The Novel I Wish Isaac Asimov Had Written

Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI

By Jay Cole

As I wrote my article about my experience teaching a course about Isaac Asimov (“A Semester with Isaac Asimov in the May/June issue on sale now), I found myself thinking about what he did not write. By this, I mean the Good Doctor was a prolific author of science fiction novels and stories that help to explain and popularize a variety of scientific topics and issues.

From robotics to mathematical sociology, Asimov’s science fiction has had a significant impact on public opinion and the popular imagination. This was, after all, one of my primary reasons for creating and teaching the course. Recognizing that he could not write about everything (although, thankfully, he gave it his best effort), what scientific topic or issue do I wish he had addressed in a novel or story? My answer: radio astronomy.

I say this because two radio astronomy facilities, the Arecibo Observatory and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, face uncertain futures. Due to budget cuts, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made some tough choices recently about how to allocate scarce dollars across a large portfolio of expensive scientific installations and programs. Thus, the NSF is dramatically reducing its investment in both Arecibo and Green Bank over the next few years. These observatories are seeking other sources of funding to continue their essential research, education, and outreach. Arecibo just announced a partnership with the University of Central Florida.

The impact of these facilities has been very significant. Arecibo (http://outreach.naic.edu/ao/landing) has been instrumental in a range of discoveries from neutron stars to ice at the poles of Mercury. Green Bank (http://greenbankobservatory.org/), located in my home state of West Virginia, discovered the first signal of an organic molecule in space and is at the forefront of detecting gravitational waves from pulsars. And in 1960, Frank Drake launched the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence by using a Green Bank radio telescope.

With such a legacy, it is not surprising that radio astronomy has been a topic for science fiction literature and film. James Gunn’s 1972 novel, The Listeners, tells a very compelling story, set at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, about the social and political struggles that might result from detecting an intelligent signal from beyond Earth. Gunn paved the way for Carl Sagan’s best-selling novel, Contact, in 1985 and the 1997 film based on the book. The film, in particular, has promoted awareness of the Jansky Very Large Array, a collection of radio telescopes in New Mexico. (In a nice example of crossover between science and science fiction, Jodie Foster, the star of Contact, narrates a video that plays at the VLA’s Welcome Center.)

The novels by Gunn and Sagan are two great examples of how science fiction literature can help to shape public interest in and understanding of science, in this case the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I just wish Asimov had written a book about radio astronomy as well!

There is every chance that Asimov’s treatment would differ sharply from Gunn and Sagan. Perhaps he would have focused less on searching for extraterrestrial life and more on radio telescopes as a research tool for understanding the nature of time and the shape of space. (It is important to note that Asimov did write about radio astronomy in his nonfiction. His summary of the history of radio astronomy and his explanation of how radio telescopes work occupy two chapters in his book, Eyes on the Universe: A History of the Telescope.)

However Asimov would have approached it, we can be confident it would have been thought-provoking. As authors such as Asimov, Gunn, Sagan, and many others have demonstrated over the years, there is a special power in science fiction to capture the imagination, generate enthusiasm, and influence opinion. And of course, it is not too late for the next generation of science fiction authors to weave radio astronomy into their stories and novels, and explore the scientific and social issues that swirl around the field.

A radio astronomy-themed science fiction anthology, anyone?


Jay Cole is senior advisor to the president and an adjunct faculty member at West Virginia University. His scholarly interests include science policy, the history of science, and the relationship between science fiction and public opinion. During the fall 2016 semester, Jay channeled his life-long love of science fiction, and Isaac Asimov in particular, into creating and teaching an honors course on Asimov. Jay’s guest editorial describes his experience and makes a case for teaching about Asimov’s work as an antidote to a “post-truth” era of “alternative facts.”

Peter Payack and the Stonehenge Watch

Believe it or not, Peter Payack has been appearing in our magazine for five decades now. Below, he details his writing history, including his long relationship with Asimov’s, and the story behind the invention of the Stonehenge Watch. Read on and catch Peter’s latest poem, “The Evolutionary Race,” in the current issue.


My whole life I’ve been interested in science, philosophy, history, science fiction, and the classical Greek and Roman world. I also have run 92,000 miles, 24 marathons (including 12 Bostons) and I coach wrestling at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. I am a strong advocate of the Latin adage that a strong mind needs a strong body, usually attributed to the classical poet Juvenal, which is quite fitting.

I always say, “I read, write, and run” every day. I am all over the place in reading, and lately I’ve been multitasking by listening to the “Great Courses Plus” lessons while I run. So in a typical day, I write for a few hours in the morning. I might listen to a thirty-minute lecture on the “Great African Rift Valley” while running, look up something about archeoastronomy when I get home, then listen to a lecture on “Aquinas and the Problem of Aristotle” on my evening run after wrestling practice, where we exercise in ninety-degree heat and have the latest rap music blasting.

