Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 48-55 (conclusion)

The first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography concludes with Part VI which contains Chapters 48-55. These cover the span from the summer of 1949 to early 1954. Personal events move rapidly for him in several domains. First, he and Gertrude move into an apartment which was a converted attic and was, unsurprisingly, extremely hot. This is followed by a nicer one which is followed yet again by their first house. Part of the reason for this is that, after eleven years of marriage and giving up hope, and shortly after Isaac began giving birth to kidney stones, Gertrude gave birth to their first child, David. And part of what makes it possible is that Asimov struggles with the university hierarchy to get raises and promotions (becoming Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the end of 1951) and also has his writing career gather steam, moving from magazines to books (in addition to learning to drive and buying a Plymouth so that he could travel between home and work without mass transit). The birth of his first child also got him to thinking about and getting life insurance and making a will.

In terms of university work, Asimov was originally doing research into nucleic acids with paper chromatography to aid in studying cancer tissue but, looking back on it, thought it wouldn’t have come to anything. His take on his work varied: he had allies and at least one enemy on the staff; didn’t mind grading objective answers but hated grading essay questions; and enjoyed lecturing but came to hate research and writing scientific papers and books. Nonetheless, he loved other writing so much that he increasingly focused on his “hobby” over his “job,” especially as the former became increasingly competitive with and then far superseded the latter as a source of income. All in all, he seems to have been only slightly better suited to being a professor than a soldier.

Though slow to see it, he believes he was really destined to be a writer but even this was not a road without bumps. After a long period of hassle-free sales to Campbell through much of the 1940s, he began branching out and selling many things to many places but also acquiring an astonishing number of rejections, including from Campbell, despite sending Campbell relatively little. As Asimov says:

For twelve years, nearly, Campbell had been the center of my literary existence. He had nurtured me, protected me, fostered me, and made me what I was, and there is no way in which I can be sufficiently grateful to him.

By 1950, however, I had grown beyond him.

This was partly due to Campbell’s infatuation with L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics (“out of which Hubbard was to make his fortune and gain his godhead”) which may have helped end Campbell’s marriage, and did strain his relationship with many other writers, including Asimov. Though the infatuation was brief (from September 1949 to no later than May 1951), Campbell merely moved from it to other far-out things [1]. Further, Asimov thought Campbell’s right-wing nature was intensifying and affecting the magazine, which also put him off.

Whether cause or effect, the appearance of F&SF in late 1949 and Galaxy in early 1950 gave writers like Asimov other high-paying and widely-read options and the success of those magazines led to a boom of lesser magazines as well. Even there, editors could be idiosyncratic. While Boucher at F&SF seemed to be mild and mainly concerned with style, Gold at Galaxy could be peculiar and cantankerous. He seemed unable to resist changing the titles of the stories he published, usually for the worse, and could be very demanding with revisions and cruel with rejections. Asimov once responded in his usual fashion when Gold said one of Asimov’s submissions was “meretricious.” Asimov got him to repeat the word and said, “And a Happy New Year to you!” which annoyed Gold still further.

In addition to the widening magazine market, Asimov had found a new protector and mentor in Walter I. Bradbury. (He was called “Brad” by most and I’ll repeat that here to avoid any confusions with “Ray.”) Brad was looking to start publishing science fiction and encouraged Asimov. He wasn’t initially interested in reprinting Asimov’s stories but wanted new novels, so they worked out the publication of Asimov’s first book, Pebble in the Sky (1950), expanded from a recent and unpublished shorter novel [2]. Initially, with the all-new The Stars, Like Dust– (1951), Asimov had to follow the usual “two chapters plus outline” routine but he hated outlines and never kept to them and, with each early novel, the approval process got simpler and smoother until Asimov could basically announce his next project and would shortly receive an advance. In the meantime, Stars became his least favorite novel, partly due to the outlining and mostly due to the changes Gold introduced for its serialization. Obviously, he changed the title to “Tyrann” but, more bothersome for Asimov, he insisted on adding a gimmick involving the U. S. Constitution, which Brad also wanted. (Asimov seems to usually base his judgments of his own works on how easy they were, how little they were interfered with, and other extrinsic factors rather than necessarily on aesthetics.)

