Let it Snow

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It’s been a snowy winter in Washington, and a cold one. I often think of the relative connection/disconnection modern people have with nature, but winters like this remind me that no matter how disconnected we think we are, the natural world still makes itself heard – and loudly. And I’m not even talking about all the global-warming-induced weather disasters we’ve had lately, but just something as simple as a big snow.

As a science fiction fanatic when I was a kid, I loved reading Isaac Asimov, and in particular days like this remind me of his Caves of Steel, in which Earth has turned into a warren of underground life, so overpopulated that it’s just a series of giant cities in which everything is connected through tubes and tunnels. The main character in that book is a detective who’s almost never been outside, and suffers as a result from severe agoraphobia.  Part of the fascination of that particular novel was the horror it inspired in me when I thought of living without access to sunlight and the outdoors. Another, much more recent book that takes this on for kids is The City of Ember, by Jeanne DuPrau. In that one, an entire society lives underground, unaware that there is such a thing as outside.

Part of the genius of those books is taking a facet of modern society (how much time we spend indoors) and expanding it until it becomes something overwhelming and strange. While Asimov made me imagine the future, he also turned my attention to the conventions of my own society, and helped me see those with a new eye. This doubling of vision that science fiction and fantasy gives readers is one of the reasons I’ve always loved those genres. Which takes me back to all this snow, and to being in the midst of yet another snow day.  One thing I love about days like this is that they let your mind wander. The kids are home from school, the schedule is wrecked, and no one’s going anywhere. On my particular street, which is always one of the last to see a plow, we have this sense of the world having shrunk to block size. Everyone else feels miles away and mostly inaccessible. If they call in, it’s like a missive from another world. Meanwhile, the neighbors are all outside, shoveling or just enjoying the pristine view of bushes turned into plush toys and trees that have become charcoal drawings. Last big storm, I fell backward into a huge cushion of snow while talking to my friend across the street. There I was, lying on my back in the center of the road, not at all worried about anything but how long my coat would hold out against the damp. A few snow days a year, I would say, can be good for the soul. 

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Asimov the Wonderful

"Profession" by Isaac Asimov in the ...

“Profession” by Isaac Asimov in the July 1957 issue. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though I didn’t read much YA fiction as a kid, I read a lot of science fiction, and the science fiction I read was mostly by Isaac Asimov. Asimov, probably one of the most prolific authors of all time, taught me about seeing things on a huge scale. His books about future history, societies, and worlds were very different from the other kind of books I loved – intimate character-driven stories — and they showed me how to think big, and keep a story moving. In Asimov’s stories and books, ideas drove the plot, and the characters were shaped by them. Reading Asimov, you felt like some kind of professor god, who knew everything at once, and saw history as a giant chess game. The ideas he explored in his short stories — the power of education, the force of social pressure, the dangers of relying too much on technology and not enough on the human brain — still inspire much of my thinking today. Later, when I grew into an interest in real history (as opposed to the made-up, future history of Asimov’s novels), I realized I’d been learning all that time I thought I was just having fun. Asimov taught me how to see the narrative line running through all things.

In college, I had the rare privilege of working, briefly, as an intern at Analog Magazine, which helped launch such science fiction greats as Asimov, Heinlein, and Frank Herbert. By that time (in the late 80’s), Asimov had set up his own magazine, which had offices next door to Analog. I was always hoping to catch sight of him some time in the office there. Sadly, I never did. I would have liked to thank him for being such a big part of my childhood. Then again, back in college, I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the nerve to say a word. Still, I have ever single paperback of his science fiction I ever bought. They’ve followed me through several moves, and, in part, helped inspire my son to love science and space, so that he’s now on his way to becoming our own, home-grown Rocket Scientist.

Really, thank you, Mr. Asimov.