Lately I’ve noticed a meme going around spec fiction writer’s groups and conventions. “Isaac Asimov couldn’t get published today.” “Don’t model yourself after Asimov.” “Isaac Asimov was a bad writer.” Sometimes I hear this from the same authors who cite Asimov as one of the authors who got them interested in science fiction in the first place.
Yes, Asimov does not craft words as well as Bradbury (an author who does seem to be making the transition from genre to canon). No, he’s not as much of a page turner as Heinlein. And yes, his characters sometimes read flat compared to characters in more modern fiction. Certainly, like most authors of his generation he overly focused on men (with the really notable exception of Susan Calvin). Nonetheless Asimov did one thing really, really well. Better than probably 99% of pro authors writing today, and that is ideas.
Much modern spec fic reads like it comes out of the same show bible. There’s the artificial intelligence that wakes up. The military empire held together by FTL travel. The anthropologist trying to figure out an alien race. Cyberpunk anime. Post-apocalyptic survival, etc. Some of this (<cough>teen dystopia</cough>) isn’t even a remotely possible future. It’s just a plot device to tell a story.
Now I like some of this stuff, especially when it’s well written. Nonetheless there’s very little new there. Science fiction is supposed to open our eyes to the possibilities of the future, and very little modern sci fi, even the very well written stuff, tries to do that, By contrast, consider some of the ideas Asimov more or less invented, often in short stories:
- The Last Question (Just how big can a computer get?)
- Nightfall (What if the stars never came out?)
- The Foundation Trilogy (Can we predict and design the future?)
- I, Robot (The Three Laws of Robotics. This one’s still in play, though perhaps a few decades further out than Asimov predicted.)
- The Fun They Had (What if there were no books?)
- Buy Jupiter (How bad can advertising get?)
- The Caves of Steel (Corporate society and classism)
I find more different possible futures in an average Asimov anthology than in a year of any modern magazine. Some of these have now been ruled out as possible futures, but they were all plausible when he wrote.
Somewhere in the quest to write realistic characters, we lost track of what science fiction is for. Yes, the characters should be compelling. Yes, the plots should move you from page to page. But if you’re not exploring the future, then why not write crime fiction or sword and sorcery or literary instead? What sets science fiction apart from other fiction is precisely what Asimov was a master of, imagining the possible futures and their consequences. That’s what makes science fiction unique. That’s what makes science fiction important. And if we lose sight of that and denigrate the authors who attempt it, then we risk making science fiction an irrelevant ghetto of space westerns and movie spinoffs.