Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine

Asimov’s close encounter

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By the early seventies, Isaac Asimov had achieved the cultural status, which he still retains, of being the first—and perhaps the only—science fiction writer whom most ordinary readers would be able to name. As a result, he ended up on the receiving end of a lot of phone calls from famous newcomers to the field. In 1973, for example, he was contacted by a representative for Woody Allen, who asked if he’d be willing to look over the screenplay of the movie Sleeper. Asimov gladly agreed, and when he met with Allen over lunch, he told him that the script was perfect as it was. Allen didn’t seem to believe him: “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov responded: “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen was duly impressed, turning to ask his friends: “Did you hear him throw that line away?” Asimov turned down the chance to serve as a technical director, recommending Ben Bova instead, and the movie did just fine without him, although he later expressed irritation that Allen had never sent him a letter of thanks. Another project with Paul McCartney, whom Asimov met the following year, didn’t go anywhere, either:

McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of the fantasy out of which a screenplay would be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters…He had only a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when a real group realized they were being victimized by imposters.

Asimov wrote up what he thought was an excellent treatment, but McCartney rejected it: “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue, out of which he apparently couldn’t move, and wanted me to work with that.”

Of all of Asimov’s brushes with Hollywood, however, the most intriguing involved a director to whom he later referred as “Steve Spielberg.” In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Asimov writes:

On July 18, 1975, I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Netherland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.

In a footnote, Asimov adds: “He went on to do it without me and it became the phenomenally successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have no regrets.” For an autobiography that devotes enormous amounts of wordage to even the most trivial incidents, it’s a remarkably terse and unrevealing anecdote, and it’s hard not to wonder if something else might have been involved—because when Asimov finally saw Close Encounters, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this week with a new theatrical release, he hated it. A year after it came out, he wrote in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

Science Digest asked me to see the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and write an article for them on the science it contained. I saw the picture and was appalled. I remained appalled even after a doctor’s examination had assured me that no internal organs had been shaken loose by its ridiculous sound waves. (If you can’t be good, be loud, some say, and Close Encounters was very loud.) To begin with there was no accurate science in it; not a trace; and I said so in the article I wrote and which Science Digest published. There was also no logic in it; not a trace; and I said that, too.

Asimov’s essay on Close Encounters, in fact, might be the most unremittingly hostile piece of writing I’ve seen by him on any subject, and I’ve read a lot of it. He seems to have regarded it as little more than a cynical commercial ploy: “It made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.” In response to readers who praised the special effects, he shot back:

Seeing a rotten picture for the special effects is like eating a tough steak for the smothered onions, or reading a bad book for the dirty parts. Optical wizardry is something a movie can do that a book can’t, but it is no substitute for a story, for logic, for meaning. It is ornamentation, not substance. In fact, whenever a science fiction picture is praised overeffusively for its special effects, I know it’s a bad picture. Is that all they can find to talk about?

Asimov was aware that his negative reaction had hurt the feelings of some of his fans, but he was willing to accept it: “There comes a time when one has to put one’s self firmly on the side of Good.” And he seemed particularly incensed at the idea that audiences might dare to think that Close Encounters was science fiction, and that it implied that the genre was allowed to be “silly, and childish, and stupid,” with nothing more than “loud noise and flashing lights.” He wasn’t against all instances of cinematic science fiction—he had liked Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, faintly praising the latter as “entertainment for the masses [that] did not try to do anything more,” and he even served as a technical consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he remained unrelenting toward Close Encounters to the last: “It is a marvelous demonstration of what happens when the workings of extraterrestrial intelligence are handled without a trace of skill.”

And the real explanation comes in an interview that Asimov gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which he recalled of his close encounter with Spielberg: “I didn’t know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn’t interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret.” The italics are mine. Asimov, as I’ve noted before, despised flying saucers, and he would have dismissed any movie that took them seriously as inherently unworthy of consideration. (The editor John W. Campbell was unusually cautious on the subject, writing of the UFO phenomenon in Astounding in 1959: “Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” Yet Asimov felt that even this was going too far, writing that Campbell “seemed to take seriously such things as flying saucers [and] psionic talents.”) From his point of view, he may well have been right to worry about the “glorification” of flying saucers in Close Encounters—its impact on the culture was so great that it seems to have fixed the look of aliens as reported by alleged abductees. And as a man whose brand as a science popularizer and explainer depended on his reputation for rationality and objectivity, he couldn’t allow himself to be associated with such ideas in any way, which may be why he attacked the movie with uncharacteristic savagery. As I’ve written elsewhere, a decade earlier, Asimov had been horrified when his daughter Robyn told him one night that she had seen a flying saucer. When he rushed outside and saw “a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum” in the sky, he was taken aback, and as he ran into the house for his glasses, he said to himself: “Oh no, this can’t happen to me.” It turned out to be the Goodyear blimp, and Asimov recalled: “I was incredibly relieved!” But his daughter may have come even closer to the truth when she said years later to the New York Times: “He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

