Asimov, Isaac

About the Author:

Dr. Isaac Asimov was born near Smolensk, Russia in 1920 and moved, with his parents, to the USA three years later.  He studied at Columbia University and eventually became an Associate Professor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine.  Asimov retired to full-time writing in 1958.  By the time he died, in 1992 at the age of 72, he had nearly five hundred books to his name.

 

AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:

3.3 out of 5

(3 books)

Fantastic Voyage

The novelisation of (and bear with me here) a screenplay by Harry Kleiner adapted by David Duncan from a story by Otto Klement and Jay Lewis Bixby.  When a scientific genius defects to the West but is severely injured by enemy agents a mission has to be launched to remove a blood clot from the scientist's brain, so that he can share information which could decide the fate of the world.  Agent Charles Grant is put in charge of a team of scientists and doctors who undergo a pioneering miniaturisation procedure and enter the scientist's body with the mission to remove the clot from within.

This whole concept is so familiar to us now that it is more or less cliche, but 'Fantastic Voyage' is where countless imitators got their inspiration (my favourite derivative is 'Inner Space', incidentally).  Unfortunately this means that it's hard to experience this story with the same sense of wonder that perhaps you would have done back in the 60s when it first appeared.  Nevertheless, it is still a compelling and interesting story.

The problem here, however, arises due to who they roped in to write this novelisation.  I only found out after reading that Asimov hadn't really wanted the job (in fact, the dedication is 'To Marc and Marcia who twisted my arm'), but to be honest that is actually pretty clear from the text itself.  For Asimov, scientific realism is so ingrained that he spends almost the entirety of the book justifying things that in the movie you can just accept at face value.  He clearly sees the impossibility of the movie's plot and you get the sense that the endless scientific exposition in the book is the author trying to convince himself of what he's writing.  It goes so far as to have the non-scientist Grant instantly grasp complex scientific principles because the exposition requires him to ask for the next justification of something that, visually, wouldn't need justifying.

Which leads me to this book's other big problem, which is Grant.  He's painted early on as a cynical and self-depricating experienced agent, which would have been fine on its own.  However, he's also a handsome, patriotic college football star.  And is clever enough to keep up with all the extraordinary science being thrown at him (at one point he responds to someone mentioning what one-fiftieth his size would be with the exact right reduction, calculating it mentally in the time it takes for the other person to stop talking).  But worse than all this, for me, is the fact that his main mission throughout the whole book is to get into the knickers of the one female crew member.  I know it's a product of its time (look at James Bond in the 60s) but to have him be such a blatant sexual predator and to have the woman, who is desperately trying to be taken seriously in a male-dominated environment, actually fall for it was borderline offensive to me.  It's not a natural development of a mutual attraction or a meeting of like-minded personalities; he literally decides she's hot and badgers her into responding.

'Fantastic Voyage' is an iconic movie and its core appeal is still here (which is why I've given this a 3 instead of a 2), but Asimov was absolutely not the man to write the novelisation.

3 out of 5

 

Pebble In The Sky

An accident at a nuclear research facility catapults Joseph Schwartz from 1949 into the distant future.  It is a future where Earth is an irradiated backwater but where the fate of the billions of planets of the Galactic Empire is about to be decided.

I've never been a fan of the fish-out-of-water subgenre in which someone is taken out of our time/reality and desposited in a sci-fi or fantasy scenario.  So, I began this book with a certain amount of trepidation, but I should have had faith in Asimov's well-deserved reputation as a master of the genre.  After the immediate events following the time-shift, the author cleverly passes the narrative point of view to several characters who are already functioning parts of the future society, only later coming back to Schwartz.  This means that we only get minimal amounts of the tiresome 'where am I?', 'who are you?', 'what does this do?' that plagues other stories in a similar vein.

For me, the really interesting element of this book was the character of archaeologist Bel Arvardan, who comes to Earth with the wild and unpopular theory that it might, in fact, be the planet where humanity originated.  His arc through the book and his struggles with bigotry, both that of others and his own socially-conditioned prejudices was endlessly compelling.

I've heard it said that this book is an allegory for the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and whilst I can't say with any confidence if that's the case, it does address important issues which trouble any conquered society trying to reassert its own prominence.  These issues of nationalism, racial identity and uneasy peace are ones which would have been influenced by the post-war world this book was written in and which still resonate today.

4 out of 5

 

Prelude To Foundation

A prequel to Asimov's famous Foundation series which tells the story of how mathematician Hari Seldon comes to develop his galaxy-changing concept of psychohistory whilst on the run from Imperial forces on the planet Trantor.

First off, it's worth saying that Asimov's writing is brilliant.  This book is complex, tense and intriguing whilst never losing its great sense of pace.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it on those grounds and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys so-called hard science fiction.

However (there's always a 'but'), there were two elements to this book that prevented me from really engaging with it on the level the author must've intended, the first of which is my fault and the second of which is very much Asimov's.

The one that's my fault is simply that I've not read any of the other Foundation books before this one.  This book came out decades after the original 'Foundation' (apparently due to pressure on the author by both fans of the series and his publishers) and, as someone who loves SF, I definitely should've picked up the original at some point before now.  Mea Culpa.  That said, Asimov's reading list at the beginning of the book does heavily suggest you can start here.  I, on the other hand, would not recommend starting here.  Too much of this book is couched in innuendos that would clearly have significance if the reader was familiar with the later events of the series and, having no knowledge of those, I rapidly came to find these knowing winks very irritating.

The second fault, which is much more the author's, is that Seldon is not a great leading character.  Asimov clearly writes him as some exemplar of humanity, with him being a scholar, a visionary and, bizarrely, a martial arts master; making him a fairly transparent 'Mary Sue' (coincidence that Asimov himself was a scholar of mathematics?).  I could cope with this if it weren't for that fact that, seemingly without the author realising it, Seldon is also a horrible person.  He travels all over Trantor basically making fun of everyone else's customs and speaking painfully condescendingly to literally everyone he meets.  There's no respect for any way of thought except his own, which could be waved off as an element of Seldon as a character if it weren't for the fact that Asimov very much writes him as if he's correct to behave this way.

Seriously people, just have some respect for other cultures, even if you don't understand or agree with them.  It's not hard.

3 out of 5

Collaborations & Anthologies:

The Wizards Of Odd (here)

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Science Fiction (here)