Isaac Asimov and Jorge Luis Borges are two writers of unique skill in the art
of fiction. Their substantial readerships admire them for their clear, lucid
prose and its ability to deftly examine the most profound of human topics. A
consistently intelligent approach to story-telling, and one that holds the reader's
interest, has been a hallmark of each man's work for decades. It is my contention
that while both of them cover many of the same themes using similar literary
techniques and concepts, the perception and tone of their writing are fundamentally
different. Underlying Asimov's work is an assumption of rationality and inherent
order, while Borges' work assumes confusion and chaos.
The prolific and powerful Isaac Asimov was a staple in the world science fiction
community. His work touched every genre and every conceivable subject area during
his literary career of over 60 years. As you read his work, basic themes begin
to appear -- the recurrence of order in the universe and the application of
orderly minds to determine, direct, and finally repair chaotic systems. As a
whole, his work tends to promote brilliance and human ingenuity and use them
as key factors in all areas of human endeavor. A prevailing, underlying order
seems to act as a foundation for his expositions on everything from human society
under extreme conditions to the basic elements of thought and emotion as they
may exist in the absence of all else. His writing style is simple and direct,
able to convey complicated scientific ideas to the average reader.
Jorge Luis Borges was a master of surrealist prose, and a literary genius.
His works are abstract yet somehow always concretely themed and indisputably
compelling. His stories characterize a holistic view of humanity and its endless
struggle towards improvement while often altogether missing the point. Often
his characters act completely focused on a specific problem or set of ideas,
while Borges reveals to the reader that these ideas are superfluous and that
the true meanings are hidden elsewhere. In his work, the themes of chaos and
indefinite repetition work to establish themselves in universes where man's
perception of reality, if not reality itself, works in a fundamentally different
manner. Borges was a well-read individual of eclectic knowledge and unparalleled
command of allegory, and although the worlds he created are twisted compared
to our own, his style is still succinct. His descriptions are clear and seldom
burdensome; the images he wishes to provide us with are portrayed accurately
and without difficulty. The concepts he chooses to convey, on the other hand,
are not usually apparent to the reader. Several attempts to understand are usually
required for his message to congeal within our conscious minds.
The likenesses between these two masters are numerous and substantial. Both
can easily write material of either a brief or lengthy nature that successfully
conveys happenings to almost any educated reader. Both were fountains of knowledge,
geniuses with no difficulty recalling the most obscure fact or passage from
a seemingly limitless arsenal of data. Both made note of the fact that they
excluded women from their texts, claiming that they did not understand women
well enough to write about them . And both, as masterful authors, used character
and literary device to adroitly convey an important idea to any reader.
It is Borges' abstract material, in contrast to Asimov's concrete stories,
that lends itself to contrast. While Asimov portrays unusual events or societies
in a standard context, Borges portrays standard events and societies in an unusual
context. Asimov sees how human nature persists in our universe, while Borges
takes human nature as the pivot point for other universes.
While several examples lend themselves to this conclusion, two devices used
by both authors most clearly illustrate this contrast: that of a manipulative
secret organization controlling the fate of society, and that of the coexistence
and unification of the protagonist and antagonist. While these two specific
and unusual themes are present in several works by each author, a juxtaposition
of the works will clearly show the dramatic difference present in the underlying
The first analysis under consideration is a contrast of the concept of Asimov's
Second Foundation with that of Borges' Babylon Lottery. The Second Foundation
is an organization of mathematicians, psychoanalysts, and telepaths who, through
careful calculation, manipulate galactic civilization in an attempt to establish
a prosperous and permanent empire, and shorten the transition period of barbarism
and chaos. Asimov sees psychohistory (the way his Second Foundation manipulates
the galaxy) as being a great achievement of science -- the ability to accurately
predict human behavior. His Foundation is benevolent and competent, and its
effects are viewed as being positive for most of the series.
In contrast, the image we get from Borges is of a random and often malicious
organization that uses its calculative abilities to further whims and chance
with little if any good for society as a whole. He even gives the impression
that the rewards and punishments are in some sort of equilibrium and are designed
to preserve the status quo. Borges' Lottery is, in fact, an example of his view
of the chaos of life. He portrays human beings trying to give reason to this
inherent and inscrutable disorder, but such reasons have no more success than
the original in explaining away a lack of purpose or destiny. We just are. The
Lottery is a mythical organization that predetermines the luck of each citizen
of Babylon, deciding through the manipulation of the smallest of things the
course of each individual's life.
