Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Roving Mind

The Roving Mind
© Isaac Asimov 1983
350 pages

In the first place, I type quickly -- 90 words a minute, when I am happy, carefree, and in a good mood. And that's my typing rate when I am composing, too, because I don't believe in fancy stuff. In my writing, there is no poetry, no complexity, no literary frills. Therefore, I need only barrel along, saying whatever comes to mind, and waving cheerfully at people who happen to pass my typewriter." (337)

The Roving Mind collects sixty-two essays by Isaac Asimov, the majority scientifically-themed, along with several tributes to the late Asimov by friends and comrades who knew him well. The essays by men like Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan update a volume originally printed in the early eighties, and the essays reflect the preceding period, particularly the seventies.  Asimov's thoughts on the future are particularly interesting, as he seems to predict consumer-specific advertising and entertainment (as in TiVo and Google) and a computer-oriented marketplace that allows customers to buy goods and reserve hotel rooms through their private consoles. Other essays take on religious dogma and political  matters of interest (censorship), warn of the dangers of increasing population,  reflect on the human condition, and share Asimov's thoughts on the increasing role of technology in everyday lives, particularly in his own: he devotes three essays to his new-fangled Word Processor. Interesting topics abound, as is par for the course given Asimov's many varied interests, and his explanations are both lucid and witty with plenty of eccentric charm. Especially notable for me:

  • "The Reagan Doctrine", a satirical essay tackling the idea that believing in God is necessary for morality. "In every country, you'll find large numbers who claim that the United States fought a cruel and unjust war in Vietnam and that it is the most violent and crime-ridden nation in the world. They don't seem to be impressed by the fact that we're God-fearing. Next they'll be saving that Ronald Reagan (our very own president) doesn't know what he's talking about."
  • "Technophobia", in which Asimov addresses the various reasons people fear society's increasing dependency upon technology, although most of the essay is given over to overcoming people's dislike of having to learn new things. He recounts his experiences with the word-processor, how it was foisted upon him and how he studiously avoided so much as even looking at it.
  • "Pure and Impure" takes on the prejudice intellectuals, particularly theorists and liberal-arts snobs like myself, may have  against applied or "dirty" knowledge. 
  • "Art and Science" sees Asimov write on one of my favorite subjects,  the connections between every field of human knowledge. "If you look at an electron micrograph of a sponge spicule or of a diatom (you can find both in the 1977 Yearbook), you don't know whether to admire them as products of science or as works of artistic beauty -- And it doesn't matter; the two are the same."
  • "The Sky of the Satellites" is a favorite: Asimov imagines what the skies of Jupiter and Saturn's moons look like
  • "The Surprises of Pluto", in which Asimov states: "Pluto is scarcely a respectable planet; it is more like a large asteroid."
  • "The Ultimate in Communication", which Asimov sees as YouTube with VHS cassettes. 
  • "Touring the Moon" is a faux-news essay detailing what visitors to Earth's colony on the moon may expect from their trip. "Nothing, apparently, can prevent [the Moon's gravity] from being a surprise to first-timers. After the initial shock, the reaction is inevitable amusement, and a tendency to try walking, hopping, or jumping, despite the large signs that ring every possible change on the message, "Please do not run or jump, but wait quietly for processing."
  • "The Word-Processor and I" is the first of Asimov's essays detailing his partial conversion from typewriters to word processor. "With the help of my dear wife, Janet, [the Radio Shack guide] set up a 'computer corner' in our living room. Within it, the word-processor was unboxed, hooked together, and plugged in. I did my bit, to be sure. I kept saying, 'I don't think we have any space for a word-processor anywhere,' but no one listened to me."
This is a fun collection particularly of interest to skeptics and humanists, but enjoyable to all who delight in reading Asimov in general.

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