Monday, August 15, 2011

Of limited interest, very long, written for my own entertainment; feel free to skip

For reasons unrelated to what I usually write about here, I've been reading a lot of science fiction criticism lately. Some of it has been great (Joanna Russ*), some of it has been entertainingly awful (the dunderheaded blowhard Kingsley Amis**), some of it has been so unrelated to what I'm interested in as to be, through no fault of its own, just kind of dull (Algis Budrys***), and then some of it has just been utterly, unredeemably awful. I give you M. Keith Booker's Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964.

*Whose critical ideas are not quite what I would have expected from reading her fiction, in a fascinating way.
**Who, just as an example, in his
New Maps of Hell blithely states as if he were unaware of saying something remotely controversial--or just plain wrong--that H.G. Wells' writing is entirely apolitical!
***Even though his
Who? is one of my very favorite novels. His understanding of what he did in that book is very different from mine.

After an absurdly lengthy introduction (taking up well over 15% of the book) that consists of nothing other than a bunch of utterly standard scene-setting about the social milieu of the American 1950s (McCarthyism! Fear! The nuclear family! The Bomb!), material I literally cannot imagine any potential reader of this book being unfamiliar with and to which Booker adds less than nothing, he finally gets around to discussing SF and makes a big hash of it.

He introduces this section on Asimov by asserting that that writer is a "notoriously bad stylist." This is admittedly a very common view among those who don't read much SF (and among those unfortunate SF fans who, I can only surmise, have far too much of that silly literary jealousy that still taints so much of the SF world), but it would be nice if, just once, a critical study that explicitly intends to take the SF of the 50s seriously would dare to, you know, like the SF of the 50s, rather than condescend to it. Booker makes matters worse by saying that Asimov's style and plotting in the Foundation trilogy reveal the work's origins in "fanzine culture." First, it is quite a shock to me to learn that Astounding (now Analog), where all of the stories that ended up being "fixed up" into the trilogy were originally published, and which is one of the best-known, longest lived professional SF magazines, is a "fanzine." This is not an insignificant mistake. For another--again, stop condescending to the field. Though the phenomenon was largely over before I was born, the SF fanzines were to all appearances the home to fantastically brilliant writing far more often than not.

Anyway, after ensuring that no one could think for a moment that he respected the work he's discussing, and after discussing the technology-boosterism of Foundation (which is of course present in the books, though I strongly disagree with Booker's interpretation of it), Booker gives us this, which I am quoting at length from pages 32-33:
A similar pro-technology theme was central to Asimov's robot fiction, including such novels as The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957), which combine science fiction with detective fiction. In such works, Asimov addressed a number of issues related to artificial intelligence long before it became a technological possibility, again ultimately endorsing robots as aids to humanity.

Asimov's famed Laws of Robotics presumably ensured the benevolent nature of his robots, though even he occasionally depicted renegade robots, as in The Caves of Steel. Thus, his robots represented particularly comforting visions of Otherness: easily distinguished from human beings, but entirely pro-human in their behavior. Such useful, but lovable, machines would eventually culminate in the charmingly chubby robot of the Lost in Space television series of the mid-1960s. Other science fiction writers were not necessarily so benevolent, and writers such as Dick, in works such as Dr. Futurity (1960), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and We Can Build You (published in 1972, but written in 1962), would eventually extend the robot theme in the postmodernist direction of android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans by all but specially trained experts. Such creatures, of course, precisely reversed Asimov's assurances, blurring the boundary between the animate and the inanimate and introducing the frightening (especially in the 1950s) possibility that technology might advance to the point where we cannot tell ourselves from our own machines.
On reading this, I feel the urge to congratulate Booker for having read someone else's facile criticism of Asimov, and also to ask him if he's ever read any Asimov.

I have few major objections to the first paragraph, though I would argue that what Asimov "ultimately endorses" in the robot novels is the attitude of making the best you can out of uniformly unbearable options rather than all technology all the time (after all, it is the high technology of industrial civilization that has led Earth to the crisis it finds itself in in the novels), though I freely admit that even Asimov might possibly disagree with me there.

But after that, sheesh. First of all, the Three Laws never "ensured the benevolent behavior" of the robots; from the very beginning the whole point of the robot stories was to find ways that the Three Laws, which were constructed to appear as a foolproof method of ensuring the harmlessness of the robots, could be logically shown to fail. Second, I challenge Booker to find me even one "renegade robot" in Caves. Seriously, just one. Booker first underestimates Asimov by suggesting his portrayal of robots is simple-minded, then underestimates him again by suggesting he cannot even stay mildly consistent to his supposedly simple-minded vision.

