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Asimov These Guys Are Not...
Published on April 4, 2005 By Zoomba In Fiction
I'm nearing the end of the main body of Sci Fi work of Isaac Asimov. I've now consumed the Foundation Series (7 books), The Empire Triology (3 books I had to track down used since they're out of print), The Robot Triology, several of the robot shortstory books, and Robots & Empire (the book to tie Robots, Empire and Foundation together). Not to mention a few of the not quite integrated works (though hinted at in his later Foundation books); Nemesis, The Gods Themselves and End of Eternety. That's nearly 20 books!

Asimov, to me, is the equivalent of Tolkien in the Science Fiction world. His work is the pillar upon which so much sci fi today is built up from. It is sad, now that I am almost through his works, that there aren't any comparable works out there. No one has come close to continuing what he started.

When I go to the bookstore, I see row after row of Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40k etc... novels. Mass-produced works based on an established story and universe. I enjoy these a fair bit, but since there are dozens of authors contributing into a single series, there is little sense of continuity. Also, each book is an attempt to write the ULTIMATE confrontation for that setting. Well, after 500 or so ULTIMATE confrontations in Star Wars, they lose their meaning. The empire can only make a comeback so many times, the jedi can only come within inches of falling so many times, and rogue squadron can only single-handedly turn so many battles before it becomes worn and tired.

Asimov succeeded because his works (though they were many) were individual pieces of a vast and complex history. From the founding of US Robotics and Mechanical Men in the late 20th Century, to the establishment of a Galactic Empire to the finaly birth of a galaxy-wide Gaia, Asimovs work wove a detailed tapestry, adding a piece here, a short story there, tossing in a full novel from time to time. We are given a series of heroes (Susan Calvin, Elijah Baley, R. Daneel Olivaw, (to some extent R. Giskard Relentov), Gladia of Solaria, Hari Seldon, and then the slew of figures from the First and Second Foundations working towards a Second Galactic Empire) that all play their individual pieces in the grand story (with R. Daneel being the only consistent one throughout), coming and going as needed. The series is not confined by a particular period of time, nor by a central all-important character that dominates each story. To me, this is what a good science fiction series should be about. We're dealing with such vast expanses of space, why are we limited to so few players and so short a period of time? The power here is in unfolding events and stories that impact an entire Galaxy... and that takes a lot of people and a lot of time.

What happened to that? Where did the "Epic" aspect of Sci-Fi go to? Star Trek and Star Wars were great because they told a large story, but now in the aftermath of these two, we are faced with a flood of people adding in a little piece here and there into the existing framework, hardly extending it at all. Where before we read of conflicts that spanned entire sections of the galaxy, we're focusing in on individual skirmishes and military campaigns. Amidst a virtually limitless setting we spend our time focused on the insanely finite.

Lately it seems, when it comes to movies and TV, we're limited to retelling old stories or rehashing the old ideas. Battlestar Galactica, while an interesting remake, is just that... a remake. We've run out of Star Trek for the time being (though many will argue we haven't had real Trek since TNG). Babylon 5 came to an end, Firefly was given the axe, Quantum Leap died a long time ago (though that was barely Sci Fi). Most of the stuff on the Sci Fi channel (in terms of originals at least) are B Critter Flicks, not much sci-fi there. What they do have is once again remakes/poor extensions (never got into the Stargate spin-offs). The only real sci-fi we see in the theaters right now are the Star Wars prequels. While they're not that great in terms of acting, they're at least telling a large epic story (From Old Republic, to Empire, to New Republic).

We're seeing a resurgance of interest in fantasy (LOTR), comic books (Spiderman, Punisher, Hellboy, Batman etc...), why not good sci-fi? We came close with The Matrix, but parts 2 and 3 fell down on the job there, which was a shame because the first was so good.

Are there any up-and-coming sci-fi writers out there? Promising tv show ideas? Anything?

