The Atomic Age Narrative: Cosmic Knights

Sunday , 19, February 2017 33 Comments

Isaac Asimov was not a fan of action fiction. He had this to say about sword and sorcery fiction in an editorial for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

“I imagine that almost any male would at least occasionally wish he had biceps as hard as chrome steel and could wield a fifty pound sword as though it were a bamboo cane and could use it to drive vile caitiffs to the chine…Oddly enough, I shudder at such things…Heroes date back much farther than Conan, you may be sure. They are as old as literature, and the most consistently popular one are notable for their muscles and not much else…It took the ancient Greeks to come up with something better. In the Odyssey, however, the hero is Odysseus, who is an efficient enough fighter but, in addition, he had brains…In this battle of brains and brawn, however, the audience is never quite at ease with the victory of brains…Clearly, the readers are expected to feel that it is noble and admirable for the hero to pit his own superhuman strength against the lesser physiques of his enemies, and also to feel that there is something perfidious about a magician pitting his own superhuman intelligence against the lesser wit of his enemies. This double standard is very evident in sword-and-sorcery, in which the sword-hero (brawn) is pitted against the sorcery-villain (brain), with brawn winning every time. The convention is, furthermore, that brawn is always on the side of goodness and niceness (a proposition which, in real life, is very dubious…Nevertheless, I consider the typical sword-and-sorcery tale to be anti-science fiction; to be the very opposite of science fiction. It is for that reason that you are not likely to find anything of the sort published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Despite this attitude, New American Library seemed eager to slap Isaac Asimov’s name on the cover for a series of fantasy anthologies.

Isaac Asimov’s Magical World’s of Fantasy was a paperback anthology series published 1983 through 1989 for eleven volumes from New American Library under the Signet imprint. There was a lone volume in 1991 from New American Library under the Roc imprint. Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Charles G. Waugh were listed as the editors. Greenberg was generally the guy who made the deal for the book packages. Isaac Asimov was known for science fiction, not fantasy. His name was well known and used for marketing. He also wrote the introductions. The actual editor who put together the contents was probably Waugh.

A couple years back, I picked up Cosmic Knights (#3) originally published in January 1985. There was an obscure Poul Anderson story from the 1950s that James Blish writing as William Atherton took delight in attacking in a review/rant. Blish had little use for Weird Tales and traditional fantasy in general. He made the stupid remark that Poul Anderson going into saga mold was a step down. This is laughable as Anderson’s Scandinavian tinged fiction is what he is remembered for today.

Isaac Asimov wrote an especially cranky introduction for this volume:

“There are words that reek of romanticism, and “knight” is one of them. Yet its lineage is rather low. It is from the Anglo-Saxon cniht, which meant “boy” or “attendant.” He was someone who attended his master and waited upon his needs. The German homologue, Knecht, still means “servant” today…Actually, however, the romantic glow that makes knights seem so wonderful is totally a matter of fiction. In actual fact, knights, presuming on their horses and armor, were arrogant and insufferable in their behavior, especially to people unarmed and on foot. In English, we have another word for “knight”–“cavalier” (usually used for the arrogant fools who fought for King Charles I)–and we all know what “cavalier treatment means…The very word “infantry” is akin to “infant” and is another word for meaning “boy.” The term is a measure of the contempt held for the foot soldier by the aristocrats…In this the lower classes were greatly aided by that inevitable accompaniment of arrogant aristocracy–invincible stupidity.

It is not history, but myth and legend, yet it fascinated its readers, who then, as today, would rather have history appeal to their superstitions and patriotism than to any abstract and bloodless passion for truth.”

Talk about attempting to turn someone away from buying the book! Asimov managed to make L. Sprague de Camp’s pedantry reasonable in comparison. Notice the use of words reek, low, insufferable, arrogant, invincible stupidity.

Asimov has some personal issues going on here. This might be a case of the Culture of Critique. There is some hatred on full display here.

