Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 22-27

My last post on Asimov’s autobiography left off with Asimov having made his first sales and having graduated from college in chapters twenty and twenty-one. This post[1] discusses chapters twenty-two to twenty-seven (which includes “Making My Literary Mark,” describing the writing of “Nightfall”). In the course of those chapters, he describes the genesis of the first World Science Fiction Convention and the trivial fan wars around it, the outbreak of a real war with Hitler’s invasions of Poland and others, his first unconsummated love affair, and his decision to become a chemist rather than the doctor his father wanted. (This involved struggling with a Nobel-prize winner.) Meanwhile, he also continues to suffer literary rejections, softened by the occasional acceptance (often from his friend, Fred Pohl) and Campbell’s continued faith in him and willingness to work with him.

With Asimov’s increasing grasp of how to write professional copy tailored to a given market and Campbell and Asimov’s establishment of the Three Laws of Robotics after a couple of preliminary robot stories, Asimov begins to get the hang of making sales. Campbell then gives him the commission to write “Nightfall” and Asimov notes that he received a bonus from Campbell and that Willy Ley was extremely impressed by it. An incident Asimov recounts, but a connection he does not make, involves Campbell taking a picture of Asimov the day Asimov came in to discuss minor revisions to the story. Asimov describes how Campbell would, in later years, whip out the picture of skinny, pimply, mustachioed Isaac Asimov and ask people to guess who it was (no one could) but I think it also indicates that Campbell knew he had an epochal story on his hands and wanted to capture the moment. Still, despite the SFWA declaring in the late 60s that it was the best science fiction story of all, Asimov doesn’t count it as even his best story (listing “The Last Question,” “The Bicentennial Man,” and “The Ugly Little Boy” as three superior ones).

As Asimov had ended the chapter prior to his meeting Campbell with a suspenseful “at the door with Campbell on the other side” sort of moment[2], so it is a testament to Asimov’s writing skill, even in non-fiction, that the story of the creation of the Three Laws is interesting and that of creating “Nightfall” is downright exciting. Aside from conveying the overarching concept that perseverance through rejections pays off, he also includes several good tips he got from others. When Asimov got stuck writing “Reason,” Campbell told him, “Asimov, when you have trouble with the beginning of a story, that is because you are starting in the wrong place, and almost certainly too soon. Pick out a later point in the story and begin again.” Asimov describes how he applied that then and in the future, using dialog or flashback to cover the earlier parts if necessary. He also followed a good tip from Nelson S. Bond about what matters—when Asimov still occasionally got tangled up in fan fights in the letters columns as a professional, Bond advised him to simply stop. And Asimov continues to include humorous anecdotes such as what chemistry geeks do for fun with chemicals that modify the urinary output of unsuspecting victims (such as Asimov) and why blue would have been a more effective choice than red.

Speaking of chemistry, Asimov went on to try for his Ph,D. but initially ended with only an M.A. and the prospect of trying again. He tried to break into Unknown again using another collaboration with Pohl but Campbell rejected it. Finally, he took a very rare vacation and ended up in a place where everyone was Jewish and some more anti-Soviet than anti-Nazi, one even advocating an invasion of Russia by Germany and an alliance of America with Germany so that the Soviets could be crushed by an invasion from the Pacific as well. Then some remarkable things about race come up, with Asimov drawing a parallel between some people’s mistreatment of Jews and the mistreatment of blacks by whites (including Jews). This didn’t go over well. This part of the book ends with that one individual getting part of her wish, as Hitler invades Russia which, while ultimately disastrous for Hitler, was terrifying to Asimov at the time.


[1] This is extracted and slightly revised (with an appended paragraph covering chapter twenty-seven) from “Isaac Asimov: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939” and, if you’ve already read that, there’s little need to read this.

[2] The description of the first meeting with Campbell is repeated almost verbatim from The Early Asimov, as are many other anecdotes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other earlier works were used in the same way.