I used to carry a notebook with me at all times, where I would scribble any ideas down. Now I type every thing in my iPhone. In fact, for my last book, “The Book of Conceptual Anarchy, Vol. 1,” I wrote all my ideas in my iPhone before I typed them out on my computer.

Continue reading “Peter Payack and the Stonehenge Watch”

Q&A with James Gunn

Prolific author James Gunn has been a regular in our Tables of Contents this past year—he discusses this serial project in our latest editor/author Q&A! Two tales from this universe are in the March/April issue on sale now.

 

Asimov’s Editors: Jim, our readers have seen a lot of you in our pages over this past year (for which we are grateful!), can you give an overview of this project? What was it like revisiting these characters?

James Gunn: When I finished the Transcendental trilogy, I discovered that I wasn’t finished with the universe (or, to be more precise, the arm of the galaxy) that I had created and the characters who inhabited it. That is how novels turn into trilogies. Authors can’t let go. Even a trilogy is restricted by the requirements of the overall narrative in what its characters can do and say. In Transcendental, eight of my characters tell their stories about how they came to join this pilgrimage to find the Transcendental Machine, but first-person narrative is limited to what that character has experienced and remembers, filtered through the uncertain and unreliable memories and needs of the narrator. I thought of telling their stories more completely, through the perception of an unbiased third-person narrator, and sharing these stories with a larger audience. I discussed the project with Sheila, and she encouraged me to tackle the project over dinner in the Drum Room of the President Hotel at MidAmeriCon. And so it was done, with the addition of a narrative from the viewpoint of Riley’s pedia and an essay about space opera and the Transcendental trilogy’s place in it.

 

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in these stories?

JG: An author gets attached to his characters: It’s like living with someone, or a group of someones, sharing their lives, their thoughts, their desires and fears, and most of all, in Transcendental the events that brought them together. Because these characters were cooped up in a spaceship for months, they got to know each other better than most people have the chance to do, and they became real to me. I liked them all, but I was particularly fond of Asha and Tordor, and so, as the trilogy developed, I couldn’t let Tordor be destroyed in the deadly city of the Transcendental Machine.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for these stories? What is your history with Asimov’s? Continue reading “Q&A with James Gunn”

Q&A with Robert Reed

Rumored to be the most prolific Asimov’s author, Robert Reed is back in our pages (and here on our blog!) with a delightfully despicable character in “Love Songs for the Very Awful,” in our current issue on sale now!

Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind “Love Songs for the Very Awful”?

Robert Reed: “Love Songs for the Very Awful” began as a title, which I found intriguing, and later, the presence of a predatory man and the various women who can accept him for what he is. At least temporarily.

 

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

RR: Most of my stories produce a rain of sparks. Inspiration is rarely in short supply with me, and quite a lot gets thrown away before the piece feels done. One advantage about doing this for so many years . . . I usually recognize when things aren’t working, and I escape before too much time has been wasted.

 

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

RR: I don’t remember writing the title. I was playing with future works and must have written down those words, and then it got put away for several months before I came back to it.


AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RR: My history with Asimov’s? Extensive and long lasting, and I am rumored to be the magazine’s most prolific author. I won a Hugo with a novella first published here: “A Billion Eves.”


AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

RR: Several of my earlier Asimov’s stories involve characters who should be considered sociopathic or even psychopathic. “She Sees My Monsters Now” is one of those beauties. What makes this story different, in part, is that my protagonist is self-absorbed but not particularly dangerous. I mean, I wouldn’t shy away from him on the street, and most of humanity wouldn’t have any trouble chatting with him.

 

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

RR: Writing sounded like fun, and I thought I would be good at it. But it took a decade of hard labor and rejection slips to give me any hope about either motivation. I liked writing, even when the stories flopped. And I was getting closer to making sales, which kept me in the hunt for making this into my profession.

 

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

RR: I am finishing up the next novel set in my Marrow universe. My intention is to hire a copyeditor and then put it up for sale as a Kindle book. Why that route? Because I have more books to write, and I’m 61, and publishing has changed radically, and I don’t relish the opportunity to sit across from an editor who tells me that this is great or that is wonderful, but I should have more relatable characters in my stories. (The future Marrow novels will be as bizarre as anything that I have ever written. If I live to finish them.)

 

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

RR: My Marrow universe seems pretty fun. But really, on my most creative day, I couldn’t have imagined one tenth of the last several years living inside this SFnal universe of ours.

 

AE: What are you reading right now?

