#Secondthoughts: Isaac Asimov


I have a confession to make…but we’ll come back to that later.

One of the aims for these #Secondthoughts posts is to allow us to go back and review ideas, beliefs, writing, perhaps provide more information, give it a new spin or…it’s a pretty broad # really.  Some of these ideas may not, in fact be out own, but what we’re presenting is our response to them.  (Quick advert – if you’d like to have a go at doing one of these, please do drop us a line to discuss).

Let’s start with a question: what’s the link between Isaac Asimov and Michael Caine?

It’s hard to think of any way in which these two could possibly be connected apart from the fact that of course they are both white males.  I suspect that if you dig deep enough and/or have a particular point that you want to make then you could come up with just about anything.  (I saw a fascinating example of contextual bias the other day where someone had to rap out a tune with their knuckles having tried to predict how many people in the audience would know what the tune was.  I was the only person to take a punt – I guessed “the Raider’s March” for what turned out to be “All you need is love”.  So it goes).  The connection that I see is that both have had illustrious careers in their own professions, have never or rarely been out of work and have been honoured multiple times for real stand out performances.  They’ve also been involved in some real howlers, one way or another, and one can easily point to aspects of their craft where they are obviously weak.

Asimov cropped up in another #secondthoughts piece the other month, and this and another prompt pointed me towards writing this.  I think it is fair to say that Asimov was a real visionary when it came to big ideas.  It is not uncommon for writers to coin new words, and indeed to talk about things in such a way that make it difficult to grant patents.  Asimov is no exception and coined several terms that are now in the dictionary. He also developed ideas that have become the bedrock of many concepts: whilst robots have turned up before Asimov, his influence on this facet of sci-fi is immense, for example.

Asimov was a Master when it came to building a world, but also, perhaps surprisingly, a master of leaving the little details in place that would then become pivotal later on this was important for his mystery/detective stories such as Caves of Steel, which is decidedly science fiction, but also the more realistic A Whiff of Death.  What he was incredibly – notoriously in fact – bad at was people.  For someone who wrote so much, he never really cracked the human element.  Much of the time this didn’t really matter, particularly in the ridiculous number of short stories that he churned out.  Sometimes it was cringingly bad.  But to be fair, this was something that he acknowledged, to the extent that he noted that some people thought it was a problem, but not a problem that he was going to address by changing his style or anything.  What he was also a sucker for was a really bad pun – a classic example is the short short story of the criminal, Stein, who tries to escape the statute of limitations by jumping forward in time.  We’ll skip the legal arguments and cut to the judge finding in favour of the defendant because “a niche in time saves Stein.” Ho hum.

Which brings us to my confession.  I had been reading the Union Club Mysteries, a collection of short stories in which Griswold, a gnarly old bird explains to his associates at the Union Club how he was able to solve the mystery that had stumped the police, the FBI, the CIA or whoever it happened to be this time.  He would always explain the set-up, including a more or less explicit cryptic clue and then finish by saying that he did something or told someone else to do something on the basis of the deduction but there would be some kind of apparent magic-step.  Griswold would start to go to sleep and his friends would wake him up, demanding an explanation.  I thought that this would make quite a good structure, and so my recent response to the “How to identify a time-traveller” is an extremely heavy-handed parody of Asimov’s Union Club, ending with a joke that I think he would have approved of.  Sometimes, you don’t need to go beyond the essentials with characterisation.


© David Jesson, 2017

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