[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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SFWRITER.COM > Nonfiction > Isaac Asimov (Toronto Star)

Why Isaac Asimov is Against Reagan's Star Wars

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1985 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Abstract: A 900-word article by Nebula-Award-winning SF writer Robert J. Sawyer interviewing Isaac Asimov about why he is against the Strategic Defence Initiative ("Star Wars"). Originally published under the title "Author Has Harsh Words for Star Wars Plan" in The Toronto Star on 18 August 1985, based on an interview Sawyer conducted in Asimov's home in the summer of 1985. Copyright 1985 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

The Strategic Defense Initiative. It's right out of science fiction: a shield of orbiting ray guns disabling nuclear missiles. Even the project's nickname, Star Wars, comes from a science-fiction film.

But what do science-fiction writers think of Star Wars? Isaac Asimov is the author of more than 300 books, including the SF bestsellers Foundation's Edge and The Robots of Dawn. He realizes that many SF writers, including several who are also working scientists, support Star Wars.

"They tend to be the same ones who were in favour of the Vietnam war," said the former biochemist in his Manhattan apartment. "Maybe it's because a great deal of hard science is sponsored by the Defense Department which, God knows, has more money than anybody else. Who else would buy ashtrays for $600?"

Dr. Asimov, 65, is a severe critic of Star Wars. "I'm against it, not because I'm a science-fiction writer, and therefore have special knowledge, but because I like to think I'm a sane human being."

He believes Star Wars is a dangerous waste of money. "They're talking about spending $33 billion on research related to Star Wars. We're going to withdraw money from needed aspects of developing knowledge in order to set up something that probably won't work and even if it does work, won't do us any good."


Part of the problem with Star Wars is that it will take years to develop. "If I were the Soviet Union, I would have spent all this time trying to work up methods to penetrate the shield," said Asimov, who was born in Russia but grew up in New York. "I have a strong suspicion it would be cheaper to penetrate the shield than to set it up.

"And if we're in real danger of a nuclear war now, trying to set up something for the middle of the 21st century isn't going to do us any good. In fact, by filling us full of false confidence, we're not going to make a strong enough effort to prevent war now."

Jerry Pournelle is the most vocal of the SF writers who favour Star Wars. He is editor of a series of SF anthologies collectively titled There Will Be War.

"The reason Jerry Pournelle is for Star Wars is not because he's a science-fiction writer," said Asimov. "It's because according to him, he, among others, wrote the speech that Reagan gave in first advocating Star Wars. He's supporting himself."

Short-term self-interest is at the root of much Star Wars support, according to Asimov. "Lots of scientists are going to make a lot of money out of the government involvement, so they give it a spurious air of scientific value. But purchasing kind opinions isn't going to make Star Wars any better, saner, or more sensible.

"There are science-fiction writers, notably myself and Arthur C. Clarke, who were anti-Vietnam and are anti-Star Wars," said Asimov.

Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, was born in England and lives in Sri Lanka. "Clarke was howled down once by someone saying as a non-American citizen he had no right to make comments about Star Wars. That's an extremely stupid remark.

"If you have no right to decry the policy of a country unless you are a citizen of that country, why the hell is Reagan always yelling about the Soviet Union? Is he a Soviet citizen?"


"Science fiction is riddled with war and weapons of war," admitted Asimov. "Just as unhappy endings are more dramatic than happy ones, suffering and suspense make for more drama than having it easy.

"But just because a story involves war, doesn't mean it's pro-war. If you're against war, you have to write a war story which shows how cruel, wicked and stupid war is."

Asimov's own stories paint a peaceful future. His 19th science-fiction novel, Robots and Empire, will be published by Doubleday in September. "I have as my theme that violence is the last resort of the incompetent. In other words, a good leader gets his way without war."

Asimov feels there's more to Ronald Reagan's wanting Star Wars than just a misguided view of national defence. "If you render the Soviet Union helpless to attack you, does that mean you can then dictate to them exactly what they should do to become a good Republican country?"

He's afraid Reagan desires Star Wars so that he can say, "`If you don't do what we demand, we're going to smash you with our entire nuclear armory and you won't be able to respond with a single bomb.'"

But Asimov knows that America will gain nothing through Star Wars. "If the Soviet Union can't penetrate Star Wars, all they have to say is `Go ahead. Bomb the hell out of us. You'll get destroyed by the nuclear winter that follows.'"

Dust kicked up by a nuclear war could blot out the light and heat from the sun, plunging the world into the freezing darkness of nuclear winter. "I'm convinced nuclear winter is actually something that will happen," said Asimov. "Unless we're completely insane, we don't dare take the chance. So what the hell good is this whole damned thing?"

[2005 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer is the author of sixteen science fiction novels. He won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year for The Terminal Experiment the Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year for Hominids. He lives in Toronto. Visit his website at sfwriter.com.

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