Ed. note: This column is the first in a new ongoing series. In Greg Beatty’s introduction, he explains his approach and goals for the column.
[Conversations with Isaac Asimov, edited by Carl Freedman. The University of Missouri Press, 2005, 170 pp. ISBN 1-57806-738-3.]
[Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon From the Cave, Too Far from the Stars by Ray Bradbury. HarperCollins, 2005, 243 pp. ISBN 0-06058-568-4.]
In these two books readers get the chance to visit with two of the founding fathers of modern science, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. These two books share a number of qualities. Both are made up of a number of short pieces written over the years. Both offer glimpses into the psyches of these prolific writers, and both offer inside information on their creative processes, the details surrounding the creation of individual works, and their goals for their writing. Both works are richly entertaining at times, and quite touching at other times. Both men come off as genuinely nice people and as still quite excited about writing after each has published hundreds, even thousands, of works.
Interestingly, one final shared quality is how well these collections showed the connections between each writer’s speculative works and other areas of his life. The same enthusiasm and emotional resonance that made Bradbury’s early Mars stories so alluring to readers inside and outside of science fiction (despite the lack of scientific grounding in most of them) binds Bradbury to his peers, and to his non-genre works. He’s a man who harnessed his writing talent to his great loves and letting these intuitive loves guide him worked well for him. They also make for charming reading at times; I was deeply moved when Bradbury describes enjoying Gene Kelly’s work so much that he decided to write for him. Young writers could learn much from this story and other similar accounts (lunches with Walt Disney and Bertrand Russell); Bradbury’s naked joys trumped any rational positioning or planning so completely that they are at once endearing and breathtaking.
In Asimov’s case, what unifies his career is less these varied and surprising enthusiasms than a single overwhelming love for learning and reason. Even in print and answering questions he’s clearly answered dozens of times before, Asimov sounds genuinely interested in learning and devoted to reason. Depending on the context, he also seems either offended by irrationality or threatened by irrationality.
The works share some less attractive qualities as well. The most obvious of these is repetition. Since the Freedman collection, Conversations with Isaac Asimov, is mostly interviews (hence the title), as well as a few articles about the good doctor, the repetition is understandable. Each writer or speaker needs to review the basics about Asimov for his or her audience and many seem to share similar fascinations with some of the core questions that we all have about Asimov like: “How the heck do you write so much, and on so many different topics?” The repetition in Bradbury Speaks stems from different roots. The most basic is that Bradbury’s passions possess him over time and he returns to wrestle with them time and again in essays from different periods and sometimes in essays that purport to be on different topics. This does tell us things about what is important to Bradbury. But it also creates weirdly blurred vision for the reader, a sense that we’ve already read this before, not just once but several times. The resulting book sometimes felt like conversations with my grandfather in which he’d retell the same story: I couldn’t tell if he and Bradbury were repeating themselves because they were sure I would miss the point the first several times, or if they’d forgotten they’d made the point.
I suspect no editor was willing to challenge the grandmaster on his choices of essay, but the resulting book seems sloppy. Curiously, this apparent failure to challenge the writer at the book’s core can be seen in the Asimov collection as well. Only Pat Stone’s 1980 interview with Asimov for Mother Earth News posed questions to Asimov that challenged him even mildly. Instead, the interrogators posed questions that treated Asimov alternately as a very impressive writer or as an oracle of sorts, asking him to use his synthetic understanding of the sciences to issue judgments on current problems and predictions about the future. To his credit, Asimov handles himself quite well in these arenas, identifying crucial areas that define or plague our society today (computer technology, the results of overpopulation, etc.). However, I dearly wish that somebody had come at Asimov hard with tough questions about what was and wasn’t in his writing, or built directly on his comments about irrationality and ignorance of science and asked him how to address these qualities.
Where these books differ are, most obviously, in format. Bradbury Speaks is a collection of informal essays, many of them short (a page and a half, two pages, etc.), which Bradbury has grouped by topic. Most were written in the last ten years, but some are over forty years old. The Freedman collection is, as mentioned above, mostly interviews with Asimov, but a range of other types of “conversations” with him are also included. The book opens with the transcript of a round table discussion on science fiction as the new mythology from an academic conference in 1968 and includes a few other odds and ends, such as tributes to him (as Humanist of the Year and at his death) and a rather weak academic article that explores his acrophobia. I assume this work of rather basic psychological criticism was included because the author actually spoke with Asimov to seek his intention and his degree of conscious awareness regarding Asimov’s portrayals of phobic characters.
Other points where the collections differ are, again obviously, that Bradbury put together his own works, while the interviews with Asimov were assembled by Carl Freedman, a contemporary professor of English who specializes in speculative fiction (Freedman is the author of Science Fiction and Critical Theory, a respected book in the field). Freedman’s editorship shows up in two ways. The first is the lucid and straightforward introduction, which pays Asimov respect and defines Freedman’s own biographical context. The second influence is the choice of contents, which frankly baffles at times. This is not all of the interviews with Asimov that exist, nor all the articles about him. The man was a public figure and a quick web search reveals many more. What’s missing, then, is a more explicit discussion of the standards Freedman used to winnow the existing interviews and articles. Freedman’s introduction mentions that Asimov didn’t enjoy being interviewed and that readers may find the small number of interviews contained in the volume surprising. I did—but more for those left out than for those included. This choice needed more explanation than it received.
