Sunday, November 22, 2015

Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein

Prompted by some twaddle I read on the web about social justice warrior tantrums over science fiction, I've gone back to reading the "classics" - Asimov's Foundation, Clarke's Childhood's End and Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

They were all horrible and I was only able to finish Heinlein's book. I could only make it through half of the other two. Reading the last quarter of Moon was like crawling through broken glass. In each case, the authors draped a science fiction robe around their own personal, political manifestos. Only Heinlein managed to work in a healthy dose of science and engineering. The other two didn't bother. Instead, Foundation and Childhood were more fantasy than anything else.

Foundation is a story of religion as a massive con game. Asimov wanted to attack religions of all sorts and so creates a story where everyone in church leadership positions are knowingly perpetrating frauds on a credulous population. It's so poorly thought out and Asimov was so dreadfully ignorant of theology that none of it is believable and a third of the way in I grew unbearably tired of what became a crude polemic.

Childhood's End has similar problems. Aliens come to Earth, orbit the planet in huge ships, don't land, but using what is effectively magic, end war, injustice, poverty, crime and all icky things. The population, freed from fear and want, goes on to achieve great things. The United Nations is the focal point of dealings with the aliens. It's a progressive's personal fantasy and it's embarrassing to read.

Clarke, like Asimov, is utterly ignorant of religion and brushes it aside with magic boxes the aliens give the people of Earth that allow them to look back at any place, any time. All religious figures are revealed to be ordinary people. Nothing to see here, Earthlings, move along. Unlike our own real world, relieved of any responsibility for their own lives, people don't turn to weed, porn and increasingly trivial outrages. (See also: microaggressions, pampered university children complaining of.) Clarke shows he knows little of human nature or faith.

Heinlein is the most readable, but only because he lays on the engineering and science good and thick. The rest of the book is his own libertarian manifesto. At first it's refreshingly different, with economic discussions included, but in the end, it turns into Reason Magazine dressed up with lasers and rockets.

I'm not as familiar with Clarke's work, but I do recall enjoying Asimov's and Heinlein's juvenile novels. I'm hoping to go back to those and find some happy nostalgia.


Kelly the little black dog said...

It is often more useful to look at these is as grounded in their time. Childhood's end comes out of the time and mindset right after the second world war. It can be thought of as a reflection of how some/many/few people looked at the future immediately following that conflict.

Interesting what you got out of Foundation. Isn't anything of what I remember from reading it during high school. Haven't looked at it since. What I remember most is the notion of Psychohistory - how a man with reason and a sharp mind could shape history. Turns out that by the end of the third book, this also was a con. The modern idea of chaos theory pretty much ruined any notion of treating history as a deterministic system.

All three of these authors were not easy to read. Not like more modern scifi writers. Give Niven a try next.

Kelly the little black dog said...

Oh, and stick with Niven's short stories such as Neutron Star or Draco Tavern. He doesn't seem to excel at the novel format unless he's co-writing a novel.

tim eisele said...

I'd agree with Kelly about Niven, and I feel the same way about Clarke - he's much better at shorter lenghts, his novels kind of tend to drag on. People's attitude toward Childhood's End, in particular, mystifies me. I don't see why it is regarded as a classic. As you noted, the first part is kind of meandering and pointless, and the second part ends up with all the kids going telepathic and getting subsumed by some unidentified energy being, destroying the Earth in the process. After which the Overlords kind of shrug and say, "Yeah, we don't really get it either". I thought it was both boring and depressing, and is hardly anything I'd recommend to anyone else.

The religious aspects of Foundation are mostly concentrated in just two chapters - the one where the "religion" is built up, and the one where it more or less falls apart. After that, religion never really comes up again. For what it's worth, I liked "Foundation and Empire" better than "Foundation". And, I also think that Asimov is better as a writer of short stories and factual articles than as a novelist.

And I generally like pre-1961 Heinlein quite a bit better than his later stuff. Basically, everything after "Stranger in a Strange Land" has big swatches that kind of leave me cold, although most of them still have their moments.

I'd actually recommend looking into some of the more obscure writers from the 50s and 60s. The Science Fiction Megapacks that you can get as ebooks through Amazon for a buck apiece are actually pretty good to browse. I usuall go through and read the first couple of pages of a story, and if it doesn't grab me, I can skip to the next without feeling bad about wasting money, because it is only about a nickel a story.

Kelly the little black dog said...

Tim, are these "megapacks" collections from the old pulp magazines?

tim eisele said...


Yes, they are. There are hundreds of them. Some are by topic, and some are by author, and they aren't limited to science fiction (although that seems to be their main thrust). Just search on "Megapack" in the Kindle store. They are put out by Wildside Press (, and are mostly stories that fell into public domain before the copyright laws were changed so that it wasn't necessary to periodically renew it. There are also a bunch of other similar collections put together by other publishers, so the supply of these is practically unlimited.

K T Cat said...

Great replies, both. I've got a follow-on post today on Heinlein. Pournelle's Footfall was pretty good. I'd like to try Niven's Ringworld on Audible.

K T Cat said...

My objections to Clarke and Asimov on religion is this: If you're going to make it a big part of your book, would it kill you to learn something about it?

tim eisele said...

Well, to be fair, the reason why Asimov's treatment of religion in Foundation was kind of sophomoric, was because he was a sophomore at the time.

He did learn quite a bit more about religion afterwards, although it didn't really figure that prominently in his later works (aside from Asimov's Guide to the Bible, which actually didn't address the religious aspects of the Bible all that much. As he stated right up front, it was intended mainly as a survey of who these people where, where they were, and what they were doing).

Timothy Eisele said...

Also, if you liked Footfall, you'd probably like The Mote in God's Eye as well (which, in spite of the title, really has very little to do with religion).

Have you read anything by H. Beam Piper? If not, you'd probably like them, and they are all available for free or very cheap as ebooks.

K T Cat said...

I liked Mote quite a bit! I've read some Piper. Let me look at his bibliography and see what I recall ... I'm pretty sure I read at least one of the Fuzzy books. Thanks for the suggestion. It's worth revisiting.