Spanning time and space, the fictional worlds of scientist and prolific writer Isaac Asimov imagine alternative realities. Ones in which scientists and engineers resolve galactic struggles and robots walk among people.
Asimov also expressed concerns with the real world in his nonfiction writing, as in 1971 when he proposed — in this magazine — that the United States ought to make the long-overdue transition from its imperial system of measurement to the one utilized by most other nations. “Sanity is the metric system!” he railed, challenging his readers to attempt to memorize the convoluted conversions and calculations required to keep up the pigheaded American tradition of inches and pounds.
Today is the 100th anniversary of Asimov’s birth, and his writings display deep admiration, and tough love, for the country the Russian immigrant made his second home.
In addition to his arguments for reason in the way of official measurement and his musings on extraterrestrial life, Asimov imagined a series of conversations he might have with the founding father (and founder of The Saturday Evening Post) Benjamin Franklin. His most popular writings in the Post were a series in 1974 that depicted somnambulant run-ins with a ghostly Ben Franklin, starting with “The Dream.”
In Asimov’s story, Franklin is delighted to hear about the technological advancements of the modern era, and he excitedly learns the news that his nation is about to celebrate its bicentennial. Though the details of radio communication and television are difficult to conceive, Franklin is most bemused by his country’s failure to bring about world peace and unity amidst a time of unprecedented possibilities in travel and communication.
“My world seems like a science fiction world even to those of us who have lived through the recent years to reach the present,” Asimov tells the founding father. After explaining to Franklin the capabilities of space travel, satellites, and fossil fuels, Asimov also lets him in on the difficult prospects of nuclear war, gas shortages, and pollution. As in much of Asimov’s work, the tragic irony of looming catastrophe in an age of rapid advancement is all too real:
Franklin said, “You say, the, that every nation needs every other nation; for oil, or for metal, or for industrial experience and technological knowledge. You say that the oil supplies will soon be used up and that permanent new energy supplies must be found by nations working together. You say that failure to cooperate means the end of your technological civilization and the death of billions You say it all as though it were such apparent truth that it wearied you to have to explain it to me.”
In the final installment, Franklin gives his simple advice to Asimov on the message great writers must strive to express to avoid the end of civilization: “Unite or die.”
Asimov criticized American anti-intellectualism and widespread ignorance, but it is difficult to say exactly what the science fiction writer might think of the state of his country if he could see it on his 100th birthday. He would be quite surprised (or not at all) at the ubiquity of touchscreen technology and the prospects of artificial intelligence. Perhaps he would be disappointed in the failure of 21st-century people to unite in solving our climate crisis. But one thing is for sure: if Asimov could visit the United States today, he would be appalled to find that we are still stubbornly holding out on a shift to the metric system.
Featured image by Lucian Lupinski in The Saturday Evening Post, May 1974
In the wise words of Ben Franklin, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.”
This week, The Saturday Evening Post celebrates its birthday.
Our first issue appeared on August 4, 1821, making us the oldest magazine in the United States. (Because our publication was interrupted in 1969, we are not the oldest continually published magazine, however; that honor is held by Scientific American.)
The Post began life as a weekly newspaper, printed on the same equipment Ben Franklin used to publish The Pennsylvania Gazette. The Post‘s four pages were crowded with dense columns of small type; there were no illustrations besides a few crude pictures of hats and boots in advertisements.
The articles may seem archaic today, but those early issues carry a lot of the same content that appears in today’s shrinking newspapers.
For example, there is coverage of national news, particularly the continued growth of the country:
The President of the United Sates, by his Proclamation, dated the 10th instant, agreeable to the conditional power invested in him by an act of Congress, announce the Admission of the State of Missouri into the Union.
Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson was taking up his appointment as first governor of Florida (the territory was recently purchased from Spain, and Jackson was eager to prove the absolute authority of the U.S. in the region):
The Spanish Governor of Pensacola has been arrested and thrown into prison by order of Gen. Jackson. The reasons for this procedure is his not having surrendered up all the papers which were legally claimed by the late treaty. They are now in the possession of the American authorities.
The owners also exercised their right to include moral instruction squarely on page one. On August 18, 1821, they presented the article “Admonition Against Sabbath Breaking”:
It is the duty of every Christian to observe [Sunday] as a day of rest from work, buying, selling, travelling (except in cases of great and unavoidable necessity) and from all kinds of sport and diversion. To spend the sacred time in idleness and amusement; to neglect the public and private duties of the day tends to bring the judgments of God on the country. It leads you to bad company, to a habit of idleness, drunkenness, extravagance, and so on to ruin, as many [condemned criminals] have acknowledged [shortly before their] execution.
But when it came to filling up the pages with copy, the Post did what modern news organizations still do — reprint items of passing interest from other newspapers:
A fact, to the curious.— On the 7th of June last, about five o’clock in the afternoon, there passed over Willistown (NH) and Goshen (VT), a swarm of the animal denominated the “Devil’s darning Needle” [the dragonfly]. The swarm extended a mile in width, and was more than an hour in passing from east to west.
There is now residing in Stafford, a man by the name of Nolan, who is at present married to his twenty-sixth wife, and has by the whole, seventy-three children. He is one hundred and five years of age, and his present wife is now pregnant.
The latest accounts from New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston represent those places as entirely free of malignant fever.
A patent churn has been manufactured in Orange county, (N.Y.) which can be worked by a dog!
A man has been sold at public auction, at the market house in Detroit for being found idle, and not giving an account of the manner in which he obtained a livelihood. The purchaser was to be entitled to his services for ten days, and he was then to be walked out of the territory unless he agreed to maintain himself by creditable labor.
The City Gazette of Washington says, that in [leveling the ground] in front of the President’s house, the laborers came to a spot where five graves were opened. One of the coffins was in perfect preservation, and the remains of a corpse was exposed, exhibiting long dark hair, perfectly strong and neatly folded up under the skull. [The White House grounds are] said to have been the burying ground of the Peerce family, of Bladensburg, and that the bodies have been interred about 40 years.
On one subject, there is a particularly strong resemblance between the Post of 1821 and modern newspapers. Then, as now, journalists love to report on the death of celebrities.