Asimov at 391

Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Isaac Asimov
Title: “Asimov at 391”
VTR: 6/19/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Now, I must start today’s program with something of a confession…I’m just not a reader of “science fiction”, which is my guest’s genre. Indeed, as I began my homework for this program and inquired more and more about my guest, I began to feel that I must be the last person on planet earth who does not read science fiction regularly and enthusiastically, and who has not read volume after volume by today’s guest: his science fiction, mysteries, science itself, biblical or Shakespearean exegesis, or what-have-you.

For Isaac Asimov surely must be the most prolific writer in the history of mankind. 391 books to this date, with probably still more published between the time we finish taping this program and the time you see it.

Anyway, I’d like to start our program by committing heresy: I don’t really aim to talk with Mr. Asimov today about this writing, science fiction or otherwise, per se. That’s a subject, after all, on the minds and lips of so very many people. I want instead, to make a quantum leap, based solely on an admittedly tiny sampling of Mr. Asimov’s work. I want to ask him just why he chose science fiction as his vehicle to teach. For while Isaac Asimov is quintessentially a writer’s writer – and wonderfully much a reader’s writer, too – still, most important of all he is a master teacher. And I’d like to ask what mostly he’s wanted to teach his massive, massive audience over all these years. What would you say it is?

Asimov: Well, why did I choose science fiction? I didn’t. It chose me. When I was nine years old, I came across a science fiction magazine in my father’s candy store, fell in love with it, and became a fan and stayed a fan. And no one, I think, can start as a fan of science fiction, at that early age, read it assiduously, and not get the urge to write it himself. And, as to what I teach, I teach I think the most hopeless of all subjects, which is that humanity ought to be rational.

Heffner: What do you mean “the most hopeless”?

Asimov: Because humanity isn’t rational, and somehow I don’t think that I’m going to persuade many people to be rational. For instance, right now, once again, they’re talking about there being a wave of mysticism that’s taking over the United States. More and more people are interested in astrology, in the new way…the new something…New Age, I guess they call it. And various assorted nonsenses of that sort. And I don’t think there’s a new recrudescence of that sort of thing. I think it’s always there. I think that people have never stopped believing in anything that has no germ of sense to it.

Heffner: Then why do you want to mislead us? If we are so totally irrational, and always have been, why do you want to teach with rationality, the rational solution of problems as the basis of your…what you do write?

Asimov: For two reasons. In the first place, I have to live with myself. I feel that since I do appreciate rationality, I do believe I have a kind of ability to be a skeptic, to insist on evidence, to want things to make sense, I have the duty to say so. Just as some people feel that they have the call to spread God’s word, I believe that if there’s such a thing as God’s word, it’s rationality, and I have the call to spread it. And, secondly, even though I don’t think I’ll convert the world to rationality, I may influence an occasional person here and there. And every small addition to the sum total of rationality is precious, and I would like to be responsible for as many drops as we can possibly add to that small pond.

Heffner: Well, let’s, let’s enlarge the pond. Tell me what the motivation would be for someone to embrace the rational ethic that you relate to.

Asimov: Well, for one thing you understand the universe better. To believe in nonsense is really to limit yourself terribly, to live in fear of all sorts of things that don’t exist. Imagine, if you will, how it must have been in the old days when you believed in, in ogres, and devils, and all kinds of monsters, and evil fairies. I mean the whole world was filled with intelligences superior to your own that were malicious and evil, and you lived in terror. Now, heaven only knows that there are evils in the world, and there are dangers. But you might as well concentrate on those that really exist, and not create them for yourself, and try to live surrounded by these imaginary menaces.

Heffner: But even you say “heaven only knows”. Even you resort to something that is quite that irrational.

Asimov: Well, you know, that’s the English language. I say I’m enthusiastic about thus or so. But if you look at the derivation of the word “enthusiasm”, it means “God within the person”. Since nobody believes that a human being, all on his own, can accomplish great things, when you get the “enthusiastic” person who does accomplish great things, it’s because some god is acting upon him. Therefore, I use the word “enthusiasm” even though I don’t believe that it’s some god working in me.

Heffner: You know…wait a minute, let me, let me go back over this, if I may. You want to serve mankind, and you believe that you can do that best by emphasizing the rational within us. But clearly, the gods, the terrors, must have served us, at least well enough for us to have maintained them all of these eons. Why do you want to take them away from us?

