Category Archives: Isaac Asimov

In Defense of Guys with Screwdrivers

So earlier this month, Jasyn Jones made the statement in a blog post that John Campbell did not usher in a Golden Age of Science Fiction.  His thesis is that Campbell, when he became editor of Astounding, ushered in a golden age in which science fiction rose from being a genre of poorly written fiction with wooden characters and bad science to great heights.  Indeed, this is the general narrative.  Jones reasserts his thesis that this ain’t so in a followup post.

For those who are new to the field and think it began when you started reading it or shortly beforehand or have been around for a while and simply haven’t been paying attention, John W. Campbell, Jr., took over the editorial reigns of Astounding from F. Orlin Tremaine in 1938 and dominated the field for a dozen years until F&SF and Galaxy came along in 1950.  Indeed, Isaac Asimov says as much in the opening paragraphs of his introduction to his anthology of Pre-Campbell science fiction, Before the Golden Age (Doubleday, 1974).  Note to self: reread this book and blog about it.

Now, before I get started on this post, I want to say that I mean no disrespect to Mr. Jones and none of what follows in in any way meant to be a personal attack.  Furthermore, I think he brings up a number of valid points, and for the most part I agree with him.  My differences are more with some of the attitudes that have been expressed in reaction to the posts in question, as well as other posts in other places.  I’ve not had a chance to read all of them, so rather than post links, I’ll let you hunt them down if you’re so inclined.

But since I grew up reading a great deal of Campbellian SF, much of it in the Ballantine Best of series and DAW’s Isaac Asimov Present the Great SF, I’m rather fond  of the science fiction written by “guys with screwdrivers”, as Campbellian SF is being called.  So I’d like to express my admiration of it. Continue reading

Clark Ashton Smith Turns 122

ClarkAshtonSmithToday marks the 122nd anniversary of Clark Ashton Smith’s birth.  He was one of the Big Three of Weird Tales, the other two being H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (but then I probably don’t need to tell you that).

Like Howard, Smith was also a poet as well as a fiction writer.  (Yes, Robert E. Howard wrote poetry, some of the best I’ve ever read.)  Unlike Howard, Smith’s fiction has a complexity to it Howard’s lacked, especially in word choice.  Isaac Asimov went on record complaining that he didn’t like reading Smith because he had to keep looking words up in the dictionary.  (You see, kids, in the dark days before computers we had these things called dictionaries and when you didn’t know a word, you went to the dictionary and…ah, never mind.)  And if Asimov had to look it up, then you know it probably wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

smithPortrait01In spite of the work involved at times, Smith is still very much a writer worth reading.  I’ll be tackling at least one of his collections later this year for the posts I’m doing at Black Gate on the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  There were four now highly collectible volumes of Smith’s work published as part of the BAF series.  In fact the very first BAF book I ever owned was Smith’s Hyperborea.  I’ve only dipped into Smith’s works a little, but he was a writer of wild imagination.  We could use more like him today.

RIP Ralph McQuarrie

I’ve been traveling this weekend, so I just heard the news when I got home and logged in to the computer.  Ralph McQuarrie has passed away.  He was most famous for his work on Stars Wars, but I think my favorite work of his was the set of illustrations for Isaac Asimov’s Robot Dreams, back in the 1980s.  He will be missed.  Rest well, Ralph, and peaceful dreams.

Whatever Happened to Sense of Wonder?

Thursday, Daniel Abraham posted a brief essay on his blog entitled “In Defense of Exoticism” in which he examines the role exoticism plays in SFF.  He defines exoticism as “the commodification of the Other, appropriating the thoughts or clothing or music or food or religion of an unfamiliar culture for the charm of the unfamiliar.”  He goes, in a wandering sort of way, to discuss some other aspects of this thought, specifically the concept of Other.  And when I say in a wandering way, I in no way intend anything derogatory.  Abraham himself says he’s still thinking this topic through and his post would be a little rough around the edges, and I respect that.

But this essay got me thinking.  What’s wrong with the charm of the unfamiliar?  And where are we to find it, if not in other cultures, epochs, music, etc.  Now I realize that the key verb in Abraham’s sentence is “commodification” and that is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.  That’s not a debate I want to get into at this point.  Instead, my thoughts went down a different avenue.

I mentioned in my report on ConDFW a panel discussion about whether magic systems should be organized in some sort of way that resembled science.  My comment from the audience was that maybe more people of reading fantasy than science fiction these days, and I can well remember when that wasn’t the case at all, because fantasy was providing that sense of wonder that science fiction once did.

There are a number of reasons why science fiction has been supplanted by fantasy, and a number of them come down to sense of wonder.  Shelf space in the science fiction section of many books stores is being taken over by media tie-ins, many of them generic.  Our citizens are increasing familiarity with scientific and technological achievements while their ignorance of scientific principles is (if anything) increasing. Science, and by extension science fiction, have failed to produce the promised wonders of the future (I want my flying car, dammit). To steal a quote whose source I can’t remember, we’ve reached the future and found it not to be Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov’s future, but Phillip K. Dick’s.  Fantasy still provides that escape from the humdrum world, and that future.  It provides an Other that, even at fantasy’s darkest, gives that sense of wonder.  Horror on the other hand, gives just the opposite: a sense of fear and oppression.  And that sense is part of much of science fiction.  So much that last year, an anthology titled Shine had the theme of optimistic near futures.

Think about how many new fantasy series have been promoted in the last few years with an emphasis on the uniqueness of their magical systems.  The magical system in any fantasy, including urban fantasy, is an extension of the author’s world building, and world building is one of the main things by which an author will rise or fall, be the world a fantasy world, a futuristic science fictional world, or a detailed historical era.  It’s not the only thing that can make or break an author’s work, but in any setting that’s not contemporary, mainstream society, the world building can be as important as the characterization or plot.

Abraham says there’s something in his psychology that’s deeply attracted to the idea of an Other.  He implies that this a basic human trait.  I think it is.  Call it exoticism, call it sense of wonder, call it a search for transcendence, call it what you like.  There is something in all of us that wants, even needs, to experience the new, the exotic.  That will be different things to different people.

As an example, when we were in Kazakhstan adopting out son, we took at trip one afternoon and evening to the city of Turkestan.  I’ve written a little about it. One of our lawyers seemed disappointed when we didn’t find the trip to be exotic.  We saw lots of flat plains with men on horses herding cattle.  I’ve lived most of my life in Texas.  There was nothing to me about seeing those things that I found exotic; instead, they were comfortingly familiar in land where even the food on my plate was exotic.  The only difference was the cows in Kazakhstan looked both ways before they crossed the highway.  (I’m not making that last bit up.  They really did wait by the side of the highway to cross.  Cows in Texas would have wandered out in front of on-coming vehicles without a thought.  I’m not sure why that was the case, but it was.)  Now someone who had lived all of his or her life in New York City would have probably found such sights very exotic.

Science fiction used to deliver that exotic sense of wonder, where humans ventured into the universe, with or without leaving the planet, and found all sorts of wonders waiting for them.  Of course, these days science has lost some of its luster and exploration is no longer a priority.  Case in point:  the United States in in the process of ending its manned space program.  And if you believe the government’s assurances that it’s only until the next generation of launch vehicle can be designed and built, then I have a bridge I can get you a good deal on.  Thankfully, the private sector seems to be picking up the ball and running with it, at least somewhat.

But I digress.  Fantasy is filling the role that science fiction, science, the space program, and human exploration in general once did on a larger scale.  Magic never loses its sense of wonder or exoticism because it can never be explained.  That’s why I think fantasy is now more popular than science fiction.