Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 5: Isaac Asimov): patchy and shallow portrayal of famous science fiction writer and his influence

Declan Whitebloom, “Prophets of Science Fiction (Episode 5: Isaac Asimov)” (2011)

Curiously in this episode on American SF writer Isaac Asimov, none of his really major works apart from parts of the “Robot” series perhaps gets a mention: reference to the “Foundation” series of novels or his “Nightfall” series is absent – but then the emphasis is all on robots and robotics, for which Asimov is known and remembered, rightly and wrongly perhaps. As with the other episodes in this series “Prophets of Science Fiction”, the program examines Asimov’s life and significant events in it that spurred or influenced him to write the stories that he did, and the scientific, medical and technological advances that his stories, novels and other writings inspired with a mixture of interviews, different forms of animation, dramatic re-enactments of moments in Asimov’s life, excerpts from Hollywood movies and archival films. The documentary breathlessly covers, among other things it ranges widely over, the Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov developed as a thematic device to generate and plot short stories and novels, and through them explore the relationship between humans and their technology and what happens when (usually of course) any of the three laws is broken.

It’s a pity in a way that only Asimov’s influence on science through robots and robotics is the focus here, impressive though the innovations in that field are. The man was a true polymath, writing widely on many topics including history and science, and his influence on science fiction writing was so great that the history of science fiction writing itself can be divided into two periods: BA (before Asimov, the period before the 1950s) and AE (the Asimov Era, 1950 onward), as though Asimov were a Jesus figure; therefore, no one documentary can hope to encapsulate the full extent of Asimov’s influence over SF writing itself, let alone over science and technology! The episode contents itself by mentioning that Asimov wrote many non-fiction works and noting that he managed to have at least one title published in nine out of the ten categories of subjects in the Dewey Decimal Classification scheme.

Even Asimov’s fiction isn’t mined that much in the film for ideas and innovations: for example, the “Foundation” series, inspired in part by Edward Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, has robot characters that can influence human minds and thinking and these characters could have inspired technology currently in progress that has the potential to change human thought, perhaps for sinister purposes. I have a very strong feeling that the film-makers picked those aspects of Asimov’s fiction to make connections to scientific, medical and technological innovations seen to be “safe” and easy for the general public to accept; the same criticism can be made of all other episodes of “Prophets …” I have seen so far. The focus in the series has generally been on fiction writers whose work tends towards optimistic scientific and technological progress and takes the values and assumptions underpinning such scientific and technological progress for granted.

The coverage of Asimov’s life and achievements is patchy and gives the impression that he did little else but write loads of stories (although a brief stint in the military is mentioned). There is cursory reference to his phobia of wide spaces and nothing about his fear of flying or his membership of unusual clubs such as the Trap Door Spiders, an all-male partying literary club made up of science fiction writers, which influenced some of his writing.

As with some of the other episodes, Hollywood movies like “I, Robot” and “The Bicentennial Man” are mentioned as examples of the extent of Asimov’s popularity in pop culture; a better example might have been Asimov’s association with Gene Roddenberry and the “Star Trek” TV and movie franchise. Overall I am rather disappointed with this episode’s presentation of Asimov the man, the writer and the futurist.

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