What makes great science-fiction? List some of the greats: A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K Dick, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin, Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (most people will think of Neuromancer, but for my money, MLO is better), A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke, and you might wonder if there’s any connection at all. Apart from the fact they were all written some time ago, of course. Since Star Wars, great vision in Science Fiction seems to find its way to TV or film much more quickly, perhaps sometimes too quickly, before the author can really get their mind round it
For my money, and by this I mean that I’ve bought the books, mislaid them, and bought them again, the original Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov epitomises what great science-fiction is like. Of course, to some people, this is the nadir of SF from the bad old days of space opera. Those people can write their own article.
I first came across Foundation when my parents recorded the BBC radio adaptation, and we listened to it on long car journeys on a battery powered cassette recorder. It was a brilliant adaptation, and amazingly faithful to the book.
When I finally read the books, first as a nine year old, and then later as a teenager and an adult, they were everything I wanted in SF, and they still are. I’m talking about the original trilogy. In common with Frank Herbert, Ursula K LeGuin and the lesser André Norton, Asimov just couldn’t leave well alone and came back to write much longer novels to ‘complete’ the trilogy. The result, in my view, was a disaster. The new novels were overwritten, had lost the original science angle which made Foundation pretty much perfect, and included a lot of unneccessary sex. I’ve never been a fan of a lot of sex in novels. This is not prudery, I just think it is something that does not transfer well to the printed page. However, if you are going to have sex in novels, leave it to DH Lawrence or William Golding, or even to a half-way decent soft-porn writer. Asimov (and virtually every SF writer) writing sex is like hearing Woody Allen on solemnity.
What made the trilogy — Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation — so good? In my view it was six things. Three things which it did, and three things which it avoided.
1 Make it about scienc
The clue is in the name. Science-fiction is about science. It’s not about engineering, or technology, or the mystical forces of the universe, on military hardware. All those things might feature, but none of them have to. Probably the finest science fiction story ever written, also by Asimov, and also regrettably tampered with as a novel late in his career, was Nightfall. It was a hard science story about a world where a multi-solar system means that civilisation sees nightfall only once in a thousand years — and destroys itself by fire out of the fear of the dark at the end of every cycle. Of course, it takes them forever to work out the principle of gravitation because of the complexity of their system, and so Nightfall comes as a shock and a surprise each time.
Science is only science if you can do or follow the experiments and the reasoning yourself. Once it goes beyond that it either becomes — as Arthur C Clarke pointed out — magic, or it is simply technology. You are reading this article on a computer (unless someone has printed it off for you). Do you know how a computer works? If you’re technical you may at some point have built bistables with nand gates and programmed in 8 bit machine code. Only if you are incredibly nerdy will you have programmed in binary. Even if you’ve done all this, you may have only a limited notion of how the device you are reading actually works. That’s absolutely fine. A vague idea puts you well ahead of any crowd. But that isn’t science, it’s technology.
The Foundation Trilogy postulates an entirely new, and totally plausible, kind of science: psycho-history. Psycho-history is a sort of quantum science of human behaviour, where, because the imagined future galatic empire has trillions of inhabitants, the flows of human behaviour in enormous crowds can be charted and predicted. If you know that, you know enough to understand all the science of psycho-history. What Asimov does throughout the first three books is tease out this premise in ways in which you, the reader, can follow. It keeps coming back to experiment, to the person of the scientist, to primary research as the basis on which the story develops. Yes, it does have spaceships and atom blasters and personal force shields and something which approaches psionics at the end, but these are the window dressing. The real topic is an imagined science, and its implications.
Get out into space (or at least do something amazing)
In the musical Return to the Forbidden Planet, a take off both of the movie of the same name and also of The Tempest which inspired it, the crowd pleasing song is “We’ve got to get out into space”, to the tune of “We’ve got to get out of this place”. If the hard-core bit of science fiction is the science, then the fiction bit has to be rewarding to keep us reading. If you’re reading SF, you don’t want to focus on whether or not Darcy will get Lizzie, or Eliza will go with Professor Higgins. You want spaceships, far stars, new suns, atom blasters and personal force fields. There’s a willing suspension of disbelief in SF. Everyone knows that you can’t exceed the speed of light, so the far stars are eternally off limits to us. Getting to Sirius would take 5 years even if you could go straight to the speed of light. Getting much further would take many lifetimes. Ursula LeGuin plays hard with these rules, and gives us a universe where to travel is to say goodbye to everyone you ever met for ever — the premise of Semley’s Necklace which became the prologue to her break out novel Rocannon”s World. But even LeGuin allows instant transmission by Ansible.
For science fiction to be fiction at all, it needs a fictional element, and, having done the hard work of understanding and following the author’s science, we want to be rewarded with big stuff happening. In the Foundation Trilogy we get space battles, tricks with Hyper Space, psionics and all kinds of cool stuff. But, crucially, a new piece of cool stuff never arrives to suddenly save the day when the science couldn’t. Cool stuff almost always arrives in the hands of the enemy, and its science must be tamed by the good guys, or not at all. This is one reason why the Lensman series by EE ‘Doc’ Smith never really held my attention, and why the later episodes of the Dune Trilogy+ didn’t work for me. Simply inventing something fictional to get you out of a hole in the plot is not science, it’s not even tech, it’s just magic. I love magic in fiction, but I want it kept in Harry Potter, Tolkien and Narnia, not suddenly introduced as a deus ex machina (or, simply machinus ex deo) when I’m not paying attention.
Not all SF is about space travel. But you’ve got to give us something big and whizzy to keep us entertained. Robots are great, so are glimmer suits (A Scanner Darkly), cyberspace and bespeaking (Ursula Le Guin). But give us something fancy.
Make it about enormous issues
Back to Lizzie and Darcy, or Eliza and Professor Higgins. In a comedy of manners, or a romance, we are most concerned about what happens to the characters. In science fiction (I thank my old school teacher Dr Tom Hosty for pointing this out when I was 17) the characters are more figures than characters. Asimov does actually paint a bit more of Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow, alongside the incorigible Arkady Darrell, in the Foundation Trilogy. But, seriously, none of these characters are going to stack up against Brridget Jones when it comes to making us feel that they are real people that we actually know. The flip side of this is that science fiction can be about enormous things, and it should be. The fate of the universe, or at least the inhabited portion of it, is usually what we are interested in. After all, the impact of a revolutionary discovery does impact all of manking for better — electricity, penicillin, radar — or for worse — the atom bomb, the impact of pollution on climate change, the extinction of species.
Half way through Foundation, I don’t really care whether Salvor Hardin is married or not. I’m not interested in whether or not he has a happy home life. One of the problems of the follow-up books was that they tried to answer these questions. What I am interested in is whether he solves the puzzle which allows him to satisfy the crisis.
Now to the negatives which Asimov avoided. First off, the style of the original trilogy is incredibly sparse. When you do get an image, it works much harder because the rest of the prose is so unflowery. It’s not in any sense bad prose. It has its internal rhythms, it does its job, it moves smoothly through the story, delivering its punches without drawing attention to itself. Ideal prose for science fiction.
The sequels not so much. I don’t know if Asimov had been on a creative writing course, or had read some books by ‘great’ authors and wanted to emulate them. But it just didn’t work for his voice. And I don’t think it was an Asimov thing. Science Fiction works by the almost transparent communication of ideas. The ideas flow thick and fast, with descriptions of unknown worlds, new civilisations, machines that will not exist for thousands of years. There siimply isn’t space for the prose to be saying ‘look at me, look at me’ at the same time..
Leave romance to the romantics
By his own admission, Asimov at the time was inexperienced in the ways of love. In his later books he is only to keen to make up for this. It’s like the slightly embarrassing way in which Woody Allen tries to cast himself against hot-girls in his films. It’s as though he is trying to make up for something. I love Woody Allen cynically making jokes about everything, and dithering his way out of trouble. Woody Allen seducing girls is always the bit I want to fast forward. It’s not that the writers of SF cannot cope with romance. Clearly some of them really can’t, but Ursuala K LeGuin and William Gibson seem to have mastered it in their non-SF books. It’s that the genre doesn’t like it. SF is accessible to boys of nine. It was my first love in books, and it will always be somewhere close to my heart. It’s also accessible to the kind of people portrayed by the cast of the Big Bang Theory, and by people like the young Asimov himself. If romance is not high on your readers’ list of wants, don’t try to draw in another load of readers by adding it. The original readers will hate you for it, and the new ones will be put off by the robots, space travel and the explanations of the principle of moments.
Stay away from pulp
Everything comes from somewhere, and science fiction as a genre grew up in the pulp magazines which also showcased Conan saving maidens from abandoned ruins and adventurers beating foreign savages to a pulp in the name of civilisation. A lot of the better of these early stories are collected by Asimov himself in Before the Golden Age. But it was the golden age, when, led by Asimov himself, SF said goodbye to its pulp roots and established itself as a serious — if still derided by the literati — branch of writing.
Pulp was originally defined as the paper on which the magazines were printed, but pulp fiction has come very much to be the fiction where someone is always beaten to a pulp at some point in the proceedings. Fists are huger, guns either vastly less penetrating or vastly messier, pain is for the other guy, unless we need to show that our guy is weakened prior to the big encounter. One-liners are quippier, hats are jauntier, girls are girlier, and the heroes are real heroes.
All this runs counter to the character of the nerdy scientist types who were writing SF at the start of the golden age, and it was really the first thing they got away from. SF defines itself as a more cerebral genre. If an entire spaceship of people is killed, we can be wistful about the loss, but we don’t want to read about their dying gasps. Threats are made like a game of chess, not implemented like a boxing match.
Again, this is something that Asimov got so right in the original trilogy, and lost sight of in the additional books.
Not many of the books I read when I was nine are still with me. The Hobbit, the Box of Delights and the Narnia books, I suppose, but I reread those knowing that they are children’s books, and delighting in the wisdom they put into their simplicity. Of the adult books I was reading then, the Foundation Trilogy is I think the only set. Every once in a while, I take them down from the shelf and immerse myself once more in a cerebral but galactic world, in a science that will almost certainly never exist, and in a deliberate decision to stop reading at the end of Second Foundation, and under no circumstances to pickup Forward the Foundation, Foundation’s edge, or any of the other unwise sequels.