Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Whiff of Death, aka The Death Dealers

I'm currently re-reading A Whiff of Death, Asimov's first published mystery novel.  Somewhat autobiographical as the "amateur detective" protagonist is clearly Asimov fighting for the security of tenure at Boston University, and his wife - as was Asimov's first wife Gertrude - more interested in the security that tenure would bring than in the main character's happiness - he owed a duty to his family, not to himself.

(As a segue, that always reminds me of a commercial from a few years ago, where a husband and wife are talking about  ...something...I forget what... the husband wants to buy a motorcycle or something and the wife says, "What happens to us if you hurt yourself? Buy some life insurance" which always caused me to think that she didn't love her husband, she just loved the fact that he was a provider who had damn well better provide for her in the style to which she wanted to become accustomed.)

More on this on Tuesday, when I share more from the book and what Asimov wrote about it in his autobiography.)

Asimov advertises RadioShack TRA-80

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Nick Denton is here to talk about how Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels inspired him

Most people know Nick Denton as the founder of io9's parent company, Gawker Media. Today he's a notorious media entrepreneur, but his inspiration began with science fiction. My first conversation with him was about the Syfy series Battlestar Galactica. Later, he revealed that he'd read Isaac Asimov's celebrated Foundation series as a teenager, and it allowed him to see the world in a whole new way. This afternoon from 1:00-2:00 PM PST, he's here to talk to you about how Foundation and other works of science fiction can lead to building things in the real world, whether those things are companies or space elevators or longevity treatments. This conversation with Nick Denton is different from all the other ones because he's here as a science fiction fan. Ask him how his engagement with Asimov's work has helped inspire a site like io9, or any of our sister sites: Jezebel, Lifehacker, Kotaku, Gizmodo, Gawker, Jalopnik and Deadspin. Talk to him about what SF he enjoys now, and whether his obsession with dystopian stories has an effect on how he makes financial decisions. Please keep your questions relevant to the Foundation series or science fiction — and be polite!
Nick Denton is here to talk about how Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels inspired him Get started asking questions now, and Nick will answer as many as he can while he's here.
Want to know more about Foundation? Read io9's in-depth series on these incredible books.

(Read the article at the link above.)


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Isaac Asimov 4 Tips for Your Next Presentation

From SOAP:  Isaac Asimov 4 Tips for Your Next Presentation

Most of us had to deal with years of grammar and composition lessons and never really understood why we had to read books and write short stories, essays, and poems. And, today, with school long-gone, some of us still don’t like to read, and we rarely write anything other than business reports and emails.
Going even further, most of us have no idea how to tell a story.  We know we enjoy good stories (the movie theaters are filled with viewers night after night all over the world).  But we have no idea how a good story happens.
According to Isaac Asimov, one of the world’s great science fiction writers, there are no real ‘suggestions’ as to how to tell stories, but he does provide four key tips to help a young writer:

1. Vocabulary:

For Asimov, it’s important to know and use the right tools. And the writer’s most important tool is language.  If you want to be a writer, you have to develop a good vocabulary, learn grammar, and learn how to spell.

2. Plotting:

But there will be no point to mastering vocabulary if you don’t know how to weave the elements of your story. Every character has to have a purpose. And at every moment, the progression of the plot points is moving toward a specific conclusion. To achieve this interweaving, there’s nothing better than to read the great masters of prose, like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. And don’t only see what they do, but try to analyze what they’re doing, and why.

3. Information:

To write a good story, it isn’t enough to have a general idea of what we’re talking about. We have to have a solid understanding of the context we’re creating: What is your context? How can you write about a baseball game if all you only know are the rules of baseball? Isn’t it just as important to know the pressure a batter feels when facing a pitcher? How does it feel to be a spectator? What’s the thrill of watching a game closely? How does it feel to enjoy a sunny day and eat a hot dog? A good writer has to have first-hand experience of the various contents of the story. At the very least, detailed research has to happen if first-hand experience is impossible.

