Science Fiction Studies

#41 = Volume 14, Part 1 = March 1987

Earl G. Ingersoll, ed.

A Conversation with Isaac Asimov

When his autobiography In Joy Still Felt appeared in 1980, Isaac Asimov could count over 200 books published in the three decades since his first novel, Pebble in the Sky (1950), was printed. In addition he has published more stories and essays than even a man of his prodigious energy has gotten around to counting. One of them, "The Prolific Writer," which originally appeared in the October 1979 issue of The Writer, examines the mixed blessings of such prolificity. To be prolific, he warns, one must be a "singleminded, driven, nonstop person."

Surveying the list of Asimov's publications, one is struck by the range of his writing, from scores of books on mathematics and the sciences (he holds a PhD in chemistry from Columbia) through studies of history and guides to the Bible and Shakespeare. If his name has become a household term, however, it is because of his SF: his Foundation trilogy, along with Arthur Clarke's 2001 and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, is unquestionably one of the seminal works of American SF.

What follows is largely a transcript of a conversation that took place on October 20, 1976, during a visit by Asimov to the State University of New York College at Brockport. The other participants were area writers Gregory Fitz Gerald and Jack Wolf and an undergraduate student, Joshua Duberman. To their questions Robert Philmus has added one other, in his obliging response to which Asimov refers to his most recent work.

Wolf: As most of us know, you've given us the three laws of robotics. Is there a correlation between the stress on robots in your stories and your feeling, as expressed in your essays, that SF should be fundamentally a social literature? You speak often of social SF.

Asimov: By my own definition, SF is the branch of literature which deals with the response of human beings to changes in the level of science and technology. Over the past two centuries, we have watched our society grow more and more machine made, so to speak; and I assume that in one of our possible futures, machines will continue to play more and more of a part in our society—in fact, to the point where machines may eventually "take over." So, a good portion of my stories deal with this possibility; I have machines beginning to have human intelligence and capable of doing all sorts of complex tasks we associate only with human beings; and eventually I write stories in which the machinery does, more or less, threaten to take over.

My own feeling is twofold. In the first place, I don't feel robots are monsters that will destroy their creators, because I assume the people who build robots will also know enough to build safeguards into them. Secondly, when the time comes that robot—machinery in general—are sufficiently intelligent to replace us, I think they should. We have had many cases in the course of human evolution, and the vast evolution of life before that, in which one species replaced another, because the replacing species was in one way or another more efficient than the species replaced. I don't think Homo sapiens possesses any divine right to the top rung. If something is better than we are, then let it take the top rung. As a matter of fact, my feeling is that we are doing such a miserable job in preserving the Earth and its life forms that I can't help but feel the sooner we're replaced the better for all other forms of life.

Wolf: Maybe we won't leave much that anything except robots could live in.

Asimov: Give us 30 years, and the replacement will come too late.

Duberman: In your robot stories and in your Foundation trilogy, you outline a possible future that has been taken over by other SF authors, perhaps because your view is more efficient.

Asimov: As a matter of fact, we authors in SF are more or less friends; we inhabit a small, specialized world in which we are comfortable, and the general feeling is that ideas are common property: if one SF writer thinks up something which is very useful, another may put it into his own words and use it freely. Nobody in SF is going to accuse any other person in SF of using his ideas; in fact, we borrow so generously that there's no way of telling whose idea it was originally. For instance, in my novel The Caves of Steel, it was very important to the plot to have moving sidewalks, with an elaborate system of side strips that enabled you to work up to the speed of the sidewalk or to work down to the surrounding, motionless medium. This had already appeared some years before in Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll." Well, I borrowed it without any worry at all. I'm sure that Heinlein in reading my novel would have recognized his system, but who knows where he got it from? He never said anything. It'd be different if I used the details of his plot, if I worked up a story that was so like his that nobody could fail to see it—that's plagiarism. But just to use the idea and build your own plot or story about it—why, we do that all the time. And they do it from me, too—you know, they use the three laws of robotics—and they're welcome. I have no objection.

Fitz Gerald: To return to what you said earlier about mankind being replaced, Charles Elkins has said that your work expresses the view that human nature doesn't change. Is that a fair representation of your judgment?

Asimov: Some people have pointed that out in my Foundation trilogy, which takes place tens of thousands of years in the future. Although there is some evolution of science, there is no evolution in human behavior, and there is a reverse evolution in political science; in other words, we go back to a kind of feudalism.

Fitz Gerald: That's why I ask that question: to see how you rationalize technology's and science's lack of effect upon human nature itself. In other words, don't you suppose that with dynamic changes in technology and science, human nature itself will be changed also?

