Review: The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov

The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov is pretty much what it says on the tin: a gallop through Asimov’s work to 1974, which is when the book was published. Its purpose, as author Joseph Patrouch Jnr proclaims, is twofold: “to describe Asimov’s career as a science fiction writer and to analyze as much of that science fiction as possible.”

Patrouch calls the method he uses to achieve this “practical criticism”, which is a misuse of the term if ever I saw one. Practical criticism – which has been around as a term since 1929, so it’s not unreasonable to expect Patrouch to know what it is – is the skill of analysing a text “unseen”: completely cold, as it were, with no access to its historical or biographical context. Whereas what Patrouch is doing here is not really criticism at all: he’s analysing the structure of Asimov’s work to determine what, technically, makes the text “works” as a story, and why.

So really, it’s a writing manual as much as anything: the kind of exercise you would carry out if you wanted to write stories like Asimov’s. This is fine, obviously – Patrouch sets out that this is what he’s doing in his preface, and although I was disappointed that it wasn’t a critical study of Asimov’s work, but it’s not really fair to judge it on the basis of that disappointment.

It does date the book somewhat, though, simply because there are probably not that many people (save perhaps the Sad and Rabid Puppies) who actually want to write like Asimov any more. SF’s simply moved on since he was in the ascendant. And Patrouch makes some quite extraordinary assertions about Asimov’s writing: that he was a master of expository dialogue (known and derided today as “infodumping”); that he is SF’s greatest stylist.

Obviously that last statement is made in the context of the 1970s, when SF was even less mainstream and less respectable than it is now; but it’s still pretty startling given that Asimov’s prose style is, to put it politely, utilitarian at best. Patrouch spins it as clear and direct, and then uses the dreaded window analogy: the prose of literary fiction is like stained glass – there to look at, not through – whereas Asimov’s prose is like a clear window – you look through it, not at it. This implies that it’s possible to write neutrally, without spin or bias, which of course it isn’t. The window analogy is a terrible piece of advice to give to a writer. It obscures your biases.

Overwhelmingly, The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov feels like a bit of a vanity project. Patrouch evidently sent a draft to Asimov for comments, which probably gives you an idea of the kind of lionising going on here. It’s something of a personal homage to a beloved author, which does fairly little even to chart the progression of Asimov’s work, and which hardly ever coordinated with my own thoughts on what makes Asimov’s stories work. (Briefly: not his ideas of how societies will change in the future, as Patrouch thinks, but his instinct for the game-changing nature of technological and scientific advancement.) Which is, again, fine. Just not particularly interesting to me.

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