Thoughts & Insights
Asimov, OUBEY and the Interplay of Thought and Imagination
Isaac Asimov is one of the truly great science fiction writers of the last century. His stories still capture the imaginations of readers all over the world and have lost none of their power to astound. Along with Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke, he was one of the “Three Big” sci-fi authors who were particularly close to OUBEYs heart.
Like almost no other writer Asimov put the “science” in “fiction“. In his novels we meet technical developments and intelligent machines which at that time belonged purely to the realm of fiction but which nowadays in many respects are part and parcel of our everyday lives. Artificial intelligence, for instance, has long been around and is now being researched and developed at a level of specificity that most people 80 years ago would have regarded as more than utopian – most people, with the possible exception of those like Asimov. He was the one who anticipated what it would be like if robots developed not just feelings but also a solid sense of moral values. OUBEY was so keen to see the film version of „I, robot“, but then, when it appeared in August 2004, he had to miss it forever.
When it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to attend this year’s „Asimov Memorial Debate“ at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, almost by way of consolation I went out and bought Asimov’s collection of autobiographical writings It´s Been a Good Life edited by Janet Asimov, his second wife.
Obviously Asimov’s work deals with questions of science but in fact it’s just as concerned with the investigation of deep philosophical questions of fundamental importance. His Three Laws of Robotics“ is a prime example of this. As is “The Last Question” which was Asimov´s personal favorite among his stories as I discovered when I read the autobiography. It was also OUBEYs personal favorite too. And it speaks for itself. You simply have to read it to understand how important it is.
The roots of the close knit bonds between science and fiction in Asimov´s works go way back to his childhood. In his autobiographical writings he talks about how as a small child he first came into contact with science fiction magazines where they were laid out for sale in the candy stores owned by his parents in the late 1920s in New York at the time of the Great Depression. “It was science fiction that introduced me to the universe, in particular to the solar system and the planets. Even if I had already come across them in my reading of science books, it was science fiction that fixed them in my mind, dramatically and forever …”
When as a young boy he delved into the worlds opened up by the stories he was reading – and this certainly doesn’t just apply to sci-fi novels alone – the interplay of rational thought and fantastic imaginings filled him with an extraordinary sense of happiness which stayed with him for the rest of his life. For sure, he shares this sense of happiness born of reading with a great many other people across the world no matter what age they might be. Even so, in Asimov’s case, such deep immersion at such an early age in the border worlds between scientific technical exploration and fantastical imaginings of the possibilities inherent in the future led to his unique ability in later life to make connections undreamt of by anybody else.
In many places reading Asimov´s autobiography I was forcibly reminded of OUBEY. From early childhood onwards, science fiction also played a central role in his life. It wasn’t just a place of refuge for someone whose way of thinking and feeling was far ahead of his time; it also laid the early foundations for that “ Interplay between Thought and Imagination“, as Asimov so marvelously puts it. OUBEYs work too is a unique and impressive expression of such forces at work – though on a distinctly non-verbal level.
“These pictures start speaking to you once you start looking at them“, exclaimed a Maori woman in Aotearoa/New Zealand when she recently saw OUBEYs paintings for the first time. His paintings are neither abstract nor figurative but rather tell stories of the origins and finality of our existence in this cosmos that people on all the continents of this planet can “read” and understand, and perhaps some day – who knows? – even beings at home in other galaxies of our universe. Of course today such a view is pure speculation – but it’s speculation that could become reality in the course of the next century.
By the way, one of the distinguished speakers at last year’s Asimov Memorial Debate was Prof. Lawrence Krauss, the world famous astrophysicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University. He researches the origins of the universe and has a remarkable gift for communicating his knowledge in a way that’s both illuminating and entertaining. The previous year I met him in his office at the university with one of OUBEYs paintings for the OUBEY Encounter Project. It was a personal and highly idiosyncratic meeting. You can view the video of this encounter here.
I knew straight away that Lawrence Krauss was just as a big a fan of science fiction as OUBEY from the number of Star Trek figures, some of them in imposing life-size, dotted around his office. And through his encounter with OUBEYS painting I learnt that he liked it so much that he would love to have it hanging in his own home. The fact that one year later he appeared on the podium at the Asimov Memorial Debate 2013, finally opened up a spiritual connection for me of the kind I would say that animated OUBEYs work and has lost none of its power even today.
It’s only a pity that the limited time span of human life means that a personal encounter between Asimov, Krauss and OUBEY can never take place – at least not on this planet.
Here you may find the complete debate from 2013 about „“The Existence of Nothing“, featuring Prof. Lawrence Krauss.
Text source: Janet Jeppson Asimov: It´s Been a Good Life. 2002