Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Last Question

For its 200th episode, the Drabblecast just came out with a rendition of Isaac Asimov's 1958 short story "The Last Question".

They did a great job. Listen here.

I read the story long, long ago. Listening to it on the Drabblecast was my first exposure to it in over a decade. I enjoyed it again - while at the same time I wondered if maybe one aspect hadn't aged well.

It's not that in Asimov's future, computers will go through a stage of being massively intelligent electronic brains the size of cities. That was a common bit of 1950s prognosticating. Nowadays the giant, hulking, clacking machine the size of a skyscraper with an IQ of 3,000 is a classic staple of retro futures.

It's not Asimov's frequent use of the word "Man" to mean "humanity", which would probably rankle some listeners if he were writing today.

No, what got me was that a huge chunk of the dialogue consists of characters explaining things to each other. Sometimes the dialogue actually reaches "As you know, Bob" levels.

Now, it never gets so bad as to be wince-inducing, and I'm not saying I could write the story better than Asimov did.

But I have to be honest. If this were a new story by a new author in the year 2011 and it showed up in an online fiction magazine, it would face some heat from commenters for its AYKB-ness.

But when I popped over to the Drabblecast forums, there was none of that. Instead, there was fairly universal praise for the story, including many people who were encountering it for the first time on the Drabblecast.

Is there a sense that science fiction has evolved as a literary genre since the late 1950s, so that writing from back then isn't held to the same standard as what's being produced today? Or are people holding Asimov to a different standard? Is it universally acknowledged that Asimov was a brilliant idea man who could write clear and lucid prose, but had a tin ear for decent dialogue?

No, I don't think so. I think it's that Asimov delivers his expository dialogue with such assurance and confidence that the reader/listener can't help but go along with him. As I said, as I was listening to "The Last Question" I was very well aware that Asimov was flouting one of the great guidelines of speculative fiction writing by having his characters explain the universe to each other a lot. But it didn't ruin the story for me. It was part of the style, and it was OK.

Norm Sherman and his podcasting buddies did a great job over at the Drabblecast. Go and listen.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a Taiwanese fan of Asimov. Concerning his dialog heavy stories, that's pretty much how he wrote ALL his stories. His stories don't have a lot of action, but are "cerebral" as he called it. That's just fine with me!