Stars was quickly followed by a third Empire novel, The Currents of Space (1952), as well as the first of the Lucky Starr juveniles, which came about during a meeting between Brad, Frederik Pohl, and Asimov. The idea was that series on the newly popular television would be much like radio serials, running forever and making everyone rich, so Asimov could write a novel which would be adapted into a TV series. While Asimov loved Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, he found television to be generally awful and wondered what would happen if he hated the thing his name was associated with. Brad told him to use a pseudonym so, inspired by Cornell Woolrich’s “William Irish,” Asimov selected “Paul French.” Though nothing ever came of the TV series, Brad still wanted more Starr novels, so Asimov obliged. Other novels completed or begun in this period included The Caves of Steel and The End of Eternity. The core of the former essentially came from Gold, who wanted a serial. Asimov cites it as the first perfect blend of SF and mystery (though, in my opinion, he’d very nearly done this in many earlier stories, if indirectly). The latter was originally written as a novelette [3] but, after a couple of rejections, Asimov pitched it to Brad as a book and it was accepted.

All this was the early part of a long and mutually loyal relationship between Doubleday and Asimov which lasted as long as Doubleday’s independence (which ended in Asimov’s last years). For instance, Asimov had an opportunity to jump to Ballantine which had a plan to make all its authors extremely wealthy and Asimov was tempted but stuck with Doubleday. And once Asimov says he unwisely made a business deal with another publisher for the paperback rights to one of his Doubleday hardcovers and Brad honored the deal because Asimov had given his word, despite it costing Doubleday money. While Asimov doesn’t exactly say this, I think it’s fair to say both Doubleday and Asimov were immeasurably enriched in the long run by this human connection which superseded short term advantage.

Meanwhile, Asimov had a less cheerful relationship with the publisher of Gnome, Martin Greenberg (not to be confused with Martin H. Greenberg). This firm published Asimov’s classic story series in the form of I, Robot (1950), and the three Foundation volumes, but Greenberg never gave proper income statements and only paid what little he did under repeated pressure. After these books, Asimov stopped dealing with him and, while he doesn’t note this, at least yet, Gnome went out of business in 1962. Asimov originally called his robot collection “Mind and Iron,” for which he selected all his Astounding robot stories up to that point (plus a revised “Robbie”), skipping “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” and “Victory Unintentional” (as well as “First Law,” which he doesn’t even mention in this context). All the Foundation stories went into the trilogy, plus a prequel story written to provide a less abrupt introduction to the stories and to pad out the otherwise small first volume [4].

For most of this period, Pohl was Asimov’s agent and also sometimes his debtor, as he borrowed money from Asimov to buy the Dirk Wylie Literary Agency, but it folded and, after Asimov forgave some debt for rights-reversion, Pohl got out of the business and Asimov was never represented by an agent again, which he underscores by telling what I think of as the “$50,000 Shrimp Story.” After hearing Asimov was unrepresented, Heinlein tried to get Asimov to sign up with his own agent, telling Asimov he could quintuple his earnings. Asimov struggled mightily with his principles and the notion of $50,000 a year. When they all got together for dinner, the wife of the agent tried to drive him crazy with her chatter and then commented on his shrimp and speared one from his plate. This upset Asimov so much that his principles suddenly firmed up and he was able to resist, never being tempted again.

One interesting note about the mechanics of composition is that Gertrude re-typed some of Asimov’s old stories for publication and actually enjoyed this, wanting to be more involved in Asimov’s work. He bought a dictating machine and, in the fashion of Algis Budrys, performed the (to me, unfathomable) task of writing by talking. He “wrote” “Hostess,” “What If–?” and “In a Good Cause–” in this way. Though they both felt it was a rousing success, the experiment ended when she had to take it easy after a miscarriage scare with David. There is a funny story to go with this too, as Gertrude complained that she couldn’t transcribe what he’d dictated on one occasion. When he asked why, she told him to listen to it for himself and he heard himself speaking in his character’s voices as they argued, finally snarling unintelligibly and, in this way, learned “how closely I mimicked the emotions of my characters.”

Speaking of Budrys, in this period, at various places, Asimov met him, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester, Robert Bloch, Arthur C. Clarke, Groff Conklin, Randall Garrett, James Gunn, Harlan Ellison, Phil Farmer, and Robert Sheckley for the first time [5]. Speaking of Ellison, he also relates the story (without making the comparison) of how editor Bea Mahaffy asked for a story from him and, perhaps dazzled by her beauty, he called for a typewriter, as a joke. When she actually brought him one, he actually wrote “Everest” up on the spur of the moment, Ellison-style, and she bought it when he was done.

