Today is Isaac Asimov’s 100th Birthday, and while it is also World Science Fiction Day because he was born on this day, I would like to draw your attention to some of the grand master’s other, non-science-fiction writing.
Like many of you, I was introduced to the science fiction genre through Asimov’s writing. Caves of Steel was the first hard science fiction book I read, and everything I’ve read and written in the genre since can be traced back to the day when my father gave me that book as a present when he returned from his latest business trip. I could easily write a blog explaining how that book—and the themes contained therein—influenced me personally, and science fiction in general, but I imagine, that if you have any interest in Asimov at all, you’ve read your share of those kind of articles today.
Instead, I’d like to focus on a different aspect of Asimov’s prodigious canon. Asimov wrote widely and prolifically, about many subjects, not just science fiction, and not even just fiction. Some of you may have encountered Asimov’s books about science fact before. Certain elementary and middle school teachers use these texts to try to get students interested in learning about science. “You enjoy reading his work about fake robots and space ships,” the say, “you might enjoy his writing about real robots and outer space.”
Fewer of you, I’d venture a guess, are familiar with Asimov’s literary analysis. Books like Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and Asimov’s Paradise Lost Annotated are excellent study guides that provide insight, excellent, and analyses, As a student, I used Asimov’s Paradise Lost to help me understand Milton’s, and as a teacher I’ve often steered struggling students away from spark and cliff notes and toward Asimov’s texts, which, in my opinion, are vastly superior as study guides (and not unimportantly, are best used in conjunction with, rather than instead of reading the original texts). I have even used quotes from the book as part of my planned lessons.
This is not a blog about teaching, however, at least not about teaching Shakespeare to high school students. It is a blog a about writing, and I believe that we–as writers–can learn a lot about writing from Asimov’s “Guide To” series. The master knew his stuff. He knew enough about science to write a guide to science, and that is part of the reason his science fiction rings so true; he knew enough about literature not only to dissect some of the greatest texts in the history of literature, but also to explain these difficult books to a lay audience clearly and concisely. One can see echoes of the books about which he wrote guide, Shakespeare, Milton, and The Bible, in his science fiction writing, both in terms of plot and in terms of characterization (but that is a subject for another blog post).
In short, Asimov knew about both his craft and his subject matter in a way that few other writers have before or since. While many writers call on their peers to read widely and to “write what you know”, few read as widely or knew as much as Isaac Asimov did.
As writers, it is incumbent upon us to educate ourselves in a similar fashion. While will probably never read as much—or know as much—as the grand master of Science Fiction, we can likely all do more to improve these areas of our practice than we currently do. In this season of resolutions, let us all resolve, on his birthday, to try to be more like Isaac Asimov.