Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 28-34

Chapters 28-34 of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, cover June 28, 1941 to June 20, 1943, and maintain the interest and humor of the previous chapters. [1]

During this time, Germany continued its invasion of Russia but the initial progress of the invasion slowed and finally reversed. Countering that, of course, the Japanese also attacked Pearl Harbor, which brought the U. S. fully into the war. Asimov says he was willing, but not eager, to fight and the issue of being drafted was to hang over him for some time. Later in this period, the Japanese were halted at the Battle of Midway and Asimov became confident that the Allies would be victorious in both the European and Pacific theaters. (Not to mention that the African theater also took a turn for the better in late 1942.) The early, dark days did cause him to briefly lose interest in writing–the first of two hiatuses in this period.

Meanwhile, Asimov was invited to L. Sprague de Camp’s apartment, the first time he’d visited a major SF writer in this way. Among other SF contacts, Frederik Pohl had been a friend of Asimov’s and purchased many stories as editor of some shoestring-budget magazines but lost his job in a shakeup so became a sort of half-agent to Asimov for a short time but Asimov was really his own agent. Later, at Campbell’s house, he met Robert A. Heinlein who was apparently informally interviewing Asimov, including testing his reaction to alcohol (after Asimov, who had been noisily jovial prior to drinking, went to sit down and recover from the drink, Heinlein decided alcohol “sobered him up”), and eventually recruited him to work in the U. S. Navy Yard at Philadelphia where he would also recruit de Camp. (Asimov’s employment there is a frequently cited biographical item but he makes it come alive with great detail.) In further social matters, Asimov tried and failed to learn to dance and continued his initially not particularly successful encounters with women, but he did start attending meetings of “the Brooklyn Authors Club” which led to a double date (which was a blind date for him) in which he met Gertrude Blugerman and, after an imperfectly smooth early relationship, they were married July 26, 1942. (As Asimov puts it, they became “man and wife (or, with equal validity, woman and husband).”) [2]

In school, Asimov continued to try to advance in chemistry until he left temporarily for the Navy Yard work. One of the more amusing anecdotes is one in which he tried to win over a professor with “a calculated ploy. I don’t often calculate a ploy, alas; I talk first and think afterward, or not at all, as a general rule.”

The most important science fictional thing to occur to Asimov in this period was the Foundation series. Free-association from a Gilbert and Sullivan play led to Gibbon and then to the idea of a story about a Galactic Empire. He’d been frustrated about the many revisions “Pilgrimage” had taken (the last time he would do more than one substantial revision on a piece) and its lack of success (“considered by knowledgeable fans to be the worst story of mine ever to see print” though Asimov thinks he wrote worse [3]), so was interested in taking a fresh crack at the general idea and hoped Campbell would be interested in the idea, too. Campbell was so interested that, to Asimov’s dismay, Campbell immediately wanted to make it a vast far future history of numerous connected tales in a sort of counterpart to Heinlein’s Future History series. He even told Asimov to go outline it as Heinlein had his. Asimov relates that, he “dutifully” tried: “Heinlein, however, was Heinlein–and Asimov was not Heinlein.” The outline “got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until I finally tore it up.” He was to continue writing by the seat of his pants for the next fifty-some years. This nearly resulted in immediate disaster, as he couldn’t even figure out how to do the second story but something Pohl said to him in conversation [4] saved him and the series.

Though he’d written it in the previous chapters, another important SF event was the publication of “Nightfall,” which made him a major SF star, though he didn’t realize its importance at the time. Asimov’s initial reaction was focused more on a change Campbell made which, as helpful as he usually was, didn’t suit Asimov this time. “Nightfall” was told wholly from the perspective of the people of Lagash but Campbell had inserted a short paragraph near the end which referred to Earth, which Asimov “had carefully refrained from doing… all through the story.” He felt that making such an inconsistent reference was “a serious literary flaw.” More significantly, he refers to how the paragraph had been “praised as proof that I could write ‘poetically,’ which gravels me, since I don’t want to write poetically; I only want to write clearly.”

Another important aspect of this section of the book, for the collector, is that it contains the only book appearance of “The Weapon,” which was a story Asimov had written in 1938 but which didn’t appear until 1942 and, inexplicably, under the name “H. B. Ogden.” As a result, he didn’t keep a copy and forgot about it until he came across information about it in his diary while doing research for this book. After it, he fairly says, “There; not exactly a very good story, but not bad for an eighteen-year-old.”

Between going for his doctorate, getting a job, and getting married and moving out of his parents’ place and into various apartments (during which he lost essentially all his prior worldly possessions), he didn’t complete a story for fourteen months between February 1942 and April 1943. Yet again, it was Pohl who saved Asimov for posterity, sending word that he’d like to revise their collaborative “Last Rites” (Asimov’s fifth try at getting into Unknown) and try to sell it to another market. This prompted Asimov to try for a sixth time, this time with “Author! Author!” and almost successfully. The story was accepted but, before it could appear, Unknown died due to war-time paper shortages. But Asimov had already sold another science fiction story before he received the bad news and was safely back to writing.

[1] Earlier chapters were covered in:

[2] An odd note: in both the meeting with Heinlein and once with Gertrude, Asimov couldn’t make it all the way to his destination by train or subway and hiked the long remainder, deeply puzzling the others, who wondered why he didn’t call them to come pick him up or take a cab. Asimov explains that it didn’t occur to him because “cars were strange animals” to him.

[3] He did.

[4] Many people, if they had a time machine, would check on major religious events or visit battlefields or things of the sort, and I’d probably do something similar but, since Asimov’s usually powerful memory and diary both fail him with details here, I’d almost rather go back in time to that conversation on the Brooklyn Bridge to find out exactly what Pohl said.