Friday, October 3, 2008

On the Comforts of Reading Isaac Asimov

I spent this past Rosh Hashana with a family in the community here in Columbus. Right before the holiday began I was wandering through their living room and I came across an Isaac Asimov novel. I picked it up and started reading simply to see what it was about and immediately fell entranced into it. Despite the fact that I had brought other books with me I ended up abandoning those books and reading the Asimov novel instead. I would compare reading Asimov to drinking a twelve dollar bottle of Moscato d’Asti. It might not be high class but it also is not some cheap junk; it requires a certain level of sophistication to appreciate, but not too much so that it ceases to be fun.

There is a simplicity to Asimov that makes him such a readable writer. While Asimov was a science fiction writer, who usually wrote about societies far across the galaxy and far into the future, he kept his work grounded in our world. One never doubts that Asimov’s characters, despite the exotic worlds they live in, are anything but twentieth century humans. This may make for bad science writing but it is great science fiction. Practically any other writer trying to do this would end up sounding drab and preachy. It is Asimov’s genius that he was able to pull it off. As with J. K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer the question that you have to ask with Asimov is not whether this is good writing in any technical sense. The question that you have to ask is, granted that this is not what is usually understood as good writing, why does it still hold together and work despite its obvious flaws.

There is a certain comfort in being able to curl up on a couch and escape into Asimov’s universe. One knows that the world that he is writing about is really our world and his version of our world has very clear cut heroes and villains and a clear message as to how to solve the issues of our day. There are the heroic scientist characters, usually professional scientists but sometimes just lay individuals who think along the lines of the scientific method. They fight to maintain and advance the flame of reason against the vast hordes of ignorance and superstition, aided and abetted if not actually caused by the forces of religion. Reading Asimov, one can lie back, just for a moment, and actually believe that the world was really that simple. This is simply a secular version of the comforting certitude of religion. Religion offers a set answers to the world that are comfortable, in large part, because they are direct and simple. Most people, I think, want some set of simple answers to make themselves comfortable; it does not really matter if it is a religious or secular set of answers.

While Asimov might not be fitting reading for Rosh Hashana this Asimov novel, Nightfall,[1] ironically enough did sort of fit the holiday spirit. Nightfall is about the apocalyptic end of a world. It is about a planet, Kalgash, that has six suns. The people on this planet have no experience dealing with darkness and are particularly unsuited for it; being exposed to darkness for even a few minutes is enough to cause nervous breakdowns and even permanent insanity. Every 2049 years, though, the planet, due to a complex alignment of the celestial spheres, undergoes a worldwide blackout. This blackout is about to happen. Over the course of a day everyone on this planet will undergo several hours of darkness. By the end the entire civilization will be destroyed as most of the population goes insane and riots, burning down entire cities just to create some light. The essential conflict of the book is the race to prepare for this end, to be in a position to pick up the pieces and rebuild a new civilization once everything has been destroyed. On one side is a scientific community centered around Saro University. On the other side is a religious cult, the Apostles of the Flame. The scientists want to save the knowledge of their civilization so that the world does not completely fall into a dark age. The Apostles of the Flame see the coming blackout as the fulfillment of the prophecies told in their book of Revelations, a book written in the aftermath of the last blackout. They believe that the blackout is a punishment from the gods upon the sinners of the world. Once the world is “cleansed” they hope to be able to establish a new godly civilization, complete with restrictions on what sort of bathing suits women will be allowed to wear.

Early in the book one is tempted to think that maybe the scientists and the religious people are really not so far apart, that they really want the same things and that they are going to be able to work together. In other words one almost thinks that Asimov, for once, got it right and created a world in which the lines between religion and science are blurry and it is not simply a matter of heroic scientists battling fanatical religion. Asimov disabuses us of this notion soon enough. The religious characters are as bad as we might have suspected them to be.

Asimov was an example of a secularist who crafted his worldview with the help of the Whig historical narrative and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in particular. (See here) Asimov’s Foundation series (his best work and what people will, hopefully, remember him for) is a science fiction retelling of Decline and Fall. Nightfall is also premised around Gibbon’s version of the end of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Middle Ages. A golden age of civilization is about to end and everything is going to fall to the forces of barbarism and religion. It is only a question of allowing some flicker of knowledge to survive so that one day the flame of progress can be reignited.

My world would be a lot simpler if it was all God, his Torah and the Jewish people, if my Rosh Hashana could be solely about going through the long prayer services, getting right with God, and doing all the fun Jewish customs, such as eating apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. But my world also includes Asimov, his science fiction and his secularism. Not having Isaac Asimov would make things easier and a lot more comfortable and sometimes I need to curl up with a book that gives me that world. I choose, though, to live in my life in a complex world, with its God, Day of Judgment and its Asimov.

[1] I should point out that this novel was co-authored by Robert Silverberg, who I assume did most of the actual writing. This novel is based, though, on an earlier Asimov short story and is written in a very Asimov fashion. So even if Silverberg was the real author he still was imitating Asimov and probably doing it, at the very least, with Asimov’s help.

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