While both authors use the plot device of a manipulative secret society designed
to rule civilization, the messages they promote are in opposition. The Second
Foundation is an organization that works for the necessary betterment of human
society. By preventing 29,000 years of chaos in the galaxy and successfully
forming a new, democratic empire in but a single millennium, these mentalists
and psychohistorians are portrayed as heroes -- the noble saviors of mankind.
To quote Second Foundation:
"When the first Galactic Empire was falling, Hari Seldon and a group of psychohistorians, analyzing the future course of history by mathematical tools no longer available in these degenerate times, set up two Foundations, one at each end of the Galaxy, in such a way that the economic and sociological forces that were slowly evolving, would make them serve as foci for the Second Empire. Hari Seldon planned on a thousand years to accomplish that -- and it would have taken thirty thousand without the Foundations . The First Foundation supplies the physical framework of a single political unit, and the Second Foundation supplies the mental framework of a ready-made ruling class." (Second 14; 101)
In contrast, the Lottery is instead the simple fulfillment of public desires.
By adding this thrillingly random element into their worldview, Babylonian society
is not attempting to make lives any better. Penalties are as common as rewards,
as the spies, statisticians, and astrologers work to make chance a tangible
force in the daily happenings of Babylon. The following passage from Borges'
"The Babylon Lottery" illustrates this clearly:
Once initiated into the mysteries of Bel, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawing of lots, which were carried out in the labyrinths of the gods every seventy nights and which determined every man's fate until the next exercise. The consequences were incalculable. A happy drawing might motivate his elevation to the council of wizards or his condemnation to the custody of an enemy (notorious or intimate), or to find, in the peaceful shadows of a room, the woman who had begun to disquiet him or whom he had never expected to see again. An adverse drawing might mean mutilation, a varied infamy, death. Sometimes a single event -- the tavern killing of C, the mysterious glorification of B -- might be the brilliant result of thirty or forty drawings. But it must be recalled that the individuals of the Company were (and are) all-powerful and astute as well. (Borges 68)The Babylonians revere the lottery as a mystical, almost religious organization, and (use a clearer verb here, this is too ambiguous) both the rewards and punishments it so readily bestows.
The use of similar means towards entirely different ends illustrates the fundamental
difference between the two authors. By rooting their decisions in complicated
mathematical analysis and precise predictions of politics, attitudes, and behavior,
the psychologists of the Second Foundation are dedicated to taking action to
preserve and promote order and unity through the application of human rationality.
The Prime Radiant explains in detail all the necessary equations to carry them
through to the second empire. Rigorous training gives the Foundationers untold
insight into human thought and social dynamics. Everything about them is geared
towards this optimal and efficient, sterile and nonviolent society they wish
to make for their people. By rooting decisions in the infinite variants of chance,
the movements of the stars, or the drawing of lots to determine how positive
or negative an outcome should be and how it should be administered, the agents
of the Company are taking action to preserve the chaotic and unpredictable,
the uncontrollable whimsy of the universe. The outcome of their drawings, combined
with detailed information on individuals, gives them all they need to ensure
that the proper positive or negative effect is administered. Everything about
them, all of their training in a variety of fields, is geared toward the fulfillment
of this entirely haphazard game.
Another theme used by both authors is that of the unification of protagonist and antagonist. This is seen several times in Ficciones. It manifests itself through the narrator in "The Form of the Sword", literarily in the play written by Hladík in "The Secret Miracle", through the conspiracy present in "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," and theologically in Runeberg's conclusions regarding Christ and Judas in "Three Versions of Judas". This coexistence is also the horrifying conclusion of Part 2 of Asimov's The Gods Themselves, marking a fantastic and stunning catharsis to what is often considered the Good Doctor's greatest work.
"The Form of the Sword" is a ficción about an enigmatic
Irishman telling Borges the story behind the scar on his face. As the narrative
unfolds, it becomes clear that this Irishman is a key figure in the revolutionary
actions taking place to free Ireland from England. The narrator takes in and
cares for a coward who nonetheless claims to be on their side of the conflict.
