April 04, 2016
Vignette Number 1
Isaac Asimov, more than anyone, introduced me to imaginative thinking. I watched Star Trek, and Doctor Who of course on TV when I was very young, but it was when I started reading real science fiction books that I think my interest turned serious.
I was eleven years old, and had just started at a grammar school in the nearest big town to me, Coleraine. It was a long bus ride, which gave me plenty of time to read. If I missed the normal bus home, due to after school clubs or sports, I could walk through town to the station, and wait for the next one.
I found a second-hand bookshop, and began missing the bus more and more. It was a small place, and sadly is gone now, but the owner got to know me, and even when I was grown up and living in England, when I returned with my family I made a point to pop in and buy a book from him.
My first purchase was "Nine Tomorrows" by Isaac Asimov. I can't remember why I picked it now. I knew his name as a giant of science fiction literature that's for sure. It is an anthology of nine stories, so maybe I was attracted by that - I still like short science fiction probably more than longer novels. The cover is fairly typical of the times. It shows a massive spaceship, in what looks like a junk yard, with the crescent moon in the twilight sky behind.
Looking through the story names, they are familiar to me even now. without prompting I can only remember the details of two, but one story I remember very well indeed.
"The Last Question" is widely regarded as Asimov's best story, and it is his own favourite too. It gets included in many lists of greatest science fiction stories, and rightly too. I think I was really lucky to start at the top when I bought this book.
I won't describe the plot, though I urge you to seek out the story and read it for yourself. What I will say about it is that it posits a future of high technology, which I very much liked. Computers existed of course, but this story included a timeline reaching far into the future where they would become more intelligent and powerful. I might have decided right there than my career would be in this profession.
The key point though, is the optimism, which along with his prolific writing, his breadth of subject matter, was one of Asimov's trademarks. Entropy is widely regarded as irreversible, and a direct consequence is what has come to be known as the 'heat death' of the Universe (basically, everything will end. Everything). This won't have any effect on me, or you, or our children, or any human being that will ever life most likely. But it
is troubling nevertheless to think, as Douglas Adams would write in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", would you "raise families, strive for new and better societies, fight terrible wars for what you know to be right..." if you knew that in the end, the Universe just dies?
Asimov finds an optimistic take on that piece of existential dread. I know I found this very comforting, and brought it up later in many late night drunken conversations in university dorm rooms and bars.
So Asimov opened my mind to a really big idea, in this story, and to plenty of others too, like the simple Three Laws of Robotics, which turned out, when you actually analysed them, to make for a whole heap of trouble in the interpretation. He was ambitious for a technologically better world, and fully expected science to make all our lives better.
I was, and still am, infected by this optimism. I imagine, like he did, a future where we don't have to work except if we enjoy it, where power is free and no one needs to be hungry. And of course, I don't worry much about the end of the universe any more.