Taking Notes: 'Yesterday's Tomorrows' column in Locus Feb 2007 by Graham Sleight

Sleight 這篇專欄的主題是 Isaac Asimov。本文一語道破見識漸長、跨過門檻,或是 1980s 年代以降才接觸科幻,很可能先看過近期作家作品再回去挖經典的讀者在閱讀 Asimov 作品時,總覺得沒那麼好,甚至名過其實的癥結所在,不愧是年紀輕輕就能橫跨學界和行內評論圈的強者。

Graham Sleight, "Yesterday's Tomorrows" in Locus 553 (Feb 2007), pp. 35, 73-74.

p. 35
...... Asimov's work was something entirely different, a picture of a future world that made sense -- for which, in the Laws of Robotics and the idea of psychohistory, he presented scientific-seeming tools for measuring and controlling his future. For a kid with an aptitude for maths, science, and not much else, this was precisely what I was wanting to hear. ...... When I went back to Asimov in my 20s, I found his work pallid and unsatisfying next to authors I had read since, in SF and outside. He seemed too hung-up on demonstrating a narrow kind of cleverness in his work, and too committed to that kind of cleverness as a sufficient tool for understanding everything that humans might run into their lives. So I approached re-reading him in 2006 with a certain amount of ambivalence. To put it crudely, if I thought his SF was so deficient, why do so many other people continue to find it satisfying? ...... And how has Asimov become so influential in culture in general?
Starting again on Foundation, one runs into Asimov's weaknesses before his strengths. ...... Asimov is curiously uninterested in showing the future as anything other than the present in drag.

But he's clearly far more comfortable when it comes to dialogue: almost all of his stories work themselves out through discussion, and one of the early sections of Foundation consists of a transcript of an interrogation of psychohistory's founder, Hari Seldon. I think it was this that my teenage self must have latched onto. Seldon had, in psychohistory, a way of explaining the world, and the book was so obviously on Seldon's side that you wanted to be too. ......

So Asimov is presenting a series of puzzles, in a sense: puzzles in economic and power relations between the Foundation and the states or planets around it. The premise of the book is that psychohistory is a sufficient tool to unravel these puzzles in advance; it succeeds to the extent that we accept that premise. ......

...... The problem is the plausibility of psychohistory itself, the idea that one mathematical system could embrace the complexity of the world. It's even harder to believe in our post-chaos theory days, when we have a formal
p. 73
mathematical language for sensitive dependence on initial conditions, for the butterfly in Siberia tipping the system into creaing the hurricane in Florida.

So Asimov's premise is, for me, too difficult to believe. If you accept it, then the action of Foundation (and its successors) is that of the progressive lifting of veils, as Seldon's plan is revealed little by little. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for Asimov's success: the certainty he promises, the idea that the world is ultimately susceptible to calm and rational thought. And perhaps this is why I find it difficult to accept, looking at the news or out of the window: the world is too much subject to contigency to believe that humans can ever fully order it.

p. 74
The Caves of Steel
...... It's entirely readable and -- perhaps Asimov's greatest virtue -- followable; but again, my reservation is about the limited ways in which it's conveyed. Almost nothing is experienced in Asimov except through talk and thought about talk. Comparing The Caves of Steel with its near-contemporary, Bester's The Demolished Man gives a sobering idea of how many more possibilities there are for telling a story. I'm not just referring to Bester's famous typographical tricks, but also to his command of setting, the range of his interest in people, his openness to extreme emotional states.

對於結局的看法:But there's no sense, unlike with the Bester, that it's testing the limits of anything but the ability to construct and solve a puzzle.

I, Robot
藉由 Asimov 甚少描寫女性,引出 Susan Calvin 這個特例,但她也和一般女性角色有極大差異就是了。
...... Much of I, Robot is, precisely, case law: the measuring of specific situations against abstract principles -- the three laws.

There are exceptions, most obviously "Liar", in which Calvin encounters a mind-reading robot who tells her falsely that a man loves her back. ...... But the end of the story has an emotional force rare for Asimov as Calvin realises how and why she has been lied to. There are some areas of experience, even in Asimov, more charged than scientific debate.

...... Rereading him wasn't as disillusioning as I'd expected, and I'd forgotten the pleasures of his unadorned directness in story-telling. But there's no question that his futures have dated in ways that those of his contemporaries haven't. I'm sure he's still the gateway drug for some fourteen-year-olds; but there are fourteen-year-olds reading Le Guin, Reynolds, or Chiang, and I'm not sure how much they'd get from Asimov. I think imagination is the key here: he only moved occasionally and with reluctance beyond his comfort zone, of depicting characters like him interacting in a limited number of ways. His mind was, perhaps, too orderly for fiction, for depicting extreme passions, the messy flux of life. I take it as an axiom that there will always be experiences that words are to [sic] weak to depict, that no story will be able to encompass everything. Asimov always wrote as if providing enough words -- talking enough -- would be sufficient to order the world. Maybe his non-fiction is the work that should endure: his benign positivism is perfectly suited to describing the progress of science. He had a genius -- the word is not too strong -- but it was for explanation, not for story.

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