Isaac Asimov and Science Friction

Isaac Asimov takes his writing very seriously. In fact, the prolific science-fiction writer asserts, "Everything else is done only occasionally and under protest.

"Me and my typewriter, that's all there is in the world," he said only the other day, as he sat across from his wife, Janet, in their apartment overlooking a foggy Manhattan.

Asimov speaks directly and heads straight to his point. He was stating more than his preference for writing; he was making the point that he prefers to write what he chooses to write--he has written on subjects other than science fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan--rather than writing for others. He said this is why, after 360 books, including best sellers such as "The Foundation Trilogy" and "Robots of Dawn," as well as his own Science Fiction Magazine, he has not written for the movies--until now.

With the release of Rene Laloux's animated film "Light Years," Asimov marks his debut as a screenwriter. Even now, however, he minimized his writing credit on the film because, as he quickly pointed out, he actually translated and adapted the new, American version of the film from the work of Laloux, the noted French animator of such films as "Fantastic Planet."

Laloux's latest film is an allegorical adventure about a futuristic civilization that is destroyed by its own technology, but that is saved by learning from its mistakes. In the American version, Asimov's spare English dialogue is spoken by actors Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer and John Shea, among others.

It might seem surprising that Hollywood's 1970s sci-fi craze could have come and almost gone without Asimov--indeed, he said he has "consulted" on film and TV scripts--but it's not because he has not been asked.

"I'm really not a very visual person," explained the 68-year-old writer, of his reluctance to turn to screenwriting.

"But also," he added, more firmly, "I want full control of all my work. My books appear as I write them, and I've a feeling of ownership--even my editors don't argue with me. If I were to do a movie, it might reach 100 times more people than my books, but that movie would be a very diluted Asimov. Also, it might sound somewhat elitist, but I value the quality of my readers. If I only have 1% of all book readers, I have the best readers," he said.

Asimov noted his rejection of Stephen Spielberg's offer to write the screenplay for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Recalled Asimov, acerbically: "I didn't know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn't interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret."

"Close Encounters" was "in some respects, an idiot plot," Asimov said. It epitomized the tendency of science-fiction films made by the major Hollywood studios to "sacrifice common sense and rationality, to special effects. . . .

"Frankly, I'd rather sit at home and write my books."

Asimov nodded his approval of George Lucas' "Star Wars" films, but, he said, generally speaking, "decent science fiction won't do well, because people want special effects . . . it's come to dominate. Otherwise, 400 million people would be reading my books."

Asimov cited the "Star Trek" films, "Planet of the Apes" and "Back to the Future" as "decent" sci-fi. And he recently conceived and wrote an idea for a projected ABC series about a scientifically minded detective. But he expressed skepticism about this or any other Asimov work making its way into the mainstream film-TV industry.

"It's the first law of Hollywood," said Asimov, sounding more knowing than he admitted to be. "No matter what happens, nothing happens."

But Asimov said that he quickly agreed to accept the offer to work on the independently financed American version of "Light Years," and that he adapted the work within two weeks, "because the animation was already there . . . and because it was very imaginative and gentle and dealt with nice people." He likened the sensibility of many of "today's films" to a time "when people took their children to witness a hanging."

Most of the animated characters in "Light Years," including an entire nation of "the deformed," are "truly original," rather than the more usual "Disney-like rabbits, baby deer and ideas of animals," Asimov said. "As an old science-fiction writer, this pleased me."

He also was pleased by the story line, which he described as "a story of the dangers of technology."

"I consider myself to be pro-technology," said Asimov, who started out to become a chemist, and who still maintains his 30-year-long tenure at the Boston University School of Medicine. "But," added Asimov, who said he neither drinks, nor smokes nor flies, "obviously, it's possible to use science and technology unwisely--look at the nuclear bomb and all our other weapons. So, while we should go on to explore technology, we also need to be guided by those who know the most, so we can make our choices, our life and death decisions, more wisely.

"I try to do a bit of this in my writing, and maybe this picture will alert people to some of these dangers."

Asimov acknowledged that the film, with its paradoxical references to time, past and future, is difficult to interpret, even in its new English translation. But he said it is clearly intended to show that "present dangers are inseparable from past mistakes, and that the victims of the present are as responsible as the villains of the past.

"Look at us, now," said Asimov, sounding his usual professorial, as he sat stiffly in an upright chair in his unpretentious living room. "Here we are, having made enough nuclear arms to destroy everyone 27 times over, and still, we don't think it's enough, and we continue our insane game with the Russians.

"Or, look at the Middle East. . . . The Jews, having been persecuted for 2,000 years, insist on taking as their homeland a place that is occupied, and then kick around the Palestinians, knowing that they, in turn, would kick around the Jews. One wonders, when is enough, enough, and why do people continue to kick each other around?

"Obviously, the only answer is to live and let live. And, at least in this film, the lesson is learned in the end.

"So, now," Asimov said abruptly, at the exact end of an agreed-upon one-hour interview, "if we've concluded, I've got some writing to do."

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