4. Merge plot into environment/context:

In the heat of writing, it’s not unusual for a writer to forget the environment in which the characters are living and functioning and to focus only on the action. If this is you, don’t be distracted by dialogue and action. Pretty much the only way a reader is going to be able to imagine your story is if you describe in some detail the environment in which your characters are living and functioning.
These tips are valuable to all writers. Not just for people who write blogs, which are all the rage today. They’re also for people who create business presentations. In fact, storytelling is becoming increasingly more popular here, because it is stories that engage audiences even when the subject matter is complex or boring … or both.

So, to adapt Asimov’s writing tips to creating a presentation:

1) The writer needs to have a good vocabulary, one that is shared by the audience. There’s no point saying “if you please” to a group of teenagers! Remember: This applies to presentations with and without storytelling.  Your language must conform to the experience of your audience.
2) Throughout your presentation, be sure to let the dialogue and actions of each character predominate. All your characters and words must have a purpose, bringing coherence to your story. It’s up to you, the writer, to know what that purpose is.
3) When creating a presentation, you have to know the content inside-out. How can you talk about a technological system when the terms may as well be a foreign language you don’t speak? So search, learn, and master the subject of your presentation before you sit down to develop the presentation.
4) It’s common that a presentation writer gets excited about the story and forgets totally about the presentation that story is supposed to be delivering. Yes, you may be using a story in a presentation, but you’re also supposed to be sharing or even selling something, right? So, yes, you need to entertain your audience, but never forget your main goal. Make sure your story is helping you to convey the message you need to convey.
So now that you know the value of a good story, you can ask those people up at the front of the room: “How come you didn’t use storytelling in your presentation?”


Thursday, July 12, 2012

Cape Cod Writers Center Conference Marks 50th

From Publisher's Weekly: Cape Cod Writers Center Conference Marks 50th

The Cape Cod Writers Center Conference is celebrating its first half century next month with a series of classes and talks from August 5-10 at the Resort & Conference Center of Hyannis, Mass. Begun in 1963 by a dozen writers known as the Twelve O’clock Scholars, the first conferences consisted of talks for aspiring writers by authors visiting the Cape—Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, Art Buchwald, and Jacques Barzun.
Fifty years later the focus continues to be on authors helping authors ready their work for publication, although that now includes new media and technology. “At a time when the publishing industry is in transition, it is gratifying to see that the literary impulse remains strong and continues to draw aspiring authors, poets, and screenwriters to our conference,” says conference director Nancy Rubin Stuart, executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center.
In keeping with the Center’s tradition, this year’s lineup includes keynotes by bestselling writers Joseph Finder and Andre Dubus III and Beacon Press executive director Amy Caldwell, as well as presentations by novelist Matthew Pearl and Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish, among others. For Finder, supporting the conference is a good thing. He hadn’t heard of writers’ conferences when he was trying to get his first book, The Moscow Club, published in the late ‘80s, but he wishes he had. “When I first tried to figure out how to write a novel,” he says, “I had no idea how to get it going. It was before the Internet. I didn’t know any writers. I felt like I was in the old Soviet Union. I had no idea how to write a query letter, or if you called. I went to Widener [Harvard University’s library] to look up literary agents. I was doing this in the dark. The purpose this conference serves is highly important. I’ve learned so much from other writers. I still do.” 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wisdom for Cherry Hill’s Class of 2012

From South Jersey News Sun:  Wisdom for Cherry Hill’s Class of 2012

Board of Education President Seth Klukoff shared his words of wisdom to the Class of 2012 at Temple University’s Liacouras Center last week:

Throughout most of my career, I’ve carried around a quote from the author and scholar Isaac Asimov, and it reads as follows:  “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way though our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Twenty years ago, when I first came across those words, I found them as wise as I do today.  And today, I believe those words are even more relevant.

Why do I believe that?  For one, inherent in that quote is the assumption that thoughtful, rational, tolerant dialogue fuels a democracy.  Also inherent in that quote is the warning that such a dialogue, which ought to be grounded in reason and fact, is in grave danger of disappearing.  It’s replacement, an endless volley of uninformed, ubiquitous opinion.  Everyone is right.  No one is wrong.  On to the next discussion.

That’s where I believe we are today.  We live in a culture of extremes, where shades of gray, the places where truth and fact exist, are discredited, overlooked, not considered cool.  Try to present an argument against the extreme, to marshal facts and logic, and you are perceived by that extreme as being defensive, your arguments are met with derision and, even worse, you are personally attacked in the coarsest, basest of language. And when that extreme position is voiced by a mob of many, and amplified by an uncritical media, and when their simple messages can spread virally in a nanosecond via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms, you no longer have discussion or debate.  You have unthinking, unfettered chaos.