Let me turn, now, to more complicated and interesting questions: what was it like to read these books, what do these books offer the reader, what do they tell us about speculative fiction?
I loved both books. Both men were so charming, so lucid, and so purely what they were that it was a real pleasure to revisit them. I came away from each collection wanting to revisit Asimov’s and Bradbury’s stories, to see if I remembered them correctly. However, loving these books does not mean I didn’t grow restless repeatedly, first at the repetition and then, second at what seemed like self-indulgence. It seems harsh to judge such hard-working writers on this, and it may have come from being placed in the position of icon, but both at times make pronouncements that seem like Pronouncements to be Taken Seriously that are either silly or sweeping, and the comments are allowed to stand. (I do not, of course, refer to comments on science that are now outdated, but to places where Bradbury’s personal enthusiasms are put forth as near-gospel, or where Asimov speaks on topics such as mysticism without defining his terms or doing research.)
What do these books offer the reader? In addition to the shared qualities mentioned above, they offer several things. Both men describe a pre-internet landscape of genre production which was definitely a community. Both Asimov and Bradbury were visionary in their own ways, but both men vividly describe the effects that economic constraints and individual editors had on their creative productions. If they were shaped so strongly by their context, what about present writers? What do they take for granted which is not so? Likewise, both men’s creative practices were strongly shaped by their younger years.
Finally, what do these two works tell us about speculative fiction? Most clearly, three things. First, it is a big tent. These men simply don’t write the same things, and to lump them together is the sign of a hugely catholic category. Second, speculative fiction can be defined by one’s irrationalities as much as by one’s rationalities. Both men were afraid of flying, and Bradbury of driving, and Asimov had other phobias, as well as being fairly compulsive about his writing production. Finally, these men show that the core of at least their time in speculative fiction was a perspective that stretched beyond the present: from the past to the future, from the biological through the mechanical, and from the local to the stars.
Introduction to NFSF
In the fall of 2005 I approached the editors of the Internet Review of Science Fiction about an idea that had been percolating for some time: writing a regular review column focusing on nonfiction works about speculative fiction. They agreed and so, for the foreseeable future, I’ll be writing this column. Since it is going to be an ongoing feature, I thought I’d spend a little time discussing the reasons behind the column, my goals for it, and share a bit of background about myself for those who are interested.
The Reasons for NFSF (nonfiction about speculative fiction)
The reasons for this column are fairly simple: speculative fiction is a sufficiently large and important field that it generates a large amount of nonfiction. Some of this is “how to” material (how to write science fiction, horror, etc.). Some of it is history of the field, or biographies of practitioners. Some is literary criticism. Some is more along the lines of the coffee table book/great zine covers of the Golden Age, etc.
While I’ll gladly touch on some of the how to and coffee table books from time to time, I’ll be focusing on the historical, biographical, critical, and theoretical books. Writers can find most of the instructional books on their own, but many people who read widely in science fiction, fantasy, horror, or related fields that aren’t as well-defined, such as slipstream, do not necessarily read nonfiction about those fields. Many aren’t even aware that books like Conversations with Isaac Asimov (one of the books discussed in the first column) are published. However, if they did know about them, they’d gladly seek them out. That’s the primary purpose to this column: to draw attention to interesting works of nonfiction related to the field.
The second purpose is to provide something of a guide to useful works in the field. While I’m sure lots of readers of speculative fiction read book reviews avidly, I suspect most don’t read literary criticism frequently. There are reasons for this, some quite legitimate (it can be boring, obtuse, etc.). I plan to make this column a place for critical reviews that help interested readers not just find these books, but grapple with their meaning.
My Goals for NFSF
Unsurprisingly, my goals for this column relate to the reasons it exists: as a service to the genre community. I also hope this column can serve as a kind of bridge between the readers who read the fiction itself and the scholarship about it, resulting in a more critically informed readership.
A Bit About Me
The first reason I want to write this column is to have an excuse to read these books. I like hearing what Asimov and Bradbury had to say, what Disch, Malzberg, etc. have to say, and this gives me an excuse to indulge my habits regularly. But I do bring some professional credentials to the job as well. I have an academic background in the field: I have a PhD in English, and wrote my dissertation on serial killer novels. I’ve taken James Gunn’s summer intensive on teaching science fiction and helped teach courses on the fantastic in literature and vampires. I also attended Clarion West in the summer of 2000. My fiction has appeared in 3SF, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Fortean Bureau, HP Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Paradox, Ideomancer, Oceans of the Mind, Shadowed Realms, and SCI FICTION. My speculative poetry has appeared in (or recently been accepted by) Absolute Magnitude, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Star*Line and other venues, and one of my poems won the Rhysling Award in 2005 (short poem category). Finally, my genre-related nonfiction has appeared in Would That It Were, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Science-Fiction Studies, Foundation, Necrofile, Tangent, SFReader, and of course, the Internet Review of Science Fiction.