“Asimov’s adventure” editorials II

When reading Asimov’s editorials on adventure I got the impression that he probably would have wanted to write more of them, perhaps thinking the magazine was going to last longer. A certain idea or thesis seemed to be developing on those pages, one about the place of adventure in literature, its relationship with science fiction, and so on, but sadly we’ll never know if it had a conclusion.

In any case, below I’ll post the editorial for the second issue. This one roves a bit and Asimov indulges in his pedagogic side, and I’m sure many people will not share his enthusiasm concerning the adventure and excitement of science (astronomy, yay!) but that meandering is not done without a purpose.

The excitement of astronomy!


His comments on science and how SF tends to reflect current scientific conceptions, even if they are wrong, about how writers use them as a springboard to create fiction, are quite interesting. He uses the “Martian canals” as an example, which is apt since it’s difficult for modern readers to realize or understand that when some of those stories about Martian civilizations were first written (from War of the Worlds to A Princess of Mars,) it was still somewhat plausible to believe that those structures were real.

At the very least, it explains why sci-fi is a creation of the modern world and why certain tropes come and go as they draw (and finally bore) the public’s attention. Although he obviously doesn’t mention it, it’s also a warning for those authors whose “science” is too current or fleeting, as their stories may expire too soon or become almost unreadable in a few decades if their focus was only on technology and not on more enduring qualities (human character, adventure, whatever.)

Adventure in the sky.

Here we have the second issue of AsfAm. I assume that since you are reading this, you have enjoyed the first issue and are back for more —or have missed the first issue and are sorry and won’t do that anymore.

Either way, let’s continue the discussion of adventure that I began in the first issue.

Science fiction adventure shifts the accent of the stories, but not the content. The feeling of suspense, of being caught up in a whirlwind of action, is heightened in such stories; the pauses for contemplation of philosophical and psychological points are lessened. The characters in the adventure stories tend to fight the battle with external forces and are less likely to struggle with internal uncertainty. But however strong the accent on adventure, there must remain some sort of scientific background on the story ceases to be science fiction. That is the content that remains.

In the adventure story, to be sure, we can’t afford the luxury of long scientific discussions, and it wouldn’t be good practice to hang the crux of the plot on an arcane point of theory —trimming the fat doesn’t mean we eliminate the meat.

After all, science itself is an adventure, a great adventure, the greatest that humanity has ever known. It has brought us to the heights; it threatens us with the depths; it offers us both new victories and new dangers —and perhaps ultimate defeat.

This is true even of the oldest, the quietest, the most removed of the sciences —astronomy.

Let me give you an example. Every year, a friend of mine, Robert Little, organizes an ‘Astronomy Island Cruise.’ Some forty or fifty of us take the good ship Statendam from New York to Bermuda. There we stay through four days and three nights before returning to New York.

The trip is luxurious, the island is beautiful, the whole thing is happy and relaxing, but the nub of the matter is astronomy. Those who have the equipment (and quite a few do) bring their various telescopes with them and set them up at a ‘land-site,’ an estate just a couple of miles from the harbor. During the day we can observe the Sun; during the night we can observe the planets and stars.

That may not sound exciting but it is. Despite my dislike for traveling. I have gone on the 1978 edition of the cruise, and it was full of adventure —provided you know what you’re looking at.

On the night of July 11, in the warm, clear sky of Bermuda, there were the following bodies in a straight line, moving upward from the western horizon: Mercury, Saturn, Venus, Mars, the Moon, and Uranus.

We looked at each other, and each on was more than just a blob of light- Each had an astronomical history that was enormously exciting.

The Moon was a trifle less than half-phase, and in the telescope it looked as though it were made of pure, white chalk. (It isn’t actually; it is composed of rather darl rock that reflects only 7 percent of the light that falls on it. That 7 percent, however, in the absence of an obscuring Lunar atmosphere is enough to make the Moon glow a brilliant white.)

In the chalky whiteness, I could make out, very clearly, numerous craters, especially towards the terminator, where the shadows of the crater walls are long. Back in 1609 that was exactly the sight that met Galileo’s eye as he peered at the Moon through his first telescope-

Until that moment, a few thinkers had theorized that the heavenly bodies might be worlds, but in one flashing observation, Galileo proved that at least the Moon was. It was not the smooth and perfect heavenly object it was thought to be. It was as rough and uneven as the Earth was. It was another world.