Whatever the issue, be it the environment, health care, the economy, or the fate of public education, the formula appears to be the same.  Think about it.  When was the last time our nation truly had a responsible conversation about global warming, access to affordable health care, employment, and our schools?  And think about this.  Is our nation even capable of having those critical discussions today, or worse, do we even want to?

I do wonder why our country has reached a point where civil discourse has seemingly become outmoded, where opinion masquerades as fact, where nastiness and disregard for language hide behind the anonymity of email or online comments, and where lies cloaked as truth are trumpeted loudly and brashly.
I wonder about this.  I do.

But you know what; I think I know how things can get better.

The answer, I believe, lies in public education, in the responsibility of educators to teach the importance of critical thinking, to foster questioning and reasoned argument in the classroom and out, to place high value on the beauty of words well written or well spoken, to steadfastly articulate, and defend, the essential importance of what is fact and what is fallacy, and to prepare students to embrace those responsibilities themselves, so that they may practice them as informed, thoughtful citizens.

You see, it is through public education that students are exposed to a mosaic of diverse viewpoints and backgrounds, have the opportunity to engage with peers who think differently, hold different values, and have different life experiences.  And it is through public education where tolerance for those differences are learned and celebrated, rather than dismissed and scorned.

I truly believe that public education can help create this change. And during a time when that institution is being unjustly vilified by elected officials and ideologues, it must be supported more than ever before.   Public education can and must become the bulwark against the continuing tide of anti-intellectualism.

Graduates of Cherry Hill East and West, I look to all of you to draw upon your education, to think before you write, listen before you argue, challenge the logic of your own assumptions, explore the value of the opposing opinion and wrest yourselves from the comfort of the known.  Those are the lessons you must practice as you move forward in your lives, and that you must ask of your peers to practice as well.  For it is exactly those lessons that can ultimately bring down the false equivalence of ignorance and knowledge that is so harmful to our society.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Economist Paul Krugman talks Asimov, Death Stars, and other sci-fi influences

From the Verge:  Economist Paul Krugman talks Asimov, Death Stars, and other sci-fi influences

IT's 4 pages long and I suggest you read it all.

I share only the initial bit about Asimov.

Wired: You’ve said that you recently agreed to write a new introduction to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. What will you be talking about in your introduction?

Paul Krugman: The background story is, I read Foundation back when I was in high school, when I was a teenager, and thought about the psychohistorians, who save galactic civilization through their understanding of the laws of society, and said “I want to be one of those guys.” And economics was as close as I could get. Those are pretty unique novels — they really are structured nothing like even the great bulk of science fiction, because they are about how social science can be used to save humanity.

Wired: In recent years you seem to have a very good track record of predicting what’s going to happen. Do you ever feel like in some way you’ve achieved your dream of becoming a psychohistorian?

Krugman: Well, no. I mean, a little bit, fine. But two things. One is, it’s a pretty limited domain. I don’t think I’ve had any great success in predicting politics or social change, nor have I really tried. In economics we do have some … you know, we don’t exactly have the laws of psychohistory, but we do have some pretty good guidelines. The other thing, of course, is in Foundation, Hari Seldon is able to put together his long term plan and actually nudge history in the direction he wants it to go, and so far I’m feeling not like Hari Seldon but like Cassandra. I keep on predicting bad things, no one will believe me, and then they happen.

Wired: Is science fiction something that a lot of economists are into?