RR: I just finished Daniel Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine, which has led me to the conclusion that all of us who were alive in the early sixties also died in the early sixties. There was no reasonable way to escape nuclear annihilation. And everything since has been an illusion produced by kind or evil aliens. I’m not sure which yet.

 


Robert Reed is the author of nearly 300 stories and novels. He won a Hugo for the novella, “A Billion Eves,” published in the October/November 2006 issue of Asimov’s. His novella, “Truth,” has been made into a small, intense film called Prisoner X. Among Reed’s recent efforts is a giant alternate history novel in four pieces. The Trials of Quentin Maurus can be found only on Kindle Books and Amazon.

 

Q&A with Alexandra Renwick

Alexandra Renwick makes her Asimov’s debut with her short story “Because Reasons” [in our current issue]. Here, she discusses her inspirations and writing style, admitting that she’s often struggling with the same “Truths” as her characters.


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “Because Reasons”?

AR: Until asked this question, I don’t think I realized the range of concerns this story’s unconventional narrative structure let me cram in here. Usually characters move in some way—physical, metaphorical, metaphysical, whateverical—from one place to another. There’s an arc, right? But in “Because Reasons” that arc already exists. It unfolds in a series of “Truths” set forth by the narrator, freeing me up to play with a slew of different notions without wondering how they fit into the action. Several close friends of mine died in rapid succession a couple years ago, and I guess I’d been thinking about the things you might never get to say to people who irrevocably disappear from your life. Sometimes very important people.

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

AR: I’ve been craving more adventurous fashion choices in the general populace. Also, I love lists. Lists get my brain all juicy, and this story is basically an epistolary list. With fashion directives. And space colonization.


AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

AR: I’m an immersion writer—I relate to everything in my stories! Tin cans! Stray cats! Broken furniture! Detached prosthetic limbs! Wadded-up love letters!


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you? Continue reading “Q&A with Alexandra Renwick”

Q&A with Darrell Schweitzer

Readers’ Award winner and former Asimov’s editorial assistant Darrell Schweitzer is back with his latest poem in our current issue. Here, he details his history with our magazine and offers advice for writers hoping to make it in its pages.


Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?

Darrel Schweitzer: This is rather like asking where a writer gets ideas. There are two schools on this question, Poughkeepsie and Schenectady. For some reason upstate New York seems to be so rich in ideas that they are an item of export. But seriously, a poem like this is a science-fictional notion which has been distilled down beyond the level of a short story. The image, or myth, or whatever is best expressed in such a compressed form.

The “story” behind this particular piece is the realization that time-travelers from the future, unless there has been a serious interruption in civilization in the meantime, will not need to come back to learn our history. They will already know it. It will be their past.

 

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?

DS: Asimov’s is the best market for SF poetry. I always send such attempts there first. There is no actual center in American poetry, just a series of isolated readerships, some associated with various schools or magazines, or with academia. Asimov’s reaches quite a large readership, as far as poetry-publishing magazines go. A literary magazine with a circulation of even 10,000 readers would be quite extraordinary. Do all Asimov’s readers read and value the poetry therein? I don’t know. Do all the readers of The New Yorker read the poetry that magazine publishes?

 

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

DS: I was an editorial assistant for the magazine during George Scithers’s editorship, 1977–82. My involvement in later years has hardly been central to the magazine’s history. Some poetry. I won the 2006 Readers’ Award for Best Poem for “Remembering the Future.”

Continue reading “Q&A with Darrell Schweitzer”

Q&A with Todd Dillard

Asimov’s newcomer Todd Dillard chats about his writing process and inspirations—whether for his current manuscript, which he describes as the most difficult project he’s ever worked on, or his debut science fiction poem, which you can find in our current issue.


Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?

TD: I have always loved the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It’s such a delightful blend of spoof and adventure, fraught with rich scenes and characters and things so bizarre you have to laugh when you read them. I reread the first book over a year ago, during a period when I was dabbling with persona poems, and I kept returning to how genius and aberrant a creature like the Babel Fish is. How did they evolve? If they are the source of so much mayhem, why are they so prolific across the galaxy? More importantly: what is their agency? What do they want? This question serves as the foundation of the poem.

 

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

TD: “Palate of the Babel Fish” is the most useful title I could come up with; it describes the subject, the topic, and scans pleasantly. I like too how close to “ballad” the word “palate” is; if you were to only listen with half an ear, the title almost sounds like “Ballad of the Babel Fish.”

 

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?

TD: I used to run a newsstand, and Asimov’s was one of the few science fiction titles I stocked. It was the first magazine to come to mind when I completed this, my first science fiction poem written as an adult.

Continue reading “Q&A with Todd Dillard”