Asimov and the Cleti
Boing Boing pointed to a cache of computer ads from the 1970s and 80s yesterday; this one in particular caught my eye. And here’s why:
1. I have fond memories of being 12 years old and fiddling around with the TRS-80 Model III at the Glendora Public Library, writing little BASIC programs into the computer. I was quite the pre-teen BASIC programmer, which is to be understood as being the computer equivalent of saying “I was quite the architect with Lincoln Logs.” From time to time I think about buying one off of eBay for nostalgia value, but since I already have a closet full of 80s electronic paraphernalia sitting there nostalgically, I doubt I can justify the purchase of yet another lump of 80s plastic. More’s the pity.
2. If an art director today tried to get away with the sort of photo that’s in this advertisement, his ass would be so fired. A background the color of bloody mud? The greasy shine on Asimov’s face? Asimov’s Captain Kangaroo-like suit? Fired, fired, fired. You wouldn’t even use something like this for a local ad, much less one in a national advertisement campaign. Our current culture has its ups and downs, but at the very least it’s not as esthetically challenged as it was a quarter century ago.
3. Looking at this picture of Isaac Asimov, by the way, reminds me that I actually don’t have a good idea of what his face looks like — The man for me was always characterized by his hair, glasses and goofy sideburns. Remove his lambchops in particular, and he looks just like any other schmoe. You have to think Asimov, not a stupid man by any stretch, was well aware that his distinctive look had at least something to do with his notoriety; because of it he’s in the collective subconscious as the default image for “science fiction writer,” not unlike the wild-haired Einstein is the default for “scientist.” Now that I think of it, if you were to give ol’ Albert a haircut and trim off his ‘stache, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what he’d look like, either.
So a hint for all would-be science fiction writers: If you want to be known outside geek circles, work on some really distinctive hair, or, possibly, lack thereof. As it stands, at the moment I can’t think of any truly distinctive-looking science fiction writers except for possibly Neil Gaiman, who’s got a “I used to be the bassist for Echo and the Bunnymen” sort of look about him (shut up. It’s a complement. Echo and the Bunnymen rocked), and then China Mieville, who’s got that “Mr. Clean” look of his going on, and who in general is so far off the attractiveness bell curve for science fiction writers that I suspect the actual China Mieville is a troll-like guy in a dank room who sends this former competitive swimmer out to do his personal appearances, and feeds him dialogue through a cochlear implant. Admit it, “China”!! But yeah, aside from Gaiman and “China,” there’s not a science fiction author that you could recognize from ten yards out.
4. Aside the Asimov’s lambchop issue, dwell on the fact that there’s not a chance in hell that any major consumer-oriented corporation would even think to use a science fiction author to promote their wares these days, not even Radio Shack, who of late has been using Howie Long and Teri Hatcher to move their crap. We know they both can read, but other than that their literary talents are probably modest at best. Part of this has to do with now living in an esthetically-minded era (see points two and three above), but the other part of it is simply that there’s no science fiction author who is currently such a part of the national conversation that he or she is seen as useful to push product.
Which is too bad. Not that I necessarily want to see, say, Cory Doctorow popping up to extoll the virtues of Snickers, or China Mieville with, well, Mr. Clean, although in each case the mind giggles like a schoolgirl to imagine such a thing. What I’m saying is that it would be nice is there were some science fiction writer who even the cleti (plural of Cletus, per “Cletus the Slackjawed Yokel” from The Simpsons) knew of, even if they hadn’t read his work. Because that would mean science fiction, as a literature, would actually have its hand in the national conversation, and aside the Star Wars media novels, it’s not entirely apparent that we do.
It’s not just science fiction, mind you. There are depressingly few scientists who rate in the national conversation, either: We’ve got Stephen “The Wheelchair Dude” Hawking, and then nothing. This is a change from even a quarter century ago, when you had Carl Sagan pinging the Cleti Awareness Radar. Now aside from Hawking, who’s not even American, the closest thing we’ve got to a Cleti-pinging scientist is Bill Gates, and if he’s a scientist, I’m a pony. (Steve Jobs isn’t a scientist either, people. A real scientist wouldn’t work himself into paroxysms of joy over flash memory.) Now, this absence is somewhat related to the fact that there are now lots of people working overtime in the American culture to suggest that people who believe in evolution and the big bang also want to mandate forced downloads of child porn into your computer and give terrorists the key to your house. It’s mildly worrying that scientists haven’t found a way to counter this sort of thing. If they can send a man to the moon, they should be able to point out when someone is complete fargin’ idiot and have it stick. Something for the brainiacs to work on, in any event.
Asking that scientists and science fiction writers occupy a central role in American cultural life might be a little much to ask for, but I don’t think it would be bad for at least one or two of them to be recognized on sight by the average Joe. It may require lambchop sideburns, but one of us should be willing to make the sacrifice. I suggest we draw straws.