Third, the robots have never been uncomplicatedly "comforting"; though Asimov does indeed tend to fall on the side of "it's silly to be afraid of these things," they are always presented as problematic, controversial, and uncanny. On this point Booker is not so much wrong as overly simple-minded, possibly as a result of assuming, as I have mentioned, that his subject is similarly simple-minded.

It continues. The next clause, the "easily distinguished from human beings" one, makes me wonder if he has read either Caves or Sun at all, considering that one of the two main characters in both books is R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot who looks exactly, and acts almost exactly, like a human. And this is not a small point--major plot developments in both novels depend precisely upon most people's inability to distinguish him from a human. To complete Booker's sentence, Olivaw is indeed "entirely pro-human" in his behavior; however, the way in which he is so is, importantly, as perceived from a robot's perspective and, again, far from "comforting."

Suggesting that the Robot from Lost in Space--or anything having to do with that show, for that matter--is a "culmination" of Asimov's work is tantamount to slander, as well as ignoring the obvious fact that that robot is plainly a dumbed-down version of Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet and nothing else.

As far as the comments on Dick go, I would argue that he is, in the end, if anything more "benevolent" than Asimov, but that is a probably contentious opinion, and I suppose I cannot fault Booker for disagreeing. However, the idea that Dick "extended" the idea of robots, while true, is not true in the way Booker suggests, for as I have already mentioned, Asimov's robots are frequently "android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans by all but specially trained experts," which experts as a matter of fact make explicit, pivotal appearances in both Asimov novels under discussion. Again, I can't help but wonder if Booker has even bothered to take the most cursory of peeks at the books he's discussing.

The "observation" of Dick's "blurring the boundary between the animate and the inanimate" where Asimov supposedly failed to gives me the opportunity to point out that, throughout this whole "analysis," Booker misses completely the fact that what Asimov did in his robot stories was to present, and then problematize, the concept of tools that were also characters (without bringing in the complicating issue of real-world slavery, i.e., tools that are also humans, which we can regard as a strength or a weakness as we please), thus enabling him to seamlessly dramatize the traditional SFnal concern with "the idea as hero," as countless commentators have put it. (This concern, incidentally, seems to be one of the things that presents non-SF readers with the most difficulty when approaching SF, and I suspect that that is one of the problems here.*)

*I have a theory, which I can't figure out where to place so it's gonna go here, that the only reason Booker ever thought about SF in the first place was Fredric Jameson's praise of cyberpunk, and now that baby's all grown up and trying to think for himself he doesn't know how to.

Finally, where previous points caused me to wonder if Booker has deigned to glance at Asimov's books, the end of this passage makes me wonder if he's even bothered to read his own book. After listing Dick novels published in 1960, 1968, and 1972, he then discusses their concerns as being particularly topical in the 1950s. Note again the dates of publication of the books listed. Even if we grant Booker the "long fifties" of 1946-1964, which I am eminently willing to do, only one of the three books listed was published in this period. One out of three ain't bad, I guess?

(I need hardly mention that "the frightening...possibility that technology might advance to the point where we cannot tell ourselves from our own machines" is everpresent in Asimov, though from a different point of view than it is present in Dick. Speaking of that difference, throughout what I've written here I have not meant to suggest that there is little difference between Dick and Asimov; the difference is of course huge. It also happens to be completely unrelated to what Booker seems to think it is.)

After I read that section, I decided that this book would not be important to me and that I would just skim through the rest to see if he said anything interesting about other books I was familiar with, upon which I found that Booker, in his slavish devotion to dogmatic, prescriptive, predictive Marxism, thought it was a good idea to analyze the wonderful Clifford D. Simak's beautiful agrarian SF, practically unique in the field, for signs of the author's affiliation as either "left-wing" or "right-wing," inevitably leading to Booker's dismissal of him as "muddled." This to me was the ultimate, unforgivable example of sheer stupidity and voluntary incomprehension (i.e., he's anti-capitalist, but he's not a utopian Marxist, so he must be a stupid mess!), and I decided that no, I was not missing anything by not reading another word.


Richard said...

hmm.... lots of Simak available as free Kindle downloads...

Ethan said...