Asimov: Well, it's possible, but that was not my purpose in writing the Foundation. I wanted to consider essentially the science of psychohistory, something I made up myself. It was, in a sense, the struggle between free will and determinism. On the other hand, I wanted to do a story on the analogy of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but on the much larger scale of the galaxy. To do that, I took over the aura of the Roman Empire and wrote it very large. The social system, then, is very much like the Roman imperial system, but that was just my skeleton.

At the time I started these stories, I was taking physical chemistry at school, and I knew that because the individual molecules of a gas move quite erratically and randomly, nobody can predict the direction of motion of a single molecule at any particular time. The randomness of their motion works out to the point where you can predict the total behavior of the gas very accurately, using the gas laws. I knew that if you decrease the volume, the pressure goes up; if you raise the temperature, the pressure goes up, and the volume expands. We know these things even though we don't know how individual molecules behave.

It seemed to me that if we did have a galactic empire, there would be so many human beings—quintillions of them—that perhaps you might be able to predict very accurately how societies would behave, even though you couldn't predict how individuals composing those societies would behave. So, against the background of the Roman Empire written large, I invented the science of psychohistory. Throughout the entire trilogy, then, there are the opposing forces of individual desire and that dead hand of social inevitability.

Fitz Gerald: Would it be accurate to say, then, that for you the laws of history are as inexorable as the laws of physics?

Asimov: Well, I wanted them to be for this particular story. I could easily write another story in which I would take the attitude that the laws of history are not in the least inexorable. This is a very important thing to remember. It's very tempting to suppose that the point made in a story is something the author believes. This is often so, but it is not always necessarily so. Frequently an author thinks of a motif which has the advantage of being interesting, exciting, dramatic, but which he doesn't personally accept. For the sake of the story, he'll put it in. For instance, I wrote dozens of robot stories, all designed to show that we need not have the Frankenstein complex: the robots are protected by the three laws, human beings know that they're in no danger, etc. When someone asked me to write what I considered the ultimate robot story, I decided the only way I could make it "ultimate" was to get around the three laws of robotics and produce the Frankenstein motif again. So I did. The title of the story was "That Thou Art Mindful of Him." I wrote that story, and anyone reading it would assume I believed robots would end up a danger to human beings. In fact, I got a number of indignant letters from fans, saying how could I possibly bring up the Frankenstein motif when I'd spent so many years denouncing it.

Wolf: Did you get any letters from robots?

Asimov: [Laughter] No, the robots were satisfied with my job. But my only answer to those fans was: I thought up a dramatic story, and I wasn't going to allow my own beliefs to get in the way.

Wolf: One of the charges levelled against SF projection is that it assumes the laws we have discovered, those operable on Earth, are of necessity the same ones that operate throughout the galaxy or universe, and that this is not necessarily the case.

Asimov: Well, scientists know that this is not necessarily the case, and they keep looking for evidence that it is not, but so far they haven't found it. And SF writers have sometimes assumed that the laws are different and based stories on that, but generally they don't because it gets complicated. My novel The Gods Themselves dealt with two universes in which the laws of nature were different; I just made a slight change in one law of nature and tried to work out the consequences. It's not easy! Almost any assumption can be violated in SF, on the condition that you know what the assumption is and that you know you are breaking it and can let the reader know that you know. Unfortunately, in many cases, people who write SF violate the laws of nature, not because they want to make a point but because they don't know what the laws of nature are. This always shows, and it makes the SF inferior.

Wolf: Sometimes it's hard to be certain exactly what the law of nature is.

Asimov: That's why it's better to have some background in science, not necessarily a formal one; you can work up a background on your own. People forget that the great revolutionaries of science knew thoroughly what they were revolutionizing. In other words, Galileo knew Aristotelian physics. Vesalius knew Galenic anatomy, and Newton understood all the theories of the universe. No one has revolutionized science by not knowing what came before. Many people who write me letters with brand new theories of the universe haven't the foggiest idea what the present theories are. And you just can't do it that way.

Wolf: Somewhat off this topic, but you mentioned that if robots are in a position to take over some time in the future, so be it. This reminds me of Sam Moskowitz, who in Seekers of Tomorrow speaks of the classic debate—back in 1938, I think—between you and Donald Wollheim: in case of invasion, should the Earth surrender to a superior civilization? As I recall, your position was that the Earthmen should fight against this surrender.

