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Thoughts on the Short Fiction of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov

Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE scifi con.

Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury were two pillars of Golden Age science fiction, but they had different backgrounds and different writing styles.

Isaac Asimov spent much of his life in New York City and Boston. He got degrees in chemistry and became a professor at Boston University after getting his PhD. For much of his life he was a teacher, and while he was doing that he was also writing furiously. From Wikipedia, “Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.” Much of his writing was science-oriented and the science fiction part was a subset of that.

In contrast, Ray Bradbury was Los Angeles and entertainment oriented. From Wikipedia, “The family lived about four blocks from the Uptown Theater on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the flagship theater for MGM and Fox. There, Bradbury learned how to sneak in and watched previews almost every week. He roller-skated there as well as all over town, as he put it ‘hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars. It was glorious.'” And this shaped his writing style. Once again from Wikipedia, Bradbury says of his style, “First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time — because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”

That said, many readers think of his work as science fiction.

Given these differences in background, it’s not surprising their styles are different. What they have in common is internal consistency. Once either author lays down a premise, they stick with it and do a good job of exploring its consequences.

Take a look at Asimov’s I, Robot series of short stories. The consistent premise here is that robots have the “Three Laws” built into their thinking — a concept Asimov came up with so he could explore robots that didn’t have “I’m taking over the world.”-issues. From there Asimov puts the robots into different settings, in space and on Earth, and gives them different capabilities. He plays to his strength as a science teacher by mixing in high school level physics and chemistry. He plays to his strength as a visionary by having the robots advance rapidly in capabilities from story to story.

A longer example of his concept exploring is the novel End of Eternity. In this he takes the time machine concept and thinks about it a bit. What he comes up with is not just a single machine, as H. G. Wells did, but a well-organized human organization that deals with this as an invention — we have a time machine industry, not just a single time machine. He then goes a step further and gives this human organization goals for their efforts — essentially to stop wars and unrest. Then he introduces other humans who object to that goal: The people of the future who miss out on the opportunity to settle the stars because human civilization has been so peaceful it stagnates rather than advancing. Out of this premise mix comes an interesting and innovative story that has nothing to do with interfering with famous real world historical events — that cliche is neatly dodged. The familiar part that is companion to this innovation is the love story between a diligent time worker and a mysterious lady from the future.

An example of concept exploring in Bradbury’s writing is his short story The Veldt in The Illustrated Man. In this Bradbury does a nice depiction of what is today called a “smart house”. This story was written in 1950 so the smartness is not computer based, but it is smart nonetheless. The fun part is he explores the consequences of that on the lifestyle of the family living there. The smartness is original, the familiar part of this story is the theme: He is moralizing against rampant consumerism, which was a common concern in the mid-20th century. The other Illustrated Man stories explore other popular social concerns of the 1950’s such as racism and the devastation of nuclear war.

These short stories are an example of something else as well: If you are writing about a concept, as versus writing about characters, the story tends to be much shorter and sweeter — telling about concepts takes a lot less time.

All of these stories are good examples of the virtue of paying attention to internal consistency, which I cover in the next section in more detail.

 

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