My thoughts on Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Last Question’

I finally read Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question. Fascinating story, one that bears re-reading. I found it to be very enjoyable. To those who might be offended by it, they are forgetting it is science fiction. I personally believe God is eternal and unchanging, but, obviously, to the humanist Asimov, “god” comes about through enough evolution on the part of civilizations.

Or maybe I’m completely misinterpreting the story.

It does make you wonder something: is this story really intended to be in the distant future or is it describing events from the distant past? When God says “Let there be light” in Genesis, perhaps in Asimov’s mind the “god” of this short story was the result of perfection from the cumulative knowledge of countless other civilizations eons ago. Or, maybe it is a declaration that will be made trillions of years from now.

I have often thought that atheism, in its purest form, actually does not disbelieve in the existence of a higher power; rather, the belief is that mankind through enough sufficient eons of evolution can become godlike.

If you believe in billions upon billions of years of evolution (I do not), it is sobering to think that billions upon billions of years from now in another civilization in a distant galaxy, it will be as though we on earth never existed.

Richard Zowie is a Michigan-based writer who enjoys reading science fiction (even though he believes in creationism but also likes to keep an open mind). Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

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Finished reading ‘I, Robot’ by Isaac Asimov

It took longer than I would’ve liked, but I finally finished reading Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories, I, Robot.

This book, for those who haven’t read it, bears some resemblance to the I, Robot movie that starred Will Smith. Perhaps I’m being generous to say “some”: in the movie, I can remember robots doing some harmful things to humans. It was a fascinating tale, but after reading these short stories, I detect a strong sense of disconnect. Perhaps because most of these stories were written in the 1950s while the movie came out a few years ago. And we know how much Hollywood butchers great stories (such as Michael Crichton’s great novels Sphere and Rising Sun).

It would take too long to discuss each story individually, so I’ll provide an overview and then discuss what I liked and didn’t like.

It’s very difficult to encounter a science fiction story that doesn’t feature a robot in it. Writers of today see a world of tomorrow where robots serve our every need. Some are cooks, some are butlers, some are police officers, some do labor while others provide the calculations necessary to help exploration of other planets and even stars. Asimov is no different. In I, Robot, robots serve as babysitters, miners, lawyers and even giant computers used for calculations to improve the economy, promote peace and, best of all, further the human race. Each story is a story related by “robopsychologist”* Dr. Susan Calvin at the end of her life (she dies at 82 in 2064) to a reporter.

Some stories deal with amusing problems that go beyond the malfunctions that are commonplace today with computers. What if robots on Mercury refuse to believe a) that humans created them, b) that their robotic origins are on earth and c) that they’re accountable to humans? Further problems arise when a robot programmed to read minds decides it doesn’t like what it sees and starts doing the unimaginable; another robot decides to hide from humans out of a weird superiority complex; another robot gives the blueprints for a spacecraft that when built, takes humans onto a distant trip to the stars.

My two favorite stories were Evidence (where an honest, squeaky-clean district attorney/aspiring mayor is apparently a robot, but nothing’s done about it since he does such an outstanding job) and The Evitable Conflict (where robotic computers control the world’s economy, peace and make humans wonder why they seem to be giving odd data that suggest errors).

What I liked: Asimov was an excellent story teller. While the book took three months to read, his stories made you think. Robots can certainly be a blessing or a curse to mankind, and Asimov posed plenty of healthy “what if?” scenarios?

What I didn’t like: Sometimes it was a little too technical, which might explain why it took a little long to read. Asimov’s style is vastly different from Ray Bradbury’s energetic, comic-book style of description, and he reads similar to Crichton.

Overall, I liked I, Robot. Someday I’ll re-read this book and add it to my personal library.

*Dr. Calvin is a scientist who specializes in robot psychology rather than being a psychologist who’s actually a robot.

Richard Zowie is a writer. As a child, he wanted to be an astronaut. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

How much do you read?

If there’s one dream I have as a writer, it’s being able to write full-time for a living. I’d love nothing more than to be able to write fiction, be a journalist, blog and write columns and essays full-time without the need for a second job.

Many successful writers, when asked the secret to their success of writing for a living, will tell you that any successful writer must do two things daily: read and write. Some writers will spend several hours churning out thousands of words of fiction, blogs, columns, essays, journals before settling down later in the day with some great books. And perhaps a few magazines.

I am envious of those who can maintain a heavy book-reading workload. Stephen King in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes himself as a slow reader but somehow manages to read scores of books annually. Wow. It makes you wonder what he considers to be a fast reader. Maybe, perhaps he had in mind the older brother of one of my friends. Andy told a reporter once that his brother, Peter, could read about seven books per week.

Not per year or per month. Per week.

I am in awe and honestly wish I were like these people. One of my goals in life, both as a writer and as someone who wants to learn about the world, is to become someone who’s “well read”.

