Gunn provides a lot of useful historical context: what order they were written and published in, for which editors, and with what significant editorial changes. This was all information I had not been aware of before, and it was interesting to see some of the behind the scenes work that went into this part of Asimov's oeuvre. He also discusses how Asimov re-examines similar ideas at different points in his career, and responds to political developments with specific stories - all the sorts of things one would like a career survey to do.

As Gunn discusses the robot novels, at that time encompassing only Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, he notes how far Asimov had come in his personal life: making a living from writing, with a wife and two children, and treated as a celebrity in the sf scene. Gunn obviously knows Asimov well, and he tries to avoid being too gossipy; this is a work of lit crit, after all. Sometimes though, it appears that he can't help himself:

He had matured in other ways. His social insecurity, particularly with women, had eased with success, and he had adopted a Rabelaisian approach to all women of all ages. He had even enjoyed his first extra-marital encounter and had acquitted himself well.

That's the sort of thing that demands either a lot more explanation (the I. Asimov autobiography didn't mention it, and Gunn never mentions it again), or to be left out altogether. However, in other ways Gunn usefully ties Asimov's biography together with his story developments. Possibly only a person as in love with the city life as Asimov (who spent almost all his life in either New York or Boston) could write a future such as that in Caves of Steel, with its perfectly enclosed habitats, without turning it into a dystopia.

The chapter on "The Other Novels" is the least interesting of the book, particularly since Gunn has to spend so much time on plot summaries. After all the summary, there doesn't appear to be that much one can say about Pebble in the Sky or The Stars, Like Dust to make them really interesting - it strikes the reader that Gunn doesn't think much of them. He also briefly touches on the Asimov juvenilles, the Lucky Starr series, but doesn't go into much depth.

Then The Gods Themselves gets an entire chapter all its own to finish off the book. At the time this was written, 1982, Gods would have been the big thing - Asimov's return to science fiction after more than a decade of drastically reduced output (when he was mostly writing non-fiction), a book that broke with his previous style in several ways (it has aliens, meaningful female characters, and character development) and went on to win a Hugo award. However, Gunn notes that despite its considerable merits, it pales in comparison to the bulk of what Asimov had done before, all the significant contributions he had made to the field in earlier decades.

I found this study interesting and easy to read. It makes sense that an academic who also writes successful fiction would produce significantly more readable scholarship than average. I'm sure that for the serious critic there isn't much here that he/she wouldn't have already known. However, for myself as a novice it held many interesting tidbits. It also provides a model for the proto-scholar of ways to analyze sf literature: look for the big ideas, the story approaches, the context of the author's other works and the works he/she may be responding to, and the authors own biography and personality. Also, in eschewing literary jargon, Gunn's book is accessible to any interested layman, which is to my mind a great choice for talking about sf. As a reader, one doesn't need to be knowledgeable about either lit crit or all of Asimov's works to enjoy this book. Gunn provides all of the context that the reader will need to understand what he's talking about. He is an Asimov apologist, in a way. He focuses on Asimov's strengths rather than on his oft-pointed-out weaknesses. So if you're looking for a study to examine just why no one should ever take Asimov seriously, look elsewhere. But for those already favorably disposed to Asimov's stories and looking for more background on what makes them tick and how they all tie together, this is a readable and informative resource.

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