This man was injured superficially in an earlier skirmish and now uses his injury
as an excuse to remain hidden and sedentary. Later, the narrator returns home
early to find the coward on the telephone with the English authorities, betraying
his benefactor. In a fit of rage the narrator chases down the coward and cuts
him across the face with his sword. It is now that the reader realizes that
the Irishman telling the story is not the heroic narrator but rather the cowardly
The Enemies is the key piece being written by Hladík throughout "The Secret Miracle." Borges gives a general outline of its plot:
This opus preserved the dramatic unities (time, place, and action). It transpires in Hradcany, in the library of the Baron Roemerstadt, on one of the last evenings of the nineteenth century. In the first scene of the first act, a stranger pays a visit to Roemerstadt. (A clock strikes seven, the vehemence of a setting sun glorifies the window panes, the air transmits familiar and impassioned Hungarian music.) This visit is followed by others; Roemerstadt does not know the people who come to importune him, but he has the uncomfortable impression that he has seen them before: perhaps in a dream. All the visitors fawn upon him, but it is obvious -- first to the spectators of the drama, and then to the Baron himself -- that they are secret enemies, sworn to ruin him. Roemerstadt manages to outwit, or evade, their complex intrigues. In the course of the dialogue, mention is made of his betrothed, Julia de Weidenau, and of a certain Jasroslav Kubin, who at one time had been her suitor. Kubin has now lost his mind and thinks he is Roemerstadt . The dangers multiply. Roemerstadt, at the end of the second act, is forced to kill one of the conspirators. The third and final act begins. The incongruities gradually mount up: actors who seemed to have been discarded from the play reappear; the man who had been killed by Roemerstadt returns, for an instant. Someone notes that the time of day has not advanced: the clock strikes seven, the western sun reverberates in the high window panes, impassioned Hungarian music is carried on the air. The first speaker in the play reappears and repeats the first words of the first act. Roemerstadt addresses him without the least surprise. The spectator understands that Roemerstadt is the wretched Jaroslav Kubin. The drama has never taken place: it is the circular delirium which Kubin unendingly lives and relives. (Borges 146)
Once again, the antagonist is the true identity of the protagonist.
Similarly, the crux of "Theme of the Traitor and the Hero" is that
the hero, Fergus Kilpatrik, is, in fact, the traitor of the very cause for which
he is deemed a hero by future generations. The main character in this story
realizes this paradox and hides this knowledge, refusing to report the fact
that the elaborate assassination of Kilpatrik was staged by the revolutionaries
themselves in order to preserve his heroic image and the peoples' passion for
Nils Runeberg, in "Three Versions of Judas," makes a comparable discovery
about the Son of God: in order for the Christ to undergo a sacrifice worthy
of mankind, he would have to make the sacrifice of traitorous sin. Therefore
Christ is not Jesus, but Judas. The very man who betrayed God was, through his
betrayal, the savior of mankind and God's true son.
Each of these shows an interesting reversal; the man we see as the hero is,
in fact, the villain. The Irishmen paints himself as the hero so that he can
righteously demean the vile acts of the traitor -- but he himself is the traitor.
Kubin believes himself to be the Baron Roemerstadt, and as such pities the poor,
insane, smitten fool Kubin -- none other but Kubin himself. Kilpatrik acts with
such nobility and revolutionary fervor, condemning through his death an assassination
in which he, the traitor, is the one truly being condemned. The Son of God makes
the sacrifice that both convicts us and frees us from our sins -- but that sacrifice
is to become the worst of all sinners. He who rails against evil, says Borges,
rails against the evil that is in himself.
In the title section of his novel, The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov brings us into a world where the Soft Ones, a race consisting of three genders, work under the intelligent and benevolent hand of the Hard Ones. Soft Ones form triads, each triad being a mating group containing a Rational, an Emotional, and a Parental. Rationals are naturally detached and intellectual in nature; Emotionals are naturally social and empathic; and Parentals are naturally instinct-driven and reproduction-oriented. In his story Asimov recounts the activities of one such triad containing three exceptional individuals -- Odeen, an extraordinarily brilliant Rational; Dua, an Emotional who seeks solitude and can grasp concepts as well as a Rational; and Tritt, a Parental with unusual perception and courage. Throughout the course of the story, Odeen learns of a genius Hard One named Estwald who has found a way to save their planet's diminishing energy supply by tapping the energy of our world. With her exceptional intelligence, however, Dua soon learns that this process will soon cause our sun to explode, destroying Earth in the process while generating far more energy for their own use. Appalled by the idea of killing off an unknown quantity of intelligent life, Dua works to try to fight Estwald and the Hard Ones and to sabotage this pumping of energy. In the end, Odeen explains to her that the three of them must merge and become a Hard One themselves, for Soft Ones are actually the immature form of Hard Ones; every time the three of them have merged to produce offspring in the past, they have spent that time as a Hard One. Dua hopes that by permanently merging into a Hard One, they will be able to convince the others not to listen to Estwald and, in so doing, to stop the destruction of Earth:
The melting was beginning. One by one, the Hard Ones were entering again at the crucial moment. Odeen saw them imperfectly, for he was beginning to melt into Dua.
It was not like the other times; no sharp ecstasy; just a smooth, cool, utterly peaceful moment. He could feel himself becoming partly Dua, and all the world seemed pouring into his/her sharpening senses. The Positron Pumps were still going -- he/she could tell -- why were they still going?
