I know, it is hard to believe that I haven’t read any Asimov yet. I certainly have read about him, and fully aware of the magnitude of his persona in sci fi. It’s just somehow it did not happen yet, probably because there is a lot of sci fi to read in general.
This Christmas I received a present – the complete collection of the “Foundation” novels, with the words: I think you may find this interesting.
Yesterday I finally cracked the book open, and boy was I up for a surprise. I thought those lengthy technical details, timelines, and histories were called ‘info dumps’. I also thought that telling a story in an ’empty’ universe is a bad practice. Finally, I was under impression, that it is better to show, not tell.
Asimov destroys all of those ‘musts’, and writes in a post mortem report style, where descriptions appear only if they are absolutely necessary, and the majority of effort is expanded on reciting dialogues and flushing out various science ideas.
I loved it. I also badly wanted to rewrite it and make it more personable. It reminded me my drafts written without breakfast, without coffee and before 9 am. So utterly practical. But I loved it. The reason why I loved it was that those meager elements of style that are present, are so vivid and eye-catching, that I had to highlight them, pause, and read a few more times – that’s how good they were.
1. It was a tall man that eventually entered, a man whose face seemed all vertical lines and so thin that one could wonder whether there was room for a smile.
2. It was childish to feel disappointed, but childishness comes almost as naturally to a man as to a child, and there was a lump in Gaal’s throat. (‘Foundation’)
Then there are the bits of science.
3. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time. (‘Foundation’)
If you are the kind of a person who is in the slightest awe of the universe and science, you must read this sentence and feel like your mind was just literally blown away. This sentence almost has the poetical quality of the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word…” I hope you understand what I mean. I am not saying that Asimov is a prophet in a religious sense, nor elevating the meaning of the religious text. I am merely referring to these lines in the Bible, because over the millennia they mesmerized humanity, just like we are mesmerized today with the principles of quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, black holes, dark matter, Higgs boson, multitude and diversity of celestial bodies.
To me, this last Asimov’s sentence has the same mystique and gravity, as those bigger-than-life science ideas, or inspirational religious verses. We’ve been around the idea of hyper-space in science fiction for a long time now, but it mostly was like a Jack in the Box: voila, Kirk ordered going to warp. Asimov, however, probably spent years thinking through every possible aspect of science and extrapolating what would hyper-space be like. Yes, it is fiction, but this is the kind of visionary fiction, that once put a man to the Moon and split the atom. Nay, this is the kind of fiction, that made Giordano Bruno drunken on the idea of the universe filled with many planets and even potentially many species out there in space, even at the cost of his own life.
Asimov’s hyper-space is incredible. First, think of the idea of “neither space nor time, matter nor energy“. When I read it, I immediately thought of the conditions in the baby universe during the expansion period. Scientists speculate, that when the Big Bang occurred, it was infinitely small, infinitely dense, infinitely hot, and infinitely simple. Time and space did not exist yet as distinct dimensions. There was only one dimension, like that of a single pixel, only not a realistic pixel that still has dimensions, but the perfect pixel – the smallest possible unit. Matter and energy did not exist separately either. Although today they are just the two sides of the same coin, during the plank time, they were the same, one.
Then there is mentioning of the “interval between two neighboring instants of time“. I remember one explanation of the theory of time according to the String Theory. The theory suggests that if we isolate the smallest discrete unit of time, plank time, it would not flow into one another continuously. It would probably hop between these time points incrementally, like the arrow on the clock, moving from one unit to another. There is no half-plank, no quarter-plank, only plank integers. What’s between them? Maybe nothing. Maybe the fabric of the universe is made of a grid.
If you think of the Big Bang, the deflated universe, and the current inflated universe, hyperspace may be just the way of tricking the universe in a certain region to revert to these initial parameters, where the distance between point A and point B was negligent, or equal to the “interval between two neighboring instants of time”. One way or another, thanks to these musings on a single Asimov’s sentence, to me hyperspace will never be the same.
As a genre, sci fi today offers over-stimulated, in a sensory sense, experience where the reader has to keep turning pages in order to ‘save her life’, and the writer has to write those pages in such a manner, as not to give the reader one instant of time to pause and think, avoiding the risk of lost interest. Asimov’s fiction is decidedly different. And it is deliberately different as well. Asimov was fully aware of his writing style, and maintained it at cost of being ridiculed by critics. He did not chase the reader knowing that if the reader is right, he will come to the story at own will, and remain with it voluntarily, not subjected to trickery and manipulations, but only for the love of the idea itself.
If you find this just as fascinating, I am curious what you all think regarding:
- Writing with abundance of scientific detail in modern fiction,
- Sacrificing style in favor of plot and ideas,
- Asimov’s fiction in general.
I’m looking forward to discussing these fascinating subjects.
P.S. I couldn’t be more pleased that this is my anniversary 100th post.