Comments
on Apr 04, 2005

I long ago depleted the stock of Isaac Asimov!  I read each and every one of them!  But while he is the Grand Master, others of his time (Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert heinlein, Philip Jose Farmer, Frank Herbert, and others) are almost as great.

Yet you have hit the nail on the head, even if only talking about Asimov.  THere are no great ones any longer.  The up and coming ones (and I am reading Brian, Frank's son) are either mediocre, or just pulp trash!

I simply cannot beleive that we have exhausted the imagination of mankind and that everything else is "Battlestar Galatica" type of pulp.  Perhaps society is so racing ahead with technology (notice how Enterprise had to kind of hide the fact that some of their stuff was more advanced than Star Trek?) that man is simply dazed and confused.  And so just trying to Grok the changes is more than they can handle at this time.

I dont have an answer, but I do so miss Asimov.  More than any of the others, he defined the greatest of Sci Fi.

on Apr 04, 2005

I enjoy Robert L. Forward (try Dragon's Egg) and occasionally Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game), and there are others who write series. Asimov may be the pinnacle, but dont knock other sci-fi writers till you've tried them all! And that should take a while.

Don't count the Star Wars and Star Trek stuff. It's a totally different animal, IMHO.

on Apr 04, 2005
There are plenty of talented authors writing today. True, none of them is a qualitative powerhouse and a prodigious publisher such as Asimov, but they're plenty readable. Also, if you insist on drawing a hard line between fantasy and SF, you'll miss out on a lot of interesting stuff. But I'll try to stick to the SF side of things...

Robert L. Forward. Real, "Hard" science fiction.
James P. Hogan. Also a very strong element of realism to the science behind his fiction.
Neal Stephenson. His "Cryptonomicon" is one of the best-researched books I have ever read.
Orson Scott Card. Takes a much more philosophical side than scientific. (mixes between SF and Fantasy works.)
Jack Chalker. Warning, his stories often take at least 3 books to tell and are very convoluted. Worth the effort, though.
Harry Turtledove. Specializes in Alternate-History storylines.
on Apr 05, 2005
No disrespect intended, and please bear in mind all that follows should be prefixed by 'In my opinion ...', but can I throw an opinionated spanner in the works here?

In respect of the various Asimov series you mention Zoomba, only the first three of 'Foundation' and the first two of 'Robot' are truly worthy. The rest offer very rapidly diminishing returns to the reader. Having loved the original 'Foundation' trilogy, I couldn't help thinking - as I laboured through the four increasingly tedious spin-offs - that 'The Mule' had been superseded by 'Flogging a dead horse'.

Don't get me wrong, I loved Asimov as a teenager. ‘The Gods Themselves' is still high on my list of best all-time science fiction. But I can hardly bring myself to read much else of his anymore. His characters are flat and unconvincing - often crude caricatures at best - and his use of the language is almost without exception unexciting and unbearably clumsy. I tend to think of Asimov's place in the pantheon of SF as strangely parallel to that of Agatha Christie in the whodunit hall of fame. Each had an undeniably terrific imagination within their genre. However, each would also have benefited enormously from a superior writer to undertake fleshing out their imaginings into altogether better finished stories.

Of Asimov's contemporaries, Arthur C. Clarke comes close in terms of imagination, and is a rather better writer. But Ray Bradbury is the one for me. Again, a fine creative mind, but Bradbury is a proper writer too, and of no little finesse and subtlety.

I would go on - there are many contemporary science fiction authors of worth, I think. But I should probably stop here before I cause a riot. In parting, however, I will respond to Zoomba's assessment: 'Asimov, to me, is the equivalent of Tolkien in the Science Fiction world.' In influence on an emerging genre, or in respect of imagination alone - well, perhaps. But in at least one other respect, I would venture that Asimov and Tolkien are more like opposites. Asimov's 'Foundation' was a good story told by an average writer. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' was an average story told by a good writer.