He was Tritt, too, and a keen sharp sense of bitter loss filled his/her/his mind. Oh, my babies --
And he cried out, one last cry under the consciousness of Odeen, except that somehow it was the cry of Dua. "No, we can't stop Estwald. We are Estwald. We--"
The cry that was Dua's and not Dua's stopped and there was no longer any Dua; nor would there ever be Dua again. Nor Odeen. Nor Tritt.
Estwald stepped forth and said sadly to the waiting Hard Ones, by way of vibrating air waves, "I am permanently with you now, and there is much to do--" (Gods 168)
As in the Borges pieces, the very person Dua most wanted to fight and needed
to cry out against was, in fact, herself. It was the very extraordinary nature
of this Emotional that both gave her the tools to combat the Pump and that allowed
the Hard One she was composed of to be intelligent enough to invent the Pump
in the first place. She was able to reason well enough to determine that Estwald
needed to be fought, and to find ways to fight him. Only an Emotional as intelligent
as a Rational could have taken the steps she did to try to prevent the destruction
of another world. However, it was the inclusion of two Soft Ones with the ability
to reason in a single triad that gave Estwald the intelligence to invent the
Pump by which this world would be destroyed. Dua failed to realize that her
unique weapons were being used against her.
While the mechanism of the mutability of protagonist and antagonist is evident
in each of these pieces, Borges uses it in a way fundamentally different from
Asimov's. The four cases of Borges are, respectively: projecting to escape responsibility;
insanity; an elaborate, socially constructed farce; and the imposition of recursive
logic to invoke and justify a paradox. In each of these cases, the theme is
inherently chaotic. The four of them together form a pattern of confusion and
twisted reasoning. Contrast this with Asimov's case, in which an entity finds
herself part of a larger entity whose aims are diametrically opposed to her
own. This second is not a logical mystery but a simple irony, and perhaps even
a social commentary on those who rage against the societal machine.
Once again, Borges uses this plot device as a stage on which his characters
can twist reality freely and back in on itself. On the other hand, even with
something as inherently warped as this, Asimov manages to bring it about in
a firmly premised, organized way that evokes neither confusion nor dizzying
chills but only sympathy and resonant sorrow. The worlds of Borges in which
this specific element is invoked are arguably his most paradoxical, while Asimov
goes so far as to specifically indicate the ways in which the physical laws
of the world he has created differ subtly from our own. In what is often considered
his greatest work, Asimov carries his inherent need for order into a completely
different reality, and does so extraordinarily successfully, while Borges simultaneously
creates a revolutionary paradox in one of the most thoroughly rationalized and
justified subjects in the Western world: the Crucifixion.
These very disparate examples have a common thread, which is the sense they wish to convey to the reader of a changing perspective. The sort of paradigm shift the authors attempt to make in their writing, and the tone it carries throughout, can be seen as a backdrop to everything they do. For Asimov, this is an imposition of order. Everything can be thought out rationally, and everything can be made to fit and follow from its predecessors. The following is a quote from one of the most brilliant recurring characters in a series of mysteries he has written:
"There must be a rational explanation to everything, sir, and, as usual, the Black Widowers had carefully eliminated all possible explanations and left me to point out what remained." (Widowers 253)
In Asimov's work, complete information leads to clarity and precise conclusion.
Thought to him is an exercise in creating a solution to a problem, and one analyzes
in order to eliminate the unknown, forever rendering it into the known and comprehended
For Borges, this paradigm shift is actually a twist into irrationality or inconsequence.
He goes so far as to actually examine a person who, through the interposition
of a tragic accident, is given flawless memory in "Funes, the Memorious":
I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget the difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details. (Borges 115)
Here, complete information leads not to clarity but to confusion. Since Funes
has concluded that true thought requires forgetfulness as a necessary and equivalent
condition to abstraction, he has revealed an attitude of derision toward the
laborious attempts at more precise and detailed understanding of the intricacies
of life. To overanalyze, then, is to practice cyclic and meaningless calculation,
rendering the system hopelessly without order. The seemingly known human world
is as unknown as that which we have not considered.
It is this conflict in basic perspective that composes the infinite universes
of two of our greatest twentieth-century writers. As every literary artist hopes
to be able to do, these two masters successfully brought delightful and unique
color and flavor to the universe of thought in which their readers, by being
human, must necessarily reside. Whether one identifies more with Asimov's order
or Borges' disorder, one must come to the conclusion that this contrast is indicative
of the true and irreproducible brilliance of each man's work.
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