The Decades-Long Flame War Between Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov

asimovclarkeScience fiction history has its share of disputes and disagreements, but there’s only one that left a plane crash, untold awards ceremony speeches, and the world’s first combination war treaty/book dedication in its wake. Today, in honor of the light-hearted tomfoolery April Fool’s Day inspires in us all, I’m taking a look at the rivalry behind two of the 20th century’s undisputed masters of science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, SF history’s greatest insult battlers.

It all began with Clarke. If you know his teenage nickname—“Ego”—that might not come as a surprise. His abilities certainly caught up with his opinion of himself, but he always enjoyed roasting his friends. While introducing his Asimov at an event in London, Clarke had plenty of time to prepare his choicest insults.

“Well, Isaac, I’ve lost my bet. There are more than five people here,” he opened. “I’m not going to waste any time introducing Isaac Asimov. That would be as pointless as introducing the equator, which indeed, he’s coming to resemble more and more closely.”

Clarke went on to discuss Asimov’s endless bibliography, estimating the level of deforestation for which Asimov was personally responsible, “5.7 times ten to the sixteenth microhectares.” He listed a few titles he claimed to have found in his Manhattan “private plumber’s unit:” The Asimov Exercise Book, Asimov’s Guide to Cricket, and Asimov’s Karma-Sutra.

After insinuating that Asimov was a science-writing robot—a favorite joke, recycled by modern-day fans in reference to Brandon Sanderson so often that he felt the need to publicly deny it—Clarke relinquished the stage. Despite being caught unawares, Asimov was ready to retaliate.

Arthur, he explained, gave the worst kind of introduction: one both long and clever.

“Let me tell you the kind of guy Arthur is,” Asimov said. “When he met me on the Canberra and he saw that I was perfectly at ease, and had overcome my fear of traveling, and was standing there with nothing between myself and the sea but some thin steel, he said, ‘Isaac, at great expense I have persuaded the captain of this ship to show The Poseidon Adventure.’”

When the duel of wits was over, Clarke had enjoyed himself so much that he even turned the transcripts into a short story “Introducing Isaac Asimov,” which appeared in a 1975 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Asimov relished that day’s insult battle, too, so much so that it became a life-long hobby.

The insults continued sporadically over the next fifteen years, eventually reaching such crystalized perfection that, in one case, no words needed to be exchanged: Clarke once found a searingly negative review of an Asimov essay collection, snipped it out, and sent a copy to ensure the author wouldn’t miss it.

I already mentioned the plane crash incident in a recent post (17 Epic Burns Given to Classic SF/F Authors) but it’s worth recounting: After finding out someone onboard had been reading one of Clarke’s novel at the time a passenger plane crashed, Clarke sent the news to Asimov, adding if only the man had taken an Asimov novel, he might have died peacefully in his sleep.

Asimov, of course, replied that the death was, at least, a “merciful release” from reading Clarke.

Was there any respite from the barrage of insensitivity and insults between the two authors? Yes—underneath their combative posturing was, after all, a deep respect.

One fateful day, Clarke and Asimov found themselves sharing a taxi in New York. While discussing their respective accomplishments in the science and science fiction community, they settled on a mutual beneficial agreement: when asked who the best SF author was, Asimov would insist it was Clarke, knowing he could count on Clarke to insist that Asimov topped the list. It may not have ended their flame war, but it proved they saw the value of compliments as well.

Clarke chose to ratify the treaty in the dedication to his essay collection Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations, a wry encapsulation of his witty war with his fellow titan of the genre:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer.”

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