Tuesday, December 12, 2017

an odd remark

Ursula K. Le Guin, for whom my respect is profound, has nevertheless sometimes made what I thought an odd remark. One such occurs in a recent much-linked essay, in which she recounts her 1970s refusal of a Nebula award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in protest against its withdrawal of an honorary membership from the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem.

Le Guin says "They invoked a technicality to deprive him of his membership and insisted on applying it" on the grounds that "There was a sizable contingent of Cold Warrior members who felt that a man who lived behind the iron curtain and was rude about American science fiction must be a Commie rat who had no business in the SFWA."

Ironically, she says, the award then went to the runner-up, a story (she doesn't name it, but it was "The Bicentennial Man") by "Isaac Asimov, the old chieftain of the Cold Warriors."

I just came across Le Guin telling the same story in 2002, in an essay on Lem reprinted in her recent essay collection, Words Are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016). There she says that the reason was that "many members of the association disapproved strongly of admitting a citizen of a Communist nation" and calls Asimov "a vociferous cold warrior."

What's odd about this is calling Asimov "a cold warrior." The capitalization in the 2017 version associates him with the same capitalization of the anti-Lem faction in SFWA. I do not know Asimov's position on the Lem issue; I don't have access to the SFWA files, and Asimov doesn't mention this in his memoirs. Possibly he was opposed to the honorary membership and this accounts for Le Guin's characterization; I don't know.

But to call Asimov a cold warrior in any other sense, that is, a vociferous anti-Communist, or, even more, a political conservative suspicious of Communist infiltration into liberal causes, is absolutely wrong.

Asimov got his start in SF in the 1940s in the "Campbellian stable," the authors nurtured and published by John W. Campbell, Jr., then editor of Astounding. And Campbell, at least by the 1960s, was that kind of cold warrior. (Back around 1960, Campbell had opined that Vietnam was a quagmire. But once the hippies took up the cause, you wouldn't find him agreeing with them about anything.) But the authors who wrote for Campbell didn't necessarily share his views, and Asimov least of all. One sold to Campbell in the 1940s because he was then by far the outstanding editor in the field, whether you agreed with his politics or not.

And Asimov got into hot water with Campbell from the beginning. Irritated by Campbell's insistence that, in any story in which humans encounter aliens, the humans must come out on top because of their superior abilities, Asimov invented the Foundation universe, in which there are no aliens - something Asimov considered highly unlikely to be true of the real universe, but it enabled him to sidestep the problem at an early stage in his career when he didn't feel capable, or willing to take the risk, of arguing with Campbell. (Later on he argued a lot.)

Asimov stayed liberal, also. In the 2002 essay, Le Guin says "the division over Lem followed much the same lines" as a famous 1968 pair of ads dividing SF writers into those supporting and opposing US involvement in Vietnam. Le Guin was opposed, of course. But so was Asimov. Here they are. To that end, Asimov "was heart and soul with Eugene McCarthy" in the presidential race that year (In Joy Still Felt, chapter 27). Later on, in opposition to many other SF writers, he vociferously denounced Reagan's SDI program, saying that it "probably won't work and even if it does work, won't do us any good," and giving as his reason for opposition "not because I'm a science fiction writer ... but because I like to think I'm a sane human being." (I remember, but cannot now find, Asimov telling a story of being confronted by a defense of the expertise of the SDI proponents, and shaking his interlocutor severely by replying, "I don't doubt their expertise. What I doubt is their sanity.")

I could multiply examples. Asimov's opinion, expressed in his science columns, was that the biggest threat to world peace was (not Communism, for ghu's sake, but) overpopulation, to which end he supported the use of birth control and other ways for women to take control over their own lives, and he was scathing at claims that women lacked certain abilities. Ironically, in person Asimov was a notorious groper - he thought it was a game, all in fun, the old lech - but honorable opinions and obnoxious personalities have co-existed before and since, see Al Franken.

I'm guessing that the reason for the odd characterization of Asimov as a cold warrior lies in Le Guin's analysis of the reasons that those who opposed Lem's honorary membership did so. She's entirely correct that the opponents were irritated at Lem's blunt criticisms of American SF, and that he was removed on a technicality. But that the motivation was suspicion of "Commie rats"? Or even disapproval of "admitting a citizen of a Communist nation"? Nothing else I've read about this much-discussed incident suggests anything of the kind. The impression I've always had is that the opponents thought Lem's critiques were so rude as to make him the guest who crapped in the punchbowl. Why honor such a person?

Here's the account by Frederik Pohl, who was the president of SFWA who found and applied that technicality to remove Lem, and who says he did it to avoid dealing with the nuisance of complaints. Pohl could be pretty blunt in his later years, but he says nothing about fear of Commies in his account of the reasons for opposing Lem. He says the main complainants were Philip José Farmer and Philip K. Dick - both of whom, by the way, were also, like Le Guin and Asimov, on the anti-Vietnam War side of the famous ad. So that's another strike against Le Guin's theory that the Lem controversy was a proxy for the Cold War. (Pohl signed neither side, possibly staying out on the grounds that he was the editor of the magazine where the ads appeared.)

I'm sure there's more evidence that can be found on this, but I'm stopping here. I won't speculate further on Le Guin's reasons for attributing an anti-Communist motive to people whose actions irritated and offended her so, but I tend to doubt that that was it.

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