The day I arrived in Basel on this trip, I felt in need of some "chill-out" reading that wouldn't tax my jet-lagged brain cells.  Fortunately, Janet and Stephan's bookshelves are well stocked, even after eliminating the books in German, French, and Japanese.

For much of my life, Isaac Asimov was one of my very favorite authors, first for his science fiction, and later for his non-fiction.  (I had the pleasure of astonishing him once at a science fiction convention by presenting to him one of his American history books for autographing.)  Asimov kept writing—surely he must hold some record for the quantity and scope of his works—but life took me in different directions and I neglected him for many years, except for re-reading his delightful Black Widowers mystery stories.

But there on the bookshelf was Gold, a collection of some of his last short stories and essays, and it was just what I wanted.

So far, I'm still impressed with Asimov's writing, though his own opinions and philosophies intrude somewhat annoyingly into the stories.  I suspect that was always the case, but I was less aware, both because of my lack of experience and because his prejudices did not then conflict in any significant way with mine.  In any case, his worldview is part of what makes an author who he is, so I don't mind much.

In the essay on women in science fiction, however, Asimov's sharp wits seem to have deserted him.  How else to fathom his casting blame on puritanical attitudes toward sex for the fact that early science fiction stories were all about men?

In most cases, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law. ... But if there's no sex, what do you do with female characters?  They can't have passions and feelings.  They can't participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in.  The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and then rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero.

Excuse me?  Female characters are good for nothing but sex?  If they can't have sex, they can't do anything?  And you can't have male and female characters together in the same story without having them jump into bed?

What makes this statement all the more absurd is that Asimov himself succeeded many times over in doing what he just said was impossible.  As he stated in a later essay, "I use no gutter language or sex in my juvenile books, but then I use no gutter language and very little sex in my adult books."

Robert Heinlein, another of my once-favorite SF authors, was also adept at writing stories with strong—i.e. normal—female characters and no sex scenes, although to be sure he also wrote plenty of books that were objectionable and even bizarre in that department.

Asimov clearly knew better, and wrote better.  Why he would say something so irrational escapes me completely.  He's right that science fiction, along with most stories of adventure, daring, and heroism, failed their female readers miserably.  I know, because as one of them in my impressionable childhood, I couldn't help noticing that, with few exceptions, the only characters worth admiring or emulating were male.

But it wasn't the censors' fault.  It may, in many ways, have been society's fault.  I'll easily believe that the problem reflected a poor general attitude towards women and girls—but to imply that a story with female characters must have a romantic interest, let along a sex scene, is the more offensive error.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 4:05 am | Edit
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