Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 42-47

These chapters [1] constitute Part V of the book and cover late-1946 to mid-1949. A major focus is on his return to Columbia after a four-and-a-half-year absence due to war work and being drafted. Once back, he is constantly having great difficulties while striving for his doctorate (with his doctoral thesis being undercut by a realization that the evidence didn’t bear it out, requiring revision and repetition) and for reliable employment (with his GI money ending and Gertrude losing her job) and a decent place to live (moving several times, once back to his parent’s place). Like a little kid on monkey bars, he’s only able to barely grasp the next rung to avoid disaster. Not everything is always dire, though. There’s a very amusing anecdote regarding the famous science fictional satire on chemical papers, “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline.” He’d taken the extraordinary step of actually asking for it to be published under a pseudonym out of his fear it would be taken amiss by the chemistry community. However, Campbell “forgot” and it appeared under Asimov’s name. Later, being almost hysterical from the pressure of his doctoral oral examination, he burst into relieved laughter when “Thiotimoline” did come up but, rather than it being held against him, it actually indicated he’d succeeded in the interview. Afterwards, the teetotalling Asimov went out and got very drunk.

This success didn’t especially breed more, however. He still had a hard time finding a job and, almost as bad, was having a hard time writing. He published relatively few stories in each of these years, was basically lashed by Campbell into writing two more of the Foundation stories he had grown to dislike doing because of their difficulty and the labor involved. He also had a bad incident with his second novel-length story which had been commissioned by Sam Merwin, Jr., of Thrilling Wonder Stories. He wrote 48,000 words under the title “Grow Old with Me” and was encouraged by Merwin every step of the way. He handed in the completed work and was then told, due to a shakeup at the magazine and what they wanted, that it would have to be completely rewritten, and Asimov regretfully says “[f]or the first and only time in my life, I openly lost my temper with an editor,” and told him to go to hell. The travails with that novel were not done, though, as Frederik Pohl was looking to get into agenting again and got the story from Asimov, first sending it to Gnome, and then to Doubleday. (Asimov, by this time, was so disgusted with the story that he handed it to Pohl’s eight-year-old step-daughter when it turned out her parents weren’t home.) It was on February 4, 1949 that he reached a low point with all this sort of thing going on in his writing life and having a horrible job interview where the company even initially refused to have it before perfunctorily rejecting him. However, the very next day, he met Walter I. Bradbury, editor at Doubleday, at a meeting of The Hydra Club (a reconstitution of The Futurians) which, though he didn’t know it then, was to have a profound impact on his life. Shortly after this, he got a job as instructor in biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine (though he hated leaving New York) and learned Pohl had gotten Doubleday to take the novel which was to become Asimov’s first book (though it would have to be expanded to 70,000 words and retitled–Asimov decided on Pebble in the Sky).

There is a very funny bit behind getting the job, which is all the funnier because Asimov frequently points out how his beloved research professor often confused what Asimov calls his “stupidity” with what the professor perceived as Asimov’s utmost integrity (which Asimov usually had as well). I’ll let Asimov explain:

[The interviewer] told me I would be expected to teach the Medical School freshmen and asked if I could teach biochemistry.

“Certainly,” I said.

Since he didn’t ask me if I had ever taken any course in biochemistry, or if I knew anything about biochemistry, I felt it would be impolite to force upon him the information that the answer to both those possible questions was “No.” The course wouldn’t start till February and by then I should know enough to get along.

Aside from these main focal points, there are innumerable anecdotes about specific stories and about science fiction personalities. For instance, Asimov details his first anthologizations such as “Nightfall” appearing in the famed Adventures in Time and Space, “No Connection” appearing in the first science fiction “year’s best” anthology (Bleiler and Dikty’s The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1949) as well as the story behind why Asimov chose “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” to appear in My Best Science Fiction Story (the anthology was given that name after he’d selected it, having been forced to chose from non-Astounding stories). Orson Welles bought the film rights to “Evidence” and also anthologized the butyl mercaptan story of “Victory Unintentional” (which I think shows Campbell had more SF acumen than Welles but which was rightly very exciting for Asimov). He also describes meeting Doc Smith for the first time at the fifth Worldcon and relates bits about Heinlein along the way, including Heinlein’s divorce from Leslyn (and later getting a Christmas card from “Bob and Ginny,” his new wife), his drift to the political right (after “Heinlein seemed to me to be an ultraliberal all through the days of the Navy Yard and so had Leslyn”), and a very amusing anecdote (though painful to Asimov at the time) about how he’d tried to recycle an old story for Thrilling Wonder but had it rejected the same day he found out Heinlein had gotten a story published in the Saturday Evening Post.

There are also intimations of the future. He gave a talk on SF&F for a general audience which was a significant step on the road to being a professional speaker. He bought his first non-required science book, Samuel Glasstone’s Textbook of Physical Chemistry, which was the seed from which his non-fiction library grew. And, just as the positive response he got from a schoolmate on a story he was telling the boy made him start thinking of himself as a writer, he received compliments on his ability to explain chemistry to laymen, and began thinking of himself as an explainer, even writing a serious non-fiction article for Astounding, which, like his first story, was rejected and which, like his stories, was to be the first of hundreds of successes.

[1] Earlier chapters were covered in: