Tomorrow is the traditional date for Isaac Asimov’s birthday and would have marked his one hundredth. In honor of this, I’m currently making my way through his two-volume 1,560-page autobiography and intend to read all his science fiction along the way. I’m about to switch to some of that early fiction because I’ve completed page 241 and chapter 21 which ends with his ironically ignominious graduation from “Columbia” while chapter 20 has recounted his “First Sales.”
In the introduction, Asimov says that “nothing of any importance has ever happened to me and it will take all my writing skill to obscure that point.” Nevertheless, the tale of his Jewish ancestors in Czarist Russia and his parents living through its change into the USSR is extremely interesting. That persists as the family makes the arduous transition from respectable townsfolk in the old home to “greenhorns” in a strange new country where they don’t even yet speak the language, with their only help coming from one relative who had immigrated earlier. The tale continues with young Asimov’s early life as precocious class clown and his family’s attempts to find the One True Candy Store which will make them rich (which, if it didn’t do that, did enable them to survive the Depression). That gets the reader well into the book and it only begins to flag after several candy stores, moves, and school changes as that takes on a bit of sameness despite being enlivened with Asimov’s perspective and wit. On page 89 he says, “I read omnivorously and without guidance. I would stumble on books about Greek myths and fell in love with that world. When I discovered William Cullen Bryant’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, I took them out of the library over and over. Unaware that they were classics I was supposed to read and should therefore avoid, I enjoyed them and read and re-read them, often beginning again as soon as I had finished, until I had almost memorized them.” Discussing his little brother Stanley on page 99: “[W]hen he had grown big enough to stand up in the carriage, I amused him by starting and stopping the carriage so that he would sway back and forth and laugh. A woman scolded me for doing so, feeling I was endangering the child. When I got home, I complained to my mother that some strange woman had scolded me “for just doing this.” I demonstrated it, and Stanley immediately tumbled out of the carriage—and don’t think I didn’t get a hiding promptly.”
The momentum increases greatly for the science fiction fan as he soon begins trying to write science fiction in a serious fashion. This came about when the latest issue of Astounding didn’t show up at the candy store on time. Living nearby, with the price of travel being cheaper than mail or a call, he goes to the offices of Astounding to inquire and, the second time it happens, he meets John W. Campbell (p.196). He begins trying to break into Astounding but can’t sell anything anywhere at first. He finally does sell his first story to Amazing and then, after several tries and some work with Campbell, manages to sell his first story to Astounding which only resulted in a few more rejections right after that. Still, from his earlier letters which were published in the famed letters column, Brass Tacks, and then his actual publication, he begins correspondence with some writers and meets other local fans and writers. The great names of the Golden Age begin to spangle the pages.
Asimov says, “John Campbell was not quite twenty-eight years old at the time I first met him. Under his own name and under his pen name of Don A. Stuart, he was one of the most famous and highly regarded authors of science fiction, but he was about to bury his writing reputation forever under the far greater renown he was to gain as editor.
“Campbell was a large man, an opinionated man, who smoked and talked constantly, and who enjoyed, above anything else, the production of outrageous ideas, which he bounced off his listener and dared him to refute. And it was difficult to refute Campbell even when his ideas were absolutely and madly illogical.”
(Asimov footnotes this to add, “And illogical they certainly seemed to be to me, for he was always an idiosyncratic conservative in his view on life, whereas I was an idiosyncratic liberal—and we never agreed on anything. Yet although he stood somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun in politics, he was, in person, as kind, generous, and decent a human being as I have ever met.”)
Then Asimov describes how Campbell worked with him, sending him often detailed rejection letters which the notoriously criticism-averse Asimov read with profit and which gave him more enthusiasm to write. He mentions that he would like to pay his debt to Campbell by helping other aspiring writers but laments his inability to do so. “I am not Campbell. In some ways, I have passed beyond him, but in the essential characteristics that made him my literary father, I am but a pygmy to him. I don’t have his ability to bestow enthusiasm and self-confidence; I don’t have his endless fertility of mind. Most of all, I don’t have his capacity to help others along miles of successful pathways while remaining behind himself.
“In other words, he was the quintessential editor, who fertilized and nourished a whole generation of writers, and I am only a writer, completely wrapped up in myself. Campbell could point out what was wrong with a story and describe precisely what ought to be done to correct it. I can’t even do that for my own stories…”
But it wasn’t only Campbell who went into making Isaac Asimov, the writer. Describing his being steeped in the nineteenth century fiction that was available to him (aside from the pulps) his pre-publication style was rather purple but he particularly admired Clifford D. Simak’s straightforward approach and sought to emulate it. He also benefited from his friendship with the brilliant and critically astute Frederik Pohl.
So I’ve been greatly enjoying this and am now primed to dive into a long delayed re-read of Asimov’s fiction. (My recollection of “the early Asimov” is that there were two chains of Robot and Foundation mountains and an additonal peak of “Nightfall” towering over numerous adequate tales but we’ll see.) If I can stay focused, this blog may begin to look like itself again.
Edit (2020-01-07): Changed post title from “Isaac Asimov’s Centennial.”