Krugman: I think it’s fairly common. Not everyone, obviously, but social scientists in general … I have friends, political scientists, sociologists, who all share an interest at least in certain kinds of science fiction. It’s speculative, we’re thinking about what society could be like. Never mind the gadgets, although they create the alternative worlds, but a lot of it is thinking about society.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Asimov Quotes

From the Shrouded Opus: Isaac Asimov

Photo: Isaac Asimov (/ˈaɪzək ˈæzɨməv/ eye-zək az-i-məv; born Isaak Yudovich Ozimov, Russian: Исаак Юдович Озимов; Yiddish: אייזיק יודאָוויטש אסימאוו; c. January 2, 1920[1] – April 6, 1992) was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.[2] His works have been published in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (although his only work in the 100s—which covers philosophy and psychology—was a foreword for The Humanist Way).
Isaac Asimov was a Russian-born American author and professor of biochemistry, a highly successful writer, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.
Professor Asimov is generally considered the most prolific writer of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards, and he has works published in nine of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System (lacking only an entry in the 100s category of Philosophy).
Asimov is widely considered a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the “Big Three” science-fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov’s most famous work is the Foundation Series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series, both of which he later tied into the same fictional universe as the Foundation Series to create a unified “future history” for his stories much like those pioneered by Robert A. Heinlein and previously produced by Cordwainer Smith and Poul Anderson. He penned numerous short stories, among them “Nightfall”, which in 1964 was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America the best short science fiction story of all time, a title many still honor. He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of nonfiction. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French.
Most of Asimov’s popularized science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples include his Guide to Science, the three volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery.
Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as “brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs” He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid 5020 Asimov, the magazine Asimov’s Science Fiction, a Brooklyn, NY elementary school, and two different Isaac Asimov Awards are named in his honor.
Isaac Asimov Quotes
“I wish that I could say I was optimistic about the human race. I love us all, but we are so stupid and shortsighted that I wonder if we can lift our eyes to the world about us long enough not to commit suicide.”
“Knowledge is indivisible. When people grow wise in one direction, they are sure to make it easier for themselves to grow wise in other directions as well. On the other hand, when they split up knowledge, concentrate on their own field, and scorn and ignore other fields, they grow less wise — even in their own field.”
“Many a prophecy, by the mere force of its being believed, is transmuted to fact.”
“In life, unlike chess, the game continues after checkmate.”
“There never can be a man so lost as one who is lost in the vast and intricate corridors of his own lonely mind, where none may reach and none may save.”
“When asked for advice by beginners. Know your ending, I say, or the river of your story may finally sink into the desert sands and never reach the sea.”
“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
“Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what’s right.””
augh Report

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Robot Wars

From the Irish Time:  Robot wars

FANS OF science fiction, and notably of such writers as Isaac Asimov, will long be familiar with the looming ethical challenges posed by the development of “intelligent” machines capable of directing themselves. Is there a need to set limits to autonomous action, to hardwire into robots moral constraints akin to those supposedly guiding human actions? Asimov’s response was his “Three Laws of Robotics”, the first of which was that “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
All good fun, and the stuff of fantasy. Well, not any more. Advances in battlefield technology mean that a range of autonomous, “thinking” killing machines are soon likely to be available to commanders. Indeed some, of a cruder variety, have already deployed. Now the question is, should they be banned? Should a human intervention and responsibility be a requirement in a decision to kill, and be enshrined in the rules of war and humanitarian law? Wendell Wallach, a scholar and consultant at Yales Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics (co-author of Moral Machines: Teaching Right From Wrong) says yes.

Part of the problem is where to draw the line. Defensive weapons like patriot and cruise missiles can already be set to fire automatically when they spot an incoming missile. Landmines, likewise, to detonate. Or there’s Samsung Techwin’s remote-operated sentry “bot” that works in tandem with cameras and radar systems in the Korean Demilitarised Zone. Currently the robots cannot automatically fire on targets, requiring human permission to attack, but a simple change could override all that.

The US airforce is adapting some of its systems so that human intervention would only occur to stop inappropriate action by an automated weapon, rather than to specifically sanction a killing. Is that crossing the ethical boundary? And there are concerns that, quite apart from the ethical issues, such weapons may change the dynamic of war, making escalation into outright conflict easier. Do they make “friendly fire” or non-combatant casualties more likely?

The theoretical advantage, of course, for the deployer is that war could be fought “cleanly” with minimal human casualties – and hence political fallout – on its side. Perhaps, however, the issue should be added to the international arms control agenda, cumbersome and slow-moving as it may be. The Asimov convention?


