Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 35-41

These chapters of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography [1] fall into two groups. While most of the book has been fascinating and entertaining, I did mention that a section in which he was constantly moving and changing schools suffered from a bit of “sameness” and most of the first three chapters of this group have a problem with being a collection of isolated anecdotes with many interesting facts and opinions but not a lot of narrative thrust or anything to really settle into.

He spent most of this time continuing his work at the Navy Yard. One of his major projects was to chemically test seam-sealers for aircraft and he learned how to write specs in the convoluted, impenetrable “Navy style.” Being Asimov, he wrote one as satirically as he could manage but, as he says, the joke was on him as his superiors were thrilled with his wonderful work. During this time, he lunched with Heinlein and Heinlein’s then-wife, Leslyn. Despite Gertrude being a smoker, it was Leslyn and lunch that triggered Asimov’s abhorrence of smoking (while she didn’t like the way he inhaled his food). In addition to that regular practice, there was also a memorable dinner with Sgt. Jack Williamson and the Heinleins hosting the Asimovs, the de Camps, and a tale-telling, guitar-playing L. Ron Hubbard.

Of the many anecdotes, a couple are notably odd. He was thrilled to be able to vote for FDR and describes literally “screaming like a teen-age girl” when Roosevelt drove by on a tour of the Navy Yard. In another case, he was donating blood (something he could never really manage to do again and which reads oddly given his ultimate fate) when another donor was asked why there was special interest in his type O blood and answered that it was because of how “rich and wholesome” it was (when it’s because it’s the universal donor type). Asimov (type B), rather than finding this unremarkably silly or remarkably funny, was actually enraged by it, taking it very personally even though the other donor wasn’t even talking to him.

It’s odd that these chapters aren’t more enjoyable because he was writing almost nothing but peak Foundation and Robot stories but those are given relatively short shrift. He does say that, in addition to Gibbon, a series called The Historian’s History of the World was also something he enjoyed [2] and which influenced the Foundation series. While some see Toynbee as an influence, he says that only “Dead Hand” was really influenced by it before he decided Toynbee wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. (Asimov would have written more but he got involved in his own attempt to write a history of WWII which went nowhere.) By the fifth story, Asimov was tiring of the series (mainly from writing three in a row and also from the labor of doing a series by the seat of his pants). He relates that it was Campbell’s idea to upset the Seldon Plan, which Asimov resisted forcefully in horror, but he eventually gave in and, in the sixth story, created The Mule, whose physical appearance was partly modeled on a friend. Similarly, Gertrude was a partial model for Bayta (and not just in appearance) while he put some of himself into Torin. In August of 1943, he borrowed a trick to save space from Sprague de Camp and dismembered all his magazines, storing all his own stories in bound volumes (except for some that didn’t fit because of Astounding‘s brief experiment with a larger size, until he had those bound in their own separate volume).

The blurb from the Washington Post on the cover of this book says it is “surprisingly candid” but I don’t think it’s generally “surprising” at all, as I’d expect Asimov to almost always be candid. However, I’m not sure he was always aware just how candid he was being. I think the worst part of these chapters involves Asimov getting more and more worried about the draft and doing everything legal he possibly could to avoid it even though the war was ending and even when it ended. By definition, few people want to be drafted and trying to do scientific work or other forms of alternative service is admirable but one is left with the image of Asimov with his fingernails gouging out strips of the floor, screaming “Noooo!!” as the draft finally drags him away. The most salient example of this may be when he says that his reaction to hearing the A-bomb had been dropped on Japan was to wonder what effect that would have on his chances of being drafted. [3]

The four chapters of Army service making up the second group are much better although, even here, he spent almost his entire time (only nine months from November 1, 1945 to July 26, 1946 rather than the full two years) trying to get discharged early (and writing one Robot story). Just four days prior to being shipped out to observe atomic bomb testing on Bikini Atoll (there to probably get leukemia), a SNAFU caused checks to stop going to Gertrude with the explanation that Asimov had been discharged. Seizing the opportunity, he got his superior to transfer him back to the States to get his situation sorted out and, in the end, he was, in fact, given an honorable discharge after attaining the rank of corporal. It is in these four chapters, though, that the narrative becomes more sustained and Asimov’s mockery of military intelligence and the Kafkaesque world of a post-war army drafting chemists to be typists and sending them to islands to be exposed to atomic bombs because they are “critically needed specialists” is deployed to great effect. Aside from deriding the more bizarre aspects of military life, he also depicts some of its camaraderie, both seriously and comically. For instance, the rarely drunk Asimov relates a time he did get drunk and came back to the barracks and accidentally woke Stash (“the diminutive of his first name, in Polish”):

“Stash,” I said, spreading my arms wide, “I love you.”

Whereupon he jumped up tensely, threw himself into a posture of self-defense, and said, “You try to hug me and I knock you down.”

I was helped into my cot and someone pulled some of my clothes off me and I lay giggling there all night. It was the only day in the Army I was truly happy. I guess that’s why people drink.

I had no reason to be proud of this experience of drunkenness. The others easily outstripped me. On April 27, the other specialists all got drunk for some reason or other. Upton, who had the bed next to mine, lay there hiccuping and slowly and repetitively protesting his love for me.

“Yes, Ed,” I kept saying, soothingly, and then I recited for him, dramatically:

The love of a man for his brother
And the love of a child for its mother
Are nothing at all compared to the love
Of one drunken bum for another. [4]

Upton listened carefully and nodded and said, “That’s right. That’s right.” Then he leaned over the side of the bed (the far side, thank goodness) threw up, and went to sleep.

[1] Earlier chapters were covered in:

[2] In another context, he also mentions reading each volume of Durant’s Story of Civilization as it came out, which is a series I’ve also enjoyed.

[3] My point here is that, while I’m not one of those who thinks dropping the bomb was necessarily evil (I recognize there are arguments about this both ways and think (a) it may have saved lives in the near-term and (b) the visceral, rather than intellectual, knowledge of the horrific destructive power of the weapon in the backs of peoples’ minds may have helped save the world in 1962 and at other times), I feel like the event almost has to be talked about as either a mistake or the most painful of necessities and was surprised that there wasn’t a word about tens of thousands of civilians being obliterated. A possible excuse is that (a) I’m sure he’s expressed more heartfelt reactions elsewhere and (b) the full magnitude of the event might not have been immediately apparent but, even so, he was writing this in the late 1970s and could have added his current thoughts to his original ones.

[4] This reminds me of Asimov earlier quoting “a bit of doggerel”:

The rain, it raineth every day
Upon the just and unjust fella
But more upon the just, because
The unjust has the just’s umbrella