There was no mention that knighthood had its origins in the Carolingian Frankish Empire with the battles against marauding Vikings, Moslems, and Magyars to provide mobility and a standing force of warriors. Asimov also leaves out the code of chivalry to foster faith, hope, charity, justice, strength, moderation, and loyalty. Europe was probably better off having knighthood than without it.

A falsehood to the point of lying is the end result of the absence of these facts. The fact that the title was intrinsically intertwined with European Christianity is probably the reason for Asimov’s hostility. Isaac Asimov should not have been associated with a fantasy anthology series. I have never been in awe of Asimov finding his fiction to be boring in the extreme. This is the guy who invented the galactic empire and managed to make it boring.

33 Comments
  • Man of the Atom says:

    Asimov always read like a nasty little man to me, even in the few stories I enjoyed. Always hating on religion and heroics, and way too often having the brainy guy beat out the brawny one.

    A much more satisfying and realistic Galactic Empire is H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History. Bonus: many of his stories are free on Amazon and Gutenberg Project.

    • icewater says:

      Pretty much, you can recognize so much of the attitude that plagues modern mainstream SF(F) in Asimov himself, snark and arrogance included. Enlightenment-blinded pseudo-intellectualism at its worst, one whose vision of the world and human condition is wholly and 100% uncritically based on writings of other Endarkement-blinded creatures such as Gibbons and Voltaire.

      Piper, Cordwainer Smith, Herbert all imagined future histories far more satisfying and deep that that of preachy, two-dimensional and pedestian Foundation series. Not to mention that they were, you know, actually good writers…

      • Reziac says:

        Way back when I binge-read a bunch of Asimov, winding up with the Foundation trilogy. At that point I suddenly realised he has exactly one plot. That wouldn’t be so unusual, but he also thinks readers are all too dumb to notice.

        Never read him again.

      • Clipper says:

        I read one volume of his robot shorts and couldn’t get rid of the taste. That story where the two people discuss the inexplicable behavior of the computers running the world economy and it turns out they’re ruining anti-AI business men. The whole flourish being that the computers are now going to dictate the course of human civilization after all ‘who knows what type of society will make us most happy’. Ghastly.

  • Nathan says:

    Every time I get even the slightest bit cranky about TV Tropes growing like a kudzu vine throughout book conversations, I have to remember that it’s replacing word games and symbolism fascination like Asimov commits here. This is a good thing.

  • VD says:

    Well, that certainly explains how science fiction came to be dominated by gammas who hate stronger men popular with women, as well as the bizarre “woman inexplicably has sex with protagonist, who is then faithful to her forever” trope that riddles science fiction.

    Asimov was a very bitter gamma.

    • icewater says:

      “End of Eternity” has one of most egregious examples of that. Impossibly gorgeous girl instantly falls in love with nerdy protagonist with zero previous experience with opposite sex (and I mean that, as he spent his life in monastery-like male-only environment).

    • Nathan says:

      The popularity of van Vogt’s Slan, with its glorification of persecuted secret kings, was likely a magnet as well.

    • Andy says:

      Wasn’t Asimov reputed to be quite lecherous in his persona life as well?

  • Alfonso says:

    (((Isaac Asimov))) hated Christianity and heroism. Every. Single. Time.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Asimov never appealed to me, and these two quotations remind me why.

    I second Man of the Atom’s take on H. Beam Piper.

  • Man of the Atom says:

    Bad on me first go round:

    Morgan, *THANKS* for your research and analyses! Another great post!

  • caleb says:

    “A falsehood to the point of lying is the end result of the absence of these facts. The fact that the title was intrinsically intertwined with European Christianity is probably the reason for Asimov’s hostility.”