Isaac Asimov: “I Am Crazy, Absolutely Nuts, About our National Anthem” (1991)

From OpenCulture:  Isaac Asimov: “I Am Crazy, Absolutely Nuts, About our National Anthem” (1991)

The Star-Spangled Banner became the national anthem of the United States in 1931, thanks to Herbert Hoover. And, ever since, the anthem has had its detractors. The Kennedy Center acknowledges on its website:
Some Americans complain that it celebrates war and should be reserved for military ceremonies. Others simply grumble that it is too hard to sing with a range that is out of reach for the average vocalist [anyone remember Carl Lewis giving it a try?]. Suggested replacements have included “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land is Your Land.”
And don’t forget that singers, amateur and professionals alike, often have difficulty remembering the complicated lyrics. Yes, The Star-Spangled Banner has its critics. But the great Isaac Asimov wasn’t one of them. In 1991, Asimov wrote a short piece called “All Four Stanzas” that staked out his position from the very start. It began:
I have a weakness–I am crazy, absolutely nuts, about our national anthem.
The words are difficult and the tune is almost impossible, but frequently when I’m taking a shower I sing it with as much power and emotion as I can. It shakes me up every time.
I was once asked to speak at a luncheon. Taking my life in my hands, I announced I was going to sing our national anthem–all four stanzas.
This was greeted with loud groans. One man closed the door to the kitchen, where the noise of dishes and cutlery was loud and distracting. “Thanks, Herb,” I said.
“That’s all right,” he said. “It was at the request of the kitchen staff.”
I explained the background of the anthem and then sang all four stanzas.
Let me tell you, those people had never heard it before–or had never really listened. I got a standing ovation. But it was not me; it was the anthem….
So now let me tell you how it came to be written.
And, with that, he takes you back to The War of 1812, which started 200 years ago. It’s largely a forgotten war. But it did leave us with our most enduring song.  Perhaps you’ll find yourself singing it in the shower today too.

O say can you see by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation.
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the Heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave


Monday, July 2, 2012

Quotes for Friday from Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy

from Image Nations:  Quotes for Friday from Isaac Asimov's The Foundation Trilogy

An incompetent traitor is no danger. It is rather the capable men who must be watched. [197]
It is an affair of a romantic idiot; but even a romantic idiot can be a deadly when an unromantic rebel uses him as a tool. [198]
[I] would remind you that there is a difference between boldness and blindness. [209]
Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate itself in empty phrases. [259]
The thanks of a weak one are of but little value. [259]
The mistiness of the distance hides the truth [312]
But if you're going to pretend you're nineteen, Arcadia, what will you do when you're twenty-five and all the boys think you're thirty? [407]
[H]e used to say that only a lie that wasn't ashamed of itself could possibly succeed. [415]
He also said that nothing had to be true, but everything had to sound true. [415/6]
The most hopelessly stupid man is he who is not aware that he is wise. [419]


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Getting Star Trek on the air was impossible

From the Letters of Note Blog

Getting Star Trek on the air was impossible

In November of 1966, two months after the first Star Trek series premièred in the U.S., science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote an article for TV Guide in which he complained about the numerous scientific inaccuracies found in science fiction TV shows of the day — Star Trek included. That show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, didn't take kindly to the jab, and immediately wrote to Asimov with a polite but stern response that also went some way to explaining the difficulties of bringing such a show to the screen. His letter can be read below.

Asimov apologised, and in fact became a good friend of Roddenberry's and an advisor to the show. Also below is a fascinating exchange of theirs that took place some months later, just as a problem arose relating to the relationship between Captain Kirk and Spock — a potentially damaging problem that Asimov helped to solve.

(Source: Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry; Images of Gene Roddenberry & Isaac Asimov via here & here.)

29 November, 1966

Dear Isaac:

Sorry I had to address it in this round-about way since I did not have your address and Harlan Ellison, who might have supplied it, is working a final draft for us and is already a week late and I don't want to take his attention away from it for even a moment. On second thought, I believe he is a month or two late.

Wanted to comment on your TV Guide article, "What Are A Few Galaxies Among Friends?"

Enjoyed it as I enjoy all your writing. And it will serve as a handy reference to those of our Star Trek writers who do not have a SF background. Although, to be perfectly honest, those with SF background and experience tend to make the same mistakes. I've found that the best SF writing is no guarantee of science accuracy.

