The Man at The Typewriter: Contemplating The Work of Isaac Asimov

I write for the same reason I breathe — because if I didn’t, I would die.” | Asimov

Today marks the 29th anniversary of Asimov’s death in 1992. It is sad that I never got to meet him, I was only a little girl when he died. Of all people I admire and who have since been gone from this world, he is the one I wish I could have met! Even above C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien, both of whom I also admire. This is because I feel a strong kindredness of spirit with Asimov through his work that seems to defy time itself. It is amusing to me to think that this is so, because on the surface he and I could not be more different. What does a Russian Jew from New York with a gregarious, large-than-life personality and goofy sense of humor have in common with a quiet and serious girl from Arizona? Not to mention he a prominent and outspoken atheist (or Rationalist as he called himself) and I a strong-willed and devoted Christian. I do not know if in real life we could have connected, but in his stories with all their cleverness and permutations of ideas, I find a connection of minds.

It isn’t that everything he wrote was perfect or that everything he wrote was deep and meaningful, but it was always insightful and clever. He had an unique way of looking at the world and he took that vision and made it a reality that still lives on generation after generation, influencing and shaping genres and modern thought. Everyone knows how much he wrote, being so prolific in every subject known to man it seems, and it was this innate drive and uncontainable source of knowledge and imagination that I admire most in him. It was common for him to think up stories just right on the spot, the ideas and concepts practically bursting out of his brain before he could even get them down on paper. I love reading his accounts of how he hated taking vacations because it would tear him away from his precious typewriter. How is wife would have to force him, and he would inevitably have to take the typewriter with him. It was if he couldn’t ever not be writing, and that is just amazing that one person could contain such a wellspring of creativity and intelligence and not only have the ideas set and ready, but know precisely and exactly how to arrange them to have the most profound effect. He was a great explainer, a teacher, an organizer of concepts and opinions, a builder of imaginative worlds, and it all came so effortlessly, as if it was simply just a part of him, like walking, breathing, and eating. Perhaps in him I see not only a reflection of myself, but something of which I desire to be also.

Asimov’s robots are probably the pinnacle of his writing career, besides his Foundation novels. Science fiction had robots before him, and there have been a slew of robot stories after him, but none will compare to Asimov’s robots, which were a whole breed of their own. Many immediately think of his Three Laws of Robotics, but his robot stories are so much more than that. They speak of our humanity in a way that strips the ego and lays the insides bare. They are puzzles to be solved, but in the solving reveals the human heart.

Perhaps in no other story than his short story Gold do I find the most connection with Asimov. I feel it is a story that deeply reflects the workings of his inner mind, although I do not know if this was completely intentional on his part. When I read it, it was like I met someone who spoke the same soul language as me and I understood him completely. Also, coincidentally enough, it is probably his most abstract and visual work. Asimov had a very dry kind of prose, although it was always engaging and enthusiastic — almost as if he were telling you the story directly. Visual language was not his strong suit and he was not a writer who engaged in abstract thought or surrealism. His ideas, although cerebral, were always very concrete and easy to grasp — that was what made him such a great teacher. However, Gold is a story that is more abstract in its telling and most of the story is spent on a strange and unearthly visual theater. . .

The main premise starts out in the traditional Asimovian way — two characters conversing in a room where the reader is presented with a puzzle, a problem, or an intrigue, and through the dialogue, the dilemma slowly unravels in its tantalizing way. Willard, a highly esteemed film director, is approached by a science fiction writer (wink wink) Laborian, who desires to have his latest novel adapted. In this near future reality, film technology has advanced — or compu-dramas as they are now called — to the point where it is essentially hologram technology, to use a comparison we are familiar with. The “film” drama unfolding is experienced completely through a full sensory envelopment of image and sound, and it isn’t always in a literal fashion either, but creates more of an abstract mood and atmosphere to convey thought and feeling. Willard has achieved renown with his adaption of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and so he thinks it is below his notice to adapt a science fiction piece. However, Laborian peaks his interest by offering him pure gold as payment to hear him out and give his novel a chance. With most economic transitions being in the form of plastic (something we can definitely relate to), actual gold assets are a highly prized commodity. With the gold as a lure, Willard is drawn into Laborian’s world and his challenge to adapt his novel Three in One.

If you are an Asimov fan, you will recognize that this story is taken straight from Asimov’s own novel The Gods Themselves, which focuses on a drama that unfolds with Earth making contact with alien beings from another dimension. These aliens are constructed of three separate, nearly incorporeal beings called The Rational, The Emotional, and The Parental. When these three essences come together in a quasi-sexual unity, an entirely new and complete being is born. It is really fascinating! Asimov did not write about aliens very often for a science fiction writer, but when he did, he always came up with something that was truly alien and unique.

So, with his novel in hand, Laborian challenges Willard to create one of the most revolutionary and spectacular compu-dramas of all time! It is a risk for them both, but if achieved, would bring them immortality. The rest of the story is spent on Willard’s artist throes as he wrestles with the material, creating this surreal and otherworldly drama, and for a writer who isn’t that great with visuals, Asimov truly captures the power of a compu-drama, completely immersing you in this alien world with alien desires. I had already read The Gods Themselves at this point, but reading the same events unfolding through this new medium made the story even more emotionally impactful to me. It was almost as if I were experiencing it on another dimensional plane, as it was meant to be experienced.

It is difficult to describe, you would have to read it in order to understand, but probably the closest I can come to describing what it was like reading Gold, is comparing it to Disney’s Fantasia. Fantasia was something that shaped my young imagination. I remember my sister and I forcing our parents to check out the VHS repeatedly from the grocery store (The 90s were simpler times). We would then watch it over and over again, so the imagery has always stayed with me — in particular Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The way the animators chose to interpret the melody and the emotions of this piece of music was through shape, color, and movement. Sometimes we can make out literal interpretations of clouds or hills, but mostly it was about capturing the feel of the sound, bypassing the intellect going straight to the intuitive. This is what it was like experiencing Willard’s Three in One compu-drama!

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

In the end, of course — spoiler alert — Willard is able to achieve what he has set out to do, and his Three in One compu-drama is a tremendous success! When Laborian comes to honor his financial arrangement with Willard, Willard ends up giving Laborian back his gold pieces. Because you see, the challenge, the work, and the realization of that work in of themselves were the true reward of the thing — the gold is the artist, or writer, achieving his masterpiece; the work accomplished for its own sake.

What greater reward could there be?

“I have written other novels, and they’re all in the same style. Mostly conversation. I don’t see things when I write; I hear, and for the most part, what my characters talk about are ideas — competing ideas.” | Isaac Asimov speaking through the writer Laborian, basically sums up what it is like to read an Asimov novel.

Isaac Asimov was a singular individual and though I haven’t learned all that I could learn about him or read all of his books, of which there are still plenty, he was undoubtedly exceptional and a genius. He inspires me in my own work and how I approach concepts through my imagery. It is his skillful way he is able to convey ideas through his characters and dialogue, his adherence to rationality, his insatiable imagination, and really, his belief in the power of ideas to shape civilizations that resonates the most with me. He certainly knew how to express them in the most clever and fascinating of ways, keeping you enthralled even though his stories usually ended up with a bunch of people arguing in a room. There will never be anyone like Asimov, and to that I say thank you for his work and his life. I believe he will be continuing to shape the future.

To end this little tribute, I have a collection of concept art sketches I have done of some of his characters. Please enjoy!

Fallom. The strange, unearthly child hermaphrodite from the planet Solaria.
Detective Elijah Baley and his steadfast partner Daneel Olivaw. If you love whodunits in space with snarky detectives and pure-hearted robot sidekicks, then you are going to love Asimov’s Robot series!
Susan Calvin. The ‘Sherlock Holmes’ of Asimov’s Robot short stories and founder of Robotics! She is my favorite!

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