    In his partial defence, Asimov’s view of European history was based solely on reading various heavily biased, agenda driven writers. Hell, the very work that inspired his Foundation series is particularly nasty specimen of that mindset, in more ways than one (though, obviously, it was not without major merits – unlike Asimov’s fiction).
    Anyhow, best thing I can say about that introduction is that he was seemingly familiar with the contents of anthology in question. So many of those genre anthologies that used names of well known writers, directors, actors on their covers only ever paid to use their names, without said gentlemen ever penning the introductions or selecting the stories. And that would be the best thing I can say about it. It makes me wish to resurrect the man, just so I can punch him in the face.

  • johnr219 says:

    Did Asimov read The Odyssey? Odysseus was the only man strong enough to string his bow 20 years after he left Troy. He was a combination of brain and brain.

  • Caderly says:

    To be fair these anthologies at least reprinted some good authors of the pulp era. For example Isaac Asimov’s Magical World’s of Fantasy 9: Atlantis includes stories by Robert E. Howard (The Shadow Kingdom), Henry Kuttner (Dragon Moon), Clark Ashton Smith (The Double Shadow), Manly Wade Wellman (The Dweller in the Temple) and even Henry S. Whiteahead (Scar-Tissue)
    Anyhow, Asimov´s introduction for Cosmic Knights is really biased and bitter.

    • Morgan says:

      That was not Asimov picking the contents. He lent his name and wrote the introductions. The Atlantis volume is a keeper. The contents are very out of place for a late 1980s anthology where pulp fiction was being whitewashed out.

  • john silence says:

    And here we realize that guy knows s**t all about fantasy and heroic adventure. Because, many of their protagonists very much had “brains”, and you don’t need to look farther than, guess who!, Conan to see that. If he read actual Conan stories he would’ve seen that Conan was portrayed as extremely intelligent and cunning and that those qualities of his were often prominently featured. Of course, he never read them, I suppose that he only ever read opinions and pastiches written by his contemporaries.

    • caleb says:

      Who started that “all brawn, no brains” meme about Conan anyway? ‘Tis something one keeps encountering even today, together with Conan being described as some sort of typical goody-two-shoes character (something that also has no basis in reality). Some outspoken Moorcock fans will parrot both of those falsehoods to this very day, for example.

      Unless that is direction in which pastiches and comic books took the character, of course. I’ve only ever read a few pastiches (only REH can do REH, period) and as for comics, I was a never a comic book reader.

  • PCBushi says:

    I mean, each to his own. Personally I enjoyed the first three Foundation books and the Robot books.

    • Jeffro says:

      Yeah, when I was in high school those books were the definition of science fiction.

      Anacreon and Terminus were uber cool.

      I remember really enjoying David Brin’s take on the Foundation/Empire/Robot mashup.

    • john silence says:

      Truth be told, I really wouldn’t want to do to Asimov and his fiction what that… ahem… other crowd keeps doing to writers who are, for one reason or another, deemed to be “icky”. Like Lovecraft.

      I’d be lying if I said that I enjoyed his writing, but he is greatly admired by many a writer whose work I do enjoy, and folks obviously want more fiction akin to his. So, more power to ’em! I don’t want any genre to be limited to that I myself enjoy or want to read.

  • Brian T Renninger says:

    I actually love Asimov’s Caves of Steel. And, I slogged through Foundation and a number of the robot books. But, the writing I really liked was his essays in F&SF. In those he was full of himself but, he was also quite self-deprecating. I thought his non-fiction to be better than his fiction. But, he rarely included references so you just had to trust him. And, like the infantry example, I never could quite do that.

  • Oghma_EM says:

    I would also like to remark that I enjoyed portions of The Foundation. His flirting with Post Humanity type stuff turned me off towards him. For philosophical reasons that I’ve spoken of on Twitter I believe firmly that Post Humanity will never, ever happen. I did not read him in my youth though, I was more into Penguin Classics stuff like Arthur, Robin Hood, etc. Then I found Tolkien. My first genuine foray into Sci-Fi was CS Lewis. Who I will STILL recommend to this day as an incredible tale.

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