A person should get his facts straight when writing anything. So, as much as I enjoyed your article, I am haunted by this need to write you with the suggestion that some of your facts were not straight. And, just as a writer writing about science should know what a galaxy is, a writer writing about television has an obligation to acquaint himself with pertinent aspects of that field. In all friendliness, and with sincere thanks for the hundreds of wonderful hours of reading you have given me, it does seem to me that your article overlooked entirely the practical, factual and scientific problems involved in getting a television show on the air and keeping it there. Television deserved much criticism, not just SF alone but all of it, but that criticism should be aimed, not shot-gunned. For example, Star Trek almost did not get on the air because it refused to do a juvenile science fiction, because it refused to put a "Lassie" aboard the space ship, and because it insisted on hiring Dick Matheson, Harlan Ellison, A.E. Van Vogt, Phil Farmer, and so on. (Not all of these came through since TV scripting is a highly difficult specialty, but many of them did.)

In the specific comment you made about Star Trek, the mysterious cloud being "one-half light-year outside the Galaxy," I agree certainly that this was stated badly, but on the other hand, it got past a Rand Corporation physicist who is hired by us to review all of our stories and scripts, and further, got past Kellum deForest Research who is also hired to do the same job.

And, needless to say, it got past me.

We do spend several hundred dollars a week to guarantee scientific accuracy. And several hundred more dollars a week to guarantee other forms of accuracy, logical progressions, etc. Before going into production we made up a "Writer's Guide" covering many of these things and we send out new pages, amendments, lists of terminology, excerpts of science articles, etc., to our writers continually. And to our directors. And specific science information to our actors depending on the job they portray. For example, we are presently accumulating a file on space medicine for De Forest Kelly who plays the ship's surgeon aboard the USS Enterprise. William Shatner, playing Captain James Kirk, and Leonard Nimoy, playing Mr. Spock, spend much of their free time reading articles, clippings, SF stories, and other material we send them.

Despite all of this we do make mistakes and will probably continue to make them. The reason—Thursday has an annoying way of coming up once a week, and five working days an episode is a crushing burden, an impossible one. The wonder of it is not that we make mistakes, but that we are able to turn out once a week science fiction which is (if we are to believe SF writers and fans who are writing us in increasing numbers) the first true SF series ever made on television. We like to think this is what we are trying to do, and trying with considerable pride. And I suppose with considerable touchiness when we believe we are criticized unfairly or as in the case of your article, damned with faint praise. Quoting Ted Sturgeon who made his first script attempt with us (and now seems firmly established as a contributor to good television), getting Star Trek on the air was impossible, putting out a program like this on a TV budget is impossible, reaching the necessary mass audience without alienating the select SF audience is impossible, not succumbing to network pressure to "juvenilize" the show is impossible, keeping it on the air is impossible. We've done all of these things. Perhaps someone else could have done it better, but no one else did.

Again, if we are to believe our letters (now mounting into the thousands), we are reaching a vast number of people who never before understood SF or enjoyed it. We are, in fact, making fans—making future purchasers of SF magazines and novels, making future box office receipts for SF films. We are, I sincerely hope, making new purchasers of "The Foundation" novels, "I, Robot," "The Rest of the Robots," and other of your excellent work. We, and I personally, in our own way and beset with the strange problems of this mass communications media, work as proudly and as hard as any other SF writer in this land.

If mention was to be made of SF in television, we deserved much better. And, as much as I admire you in your work, I felt an obligation to reply.

And, I believe, the public deserves a more definitive article on all this. Perhaps TV Guide is not the marketplace for it, but if you ever care to throw the Asimov mind and wit toward a definitive TV piece, please count on us for facts, figures, sample budgets, practical production examples, and samples of scripts from rough story to the usual multitude of drafts, samples of mass media "pressure," and whatever else we can give you.

Sincerely yours,

Gene Roddenberry


[Seven months later...]

June, 1967

Dear Isaac,

Wish you were out here.

I would dearly love to discuss with you a problem about the show and the format. It concerns Captain James Kirk and of course the actor who plays that role, William Shatner. Bill is a fine actor, has been in leads on Broadway, has done excellent motion pictures, is generally rated as fine an actor as we have in this country. But we're not getting the use of him that we should and it is not his fault. It's easy to give good situations and good lines to Spock. And to a lesser extent the same rule is true of the irascible Dr. McCoy. I guess it's something like doing a scene with several businessmen in a room with an Eskimo. The interesting and amusing situations, the clever lines, would tend to go to the Eskimo. Or in our case, the Eskimos.