Asimov: All opinions have to be considered in the light of the times: 1938 was the year of Munich, and when they asked, "Should we surrender to the invading civilization?" it was impossible not to think of surrender to the Nazis simply because it looked as though they were more powerful and they were going to win. At that time I said, "No, you have to fight to the death," because surrender was going to be a lot worse than fighting to the death— you're better off dead, or at least I would have been, since I was Jewish. And that reflected itself in my position. Obviously times change, and now that thermonuclear war might conceivably destroy mankind generally I can't accept the better dead than Red argument. I'm perfectly willing to have the better dead than Red argument on an individual basis—if you'd rather die than give in to the Communists, fine! But is it wise to kill the entire human race rather than to give in to Communism? There, you figure, if you give in, you might in some future generation win out again. For the entire human race to be dead is final. At different times in my life, I might give different answers to the same question.

Wolf: I see now, and I wouldn't dwell on it any longer, but we need to add that we wouldn't have been giving in to a superior civilization, had we given in to the Nazis.

Duberman: The Gods Themselves was your first SF novel in a long time. Throughout the '60s you were producing magazine articles and books by which people could further their knowledge of science. Why did you stop, and why did you start writing SF again?

Asimov: In the first place I never really stopped writing SF altogether; I would always turn out a small story or two every once in a while. I didn't write any SF novels because I got interested in writing other things, and an SF novel is a very time consuming thing. I don't think I can write an SF novel in less than seven months, and in those seven months, even when I'm not typing, I'm thinking about the novel a lot. Whereas, if I write nonfiction, it goes very quickly, I don't get involved with endless thinking, and I can turn out a book a month. That's fun, for me. I like to be typing, I like to be turning out books; I don't like to stay awake nights thinking that maybe I ought to change the plot to include this or that—you know, it gets very difficult. SF is the most difficult thing there is to write, and I'm essentially a lazy person, so I like to write other things when I can. Even mysteries are easier to write. My mystery novel Murder at the ABA was written in seven weeks. I couldn't for the life of me write an SF novel in seven weeks! I just couldn't!

Fitz Gerald: Could you be more specific about why, other than the amount of time, SF is so much harder to write?

Asimov: Oh! That's very easy. In SF there are two aspects: first, there is plot, the complications of events; that's the same as in a mystery novel; but, secondly, you have to build a new society, if you want to write a good SF story. This society, if you do it properly, should be just as interesting as the plot itself; in other words, the reader should be just as eager to read about the society and to picture it as to see the development of the plot. But you don't want to subordinate one to the other: you don't want the plot to be so intricate and so dense that you can never see the background through it; on the other hand, you don't want the background to become so prominent that you lose sight of the plot taking place in front of it. In the end, therefore, you have to maintain this perfect balance, as I think I maintain it, for instance, in The Caves of Steel. It's hard to work it out. You have to do a lot of thinking and writing and rewriting, whereas in mysteries you're using the present society. When you're writing non fiction, of course, you don't even have a plot.

Fitz Gerald: Is it fair to generalize, then, that for you the powers of invention are taxed more fully in SF than in other forms?

Asimov: Yes, provided it's good SF. Bad SF is easy to write. If you really try to turn out a piece of good SF, it just takes everything you've got in you. At least in my case, it does. In the case of The Gods Themselves, I started out to write a 5,000 word short story, and it got away from me.

Duberman: The style of that novel seems significantly different from that of your earlier work, especially the characterization and the idea of an alternate world. Was that the first time you approached that?

Asimov: Well, I rarely deal with extraterrestrial beings in my stories; some thought because I couldn't handle it. I suppose that did irritate me a little; so when I wrote The Gods Themselves, I deliberately placed the middle third in another universe and worked up a set of extraterrestrials which were not just humanoid creatures, not just human beings with antennae, but really completely different in every possible respect. I tried so hard to show them that I could do it that I turned out what I think—and some people would agree—is the best story of extraterrestrials ever written.

Also, my novels and stories never contain explicit sex and very rarely contain romance; my explanation, when someone asks, is that I'm a pure person, at least in my fictional life. This they tend to disbelieve, and say that I just don't have the capacity to deal with sex, so in the other universe of The Gods Themselves I had that section of the plot completely involved with sex—every line of it, so the plot made no sense without sex and all its details. Of course, it was extraterrestrial sex and, therefore, nothing like ours; but that's all right.

Wolf: I'd like to ask another question about the Foundation series and your approach to psychohistory. Much of that, at least theoretically, reminds me of the current "think tanks," the Hudson Institute, and others. Did you have any of that in mind?

Asimov: No, because the essence of the Foundation appeared in a series of eight stories in Astounding Science Fiction. The whole notion of psychohistory appeared in the very first story, which appeared in the June 1942 Astounding; it was written in 1941, when I was 21 years old. That was well before "think tanks," and I had no knowledge of them when I wrote it.