Great, now I've got two groups of angry fans on my trail! I'm heading for the hills ...
on Apr 05, 2005

I enjoy Robert L. Forward (try Dragon's Egg) and occasionally Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game), and there are others who write series. Asimov may be the pinnacle, but dont knock other sci-fi writers till you've tried them all! And that should take a while.

I have tried others, and I guess I am spoiled as I found them wanting.  I decided to give Brian Herbert a try, and I will say he is fair.  The story line is good (but then that is just a continuation from his father), but his writing is not the same level.

But even with the writing level not being the same, that would be ok if the stories were the grand epics that the old master wrote.  Part of the problem is the lack of time to read them (I only read 2-3 books a year due to other tasks).  I would hate to pick up a writer cold and then be disappointed in the content of the novel.

As it is, I have my next book already picked out, so I do have some time to look at other writers and then decide if I want to spend the time getting to know them.

on Apr 05, 2005

But in at least one other respect, I would venture that Asimov and Tolkien are more like opposites. Asimov's 'Foundation' was a good story told by an average writer. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' was an average story told by a good writer.

YOu best go!  Just Kidding.  You did preface it with IMHO, so your opinion noted and disagreed, respectfully, with.

As to the old masters, I put Clarke and Asimov on almost equal footing.  The big difference is that Clarke never wrote the grand epic that Asimov did.  Clarke's Rama series were good, just not on the same lelve as Asimov.

Heinlein on the other hand, started out with some dynamite stuff and then descended into soft porn.  Altho his Stranger in a Strange land is the best single book of all time.  Ray Bradbury was less a SF writer than a classical writer.  Good writing, weak story lines.

Theodore Sturgeon was the master of the short story.  Philip Jose Farmer a good story theme, but he ran out of ideas with his Riverworld Series.

Kurt Vonnegut?  A contemporary writer that used science fiction for his backdrop.  He liked to project todays societal problems into an extreme future.

I think in my case, I grew up with the golden age of SF, and just failed to make the transition to the age of mediocrity.  I am sure there are some great ones out there, I just have not had the time to look for them.  I still go to that section of the book store first, so perhaps I will check out the Enders game the next time (after Herbert), I am looking for a book to read on my trip to California.

on Apr 05, 2005
'The big difference is that Clarke never wrote the grand epic that Asimov did.'
Ooh, I think he did, Dr. Guy, but he usually only took one book to do it! ('Childhood's End' would be the most obvious choice, for me.) In my opinion, a 'grand epic' doesn't NEED to run to three volumes. Actually, I think it usually doesn't - often quantity appears as a disguise for lack of quality. This is, perhaps, why I may seem a little hard on poor old Tolkien (refer my 'hobbit-breaking' comments above), because his LOTR has sentenced us to 50 years of fantasy trilogies which are largely turgid and universally inferior to his original. Yes, I know, it's most unfair to blame Tolkien for those pale imitators who come afterwards. What can I say? I'm not perfect.

'Ray Bradbury was less a SF writer than a classical writer. Good writing, weak story lines.'
Athough I can't agree about the weak story lines, I think you have a point here, Dr. Guy. As I get older, the SF writers I gravitate towards (to use a nicely SF flavoured metaphor) are those who leave me asking just where the defining line is between SF and 'other' fiction ... and concluding that the more you look for it, the less the evidence that there actually is one. You have already mentioned Vonnegut in terms close to these. Others for me would have to include Philip K Dick, Brian Aldiss, J G Ballard, and - rather more recently - Jeff Noon. Absolute masters all. Incidentally, if you haven't read Noon's jaw-droppingly brilliant 'Vurt' and 'Pollen', I really can't recommend them too highly.
on Apr 05, 2005
Furry:
A dig against both Tolkien AND Asimov!?!? Ok boys! Get the tar and feathers!

I also have to respectfully disagree with you on both Tolkien and Asimov. I find both to be excellent writers and to have told good stories. I don't see the decline in writing quality as Asimov got older either. I started on his Foundation series about 4 or so months ago, and having read through his collection in a rather short period of time (and out of order in many cases, read Foundation, then the misc books, then Robot, then Empire, now Robots & Empire) I noticed only slight differences in style, character development etc. He is amazingly consistent across the years. I find with authors I follow currently, my memory of their earlier works grows fuzzy the more time passes.

