The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

A timeline ends

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Sad news that was too easy to miss in the ongoing deluge: Michael Crichton passed away on Tuesday, at age 66. See my friend’s post.

Michael Crichton had success after success in his long career, both in print and in film. (Apart from the many movies made from his books, he also created the TV series ER, and co-wrote the screenplay for Twister which I remember as a good movie, actually.) He has directly inspired an interest in science in at least a few people I know, and Jurassic Park the movie is believed to have done it for several children. There are sections of The Lost World that I have read several times over the years…

I thought I was not a great fan of his, but I find I have read nine of his books!

What I find most remarkable about his work is its seeming… timelessness. It is impossible to believe that The Andromeda Strain was written in 1969 — it seems as if it was written yesterday. (And indeed the fact that there are TV series being made about it in 2008 support the idea that it still seems a modern tale.) If one is just told that The Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Congo and Jurassic Park were written ten years apart of each other, it is certainly not easy to tell which was written when; they all hold up well to the best of today’s writing. And quoting from Wikipedia:

By the time the pilot episode [of ER] was shot and aired in 1994, it had been 20 years since it was written […] the script used to shoot the pilot was virtually unchanged from what he had written 20 years earlier.

As I thought of Crichton and science-fiction, I was reminded of an essay by Isaac Asimov that I remembered as a tribute to Crichton. The essay isn’t quite that, but having taken the trouble to find it, I’ve included it here anyway.


Outsiders, Insiders
–By Isaac Asimov

I am a great booster of “the brotherhood of science fiction.” I wrote an editorial on the subject, with just that title, in the fifth issue of IASFM (January-February, 1978). I delight in thinking of us ardent writers and readers of science fiction as a band of brothers (and sisters, of course) fond of each other, and supporting each other.

Unfortunately, there are aspects of such a situation that are not entirely delightful. Let’s consider these unfavorable aspects, because if the field of science fiction is to remain as ideal as we all want it to be, we have to see the dangers. We may not be able to defeat those dangers even if we see them, but we certainly can’t, if we don’t see them.

For instance, if we are truly a small and intimate band (as I remember us being in the Golden Age of Campbell, though perhaps that may only be the consequence of nostalgia) then there is a danger that we might close our ranks, unfairly and petty-mindedly, against outsiders.

I remember, for instance, when Michael Crichton wrote The Andromeda Strain and it hit the best-seller lists. In those days, it had not yet become common for science fiction and fantasy to be actual best-sellers, and here was an “outsider” who had accomplished it. What made him an outsider? Well, he hadn’t sold to the magazines. He didn’t show up at conventions. He wasn’t one of us.

There followed reviews in various science fiction prozines and fanzines and it seemed to me, at the time, that they were uniformly unfavorable. I can’t judge how justified those reviews might have been for I never read the book (perhaps because I, too, felt he was an outsider) but there did appear, in my opinion, an extra helping of venom beyond what I usually notice in unfavorable reviews.

Was that fair? No, it wasn’t. Crichton, a person of great talent, went on to be very successful, both in his later books (some of them not science fiction) and in movies as well. Our objections to him did not hurt him and he doesn’t need us. In retrospect, we might conclude that some of us were petty.

Nor am I trying to preach from some high moral position, implying that I am myself above such things. Not at all.

I went through a period soon after World War II, in which I reacted badly (though entirely within myself), and I look back on that period in shame.

When one is part of a small and comparatively insignificant clique, warming one’s self in its closeness and camaraderie, what happens if one of the clique suddenly rises and becomes famous in the wild world outside?

Thus, in the 1940s, Robert Heinlein was quickly accepted as the best science fiction writer of us all (and in the opinion of many, he still is the grand master) and I accepted that, too. I was not envious, for I was just a beginner and I knew that many writers were better than I was. Besides, I liked Bob’s writing a great deal. And most of all, he was one of us, writing for the same magazines, going to the same conventions, corresponding with us, first-naming me and expecting me to first-name him, and so on.

But then, soon after World War II, Bob Heinlein was involved with a motion picture, Destination: Moon. It wasn’t a very good motion picture; it didn’t make the hit that the later 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars did. But it was the first motion picture involving one of us, and while I said not a word, I was secretly unhappy. Bob had left our group and become famous in the land of the infidels.

To make it worse, he had published “The Green Hills of Earth” in The Saturday Evening Post and it had created a stir. It was a real science fiction story and it was in the slicks; not only in the slicks, but in the greatest and slickest slick of them all. We all dreamed of publishing in the SEP (I, also) but that was like dreaming of taking out Marilyn Monroe on a date. You knew it was just a dream and you had no intention of even trying to make it come true. And now Bob had done it. He hadn’t just tried, he had done it.

I don’t know whether I simply mourned his loss, because I thought that now he would never come back to us; or whether I was simply and greenly envious. All I knew was that I felt more and more uncomfortable. It was like having a stomachache in the mind, and it seemed to spoil all my fun in being a science fiction writer.