Asimov: They served us because we knew so little about the world. We live in uncertainly. We know that at any time disaster might strike. We cannot foresee the future. It is very uncomfortable to live under such conditions. People make up ways of controlling the future. They dream about fairy godmothers who give them gifts. They go and ask questions of fortune tellers of all kinds, to give them a hint as to what may be in store for them, and how they may best persuade fate to deal kindly with them. Or, if they’re religious, they’ll pray to God. Something like that. It gives them a feeling of security. Now, there’s no use having false security. If there’s nothing else available, that’s what people go for.

But now, for instance, a person insists on some sort of mumbo jumbo, instead of, let us say, taking advantage of modern medicine, then, you know, he’s virtually committing suicide. And I would hate to see people go to these faith healers, and things like that.

Heffner: Then how do you, how do you explain, to what do you attribute what you, yourself describe as a renaissance, in a sense of mysticism, if you will, of the non-rational here at the end of more than a century of rationalism, of scientificism?

Asimov: Well, for one thing, it’s easier. To be irrational gives you certain answers. Anyone would rather go to somebody who’ll say, “Two plus two equals five and there’s no mistake about it”, then to go to someone who says, “Well, modern scientific research says that “Two plus two is usually four, but we can’t always be certain, of course”. They’ll go for the certainty, even if it’s wrong. It depends on what you, what you promise. Why do people go out and buy fake oil stock of all kinds? Con men always get rich. They sell people all kinds of ridiculous things. They play all kinds of games, which just take money away. Why? Because in each case they promise that that person will make a lot of money. And the eagerness to get rich easy, the get rich quick schemes that people fall for, and what they lose money over, well this is a kind of get-rich-quick-scheme of the mind. These are con men of the spirit, if you will. They’re selling you something, a false security that sounds good, knowledge of the future that doesn’t really exist, assurance that you’ll be safe when you’re not really safe. And you give them all the money you can in return for it. Same thing like the…like betting which pea is under which shell.

Heffner: You say, “Same thing” as the old con man’s device, and yet obviously there must be some subjective satisfaction here, some subjective satisfaction given by the claim to irrationality, and some fear as to those who have mastered reason. After all, this is, again, the century of science. Perhaps as we look to see what science has done, what it has brought us, it would seem to us that greater safety, greater security, reasonably can be assumed to reside in the mystical.

Asimov: Well, it sounds good when you say that because you think of chemical pollution and nuclear weapons, and all the things that modern science has brought through its misuse, largely by politicians and businessmen and so on. But nobody really wants to abandon science, and it never happens. For instance, you want to go back to the “good old days” when you could just be mystical, when if you did happen to get appendicitis, you died in agony because there was nothing anyone could do for you. If you did have to go to the hospital these were butcher shops of sheer torture because there was no anesthesia. There are a million things that people won’t abandon. People complain all the time about modern life, about “what has science done for us?” Try to take away their automobiles and television sets. They won’t, they won’t give it up. So that, while it’s fashionable to say that it is better to do as the older generations did, no one really wants to do it. You show me a person who longs for the simple life, and I’ll show you someone who’s living in a penthouse in Manhattan.

Heffner: Well, those people you were referring to before, those who are embracing a kind of mysticism, most of them don’t live in penthouses in Manhattan. Most of them do feel that the modern world is too damn puzzling and that they want to return to simpler, though in a sense, as you suggest, more mystical elements.

Asimov: Oh, well now let’s distinguish. Let’s distinguish. There are people who live, shall we say, simple lives who are not sophisticated, who are not extremely educated, who are clinging to the faiths of their fathers. That’s one thing. That’s one thing. They get a lot of satisfaction out of it. But there are also people of the Shirley MacLaine type who’ve got everything they want, and who still fool around with mysticism. Not because they want the simple life, but simply because they want some kind of security that they can’t find, some assurance that something they haven’t got, they can get on the cheap. For instance, you believe you’ve lived in the past, that there’s a transmigration of souls, that perhaps you won’t really die, you’ll have another life some day. I mean there are a million things that constitute a denial that death exists.

Heffner: But isn’t science fiction itself, such a function of imagination, such a function of futurism that it, in its own way, it does the same thing?

Asimov: It depends. As in everything else there is good and bad. (Laughter) There is good science fiction and there is bad science fiction. Good science fiction tries to invent a society which is different from our own, distinctly different, but which holds lessons for our own. In other words, you suppose that you’ve got a society in which space travel is common, let us say. What problems arise? What special, what special difficulties do people who are engaged in space travel, what, what are they facing, etc. etc.? Now this is no promise to you that life will be easy. As a matter of fact I think that most science fiction stories tend to be on the grim side, that unfavorable futures make for better stories than favorable ones. And a friend of mine says that science fiction writers are scouts sent out by mankind to survey the future and to come back and say, “That way lie quicksands. This looks pretty good if we can get over a hill”. And so on. We don’t predict, not deliberately. Sometimes we hit on something that actually comes to pass. I’ve done that myself, but that’s largely accidental. The main thing we do is just see if we can illuminate the human condition under a particular system of thinking that is, “Supposed we lived in a society other than our own?” Now it’s just a little version of literature, in other words. Good literature, all if it, is supposed to illuminate the human condition.