As to the "epic doesn't need to be multi volume" part. When I say epic in terms of Asimov, I don't mean he's telling a single plot over the course of his 20 books. In the case of the Foundation series, it was more a collection of short (but related) stories. The Robot and Empire novels were each self-contained pieces with only references here and there to the earlier books. You didn't need to read all of each trilogy to enjoy a particular book. Robots & Empire is probably the only book of his that requires reading (or at least a strong familiarity) with the rest of his work as it was the book that attempted to tie it all together. Asimov was epic because it was all part of a very large and complex history. You got a sense of time passing, of distances and of change. The scale of his overall narrative was epic, the individual stories weren't so much. A puzzle is large and complex, a single piece is small and simple.
on Apr 05, 2005

('Childhood's End' would be the most obvious choice, for me.)

Yea, that is one of the Greatest of all time, still we will agree to disagree on this one. I dont see Tolkein influencing Asimov on the Foundation Trilogy.  It just took him 3 books to complete the story, each one could stand alone (unlike LOTR), yet taken as a whole wove a great epic.

if you haven't read Noon's jaw-droppingly brilliant 'Vurt' and 'Pollen', I really can't recommend them too highly.

Actually, I just troll these blog comment sections to goad people into revealing great books that I would want to read.  Guess I just got a couple more!

Thanks for the recommendations.

on Apr 05, 2005
Dr. Guy
Actually, I just troll these blog comment sections to goad people into revealing great books that I would want to read. Guess I just got a couple more!


You also revealed my secret plot. While I do honestly feel about Sci-Fi what I wrote, the hope was that I could get people to come in here going "Oh, you are SO wrong... I mean just look at these authors...." I have a book a week habit, and I need new fuel for the fire. I've got a few months of material in this thread already

The problem still exists though of who's up-and-coming in this genre? People have listed mostly excellent classics of Sci-Fi, but not much in the way of new authors or material. I'm hoping that there's something on the horizon that revitalizes this area, because you eventually run out of "classics" to read.
on Apr 05, 2005

The problem still exists though of who's up-and-coming in this genre? People have listed mostly excellent classics of Sci-Fi, but not much in the way of new authors or material. I'm hoping that there's something on the horizon that revitalizes this area, because you eventually run out of "classics" to read.

What I do is read the Hugo and Best of Books.  These are usually short stories or novellas, but mostly from up and coming authors, so it gets you a feel.  Of course they are not great barometers (word of mouth is always best), but I have found a few authors that I took note of.

on Apr 14, 2005
The Trek novels are considered by the show's writers, for the most part, to be completely apocryphal. They're basically "what-if" type stories, to be read for enjoyment only and not meant to expand or advance the Trek mythology or universe at all. This is often frustrating for me, because I have always liked the Trek novels and think some of the stuff in them would make for good background info or even shows or movies.
The Star Wars books, though, from what I understand, have been adopted by Lucasfilm as official parts of the Star Wars universe and storyline.
on May 27, 2005
I absolutely love science fiction. Oddly enough, I have never read any Asimov except for some short stories. However, I've devoured everything else I've come across. The two most notable that I can think of are Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein. Lately however, I have been getting into the short stories by many of the most famous names in science fiction. I found a book entitled The Ascent of Wonder, which is a collection of about 70 short works. I would suggest getting a hold of it. Not only will you find some great stories by asimov, clarke, heinlein, and the other big names, you'll find some other less well known authors that nevertheless have some great science fiction to their names.

Also, I agree, I have not come across a modern science fiction writer worth reading in a long while.
on May 27, 2005
Also, I agree, I have not come across a modern science fiction writer worth reading in a long while.


Read All of Asimov! he set the bar! The rest try to reach it. But you have read some of the best so far!
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