So far in the past year I’ve read four books that I can remember. One was a biography on Jim Morrison, another was Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing while two were novels by science fiction writer Ben Bova. I am currently finishing up Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and plan next to read a collection of Bova’s short stories. After that, who knows? Whatever catches my fancy.

It is, of course, best to discipline yourself as a writer to read daily. By reading, you get an idea of what flows, what works and what doesn’t flow and what doesn’t work. Sometimes terrible prose can not only teach you how not to write, but it can also inspire you (“Hey, if this person can get published, so can I!”).

Perhaps this evening, when I get done blogging, I’ll do a little reading. Besides the two books I have checked out at the library, I have more than 100 books at home that I have yet to read.

Richard Zowie is a writer. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Reading Asimov, Writer’s Digest, battling procrastination

Am currently reading Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Funny collection of short stories. Have read about five so far, none of which seem similar to the movie made a few years ago. Maybe I haven’t reached the story yet, or maybe it’s just Hollywood for you. J.D. Salinger was said to be so furious over the butchering of one of his short stories into a movie that he turned down all requests over the years–including Jerry Lewis–to make A Catcher in the Rye into a movie. I also have a collection of Ben Bova stories I’ll read once this is done, along with a book titled The Sacred Romance.

Asimov’s style is similar to Ray Bradbury’s, but he gets into more technological info and he doesn’t get into the flowery, nostalgic language that Mr. B does.

I recently received the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest and will be perusing through that. The economic survival guide sounds like it will be very beneficial along with the formula for freelance success.

Procrastination. I hate it. But it comes very natural for me. I pray for the strength to overcome mental road blocks and blog on a daily basis. And write on a daily basis.

Done reading ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ by Ray Bradbury

Well, except for the segment called …On Creativity. Perhaps I’ll read those poems someday when I purchase a copy of Zen in the Art of Writing. At this stage, the poems just didn’t work for me.

It’s only fitting that the last essay on writing in this book is called “Zen in the Art of Writing”. Mr. Bradbury says he chose the title for the shock value, as a way of getting more readers. Until recently (he wrote this essay in 1973), he didn’t know what zen meant. I imagine that in 1973 (the year of my birth), people were far less open to the idea of Zen Buddhism than what they are now in 2010.

I’m not a Buddhist, nor am I a follower of far eastern religions. While I hear the word “zen” frequently used I still had to look it up since I didn’t really know what it meant. From what I gather (and this is subject to change based on what a few friends who’ve studied Far East cultures might say), zen is the idea of enlightenment following a period of study or concentration. Hence, Zen in the Art of Writing is about studying writing and meditating on what you’ve gathered and coming to a period of enlightenment.

For many, Mr. Bradbury believes they have writing all wrong. Writing is not about writing solely to make money or to appease snooty critics (please, oh please do NOT get me started on how some filmmakers worry about whether or not they’ll get Roger Ebert’s coveted “Thumbs Up”). It is about learning the science of writing (grammar, spelling, punctuation, story structures) and then the art of writing (developing your own style).

In Bradbury’s experience, writing is a three-step process: Work. Relaxation. Don’t Think.

First, you work.

This, no doubt, is a major letdown for those excited by writing. I’ve been writing for most of my life, professionally for the past 10 years. Let’s face it: it takes work to write. Mr. Bradbury notes that surgeons practice on countless cadavers to prepare for an operation on a live person. An athlete will run miles and miles to prepare for a 100-meter race. A sculptor will practice chiseling countless rocks to prepare for that masterpiece on one slab of granite. Myself, I’ve written many short stories over the years (most of which are unpublishable) and am working on short stories and a novel in hopes of achieving a fiction writing career someday. For every column I write, there are the countless ones I’ve started and thrown away. There have even been those I wrote, completed and then didn’t publish.

We never quit learning to be writers (I imagine Mr. Bradbury would admit that at 88, he’s still learning how to write), but once you’ve put in enough countless hours of blood, sweat and tears and have worn down enough keyboards, pens, pencils and have cut down enough trees to produce paper and notepads, you finally reach the stage of relaxation. This is when writing evolves to where you can put it out without having to put in so much rudimentary work. Specifically, it feels natural and fluid, not so laborious.

Remember the first time you rode a bike? It felt awkward. But as you rode more it grew to where it was easier, and you could relax rather than worry about falling off all the time.

After work and relaxation, you reach the “Don’t Think” stage of writing. This is an advanced stage of Relaxation. At not thinking, it doesn’t mean you put things on autopilot and watch the words magically appear on your screen, out of your typewriter or on the piece of paper as your hand magically writes. Instead, it means you’ve written for so long that you can let the ideas flow and you can write using the basic principles and styles you’ve learned without having to think of them all the time.