Heffner: But it’s interesting that you say so much of science fiction is negative in a sense, is grim…I think you used the word “grim”. I’m thinking, too, of the negative utopias. I think many of us used to think that books about the future, writing about the future were always very positive. And then we came to Brave New World which in its own way was written so many decades ago, a kind of science fiction, and a negative utopia; Brave New World, 1984, and a great number of them.

Asimov: Well, this happens all the time for a simple reason. That it, it makes for better drama. You write a story about how everything is just fine, people fall asleep over it. Even, even stories which have happy endings are grim until the happy ending. Think of all the fairy tales you’ve read. I…you know, sometimes people say, “Why don’t children go back to those good old fairy tales”. And I always say, I recite the plot of Hansel and Gretel. Here are these poor, this poor woodcutting family starving to death. And the mother, not the step-mother, the mother – suggests they send out the two kids and just let them starve so they don’t have to feed them. And they send them out twice, and then when they’re finally lost because they’ve put out bread crumbs, and the birds have eaten it, they come across a witch who’s going to eat them. So you’ve got abandonment, you’ve got child abuse, you’ve got cannibalism. Finally it ends happily, but you can imagine what the kid has suffered until he gets there. Why do you put that in? These are folk tales. The grimmer you make them, the more relief there is at the happy ending. And unfortunately people are going to realize that the grimness is true. The happy ending is false.

Heffner: Do you follow that same pattern yourself in your science fiction?

Asimov: In a way I do. There’s always danger, there’s always risk. It always seems as though the right side, whoever they may be, is not going to win out, and in my stories they always do. But yes, there’s grimness.

Heffner: Whatever happened to Edward Bellamy’s approach of looking backward which one could think of a very positive utopia?

Asimov: Well, there you have something like Thomas Moore’s Utopia, which gave the whole thing its name. There you’re trying to sell something. You’re trying to sell the idea that everything would be wonderful if only you had a single tax on land. Or everything would be wonderful if only you had socialism. Or everything would be wonderful if simply everyone held their possessions in common, or if everyone went to church and followed the Golden Rule. So naturally you’re presenting a wonderful world. But, much more common and much more effective are the ones that show what not to do, like in Gulliver’s Travels when you have the world of little people who mirror all the follies and corruption of 18th century England and you laugh at it because these are little six inch people who are doing all this, you see. And you don’t stop to think that what, that what the author is doing is to deliberately mimic English society and get you to laugh at him because you think it’s science fiction.

Heffner: Do you have a political agenda, if I may call it that? Or, if…to what extent do you have a political agenda? That may be a better question.

Asimov: Well, let’s put it this way. I am firmly convinced that the problems we face, all the problems humanity faces now are global in nature. In other words, if the ozone layer is disappearing, it’s disappearing for everybody, not just for Americans of just for Egyptians. If we’re dealing with overpopulation, the effect on the earth is universal. With pollution…there’s only one ocean, one atmosphere, we’re polluting it for all of us, whoever pollutes it. And there’s no way in which we’re ever going to solve these problems all by ourselves. No nation can do it by itself. The only way…a sensible, a sensible attack on these problems can be made is by international cooperation, a global effort. So I’m all for international cooperation. I am against not only war, but I’m against the fact that the world spends half a trillion dollars every year just preparing for wars which they don’t dare fight. And that half trillion dollars that goes into weapons of war, into standing armies, into all kinds of chazzarai that can’t be used for anything else and isn’t. So that we’re short on dough for things to combat acid rain, for instance. We can’t figure out what to do about a host of problems because we’re spending, not only all our money, but all our effort and all our emotion on this useless thing of nation versus nation, which may destroy us all.

Heffner: Now, when you got through that litany it comes back again, I must say, to the notion of how in the world do you equate that, those threats, things we are doing to ourselves with this rationality that you assume to prevail in the nature of human nature?