Philmus: Virtually all readers who have made their thoughts about your Foundation books public have pretty much attended exclusively to what you yourself emphasize: the notion of psychohistory operative in them. Yet it seems to me that a quite different, and counterbalancing, conception also informs the original trilogy, at least. You've just reminded us that the earliest stories in your trilogy came out at about the same time as, say, The Hamlet (1940) and "The Bear" (1942); and it seems to me that those stories of Faulkner's have a certain kinship with yours. What I mean is that your stories, too, appear to belong to the American tradition of the Tall Tale, featuring as they do the adventures and exploits of individuals of legendary proportions. I therefore wonder to what extent you conceived of them as such, and also to what extent your subsequent, and exclusive, stress on the psychohistorical—i.e., impersonal—forces at work in them is the result of your being influenced by your interpreters.

Asimov: You must understand that of all the successful writers I am probably the least well read. As a youngster, I read indiscriminately at the local library—which meant, for the most part, l9th century fiction and 20th century non fiction. By the time I grew old enough to move into 20th century fiction, it was too late: I was too busy writing to read anything but material directly related to what I was writing. This admission is in order to explain that I have never read one word that Faulkner has written—right down to this day. I don't advance this as either praiseworthy or blameworthy, but merely to indicate that I have never been influenced by him directly. It is conceivable that I have been influenced by someone who was influenced by Faulkner, but I have no way of telling that.

As for psychohistory versus the "tall story"....While I have larger than-life heroes, that is just because pulp fiction always did (The Shadow, Doc Savage, etc.—I read them and was influenced by them). That, however, was not what I was interested in. I was interested in psychohistory from the very start; and I was careful to show that when heroes had psychohistory on their side, they won; when they did not, they lost.

Of course, my fascination with psychohistory altered with the decades. By the 1980s, I had come to the decision that psychohistory would get nowhere if human ways of thought, human social systems, etc. did not change fundamentally. Beginning with Foundation's Edge, psychohistory as a tool was de emphasized and I began to consider fundamentally different social systems—that of the first Foundation, that of the second Foundation, that of Gaia. I continued this in my two robot novels of the 1980s, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire. And I continue it still further in my latest book, Foundation and Earth.

Fitz Gerald: I'd like to ask you a question about SF as literature. You have written during the period of greatest change in SF. What projection would you make about the direction in which SF is going now?

Asimov: SF is the only branch of fictional literature that is flourishing. In general, fiction is in the doldrums, certainly compared to what it was when I first came into the field. In those days there were literally dozens upon dozens of "pulp" magazines; there were "slicks" that published fiction; there were all sorts of literary quarterlies; and publishers were eager to put out novels. The beginning writer had plenty of places to go. Nowadays the "pulps" are gone; the "slicks" that are left don't publish fiction; there are no literary quarterlies; publishers don't like to publish fiction, especially first novels. As a result, young people who want to write are in a quandary. Since SF alone is flourishing, a lot of them are writing SF, with the result that there is a certain dilution of SF. It's becoming more literary, more experimental in style, less science fiction, because a lot of the writers don't happen to be full of expertise in science. They don't think they ought to be; they don't think we ought to have science fiction, but speculative fiction in which you speculate about the future in any style you happen to like. And I suppose they're right. In the future, as long as we have a future, SF will broaden, become more dilute, and spread out until it overlaps all of fiction. I think all people who write fiction are going to have to take into account certain SF trends, especially that society is changing faster and faster. Within this broad field of SF, there will be a narrower field of old fashioned SF, dealing entirely with scientists and science. I'll still be in that narrower field.

Wolf: You're very careful in your essay on social SF to specify that you're talking not about the term science generally but something like technology. It seems to me that's what you're talking about here, because fields we now identify as sciences—psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology—do not lead to technologies. Obviously, if you're talking about SF in those terms, you're going to get a much broader definition.

Asimov: Yes, but in the Foundation trilogy I deliberately and specifically dealt with what we might call political science or the science of history, and developed a technology for it. That was my attempt to broaden the notion of science in SF. On the other hand, we have extremely gifted writers like Harlan Ellison, who couldn't be less interested in science; he concentrates entirely on human beings and does it very effectively. It's only SF by courtesy, and he recognizes that. He's in the forefront of the movement to use the term "speculative fiction." His forerunner in the field was Ray Bradbury, who also knew no science and didn't want to. Ray's stories have great poetic value.

Wolf: And he doesn't consider himself an SF writer.

Asimov: No, he doesn't. He's a fantasy writer; I called him at one point a social fiction writer, and he accepted that at the time.

Wolf: Probably Fahrenheit 451 is as technological as most of what passes for SF.

