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Isaac Asimov and Science Friction

February 07, 1988|CLARKE TAYLOR

NEW YORK — Isaac Asimov takes his writing very seriously. In fact, the prolific science-fiction writer asserts, "Everything else is done only occasionally and under protest.

"Me and my typewriter, that's all there is in the world," he said only the other day, as he sat across from his wife, Janet, in their apartment overlooking a foggy Manhattan.

Asimov speaks directly and heads straight to his point. He was stating more than his preference for writing; he was making the point that he prefers to write what he chooses to write--he has written on subjects other than science fiction, from Shakespeare to Gilbert and Sullivan--rather than writing for others. He said this is why, after 360 books, including best sellers such as "The Foundation Trilogy" and "Robots of Dawn," as well as his own Science Fiction Magazine, he has not written for the movies--until now.

With the release of Rene Laloux's animated film "Light Years," Asimov marks his debut as a screenwriter. Even now, however, he minimized his writing credit on the film because, as he quickly pointed out, he actually translated and adapted the new, American version of the film from the work of Laloux, the noted French animator of such films as "Fantastic Planet."

Laloux's latest film is an allegorical adventure about a futuristic civilization that is destroyed by its own technology, but that is saved by learning from its mistakes. In the American version, Asimov's spare English dialogue is spoken by actors Glenn Close, Christopher Plummer and John Shea, among others.

It might seem surprising that Hollywood's 1970s sci-fi craze could have come and almost gone without Asimov--indeed, he said he has "consulted" on film and TV scripts--but it's not because he has not been asked.

"I'm really not a very visual person," explained the 68-year-old writer, of his reluctance to turn to screenwriting.

"But also," he added, more firmly, "I want full control of all my work. My books appear as I write them, and I've a feeling of ownership--even my editors don't argue with me. If I were to do a movie, it might reach 100 times more people than my books, but that movie would be a very diluted Asimov. Also, it might sound somewhat elitist, but I value the quality of my readers. If I only have 1% of all book readers, I have the best readers," he said.

Asimov noted his rejection of Stephen Spielberg's offer to write the screenplay for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Recalled Asimov, acerbically: "I didn't know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn't interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret."

"Close Encounters" was "in some respects, an idiot plot," Asimov said. It epitomized the tendency of science-fiction films made by the major Hollywood studios to "sacrifice common sense and rationality, to special effects. . . .

"Frankly, I'd rather sit at home and write my books."

Asimov nodded his approval of George Lucas' "Star Wars" films, but, he said, generally speaking, "decent science fiction won't do well, because people want special effects . . . it's come to dominate. Otherwise, 400 million people would be reading my books."

Asimov cited the "Star Trek" films, "Planet of the Apes" and "Back to the Future" as "decent" sci-fi. And he recently conceived and wrote an idea for a projected ABC series about a scientifically minded detective. But he expressed skepticism about this or any other Asimov work making its way into the mainstream film-TV industry.

"It's the first law of Hollywood," said Asimov, sounding more knowing than he admitted to be. "No matter what happens, nothing happens."

But Asimov said that he quickly agreed to accept the offer to work on the independently financed American version of "Light Years," and that he adapted the work within two weeks, "because the animation was already there . . . and because it was very imaginative and gentle and dealt with nice people." He likened the sensibility of many of "today's films" to a time "when people took their children to witness a hanging."

Most of the animated characters in "Light Years," including an entire nation of "the deformed," are "truly original," rather than the more usual "Disney-like rabbits, baby deer and ideas of animals," Asimov said. "As an old science-fiction writer, this pleased me."

He also was pleased by the story line, which he described as "a story of the dangers of technology."

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