NESFA Members' Reviews

I. Asimov

by Isaac Asimov

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Isaac Asimov was one of the giants of our field and this is how he wants to be remembered. Unlike his earlier two autobiographical volumes (In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt) which were day by day chronologies of his life, I. Asimov is Isaac talking directly to us about what (and who) mattered to him.

The book consists of 166 essays averaging perhaps 3-4 pages long on topics as diverse as "John W. Campbell", "My Father", "Heartbreak", "Job Hunting", "Off the Cuff", "SF Conventions", "Mystery Novels", "The Bible", "Death", "The Baker Street Irregulars", "Best-seller", "Senior Citizen", and "Hospital". They are written in an almost conversational style and tell -- as best as he was capable of telling -- what he though about people, things and himself.

In places he seems brutally honest (talking about his son, his failure as an academic, or about his divorce from his first wife, while other topics (particularly the ones about his colleagues) seem just a little too nice.

Asimov was obviously deeply affected by Heinlein's Grumbles from the Grave, and in one of the essays remarks on the tragedy that it was published at all since it showed, in Asimov's words, "a meanness of spirit". Asimov felt that while it was accurate, it will now detract forever from Heinlein's reputation. Asimov clearly intended to avoid doing anything like that to himself and largely has succeeded.

I say "largely" since Asimov's egotism is manifest throughout the book. He does his best to make it engaging -- he asks us to join with him in laughing at his foibles -- but it is there and it must have made him very hard to be around. (I remember the note he sent to the Noreascon 3 program saying that he doesn't do panels; he does a singleton show.)

Interestingly, his evaluations of people are quite positive with five exceptions: Campbell, Heinlein, Martin Greenberg of Gnome Press (not the current-day anthologist!) his first wife, Gertrude and his son, David.

Campbell and Heinlein are judged wanting: Campbell because he was an expert on everything and -- more importantly, I think -- frequently disagreed with Asimov's politics. Heinlein because he was able to dominate Asimov in the early days when they both did war work for the Navy.

While Asimov has correctly identified their foibles, I think he places too much emphasis on them, probably because they were the only two people in the field who were his contemporaries (and thus rivals) and who clearly were above him in the SF pecking order.

And Asimov never liked to be upstaged.

His problems with his wife and son seem ordinary enough and don't really tell us much about him. His problems with Martin-Greenberg-of-Gnome-Press-who-is-different-from-the-anthologist were the same as everyone else's: Greenberg was a crook and didn't pay for the stories he printed.

(There's an amusing anecdote here. Asimov, elsewhere, was asked if he was still angry with Greenberg. he said no, because (a) it got the books published at a time when there were few opportunities, and (b) if Greenberg had been honest and paid Asimov his royalties, he'd have had a right to a share in the much, much larger royalties Doubleday eventually paid. Asimov says that financially he came out `way ahead on the deal compared to how he would have if Greenberg had been honest.)

He didn't write about L. Ron Hubbard or A. E. Van Vogt. I suspect that he skipped them because he didn't like either of them and because they were people who weren't safely dead. (Granted, Hubbard is dead, but not safely dead. His organization still sues on flimsy or no grounds. Normally grounds for libel ends with death, so Virginia Heinlein -- even if she were so minded -- couldn't sue for libel against RAH no matter what is said.) And, to be sure, I imagine that Asimov didn't want to be remembered by the grudges he held.

Interestingly, among his professional colleagues, L. Sprague de Camp and Clifford Simak seem to be the people Asimov most liked.

Two of the essays in combination struck me as particularly ironic. On Campbell -- while giving him full credit for being the dominant person that he was, and giving him full credit for launching Asimov's career (though Asimov obviously feels that the good fortune was as much Campbell's as his) -- he felt that Campbell lost it fairly early.

He recounts telling a petroleum geologist who had never met Campbell how to recognize him: "when you run into somebody who, as soon as he learns that you are a petroleum geologist, spends the next hour telling you all about petroleum geology and gets most of it wrong, that's Campbell." Not entirely unfair, but....

In one of the later essays Asimov mentions debating Rosalyn Yalow about radiation biology. He grumps that he wasn't able to convince her and comments that while they were both equally stubborn, he was right, and she was wrong! (And the really amusing part is that, as he describes the point at issue in his essay, he was almost certainly wrong, and in a fairly elementary way!) Shades of John W. Campbell!

(Another funny Campbell story: Campbell forced Asimov to add one paragraph in "Nightfall" that Campbell practically dictated. Asimov didn't really like it, but gave in because Campbell was buying the story. That specific paragraph was later singled out by a critic as proof that Asimov could write lyrically as well as in his more common prosaic style. That must have rankled.)

I do also find his gibes at his political enemies rather funny since Asimov had always struck me as politically rather naive, an impression not at all dispelled by the book. (Basically, he doesn't seem to have a political philosophy more complicated than "why can't everyone be as reasonable as I am?".) But then SF professionals in general seem politically fairly naive.

The last dozen or so essays are written with intimations of death clearly with him. They are not maudlin and in some respects are among his best and most affecting writing. One essay is particularly endearing in which he struggles to live to his 70th birthday since he had gotten the notion that to die before 70 was to die an young man, while to die after 70 was to die at one's normal time. (He made it to 72.)

Of all the SF autobiographies I"ve read, this is easily the best. This will be a sure-fire Hugo nominee and mostly likely winner in the Non-Fiction category. And it will deserve it. Buy it in hardback and read it.

Highly recommended.

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