Monday, December 30, 2013


Science fiction writer and reviewer, Henry Bott's review of Second Foundation in the June 1954 issue of Imagination: Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy, seemed more a trashing of author and book than any legitimate form of criticism then, and still reads that way today.

Bott's Filled with denigrating phrases unrelated to the content of the book itself that seemed calculated to injure the most impervious ego. Among them,  "neither a writer nor a story-teller", "heavy-handed and ponderous",  "elephantine prose", "endless philosophizing, (on a juvenile level)", "obscure sociological fantasies", "the soap opera of science fiction" and the clincher "it's not a good book!" Among other things, Bott seemed to have overlooked the fact that the Foundation series had been wildly popular with fans when it appeared in magazine form and readers were clamoring to see it in hardcover.

That these declamations must have been hurtful to even so resilient an ego as Asimov proclaimed his to be. But with his usual mildness of temper, Asimov maintained a dignified authorial silence. Everything might have blown over had Bott had left it at that one review. But Bott didn't stop there. Just three months later, in the September 1954 issue of Imagination, Bott struck again with an equally scathing review of author and material when he took on The Caves of Steel. This time Asimov could bear it no longer and boiled over, albeit in the rather mild and harrumphing way that might have been expected of him.

And here is that second Bott review that set Asimov off. Bott wrote:

"Doubleday ordinarily produces much of the best science fiction printed today. Your reviewer has tried to be objective in analyzing this novel, but . . .

"With that dubious beginning, I review another Asimov novel. ­Somebody must like his stories because they are published in an endless chain, but it is hard for me to see why. I think I shall be really "gone" if I must read another of these epics.

"The canvas is of course, the galaxy—nothing less. There is the robot and the super-empire.

"Using these ingredients in his inimitable way, Asimov hurls a furious barrage of words at the helpless reader. With Tom Swiftian naivete, characters move around in a really never-never world. Insipidity and dullness characterize the plodding story. This venomous condemnation of the story will not be shared by everyone, but then perhaps everyone has not read through the jungle of this sort of writing. When you have finished, you ask, "why?"

"The murdered Spaceman, a corpse in steel-roofed New York's vastness, is remembered by the robot detective and ... you fill in from there. I need coffee after this one!"

One might have  thought that after two such provoking reviews, with no stopping in sight, the publisher would have anticipated a negative response from Asimov and fandom in general. And there was one. But perhaps that was exactly what publisher William Hamling and reviewer Bott wanted. For such a controversy was bound to bring readers to their pages and, in a Ray Palmer like move (and Hamling was a Palmer protege), increase the magazine's circulation.

If so, Bott and Hamiling were right. Asimov  replied the very next month in Charles Lee Riddle's noted fanzine, Peon. More a rumination than a broadside, the piece, titled "Why Can't the Author Meet His Critics?"  was by turns incisive, insightful and philosophical. And it kept the subject on the front pages of the science fiction world.

(Of course, Asimov had the last laugh. Everywhere else the book was seen as a modern classic and is still regarded so, and taught, in college classrooms today.)

And watch for Asimov's reply to Bott on this blog next week.

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