Simak is neither perfect nor completely consistent in quality, and I can't vouch for any of the free Kindle downloads, since I haven't read any of the ones they have, but I've never read anything by him that I haven't at least liked, and those are outnumbered by the ones I've loved, so I would guess that you probably wouldn't go far wrong by checking them out. Looks like they don't have any of my absolute favorites available for Kindle at all, unfortunately, but if you ever happen across All Flesh Is Grass, The Visitors, or especially A Choice of Gods for cheep, snap 'em up.

Richard said...

Noted; thanks!

Ethan said...

L'esprit d'escalier:

As I reread Frankenstein and consider its central place in the early history of SF, it occurs to me that Booker's progressive narrative of Asimov to Dick is even more misguided than I thought.

Frankenstein, it is generally and I think correctly agreed, is among other things the root of the 20th century's and today's robot stories. In Frankenstein, the monster is explicitly a biological creation that looks pretty much like us; the horror comes not from its unfamiliarity but from its terrifying familiarity, from its place in what people nowadays call the "uncanny valley."

Skipping ahead about a hundred years, the origin of the SF use of the word robot is of course Karel Capek's play R.U.R. What most people who are unfamiliar with that work don't realize, aside from the fact that it's almost entirely about how women are wrong about everything all the time, is that its robots are also biological creations, "android simulacra, indistinguishable from humans" yadda yadda.

So what would be more accurate than what Booker says would be to say that Asimov, and his contemporaries, were the ones who "precisely reversed" the robot narrative, one in which the "boundary between the animate and the inanimate" was always blurred, and Dick's vision of robots, rather than being the kind of innovation Booker thinks it is, is actually nothing other than a return to, and expansion on, the original idea behind all these stories (and a brilliant one, needless to say).

In other words, I'm not sure how Booker could misunderstand his subject more than he does.

Hattie said...

When it comes to a lot of this SF you really had to be there: a young person encountering this freshly published work and finding it exciting and liberating.
That was my experience in the 50's. Caves of Steel was so prescient. One theme was the longing for liberation: social, sexual. R. Daneel was a love object, wasn't he? For both men and women the ideal match?
There is so much to say about the underlying themes of this very great work. After all, Asimov created a world out of his own mind that one could inhabit and be thrilled by.
I think it's important when you read SF to look for that thrill and if it isn't there it isn't good SF.

Ethan said...

50s SF is one of the things I sometimes think "I wish I could have been there for that" about, but then I wonder--would I even have known it was happening? If I did, would I have given it the closer look it deserves? I don't know!

There's nothing explicit about R. Daneel being a love object, but it's certainly there in the subtext--and I will admit I was oddly attracted to him while reading the books.

One of the reasons I've been reading this criticism is to help explain to myself why that "thrill"--and the related thing, the sense of wonder--is so absent in most recent SF. I have a big framework of ideas about it that probably would take a whole book to explore. So, I might write one!

Jonathan Versen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Versen said...

I enjoyed reading this post Ethan. I used to be really into SF in my teens and twenties, but nowadays less so.

Re Asimov's style: I probably should look around the blogosphere to see if other people have been discussing this on Lit and SF Lit blogs. A friend of mine told me that somebody out there is blogging about his attempt to read all of Trollope's output. I wonder if anybody is doing that with Asimov. I mean everything, even his non-fiction. I'm sure you're aware he was an effing writing machine.

Actually, this is why I wanted to bring up his writing style in the first place; it has to do with how I got interested in SF. It was via Asimov, when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, and had to do a report on the Roman Republic for my social studies class.

I found all the books in my Jr High library about ancient Rome to be incredibly tedious, apart from one by Asimov, and that got me interested in history, but also in Asimov.

By contrast, I remember starting the "LOTR" trilogy back then too, at the urging of some of my friends who dug Tolkein. But he bored me to tears and I only made it about a third of the way through the first book, which seemed like more than enough.

Ethan said...

When I'm being uncharitable I suspect that people's insistence on the poor quality of Asimov's writing is just their way of saying he's not boring. The fact that I enjoy reading a lot of the writers that these same people admire makes me think otherwise, but still.

The idea of trying to read through all of Asimov fascinates me. It would probably be enormously instructive in more ways than I can imagine. I'm pretty sure his bibliography is bigger than Trollope's (Opus 100 came out way back in 1969, and he kept writing straight up until 1992), but probably quicker to get through because of that pesky style of his being so easy to read. I'm starting to be tempted to try it; I must resist.

Jonathan Versen said...






html fix



in such a
way that

it would float

all over the page,

like a screensaver.(with appropriate mood-establishing music, of course.)

Ethan said...