Clarke or Asimov?

It’s 2 January 2021, Isaac Asimov’s 101st birthday and in the U . S. today has become, unofficially at least, “National Science Fiction Day.” To mark the day, I present an answer I wrote for Quora in 2019. Enjoy!

Who is the better writer, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov?

Clarke and Asimov are two of my favorite authors and I have to admit I’m a bit conflicted. Upfront I should tell you that Clarke is my all-time favorite writer but when I put something I’ve written for my students into “I Write Like” the answer I hope to get back is “Isaac Asimov.”

So I think it breaks down like this.

In my opinion, Clarke is the better Science Fiction author.

Art from the paperback edition of Rendezvous with Rama

When you’re looking for a sense of awe, Clarke delivers. You get big ideas well executed. Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey make you believe that Humankind’s potential is truly limitless. Rendezvous with Rama (not so much the sequels) presents you with the awesome undertaking it must be to cross interstellar distances in a universe that doesn’t allow faster than light travel. It then metaphorically smacks you with our place in the cosmos; it turns out that the vessel wasn’t even aimed at Earth, it was merely using our sun to refuel. That Rama encountered humans was an accident; a cosmic coincidence and nothing more. Fountains of Paradise is one of the quintessential hard science fiction novels, carefully laying out the technological advances we’d need to make to build a space elevator and then turning that fantastic notion into a believable engineering project. In the Star Clarke convincingly puts you inside the mind of a Jesuit priest who is questioning his faith. There are lighter-weight works that are less impressive, but the best of Clarke is unassailable.

Cover art for the novelization of “Nightfall.”

Asimov, too, has written some great Science Fiction but it’s simply not as great. Asimov’s most famous work, the Foundation Trilogy is based around the idea of “psychohistory” which is like statistical inference without the limitations, feed enough data into the model and the theory can predict upcoming events with amazing accuracy. It’s a fascinating idea, but the execution is a little stiff. I, Robot, as great as it is, boils down to a series of logic puzzles using the three laws of robotics. The Robot Novels are good detective stories. The Galactic Empire novels are good space opera. The thing I was most impressed with in Asimov’s SF output was the Gods Themselves because it gave us believable aliens who were truly alien and not just the recognizable humans from imaginary planets with the literary equivalent of an interesting forehead prosthetic. The last time I read the Gods Themselves the aliens seemed a little less alien and a little less believable. Although lots of Asimov’s fiction is great, very little of it is transcendent, thus advantage Clarke.

It’s worth noting that if your metric for evaluating great science fiction is whether you’re compelled to read it under the covers with a flashlight so your mom won’t catch you staying up all night, the answer is Robert Heinlein.

Returning to the topic at hand: I think Asimov is the better writer of non-fiction.

With non-fiction, clarity is king, and both Asimov and Clarke excel at writing about highly technical subjects in straightforward understandable prose. But Clarke’s non-fiction hews closely to his science fiction. Speculations about the realities of space flight is a common topic. Clarke also wrote several books about undersea exploration after he developed an interest in scuba diving. Much of what remains is about the future of technology and the limits of speculation. All excellent but also all themes that are explored in-depth in his science fiction.

Possibly as a result of being so astonishingly prolific, Asimov’s work covers an astonishing variety of topics. Within the sciences, he wrote books on Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Mathematics, Ecology, and probably more that don’t spring to mind. There’s also Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Asimov’s Chronology of the World and Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor to barely scratch the surface.

But the thing that gives the edge to Asimov for me is the column on “science fact” that he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. These are both delightful and informative; the column ran for 399 issues and more than 33 years.

Collections of Asimov’s essays from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Asimov had a way of starting an essay with an anecdote that would draw the readers in and get them interested in the topics and then lead them into the main part of the essay. Well written, substantive, and most importantly engaging, these were perfectly targeted at the audience while not compromising the subject matter with oversimplification. Advantage: Asimov.

And then there’s the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, which is spelled out in the dedication to Report on Planet Three. It reads, “In accordance with the terms of the Clarke/Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer.” That sums it up pretty well.

And there you have it. Happy National Science Fiction Day!

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Last and First Men

Listen patiently; for we who are the Last Men earnestly desire to communicate with you, who are members of the First Human Species. We can help you, and we need your help.


Two frequently used themes within Science Fiction are Evolution and Future History. Within these, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men is a towering achievement, inspiring generations of science fiction writers with a scope that transcends even geologic time frames. I read it for the first time almost thirty years ago and it is not a light read; it requires patience and attention but it’s well worth the effort. Arthur C. Clarke said “No book before or since has ever had such an impact upon my imagination” and it echoes in his greatest works, including Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So I was intrigued when I discovered that Last and First Men had been made into a film by Jóhann Jóhannsson. It would seem to be unfilmable; the novel has few characters other than humankind itself and spans the time from the 1930s to the terminus of the solar system two billion years hence.

And it may be a film, but it isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. What it is, is a skillful melding of music, imagery, and narration.

The music is central as is to be expected, Jóhannsson was primarily a composer, known for the score to Arrival and other films. The score here is both haunting and melancholy. It supports the narration and underscores the imagery; many moments rely only on the music and the images, building the mood between sections of monologue.

The narration adopts the framework of the book. It is a monologue by one of the last men, a member of the eighteenth distinct species of humanity, as they contemplate the impending extinction of humankind. Tilda Swinton’s performance is understated, yet effective. The script seems to be portions of the book spliced together into a shorter but coherent form, mostly from the introduction and the later chapters about the last men. I haven’t checked this in detail, but the words themselves are Stapledon’s own with some occasional modernizing of the language.

Visually, this film is stark and beautiful. Bare trees and the sun failing to shine through overcast skies are recurring motifs that suggest desolation and the depths of winter. Mostly the film is in black and white with two exceptions. The bright green of an oscilloscope occasionally emphasizes the dialogue. The central image of the film is the sun glowing red through the clouds as the narrator explains that changes in the sun will bring about humanity’s demise. The inclusion of color in an otherwise monochrome film is jarring and effective. It’s a nice touch that the one note of red in the film visually reminds us of Hal from Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001. That movie may not have existed without Stapledon’s influence and a thoughtful and subdued SF film like this one might not have existed without 2001.

The other important visual motif is the sculptures, spomeniks, monuments to the Second World War in the former Yugoslavia. These are essential to the tone of the film. They evoke the distant future by suggesting buildings with geometry that seems utterly alien and strange and yet they also manage to suggest that you’re traveling through the ruins of a long-extinct civilization.

Most of Stapledon’s novel doesn’t make it into this film, particularly the long sweep of history that covered so many species of humankind. But the tone is there; the emotional resonance is there and much of it, in 2020, seems prophetic.

Our prospect has now suddenly and completely changed, for astronomers have made a startling discovery, which assigns to man a speedy end. His existence has ever been precarious. At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly.

Like Stapledon’s novel, this movie is well worth watching but it too requires patience and attention. If you’re looking for a summer-blockbuster of a Sci-Fi movie, this is certainly not one of those. 2001: A Space Odyssey is famously slow but this film makes it look like Independence Day. It’s weighty and it’s philosophical and it showcases a classic. As his directorial debut, it’s also a fitting swan song for Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died in 2018 at the age of 48. Much like the film, it makes you wonder what more might have been accomplished.

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