So I argued it out with myself–not because I am a noble person but because I hated feeling the way I did, and I wanted to feel better. I said to myself that Bob had blazed new trails, and that it didn’t matter who did it, as long as it was done. Those new trails had been opened not for Robert Heinlein, but for science fiction, and all of us who were in the business of writing or reading science fiction could be grateful and thankful for we would sooner or later experience the benefit of Bob’s pioneering.

And that was true. Because Bob made science fiction look good to people who did not ordinarily read science fiction, and who despised it when they thought of it at all, it became more possible for the rest of us to have our stuff published outside the genre magazines–even in the SEP. (I had a two-part serial published in that magazine myself eventually, but that was when it was long past its great days.)

The result of my working this out meant I was free of sickness on later occasions. When my first book, Pebble in the Sky, appeared under the Doubleday imprint, it was followed in a matter of months by The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I don’t have to tell you that Ray’s book far outshone mine. It didn’t bother me, for it seemed to me that the better Ray’s book did, the more people would read science fiction in book form, and some of them would be sure to look for more of the same and stumble over mine. And they did. Pebble is still earning money, thirty-six years later.

And however annoying it might be that Michael Crichton could enter our field straight out of medical school, move right up to the novel level, and land on the best-seller list, and have everyone drooling over him, where’s the harm? He did it (unintentionally, perhaps) for us. He added to the respectability of science fiction among those who found us unrespectable, and made it easier for the rest of us to get on the best-seller list occasionally.

Far from snarling, we should have been cheering.

Another point. A band of brothers (and sisters) is at its best when there is nothing much to compete for. As long as we were all getting no more than one and two cents a word (as we did in that wonderful Golden Age of Campbell) with no chance at book publication, foreign sales and movies; as long as the only kudos we could get was first place in the “Analytical Laboratory” which meant a half-cent-a-word bonus; as long as no one outside our small field had ever heard of any of us under any circumstances–what was there to compete over? The most successful of us were almost as permanently impecunious as the least so there was no reason to snarl and bite.

Now, however, times have changed. There are many more of us, and some of us write best-sellers. In fact, the greatest best-seller of the 1980s, Stephen King, is, after a fashion, one of us. It’s no longer a few thousand bucks that’s at stake; it’s a few million. And that brother bit fades, bends, and crumples under the strain.

I don’t write reviews, but I do read them, and I’m beginning to see the venom again as one writer discusses the work of another member of the brotherhood. What’s more, the annual award of the Nebulas, which are determined by vote among the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America, seems to rouse hard feeling and contentiousness every year. The stakes are simply too high.

Thus, a young member of the brotherhood (to me he seemed a child) complained to me the other day that the “young writers” (young to him) were ferocious in their competitiveness. There was none of the friendliness, he said, that there was in our day (meaning his and mine, though I was a published writer when he was born).

I suppose he’s right, though.

In a way, I can’t ache to return to the good old days when we were all impoverished together. It seems a glamorous time in my mind now, but I remember Sophie Tucker’s immortal dictum: “I’ve tried poor, and I’ve tried rich, and rich is better.”

But is there a price we must pay for it? Must the camaraderie be gone? Must the friendly back-and-forth be over?

Why not remember that science fiction is still a relatively specialized field; that SF writers have to know a great deal more, and develop more unusual skill, than ordinary writers; that SF readers, too, demand more because they need more? Can we remember that we’re all in this together? That those in front pave the way for those behind? That at any time someone can appear from the strange land of outside, or the stranger land of youth, and carve out new territory for all of us, and that they should be welcomed gladly?

Let’s be friends. There are endless worlds of the mind and emotions to conquer, and we can advance more surely, if we support—not fight—each other.

Written by S

Thu, 2008-11-06 at 07:08:52

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  1. Whoa, I did not know about the huge gap between the books and the visual adaptations. For the recent (and lousy) TV adaptation of the Andromeda Strain, sure, but the others… the timelessness of those novels alone is worthy of admiration. Mind you, it’s easy to achieve timelessness in something set a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, or set in the distant future… but with his novels it’s quite something else.

    His essays (Barring his views on global warming. Which, apropos of nothing, were not as bad as people made them out to be,) also show his ability to guess the future, which is perhaps the reason behind the timelessness of his novels as well.

    Lovely essay by Asimov. Though completely unrelated, it reminds me of a preface written by him, talking of readers and writers. Should dig it up.

    Oh, and if you’re a fan of the Golden Age of SF, or of related genres, I would recommend George RR Martin’s Dreamsongs, a great collection of his short stories. Especially to someone with an interest in writing. Also containing commentary, the stories are published in a partly chronological fashion, whereby you can get insights into the writer’s thought processes. Even if nothing else, it’s an incredible read.

    PS

    Thu, 2008-11-06 at 07:45:27


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