The stocking stuffer

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The Proving Ground

When you’re young, your life is unavoidably shaped by factors that are out of your control, and this is true even of the lives that come to seem the most inevitable. Consider the case of Isaac Asimov. He’s one of the most prolific authors who ever lived, a pillar of science fiction, and perhaps its only true mainstream celebrity. Decades after his death, he might still be the first writer in the genre whom the majority of Americans could name. But his life could easily have moved along a different track, and the shape it finally took was the result of three distinct strokes of luck. The first was that his father owned a candy store in Brooklyn that gave him a chance to read pulp magazines, particularly Astounding, that he couldn’t have afforded to buy otherwise. The second was that after his sophomore year in college in 1937, the store was doing well enough that he didn’t need to get a summer job, which allowed him to spend time on his first stab at a story, “Cosmic Corkscrew,” instead. The third was that he lived only a short subway ride away from the offices of the publisher Street & Smith, which prompted him to deliver the manuscript in person to the editor John W. Campbell, who took an interest in him. If Asimov had lived even as far away as Staten Island, it never would have occurred to him to make the trip—and if he hadn’t met Campbell when he did, it’s unlikely that he would have become a writer at all.

Every writer’s life seems to include such moments of serendipity, which is reason enough to wonder about the careers that have been lost because those lucky breaks didn’t occur. They often depend on the presence of the right reading material at the right time, and my own life is no exception. I didn’t grow up surrounded by the pulps, like Asimov, but I’ll never forget the two copies of the fiction digests that happened to fall into my hands. One was the November 1988 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, of which I can remember almost nothing except the cover and a few isolated sentences. The other, appropriately enough, was the June 1992 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, which I remember very well—so much so that I was prompted to purchase a new copy when I attended the World Science Fiction Convention earlier this year in Kansas City. Leafing through it, I found that I vividly recalled most of the stories, which seemed to reach both forward and backward in time. The lead novelette was “The Big Splash,” one of the last stories that L. Sprague de Camp ever wrote. Asimov’s editorial, “Speed,” was also among his last, and it includes the heartbreaking line:

I have always said that I wanted to die in harness with my face down on my keyboard and my nose stuck between two keys. However, that is not to be and I am unhappy about it.

And it’s only as I look now at the issue, which must have appeared on newsstands around May of that year, that I realize that it came out the month after Asimov died.

The June 1992 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

And there were hints of things to come, too. I don’t remember much about “The Big Splash,” but there were other stories in that issue that I’ve never forgotten, including “Monsters” by James Patrick Kelly, “Die Rache” by Steven Utley, “Grownups” by Ian R. MacLeod,” and “Breakfast Cereal Killers” by R. Garcia y Robertson. I kept the issue for a long time, and it might well still be in a box somewhere in my parents’ garage. Even as I moved onto other things, the memory remained, and its effects were mutated a little by the passage of time. It never seems to have occurred to me to write for Alfred Hitchcock or Ellery Queen, although given the novels I’ve published, it would have made plenty of sense, and I might give it a shot someday. When I finally tried my hand at science fiction, it was Analog, not Asimov’s, to which I sent my first story. I don’t really remember why, although it may have been simply due to the fact that Analog had the highest circulation and paid the best rates, two points that have been important to its writers since the beginning. Luckily for me, Stanley Schmidt took that first submission—although he later turned down quite a few—and thereby ensured that I’d keep writing. One of my later stories, “The Boneless One,” was even illustrated by the artist Laurie Harden, who had done two of the illustrations in my precious issue of Asimov’s from two decades earlier. And it all somehow led me to this peculiar point in my life, in which I can say, echoing Martin Amis: “I knew more about Isaac Asimov than I knew about anyone else alive. What could there be left to add?”

I’ve been thinking about all this because the January/February 2017 issue of Analog, which includes my story “The Proving Ground,” is finally on newsstands. (You can read an excerpt from it here.) I’m always happy to get into the magazine at all, but this one feels especially meaningful. It’s the longest story—and the first novella—that I’ve ever published in Analog, and it’s the second, after “Cryptids,” to get a cover illustration. “The Proving Ground” is also my tenth story, which is a nice round number: I’ve published roughly a story a year there over the last decade, at a slow but steady pace. But what I like most about it is the timing, and not just because it happened to appear the day before “Retention.” It’s the issue that you’d find today if you went to one of the bookstores that still carries the magazine, and if you were looking for an easy stocking stuffer, it’s hard to think of a better one. So I’d like to believe that somebody will get this issue for Christmas. In my imagination, it’s a twelve-year-old boy. Perhaps he’ll like the cover by Kurt Huggins as much as I do and be prompted to read the story, which might even make an impression. It might not be one that can be measured right away, but maybe it will eventually lead him to check out better authors, or even to start writing himself. If it happens, it won’t be for years. But if and when it does, maybe he’ll be able to trace it all back to that first, tiny nudge. It might sound farfetched, but hell, it happened to me. I’ll probably never know either way, but I want to believe in that twelve-year-old boy. Or, even better, a twelve-year-old girl.

