Time to Bury Asimov?

Isaac Asimov is one of the most influential and popular of science fiction writers: his incredible output shaping the vision of millions of people for forty years. But Isaac Asimov is dead, and publishers will not let him rest.

I shall not in this article try to comment on any of Asimov's works specifically rather I would prefer to comment on the 'cult of Asimov', a tendency of publishers, book sellers and readers to cling onto his work to the bitter end, regardless of any quality. Indeed some of Asmiov's fiction is very good indeed and placed within context it has a quality that obviously appealed to fifties science fiction readers. Asimov was the science fiction writer during science fiction's golden age, when optimism and space opera went hand in hand, when authors could write of galactic empires, exploration and benign robots without the cynicism and darkness that our loss of innocence has caused. No one can doubt the influence of Asimov, especially novels like the Robots series (which sf fan does not know the gist of the Laws of Robotics?) or Foundation. Asimov was also no pulp author, unlike many of his contemporaries: he enjoyed writing mysteries and always wrote decently plotted novels and concise, sharp, short stories; he had characters; he clearly thought about his novels and moreover wanted his readers to think too.

But this is not the golden age any more. This is not the fifties and we have lost our innocence: a little magic has gone from the universe and there is nothing we can do to bring it back. Asimov does not belong any more. What was becoming clear before his death should be obvious now, that Asimov's time had come and gone, his fiction was no longer relevant or even much good. Instead of the concise plotting of Federation, he gave us the bloated monster, Foundation and Earth. Instead of new ideas in new novels he churned out tedious sequels. His short stories have been hacked together, first by Asimov himself and then with other authors and finally, after his death, by other authors alone, using Asimov's ideas as the basis for their own novels (such as "Isaac Asimov's Caliban"). This development is most alarming as it is a sign of the lack of confidence and innovation in the publishing houses.

There is a great deal of good sf out there waiting for us but, perhaps because of the recession, publishers are determined to play a cautious hand: given the choice between something which can blazon Asimov on the cover and a new book by an unknown they invariably plump for the former. The welter of rubbish published in the last few years since Asimov's death has not diminished: if anything, it has become worse as Asimov himself is not there to limit the damage.

Of course Asimov is not alone in this literary pillaging: J.R.R. Tolkien has suffered even more as his private notes and litter bins are ransacked by his son Christopher for the increasingly dull "Histories of Middle Earth". Tolkien and Asimov are no longer mere authors, they are industries, similar to the nostalgia currently stultifying rock music or comedy. Science fiction is about the future, about discovering more about ourselves while looking ahead: new visions reflecting current reality, and this current trend towards looking back is destroying the genre.

Go into your local W.H. Smiths or Dillons and look for Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein: they generally take up at least a shelf each, of books written thirty years ago. Then look for the Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul McAuley, Michael Swanwick, Bruce Sterling, John Barnes: you will be lucky if the science fiction section keeps more than the most recent of their novels, if that, despite the fact that they are at the cutting edge of SF. SF for the present is being kept out by SF from the past. And the bookshops will argue that Asimov is what the customer wants, but how can the customer know, if all they are offered is Asimov? New authors are finding it increasingly more difficult to break into publishing and even then most find it impossible to choose writing as a profession, using technical writing or review work or 'proper' jobs to fund their writing. In the short term the authors lose out but in the end we all lose: authors will not write serious SF and we'll not be able to read it.

So what can we do? Well, we can look at our own reading habits to begin with. When you go into a bookshop do you consider novels by authors you have never read before? Or do you stick to authors you know. Would you rather read Foundation and Earth or Green Mars (last year's winner of the Hugo award)? Do you want to read monotonous, overwritten pulp, thirty years past its sell-by- date (The Positronic Man anyone?) or can you take of the blinkers off and pick up William Gibson's Virtual Light? Publishers are only going to take risks if the reading, buying public take risks; the bookshops will only stock new authors if we buy new authors; new authors will only write if they are given encouragement to write: in the end it is all down to us. We should look to the future, as Science Fiction itself should do, we should feel empowered. It is time to bury Asimov.

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