That discovery set off the first science fiction boom (a small one, of course) the world had seen. There had been isolated tales of interplanetary tales before Galileo, but now a group of books on the subject loaded the printing presses

The sight I saw, then was the origin of my profession. How could I help but be moved?

Venus and Mercury were each in the half-phase, each a tiny semi-circle of light; and that sight, too, marked a great adventure. In 1543, Copernicus had suggested that the planets (including Earth) moved around the Sun instead of, as had been believed for agest past, the planets (including the Sun) moving around the Earth.

For two-thirds of a century, controversy raged. The Copernican view made more sense in some way, the older in other ways. How could one decide between the two?

Then cam Galileo with his telescope and saw that Venus could be a semi-circle of light, just as I now saw it. Indeed, as Venus moved across the sky, it went through all the phases the Moon did.

By the older theory, Venus could never have anything but a crescent shape. By the new Copernican theory. Venus would have to behave exactly as Galileo had observed it to behave. This discovery was the final nail in the coffin of the old theory, and Galileo was so nervous about the possible repercussions that he announced his discovery in code.

It meant, then, that when I stared at Venus and Mercury each as semi-circles of light, I was staring at the proof that Earth moves through space.

As for Mars… it was just 101 years ago that the ‘canals’ on Mars were discovered; and for nearly a century many people were convinced there was intelligent life on Mars and, indeed, advanced and, perhaps, dying civilization.

Think what that did for science fiction! Within twenty years of the discovery, H.G. Wells published War of the Wolds, the very first science fiction story that features interplanetary warfare. Until then, what science fiction stories had been written were rather philosophic or satiric. Strange other worlds were observed and explored, but the accent was on the customs of the alien societies or on the reaction of aliens to our own customs.

War of the Worlds involved rapid action and danger and catastrophe. It was the first science fiction adventure story, and the whole field was thus born of a view of Mars through a telescope.

Of course, I couldn’t see any canals through the small telescopes on Bermuda, but that doesn’t matter. In the 1970s, we finally got a truly close look at Mars by way of planetary probes, and it turned out that there were no canals after all. They were optical illusions. But they had played their role in the development of science fiction.

Saturn is the jewel of the Solar System. I stared at it through each of two different telescopes and found it, as always, unbelievable. It showed ut as a small disk of light surrounded by a neat, close-fitting ring that we could see at a small angle to the line of sight. Since Saturn is so far away, Galileo couldn’t quite make out what it was that caused the planet to look so odd. It took over forty years before Christiaan Huygens made out the planet well enough to understand the nature of the rings, and then he announced his discovery in code.

For three centuries after that we thought Saturn and its rings were unique in the Solar system —and, for all we knew, in the Universe. Then, in 1977, it was discovered that Uranus had rings, too. The Uranian rings were thin, dim, far too faint to see; and when I looked at Uranus through the telescopes, it was just a small bit of light. No one can see the rings.

How did we find out, then? Well, Uranus was going to pass in front of a small star, and astronomers wanted to study what happened to the star-light as it began to pass through Uranus’ atmosphere. They could then tell what gasses there would be in that atmosphere. However, before Uranus reached the star, that star dimmed, brightened, dimmed, brightened, and so on. The star was passing behind thin and unseen rings.

Adventure? The astronomers who had been quietly waiting for contact between Uranus and the star and who became conscious of dimming, where no dimming ought to have been, undoubtedly never before had —and probably never again would have— a moment that exciting and pulse-stopping

Adventure is where you find it—and you can’t miss it in science


Next editorial.

3 thoughts on ““Asimov’s adventure” editorials II

  1. Pingback: Asimov’s Adventure editorials III: on mythology, sword & sorcery, and economists. – The Frisky Pagan

  2. Pingback: Isaac Asimov on adventure, pulp, and Shakespeare. – The Frisky Pagan

  3. Pingback: Asimov’s Adventure editorials IV: Hollywood, movies, and pew-pew sci-fi. – The Frisky Pagan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.