Rereading Isaac Asimov, part 1

In the past three weeks I’ve read or reread (mostly reread, after decades) some 50 short stories by Isaac Asimov — not yet all of his most notable stories, by criteria of awards or number of reprints or critical discussions, but many of them.

Asimov, of course, was one of the most popular SF authors of the mid-20th century, especially for stories built around a couple big ideas — robots, and his far future Foundation stories, driven by his idea of psychohistory, that describe the downfall and rebuilding of a Galactic civilization. These ideas have had profound consequences on subsequent SFnal thinking, and the influence of SF on the greater world: many current, famous technologists and economists (e.g. Paul Krugman!) still cite these as influential to their careers.

Yet, after all these years, re-reading these stories, the first and most obvious thing to say is that many of these stories, especially those written at the very beginning of Asimov’s career, from 1939 and into the early 1940s, display crude pulp techniques that are embarrassing by contemporary standards. In particular, his characters were exaggerated and he was given to overuse of dramatic adverbs: characters are always speaking “savagely” or “viciously”; they drop their cigars (yes) to the floor in alarm; they pound their fists on the table in emphasis. Examples, from two stories, “Reason” and “Catch that Rabbit”, with page references in my SF Book Club edition of I, Robot [one of the earliest SF books I acquired!]:

P41.4: “There was still a yellowed square of parchment in his hip pocket, and he slapped it down on the desk with vicious force, spreading it flat with the palm of his hand.”
P42.2: “Donovan rubbed his red mop of hair savagely and expressed himself with bitterness.”
P79.6: “’Shut up!’, said Powell savagely.”
P80.0: “Donovan passed out the door, shaking his head viciously.”

Alas, this kind of prose is also evident in his most famous story, “Nightfall”, also written and published quite early in his career. The first line of that story is:

Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury.

Belligerent! Hot fury!

Asimov toned down this style fairly quickly, by the mid-1950s, as he either matured or recognized that there was a market for stories with relatively less histrionic prose, but this issue is the first sign that these stories would be difficult to recommend and relate to current readers.

Nevertheless– I would say, despite these issues, both “Reason” and “Nightfall” are significant stories, even important and profound stories, for reasons independent of their prose. As I will describe in subsequent posts.

(And I’ll note for now that, despite this issue, “Reason”, one of his earliest Robot stories, is reprinted in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, published in 2010.)

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