Asimov: Well, what stands in the way of us attacking these things in a global sense? Mostly irrational feelings about “I’m better than you are”. Each nation suspects its neighbors. There’s a kind of awareness of enormous differences that don’t really exist, you know. What is the major difference between the Northern Irish who are Protestant and the Northern Irish who are Catholic? Protestants and Catholic exist together in all the world. Why can’t they exist together in Northern Ireland? What keeps them apart, keeps them killing each other for decade after decade? What is there about the Israelis and the Palestinians that makes it impossible for them to see each other’s point of view? There’s a difference in religion, yes, but surely we’re passed the idea of wars of religion. There is this foolishness, which I can only think of as foolishness, that as the whole world is sliding into the abyss, people are ignoring that fact and fighting with each other. Who cares who’s going to win when everyone’s going to lose? So that we have irrationality keeping us from really attempting to tackle the problems.

Heffner: You know, as I listen to you and listen very carefully, I can’t help but think of another novelist, another novel, can’t think of that segment in The Brothers Karamazov of “The Grand Inquisitor”, and the accusation made to the Christ figure that he demanded too much of us, worked on the assumption that we human beings were capable of eschewing miracles, eschewing the search for bread, etc. You want us to do something that it would seem this century has demonstrated we’re not capable of doing.

Asimov: We can do it if we really want to because we have done it in the past, and we are in the process of doing it. When the Revolutionary War was over, and the United States had won its independence, there were thirteen independent states in the nation. Congress was a United Nations at that time. It couldn’t, it couldn’t pass taxes, couldn’t collect money except voluntary contributions as the United Nations does. It couldn’t establish laws, each state established laws. The nation would certainly have fallen apart into quarreling segments and been destroyed except that we had the Constitutional Convention in which the states gave up their sovereign power and formed a federal union which was to have the sovereign power, and it continued, and eighty years later over the issue of slavery some states were sorry they’d given up their sovereign power and tried to take it back.

Heffner: Well, if we were to turn to the individuals who pointed the way to us, out of that morass, to Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton and Washington and others, do you find their counterpart today? Do you find their counterpart in the scientific community, for instance?

Asimov: Well, I guess I do as a matter of fact. I can’t point out the individuals’ properly, I’m sure you couldn’t at that time. You know, distance lends enchantment and gives you perspective. But what do I see when I look at things? I see that Reagan and Gorbachev standing there with their arms around each others’ shoulder, talking like buddies. And you stop to think of it, this is Gorbachev, to whom Reagan must be an imperialist dog, and to Reagan,
Gorbachev must be an evil imperialist, and the question is, “Why are they such friends”? And the answer is, “They have no choice”. And I think throughout, all through the world today, you see cooperation because people have no choice. You see…right now there’s going to be an economic summit. Every year the seven industrial nations meet in an economic summit. What they accomplish, I don’t know, but there’s the feeling they have to get together and talk. We cooperate with questions of the oceans, we cooperate on weather. It’s amazing how much the United States and the Soviet Union, how much information they pass each other on space. For their own good. Nobody’s doing this for the good of anyone else. They’re doing this for their own good. And this is going to increase. People are going to realize increasingly that they’re going to have to be nice to each other, not because the Bible says so, not because niceness is nice, but only because the other way, there is death.

Heffner: Is there any indication, as far as you’re concerned, that scientists, more than others understand this?

Asimov: yes. We are all…in the first place, there’s only one science. Of all the cultural aspects of humanity, the only one which is not broken up into national or regional splinters is science. Different nations have different languages, they may have different religions, may have different dietaries, may have different holidays, different ways of thinking, but here’s only one science. In other words, the laws of nature that are discovered by an Englishman, or by a German, or by an American working in Nigeria and Indonesia and everywhere else. And when the Chinese or Japanese join in modern science, they do what we do, they do science as we do. There’s only one science. It’s the only thing that encompasses all of man.

Heffner: That’s why there are nuclear weapons in so many different countries because there is that unity. Correct?

Asimov: Well, when the nuclear weapons were invented, there were a group of scientists lead by James Franck who formed a group that asked President Truman not to use it. Or to use it in an unoccupied area, to show it exists, but not to use it on a city. They were outvoted by, admittedly, some other scientists, but also just about unanimously, by the military and political leaders of the nation. Now, afterwards a number of scientists felt extremely guilty about it. Some left nuclear physics and got to work in other fields where they could bear to be with themselves. I never heard of a politician or a military man that were worrying about it in the slightest. So while scientists aren’t perfect by any means, I really and seriously believe they’re closer to reality and rationality than others are.

Heffner: And it seems to me that that’s a perfect place for us to end our program, and for me to thank you, Isaac Asimov, for joining me today with this…essentially ending on this note of optimism. Thank you so much.

Asimov: You’re welcome.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer, Inc.; The New York Times Company Foundation.

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