Our struggle, part two

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William B. Davis on The X-Files

Note: Spoilers follow for the X-Files episode “My Struggle II.”

“The writers we absorb when we’re young bind us to them, sometimes lightly, sometimes with iron,” Daniel Mendelsohn once wrote in The New Yorker. “In time, the bonds fall away, but if you look very closely you can sometimes make out the pale white groove of a faded scar, or the telltale chalky red of old rust.” That’s true of movies, television, and other forms of art, too, and it’s particularly powerful when it happens in your early teens. If you want to change somebody’s life forever, just find him when he’s thirteen—and give him a book. I’ve increasingly come to recognize that two-thirds of my inner life was shaped by half a dozen objects that I happened to encounter, almost by accident, during a window of time that opened up when I was twelve and closed about two years later. They included a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a movie and a television series by David Lynch, and a pair of novels by Umberto Eco. Take any of these props away, and the whole edifice comes crashing down, or at least reassembles itself into a drastically different form. And of all the nudges I received that put me on the course I’m on today, few have been more dramatic than that of The X-Files, which premiered as I was entering the eighth grade and left a mark, or a scar like that of a smallpox vaccination, that I can still see now.

I’m writing this because I’ve realized that a young person encountering The X-Files today for the first time at age thirteen, as I did, wouldn’t even have been born when the original finale aired. It’s likely, then, that there’s a version of me being exposed to this premise and these characters courtesy of the show’s revival who has never seen the series in any other form. And I honestly have no idea what that kid must be thinking right now. Aside from a miracle of an episode from Darin Morgan, the reboot has been an undeniable letdown even for longtime fans, but to new viewers, it must seem totally inexplicable. It’s easy to picture someone watching this week’s finale—which is devoid of thrills, suspense, or even basic clarity—and wondering what all the fuss was about. I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that my favorite television series, or at least the one that had the greatest impact on what I’ve ended up doing with my life, was so uneven that I don’t need to watch the majority of its episodes ever again. But to someone who hasn’t made that mental adjustment, or isn’t familiar with the heights the show could reach on those rare occasions when it was firing on all cylinders, the revival raises the question of why anyone was clamoring for its return in the first place. If I were watching it with someone who had never seen it before, and who knew how much I loved it, I’d be utterly humiliated.

Lauren Ambrose and Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

I don’t think anyone, aside perhaps from Chris Carter, believes that this season gained many new fans. But that isn’t the real loss. The X-Files, for all its flaws, was a show that could change lives. I’ve written here before of the Scully effect that led young women to pursue careers in science, medicine, and law enforcement—which would be completely incomprehensible to someone who knows Scully only from her reappearance here. (Gillian Anderson does what she can, as always, but she still sounds as if she’s reading the opening narration to “My Struggle II” at gunpoint. And when she sequences her own genome in what feels like record time, I just wanted her to say that she was sending it to Theranos.) The reboot isn’t likely to spark anyone’s curiosity about anything, aside from the question of why so many people cared. And while it’s a tall order to ask a television show to change lives, it isn’t so unreasonable when you consider how it once pulled it off. The X-Files entered my life and never left it because it was clever, competent, and atmospheric; it featured a pair of attractive leads whom I’d be happy to follow anywhere; and its premise pointed toward a world of possible stories, however little of it was fulfilled in practice. It changed me because it came along at the right time and it did what it was supposed to do. The reboot didn’t even manage that. If anything, it made me retroactively question my own good taste.

I won’t bother picking apart “My Struggle II” in detail, since the episode did a fine job of undermining itself, and there are plenty of postmortems available elsewhere. But I’ve got to point out the fundamental narrative miscalculation of keeping Mulder and Scully apart for the entire episode, which is indefensible, even if it was the result of a scheduling issue. Even at the revival’s low points, the chemistry between the leads was enough to keep us watching, and removing it only highlights how sloppy the rest really was. It doesn’t help that Scully is paired instead with Lauren Ambrose, giving a misdirected interpretation of a character who isn’t that far removed from Scully herself in the show’s early seasons—which just reminds us of how much Anderson brought to that part. The episode falls to pieces as you watch it, packing a contagion storyline that could have filled an entire season into less than fifty minutes, reducing Joel McHale’s right-wing pundit, who was such a promising character on paper, to a device for delivering exposition. (Since the episode ends on a cliffhanger anyway, it could have just moved it to earlier in the story, ending on the outbreak, which would have given it some breathing room. Not that I think it would have mattered.) As the revival slunk to its whimper of a close, my wife said that I’d been smart to keep my expectations low, but as it turns out, they weren’t low enough. If the series comes back, I’ll still watch it, in yet another triumph of hope over experience. Keeping up my hopes will be a struggle. But it wouldn’t be the first time.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2016 at 9:48 am

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