Using the bicycle principle, how many of us really think of how we pedal and maintain balance? We’ve done it for so long that it’s almost automatic.

Mr. Bradbury recalls when he first began writing, he wrote for quantity. As he became a better writer and started to write publishable work, he evolved from producing quantity to quality. Experience yields good writing.

How do writers lose their way? Mr. Bradbury believes it’s from pursuing fame and fortune. The same rings true for other professions: one professional actor once told me that if a person’s motivation for becoming an actor is for fame and fortune, don’t bother.

A writer, Mr. B, should see themselves as a prism and should focus on beaming a new light into the world. Develop your own style that’s different from others.

This book, hence, is “zen” in that these essays are what Ray Bradbury has learned about writing. Someday, I hope to read it a few more times and add it to my library.

Next, I’ll be splitting my time between three books: short story collections by Isaac Asimov and Ben Bova and the book The Sacred Romance. I will probably blog about the latter on my Richard’s Two Shekels blog.

Richard Zowie is a writer, blogger and aspiring fiction writer. Post comments here or e-mail richardzowie@gmail.com.

Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

Maybe I’ve been working too much too lately or am just getting old (I’m 37), but I thought I’d posted this chapter commentary already. I haven’t, so here it goes…

Much of this chapter has to do with what was once a taboo genre of literature. Once dubbed inferior and not worthy of being read by those who desired to read fiction, science fiction has over the years slowly gained an acceptance. Currently, the top grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is science fiction.

Mr. Bradbury starts off this chapter with a reference to a poem of his about a boy in a semi-animatronic museum in the future. The boy stumbles upon Plato, Euripedes and Socrates.

Kids, Mr. B asserts, became teachers early on in this first time in history as they moved art and teaching “back in the form of pure illustration.” Sci-fi gives us a chance to ask “what if” and be creative.

When I think of some of my favorite sci-fi movies and books, I think of the “What if?” questions they answered…

What if man could design a pressurized space craft to enter into Jupiter and explore its oceans? (Ben Bova’s Jupiter)

What if artificial intelligence took over the world, lost a critical battle to humans and then invented time travel to try to kill the human resistant’s leader’s mother before he was ever born? (The Terminator)

What would it be like for humans in deep outer space with nothing to do but do scientific research? (Frederick Pohl’s Starburst)

What would happen if a corporation’s greed for profits almost allows a hostile lifeform to take over a ship and destroy the crew? (Alien)

What happens when robots do the unthinkable and start thinking for themselves? (Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s Marionettes, Inc.)

I wasn’t born until 1973, so I was pretty surprised to learn that in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no science fiction in school curriculum and few in any libraries. Even up to 1962 it was difficult, according to Mr. B, to find anything written by Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alfred van Vogt or Bradbury.

Why was this? I defer to Mr. B, since he was an adult and aware back then. He believes the perception then was that facts and not fiction were worth reading. Fantasy literature was considered escapist and a waste of time.

But inevitably, kids grew more and more curious and wanted to read these books. This led to an explosion. Sci-fi flooded the market. Instead of being confined to pulp fiction magazines or paperbacks in dime stores, sci-fi graduated to hard cover and was soon in libraries and first-hand book stores.

More importantly, according to Mr. B, sci-fi brought with it new ideas that then turned into advances in technology. People read these books and get ideas. Perhaps someone long ago read Jules Verne’s book about traveling to the moon and thought, “Why can’t we travel to the moon?”

This is one reason why I’ve grown to love the fantasy science fiction rather than the “hard” science fiction. Hard bores me. I’ve tried to read a few of these books and am amazed: unless you have an advanced science degree in physics or engineering, you’re often lost. Too often far too much time is devoted to technical information while the story line is left to wither. I like the stories that ask “What if?” and let the imagination take them where they will.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer who likes reading science fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Reading, reading, reading

I really should try to discipline myself to check out two books at a time from the library. Right now, I have these checked out: The Reagan Diaries, ’Salem’s Lot and Cell, both by Stephen King and Buy Jupiter and Other Stories and I, Robot, both by Isaac Asimov. Of all these, Cell is an audio book. So far, I’ve done reading on all these except for Mr. Asimov’s books. It’s more an issue of time rather than preference, since I actually love the science fiction genre.

I heard once of one amazing reader who could read seven books in a week. Zowie! I wish I had that ability. I remember from college English Literature that John Milton reached a point where he’d read everything there was to read in English. He then moved onto Latin and Greek.

This will never happen today, of course. Loads of new books are published every year. Each day, newspapers are published. Each week and month, magazines. And with the internet, there are now countless online sources. Sure you can read faster, but for me, the faster I try to read, the less I retain.

When I read, I try to keep in mind these things: what works, what doesn’t work, what’s been done and what hasn’t been done.