Thursday, August 19, 2004

Sizzling Saturn!

I just finished Bill Bryson's _Mother Tongue_ and am currently reading Isaac Asimov's _I, Robot_. It's a quick and enjoyable read, and, given it's fifty-year vintage, understandably a classic. I enjoy its simplicity and much of its quaint English. Even so, one of the biggest disppointments is how atrocious, teeth-grittingly wooden, Asimov's prose can be. He knows no narrative subtlety. As far as I know, Asimov was born in Russia and emigrated as a child to the USA and became a fully naturalized "Amer'can". He is every bit of a Russian, though, in his prose style. Not only do his characters have all the feverish moral urgency and of a Dostoyevsky novel, but they also seem to have studied "The Method" under Stanislavsky. The following is my completely accurate and unexaggerated -- just trust me! -- illustration of Asimov's style:

"Sizzling Saturn, that robot's gone haywire! Looks like our bright ideas are dimmer than we first thought!" a character, Smith, screamed at his partner. He raised his hand in a grandiose swoop of alarm.

"You're telling me something I don't know! Save your sarcasm for later! We have to act, and how!" the other character, Rogers, shouts back. "This is a critical dilemma!" he added, as he clutched his mustache and rubbed it the wrong way.

"So! What should we do!" Smith asked in a brow-furrowed huff.

"I don't know! But I do know this: if we try to subdue it, that metal headache will hit the electron beam and fry Earth!"

"Right! Holy Jupiter!" Smith interjected, tears in his throat.

"But if we try to disable the electron beam, we'll probably cook ourselves to a crisp in ten milliseconds -- *flat*!"

"Yikes! No fun there!" Smith quipped and ran his hand back and forth over his sweaty forehead.

"Well! Look," Rogers shouts, "we need to act -- *fast*!"

And so it goes on, page after heavy-handed, ear-splitting, jugular-bulged page.

The funny part is that Asimov sounds so much like a cliche because he established those cliches. I also think Asimov coined (or tried unsuccessfully to coin) an adverb: "machinely". It's fascinating to realize how much Michael Crichton and Robin Cook, for example, owe to Asimov. He was a leader, if not a pioneer, of the nonchalant science lesson genre of fiction. "Well, Smith, iron calcide, when exposed to heat, forms blah blah blah" -- as if people naturally chit chat about chemical reactions and as if elite robotocists really rehash rudimentary principles about positronic brains and vacuum tubes (how quaint!) in imminent-life-or-death situations.

But don't get me wrong. Far be it from me to miss the forest for the trees. Asimov deserves his rep as a premier sf writer, and a true AI visionary. If nothing else he wrote numerous basically enjoyable books that have inspired countless nerds and otherwise insecure geniuses to keep searching out God's amazing Creation. I can easily see finishing the whole ROBOT series. I enjoy his book, but I still can't help but realize, page after page with a grin, how hammy it is.

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