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!

Image Credits:

One Giant Leap for Mankind

Today is 20 July 2019; fifty years to the day that humans first set foot on another celestial body marking the culmination of the Space Race and one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements.

To commemorate the occasion, we’re flying a flag featuring the NASA Insignia, a streamlined version of the NASA seal. Other than the the fact that it contains text, the insignia is a perfect centerpiece for a flag. It’s striking without being too busy and it’s easy to sketch. It also has nice, clear symbolism.

From the NASA website:

The round red, white and blue insignia, nicknamed the “meatball,” was designed by employee James Modarelli in 1959, NASA’s second year. The design incorporates references to different aspects of the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The round shape of the insignia represents a planet. The stars represent space. The red v-shaped vector represents aeronautics. The circular orbit around the agency’s name represents space travel.

The Symbols of NASA
The NASA insignia and the more formal seal

We spent a decent amount of time deciding which flag to fly for the occasion. Our first thought was the Earth Day flag, and then an Earth Day flag with a stylized crescent moon and the southern cross, but neither of those seemed to feature the Moon clearly enough. There were other options, but the NASA flag seemed most appropriate.

The first two options above could be deemed “photograph flags” and, for my purposes, flying a flag based on a photograph seems fine. If any of the images below were available in flag form, we might have chosen it. Perhaps I’ll order one of these custom made for the 51st anniversary.

The flag played a prominent role in the Lunar Landing. One of the more dramatic moments was the raising of the flag, which I can clearly remember seeing on the teevee. I explicitly recall being puzzled about the flag’s behavior. It seemed to snap out with the top sticking straight out from the pole. I was only five, but this seemed strange. I’d seen flags before and they certainly didn’t do this. It must be something strange about space, I thought. Or the Moon. Or something else. Here’s the news footage.

Astronauts Plant the American Flag on the Moon.

Turns out the flag had its own “frame.” Five year old me missed that. If you have any doubts about the significance of the flag in this event, let’s turn to Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century. Published in 1986, this book is a collection of Clarke’s speculations about the state of life and technology on this very day. The first chapter is a fictional letter, written by Clarke himself, from his home in Clavius City, Luna on the book’s titular date. It begins thusly.

It doesn’t seem like fifty years – but I cannot be sure which memories are false and which are real. Present and past are inextricably entangled. The monitor screen has just shown the ceremony at Tranquility Base, culminating with the third hoisting of the American flag. It was blown down, of course, by the blast of the Eagle’s ascent stage, and lay there on the trampled Moon soil for thirty-six years until the Apollo Historical Committee reerected it. Then the big quake of 2009 knocked it down again; this time, we’re assured, it would take a direct hit by a fair-sized meteor to lower it…

Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century

It’s a romantic image; historical societies reerecting and preserving the flag for future generations to see and enjoy, but sadly, that may never come to pass. The condition of the flags on the moon is a subject of speculation. The conditions are harsh. The surface is bombarded with UV radiation without the protection we receive from Earth’s atmosphere and the temperature ranges from -280 to +240 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the flags could have disintegrated entirely. At a minimum, the flags must be so sun bleached that they are now completely white. At least as recently as 2012, however, there was evidence that the flags of Apollo 12, 16 and 17 were still standing. You can read about the condition of the flags in the links below.

References:

Apollo 11 on CBS News

In just a few minutes, it will be 20 July, 2019: the 50th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon. I’ve periodically looked for contemporary news coverage on YouTube. In particular, I’ve really wanted to see the interviews on CBS News with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a wealth of things on YouTube now. Here’s a sampling as our first commemoration of the semi-centennial of the first moon landing. I haven’t reviewed all of this yet; I may update the selection as I do.

This appears to be a comprehensive collection of all of the CBS coverage of the landing. It’s only the audio and it’s about 6 hours long.

Coverage of the launch, with video from 16 July 1969.  Arthur Clarke is on hand for some of this.  It looks like this started out as a live stream and it’s now up as a video.

Here’s the live stream of the CBS News Coverage, starting at 3:30 EDT.

This is the CBS coverage from the exact moments of the Moon landing. A bit more than 3 minutes.

And here are Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. About 4 minutes.

You can clearly hear Armstrong’s quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Cronkite didn’t quite hear it all first time through. Of course, there were many people who thought it should be “One small step for a man…” Armstrong’s response? “That is what I meant to say and that is what I thought I said.”  It’s possible that he did say that.

Finally, the end of my personal quest, the interview with Clarke and Heinlein.

More tomorrow!