Fitz Gerald: But it's not very extrapolative.

Asimov: No, it's very hard to make these hard and fast boundaries. Everything fades into everything else.

Fitz Gerald: To what extent do you think "hard SF" is a preparation for books like Future Shock?

Asimov: I tend to agree with Toffler. It's difficult not to, and be human. I don't like change that upsets my well worn way of life, but I do know that change will take place. I may not like it, but I'm not outraged. As a matter of fact, what we might call the "SF attitude"—"hard SF"—is essential if we are to survive as a technological society. Unfortunately, too many people just take it for granted that things won't change or that if they do they shouldn't, and you should make every effort to restore the status quo. As a result, we're not prepared for the changes, and we make no effort to direct them in optimum fashion. We're going to be overwhelmed in a couple of generations by the changes that are now taking place, most of which are undesirable. Unless we can look these changes boldly in the face, try to figure out what we ought to do to prevent these undesirable changes and to bring about desirable ones, to think hard about distinctions between desirable and undesirable ones, we are certainly going to go under. Now, no matter what we do, we may go under, but I would prefer to do something which would give us a chance than do nothing, which would give us no chance at all.

Fitz Gerald: You produced for us the three laws of robotics, but how about coming up with three laws for human beings so that when we manufacture human beings by means of genetic engineering we can have the built in protections you gave us for robots.

Asimov: That's an interesting thought, which I've never considered. Well, why don't I think about it? I'd hate to come up with something off the top of my head, because it wouldn't be as good as if I were to give it some thought, and because I might like to write a story about it.

Fitz Gerald: You wouldn't mind if I wrote one about it, too?

Asimov: Oh, no! [Laughter] By all means. It's your idea I'm stealing, right?

Fitz Gerald: No, we're sharing.

Wolf: What you were talking about earlier has been taken up by Susan Sontag, among others, who says that the imagination of disaster in SF makes us too ready for change. We grow indifferent to the moral concepts involved, and we figure that change is inevitable so it doesn't matter particularly what the change is. The result is that out of complacency or becoming inured to the inevitability of change, we abrogate our feeling of being able to control our futures, and we go along with what's given to us.

Asimov: I don't accept that as a proper interpretation of the attitude of SF. SF does not simply talk about change as an abstract thing. Every SF story describes a certain, particular change and decides whether it's for the better or the worse. Generally in SF stories the change is for the worse, or threatens to be for the worse, not because SF writers are essentially pessimistic, not because change is essentially for the worse, but only because this makes for a more dramatic story. If you write a story about a change which produces human happiness, you come out with a Looking Backward that Edward Bellamy wrote, which is an interesting book but a dreadful story—it's very dull. So we are constantly writing anti utopias, the idea being that this is a change we don't want to take place; how do we prevent it? In the story frequently the villain is defeated, change is aborted, something better seems to be on the horizon, a threatened change for the worse is prevented and so on. SF teaches that there are numerous changes and that mankind by its actions can pick and choose among them. We should choose one which is for the better. That is the proper interpretation of the role of SF.

Wolf: Although we're becoming a more and more technological society and we have more scientifically oriented people around, we're getting less scientifically oriented SF. Doesn't that seem paradoxical?

Asimov: Not really. Partly it's a disillusionment with science; partly it's because we're getting a lot of hard core SF in the newspapers and magazines. Landing Viking on Mars is hard core SF; what we wrote about for years is now being done. Also, as I said earlier, many people who are now writing SF are doing so in default of anything else and aren't interested in science.

Wolf: Are you moving away from SF because you're disillusioned with it as a viable form of literature?

Asimov: No, I think it's extremely viable. I will admit that I feel a little ill at ease with modern trends in SF—the highly stylistic, emotion saturated SF of today. The decreasing percentage of hard core SF makes me feel like a back number.

Wolf: Any number of times the charge has been levelled that SF is fundamentally cerebral, rather than emotional, and therefore character isn't developed in SF, with all the ramifications involved. The current trend is not only away from character but also away from that cerebral side, and toward action.

Asimov: Yes, it is. When I described earlier in this conversation the difficulties of balancing background and plot, I meant also that spending time on background takes time away from your characters. You don't have characterization as it's usually understood by most people. If you consider your background society as a character, that society has all kinds of "characterization," but that's not usually considered so by critics. On the other hand, now that writers are trying to remove the cerebral quality and to add to the emotional, to work with characterization in the older sense, they do it at the cost of the background. In many modern SF stories, you have people very sharply delineated, but you see a society only by flashes of lightning. There is no such thing as a free lunch: if you gain something here, you lose something there.

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