First a word about the versions of this story. The 1941 short story "Nightfall" has been acclaimed one of the greatest science fiction tales—if not the greatest science fiction.... more
How strange it is that the most affecting characters Asimov ever created were robots. Perhaps it's the same phenomenon we find in film and television dramas in which synthetic.... more
In the 1980s Asimov reread the Foundation stories he had written in the 1940s and had compiled as a trilogy of books in the 1950s, and he was appalled. The stories had no action.... more
On books, writers and writing
I believe it was Robert Heinlein who first suggested that we ought to speak of "speculative fiction" instead [of "science fiction"]; and some, like Harlan Ellison, strongly support that move now. To me, though, "speculative" seems a weak word. It is four syllables long and is not too easy to pronounce quickly. Besides, almost anything can be speculative fiction. A historical romance can be speculative; a true-crime story can be speculative. "Speculative fiction" is not a precise description of our field and I don't think it will work. In fact, I think "speculative fiction" has been introduced only to get rid of "science" but to keep "s.f."
This brings us to Forrest J. Ackerman, a wonderful guy whom I love dearly. He is a devotee of puns and word-play and so am I, but Forry has never learned that some things are sacred. He couldn't resist coining "sci-fi" as an analog, in appearance and pronunciation, to "hi-fi," the well-known abbreviation for "high fidelity." "Sci-fi" is now widely used by people who don't read science fiction. It is used particularly by people who work in movies and television.
This makes it, perhaps, a useful term. We can define "sci-fi" as trashy material sometimes confused, by ignorant people, with SF. Thus, Star Trek is SF while Godzilla Meets Mothra is sci-fi.
"The Name of Our Field"
Were the stories of your golden age really golden? Have you reread them lately?
I have reread the stories of my own golden age and found the results spotty indeed. Some of the stories I slavered over as a teenager turned out to be impenetrable and embarrassing when I tackled them again. A few ("Tumithak of the Corridors" for one) held up very well, in my opinion.
It was clear to me, though, that the general average of writing forty years ago was much lower than the general average later. That, in fact, seems to me to have been a general rule. Magazine science fiction over the last half-century has steadily risen above and away from its pulpish origins.
That means me, too. I imagine that many people who drooled over "Nightfall," The Foundation Trilogy, and I, Robot in their teens find some of the gloss gone when they reread them in their thirties. (Fortunately for myself, a substantial number do not—and there are always new teenagers entering the field and ready to be dazzled.)
"Golden Age Ahead"
When it comes to writing, I am a "primitive." I had had no instruction when I began to write, or even by the time I had begun to publish. I took no courses. I read no books on the subject.
This was not bravado on my part, or any sense of arrogance. I just didn't know that there were courses or books on the subject. In all innocence, I just thought you sat down and wrote. Naturally, I have picked up a great deal about writing in the days since I began; but in certain important respects, my early habits imprinted me and I find I can't change....
My routine was (and still is) to write a story in first draft as fast as I can. Then I go over it, and correct errors in spelling, grammar, and word order. Then I prepare my second draft, making minor changes as I go and as they occur to me. My second draft is my final draft. No more changes except under direct editorial order and then with rebellion in my heart.
I didn't know there was anything wrong with this. I thought it was the way you were supposed to write. In fact when Bob Heinlein and I were working together at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia during World War II, Bob asked me how I went about writing a story and I told him. He said, "You type it twice? Why don't you type it correctly the first time?"
[Re: J.R R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings]
On the surface, it is a simple tale of a dangerous quest. The small hobbit, Frodo, must take a dangerous ring into the very teeth of an all-powerful enemy and destroy it-and, of course, he succeeds. On a second, deeper level, it is an allegory of good and evil, leading us to accept the possibility that the small and weak can triumph where the (equally good) large and powerful might not; that even evil has its uses that contribute to the victory of the good, and so on.
But there is a third level, too. What is the ring that is so powerful and yet so evil? Why is it that those who possess it are corrupted by it and cannot give it up? Is such a thing pure fantasy or does it have an analogue in reality?
My own feeling is that the ring represents modern technology. This corrupts and destroys society (in Tolkien's view) and, yet, those societies who gain it and who are aware of its evils simply cannot give it up. I have read The Lord of the Rings five times, so far, and I have not yet exhausted my own symbolic reading of it. I do not agree with, and I resent, Tolkien's attitude and yet I get pleasure out of the intricacy and skill of the structure.
I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.
Introduction to Nemesis
The thought naturally arose that artificial life could be brought into being by strictly scientific principles rather than by reliance on gods or demons. This thought led to a book that some people consider the first piece of modern science fiction—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, published in 1818....
However, the switch from the supernatural to science did not eliminate the fear of the danger inherent in knowledge.... In the modern tale of Frankenstein, the hero was not so lucky. He abandoned the Monster in fear, and the Monster, with an anger that the book all but justifies, in revenge killed those Frankenstein loved and, eventually, Frankenstein himself. This proved a central theme in the science fiction stories that have appeared since Frankenstein. The creation of robots was looked upon as the prime example of the overweening arrogance of humanity, of its attempt to take on, through misdirected science, the mantle of the divine. The creation of human life, with a soul, was the sole prerogative of God. For a human being to attempt such a creation was to produce a soulless travesty that inevitably became as dangerous as the golem and as the Monster. The fashioning of a robot was, therefore, its own eventual punishment, and the lesson, "there are some things that humanity is not meant to know," was preached over and over again....
So, in 1939, at the age of nineteen, I determined to write a robot story about a robot that was wisely used, that was not dangerous, and that did the job it was supposed to do.
Introduction to Robot Visions