And yet Star Trek needs a strong lead, an Earth lead. Without diminishing the importance of the secondary continuing characters. But the problem we generally find is this—if we play Kirk as a true ship commander, strong and hard, devoted to career and service, it too often makes him seem unlikable. On the other hand, if we play him too warm-hearted, friendly and so on, the attitude often is "how did a guy like that get to be a ship commander?" Sort of a damned if he does and damned if he doesn't situation. Actually, although it is missed by the general audience, it is Kirk's fine handling of a most difficult role that permits Spock and the others to come off as well as they do. But Kirk does deserve more and so does the actor who plays him. I am in something of a quandary about it.

Got any ideas?




In some way, this is the example of the general problems of first banana/second banana. The star has to be a well-rounded individual but the supporting player can be a "humorous" man in the Elizabethan sense. He can specialize. Since his role is smaller and less important, he can be made highly seasoned, and his peculiarities and humors can easily win a wide following simply because they are so marked and even predictable. The top banana is disregarded simply because he carries the show and must do many things in many ways. The proof of the pudding is that it is rare for a second banana to be able to support a show in his old character if he keeps that character. There are exceptions. Gomer Pyle made it as Gomer Pyle (and acquired a second banana of his own in the person of the sergeant.)

Undoubtedly, it is hard on the top banana (who like all actors has a healthy streak of insecurity and needs vocal and constant reassurance from the audience) to not feel drowned out. Everybody in the show knows exactly how important and how good Mr. Shatner is, and so do all the actors, including even Mr. Shatner. Still, when the fan letters go to Mr. Nimoy and articles like mine concentrate on him, one can't help feeling unappreciated.

What to do? Well, let me think about it and write another letter in a few days. I don't know that I'll have any magic solutions, but you know, some vagrant thought of mine might spark some thought in you and who knows.


[A few weeks later...]


I promised to get back to you with my thoughts on the question of Mr. Shatner and the dilemma of playing against such a fad-character as "Mr. Spock."

The more I think about it, the more I think the problem is psychological. That is, Star Trek is successful, and I think it will prove easier to get a renewal for the third year than was the case for the second. The chief practical reason for its success Mr. Spock. The excellence of the stories and the acting brings in the intelligent audience (who aren't enough in numbers, alas, to affect the ratings appreciably) but Mr. Spock brings in the "teenage vote" which does send the ratings over the top. Therefore, nothing can or should be done about that. (Besides, Mr. Spock is a wonderful character and I would be most reluctant to change him in any way.)

The problem, then, is how to convince the world, and Mr. Shatner, that Mr. Shatner is the lead.

It seems to me that the only thing one can do is lead from strength. Mr. Shatner is a versatile and talented actor and perhaps this should be made plain by giving him a chance at a variety of roles. In other words, an effort should be made to work up story plots in which Mr. Shatner has an opportunity to put on disguises or take over roles of unusual nature. A bravura display of his versatility would be impressive indeed and would probably make the whole deal a great deal more fun for Mr. Shatner. (He might also consider that a display of virtuosity would stand him in great stead when the time—the sad time—came that Star Trek had finished its run and he must look elsewhere.)

Then, too, it might be well to unify the team of Kirk and Spock a bit, by having them actively meet various menaces together with one saving the life of the other on occasion. The idea of this would be to get people to think of Kirk when they think of Spock.

And, finally, the most important suggestion of all—ignore this letter, unless it happens to make sense to you.




Your comments on Shatner and Spock were most interesting and I have passed them on to Gene Coon and others. We've followed one idea immediately, that of having Spock save his Captain's life, in an up-coming show. I will follow your advice about having them much more a team, standing more closely together. As for having Shatner play more varied roles, we have been looking in that direction and will continue to do so.

But I think the most important comment is that of keeping them a close team. Shatner will come off ahead by showing he is fond of the teenage idol; Spock will do well by displaying great loyalty to his Captain.

In a way it will give us one lead, the team.