In some ways, the Doctor and the Professor couldn’t seem more different.
The Doctor looked toward a fantastic future, built among the stars and shared with a race of mechanical men. The Professor looked toward a mythical past, sheltered amidst the trees and hills and shared with beings older than mankind.
One wrote at high speed in a utilitarian style that kept the stories coming and coming. The other labored over each word, considering the history of every drop of color and whisper of wind.
And for fans of the fantastic like myself, the New Year hasn’t really started without them. Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the biggest names in science fiction, born January 2. Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, the godfather of modern fantasy, born January 3.
Am I geeking out here? Maybe just a little. But it really is just that cool.
Part of it, of course, is memory. My love for Tolkien was born in elementary school, reinforced by many hobbit-filled reading nights with my dad where we delighted in every new character and voice. (I still envy Dad’s booming Treebeard, just as I think he always appreciated my attempts at the hardworking Sam Gamgee’s accent.) Asimov’s work I met a little later, encouraged in part by a science teacher who felt that no robotics club was complete without the Good Doctor.
Obviously, I’ve got a lot of company – including the Doctor and the Professor themselves, as it turned out. Asimov was one of the few “modern” writers that Tolkien genuinely enjoyed reading; Asimov, for his part, once mentioned that he’d read The Lord of the Rings five times and was genuinely surprised when his own Foundation series beat it out for a Hugo award. But it’s more than pleasure and nostalgia.
The truth is, there couldn’t be a better way to start the year. Because in doing so, we look toward the truly human.
I know that sounds strange. Asimov solidified robots in the modern imagination, while Tolkien introduced us to hobbits and all their kin. But both writers, even in their most epic tales, built everything on the most simple and basic of human qualities.
In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, the problems of the world aren’t solved by mighty armies and powerful leaders. Instead, it comes from the compassion and determination of simple folk, knowing they’re not up to the job, but doing their best for as long as they can.
In Asimov’s worlds of the future, the answers don’t come from vast armadas and epic battles – in fact, violence is mocked by one character as “the last resort of the incompetent.” Instead, the key is to use your reason to understand the world and the people around you, knowing that if you can see what the problem actually is, the solution may be simpler than you think.
Heart. Mind. An awareness that other people matter – whatever their origin – and a disdain for the pride and hatred that often sets them apart.
We still need all of that today. Maybe now more than ever.
And if we let it be nothing more than a fantasy, then we’re writing ourselves a very dark tale, indeed.
So go ahead. Look to the promise of the future. Take heart in the legends of the past. And use the tales of both to see our present moment more clearly. That’s what will give us the humanity to reach beyond the threats and fear that haunt our times – to build a world together rather than destroy it apart.
It’s a vital lesson.
And it’s one the Doctor and the Professor are still waiting to teach.