In even more social doings, the science fiction community sometimes really seemed like a nest of rabbits. As mentioned, John Campbell and Dona Campbell split up and she took up with George O. Smith. Evelyn Harrison moved from Harry to Lester del Rey. And Judith Merril split from Pohl and produced one of the funnier anecdotes, which Asimov inserted as a “[foot]note from Judith Merril.” She relates that, despite then being a virtuous husband, Asimov was also known as “the man with a hundred hands” and there seemed no way to clue him in to the problem when it occasionally went “beyond purely social enjoyability.” Despite being potentially agreeable herself at unattached times, she decided to clue him in, herself. On one occasion

…the third or fourth time his hand patted my rear end, I reached out to clutch his crotch. He never manhandled me in vain again.

(Times really are different but I admire Merril more than some of today’s women.)

Despite his husbandly virtue through many temptations, he does relate his first infidelity (which was not with an SF writer) which he feels is necessary to explain some of his psychology of (in)security.

Science fiction wasn’t all of his career or social life at this point, though (and was to diminish further). A short version of his dissertation appeared in the February 1950 Journal of the American Chemical Society, which was his first scientific publication. His first non-fiction sale came when Writer requested a piece from him and he supplied “Other Worlds to Conquer” for their February 1951 issue. He collaborated on a textbook with his Boston colleagues, Walker and Boyd, which became Biochemistry and Human Metabolism (1952). Though he found this a frustrating experience and the book was a failure (and he was still roped into doing a second), he became more interested in doing solo-written popular science books and did his first (for teens) with The Chemicals of Life (1954). While he didn’t like that one (being told not to include sentences of over twenty-five words, which he ignored ever after) this also marked the start of many. He even composed his first limerick for a private audience and published his first poem, a self-satire called “The Foundation of S.F. Success” which appeared in the October 1954 issue of F&SF.

His 1950 earnings trounced those of previous years and nearly equaled his salary which gave him the first serious thought that he might actually “make a living as a writer” and those earnings continued to grow through the period. It is this which forms the segue from the first volume to the second, as he asserts that most people find the peak of his SF to be the 1940s, but he holds that it is the 1950s but, either way, the ’50s also marked a transition in the kind of writer he was.

Before leaving this volume, I should note that, in addition to personal or science fictional items, events in the world at large are often covered by way of footnotes and include the Korean War, Castro’s takeover of Cuba, and McCarthyism but one thing is in the main body which I’ll repeat here. In speaking of McCarthyism, he paraphrases something Ted Sturgeon had said at a science fiction convention.

…science fiction was the last bastion of freedom of speech. The censor minds did not read science fiction, could not understand science fiction, and would not know what to suppress if they did read it. If censorship ever got so sophisticated that even science fiction fell prey to it, then all was over. Every vestige of democracy would be gone.

Generally, this section has all the virtues of the others. Its only problem is that, while he had carefully noted in a detailed fashion all his publications in earlier sections, with the transition to books and the transition to reporting annual earnings, his citation of stories (if not novels and other books) becomes much less complete and clear and I assume that will be the case from now on. Otherwise, I enjoyed this section immensely and look forward to the next volume (which I will discuss far more concisely) [6].


[1] Campbell had long been interested in psychic phenomena which initially had an apparently respectable pedigree from Rhine’s studies at Duke and Asimov has plenty of “psi powers” in his earlier stories, but he saw Campbell as getting carried away with it and this probably helped create one of the three pieces in The Alternate Asimov as Campbell asked Asimov to write the idea which became “Belief” but wanted a revision because it didn’t have enough psi for him. Asimov grudgingly, partially complied. On the one hand, much of this is the increasingly bad side of the coin of Campbell’s contrarian nature, which has its good purposes and results but I also wonder how much of the dianetics and Dean drives and all else was Campbell’s version of the Shaver mysteries and came in response to the increasing competition he faced from 1949-50 and on. Still, there’s no doubt it didn’t work for the better, either way.

[2] The shorter version eventually appeared in The Alternate Asimovs.

[3] The novelette version also made its way into The Alternate Asimovs.

[4] There may be some very valuable copies of Foundation out there if they’re specifically identifiable, as Asimov mentions signing some for Gnome and then going to a less-than-overwhelming autographing party where he signed about ten copies.

[5] He also met John Ciardi at this time who has science fiction connections but who I know most as a poet and, most specifically as translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite being philosophically opposed to almost every speck of that work, it almost aesthetically justifies the Middle Ages by being a staggering artistic creation. And, for the bathos, while Asimov doesn’t jump ahead to this, he and Ciardi became friends and were to collaborate on many books of limericks.

[6] Earlier chapters were covered in: