Review: In Joy Still Felt by Isaac Asimov


In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978 by Isaac Asimov
Hardcover: Doubleday, $19.95, 828pp, 1980
Paperback: Avon, $9.95, 828pp, 1981

The second volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, published a year after the first[1], is actually the second half of a single manuscript. As such, it has five sections like the first’s six, which are divided into forty-six chapters like the first’s fifty-five and each chapter is divided into a varying number of sections. However, the second volume generally has many more and shorter sections per chapter and, given that each section is really a story or anecdote or other atomic element of autobiography, it results in the second seeming much choppier and less cohesive. Also, for the general science fiction fan, it suffers in comparison to the first because it mostly focuses on the period in which Asimov wrote very little SF, turning instead to writing mostly non-fiction (and mysteries). However, for the Asimov fan, this may be as important and it’s still interesting and entertaining. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine any such fan having the first volume and not wanting the second at least for the sake of completeness.

The first part describes his battle with higher-ups in the Boston University School of Medicine due to a genuine animosity toward him, ostensibly due to his writing somehow making him a bad teacher and reflecting badly on the school when, really, he was a popular lecturer, at least, and was esteemed for even his early writing, including his science writing, despite his vulgar involvement with science fiction. He was ultimately able to retain his title and a connection to the school while giving up the actual teaching duties he wasn’t especially fond of in the first place and the day would come when he would be given honorary degrees by multiple universities, be invited to do special things for Boston University, and have a library of his works collected there.

This part also describes the birth of his second child, Robyn, which is odd in at least a couple of ways. One, which he is aware of, is that he wasn’t contributing to his pet fear of overpopulation but he wasn’t contributing to its solution, either. The second, which he seems unaware of, is an apparent complete lack of interest in his first son, David, combined with an infatuation with Robyn which makes his word “doting” an understatement. He and Gertrude certainly seem to have taken care of David, who seems to have turned out well, but I can’t imagine there not being some sort of psychological issue there.

Most of the remaining sections cover his transformation into a science popularizer and a general polymath who wrote everything from books on the Bible and Shakespeare to original “lecherous” limericks. Along the way, the fascinating background is given to oddities like his writing a science fiction movie novelization (Fantastic Voyage, 1966), another intended story which became a novel which won him his first “regular” Hugo as well as a Nebula (The Gods Themselves, 1972), and his successful second effort in the 1970s at writing mysteries after something of a commercial failure in 1958. The ever increasing number of books written at an ever increasing pace is detailed. His rising fees and increasing schedule as a speaker is also described. His increasing celebrity and his increasing interactions with fellow celebrities, from the scientist Carl Sagan to the cartoonist Al Capp to the envy-inducing meetings with Racquel Welch and Julie Newmar, are also narrated.

Those sections also tell the story of his divorce from Gertrude, his first wife, after thirty-one years and his marriage to Janet, his second, which was to last the almost twenty remaining years of his life. The oddity here is that he met Janet years before and made a bad first impression, but met her again and they seem very fond of each other from that point on until, at his separation and return to New York from Boston, they immediately meet and move as quickly to marriage as the slowness of the divorce proceedings allow. Yet Asimov disclaims any romantic connection beforehand which leaves his complete failure to give any reasons for the divorce in an otherwise minutely detailed autobiography all the more puzzling.

Another interesting thread is the discussion of how a man who refused to fly in an airplane was able to travel to England and South America and more after he discovered his love of cruise ships and the generally pleasant times he spent on them, almost always with Janet but sometimes alone, and at his destinations.

Contrasting with the general successes and happy second marriage, he also discusses the deaths of his father and then his mother, coupled with his own health struggles with thyroid cancer and then a coronary in 1977 (which might have killed him if it had been a little more severe, especially with how he handled it, eating cheescake explicitly against doctor’s orders and stupidly walking to his appointment and running up the stairs as a self-test). But it ends with the happy note of his (temporary, as it turned out) recovery, the establishment of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and the celebration of his two hundredth published book (which was the co-published first volume of the autobiography (Doubleday) and Opus 200 (Houghton Mifflin)).

The main narrative ends on December 31, 1977 with the assumption of an eventual third volume if he lives long enough “except that” the section continues with what might have been better as an epilogue or something of the sort which updates his book count to include this, the 215th publication, through 1979 and his promotion to a full, rather than “associate” professor of biochemistry. (Both these cutoffs make the last date in the subtitle confusing.)

Unfortunately, while there was a third book of autobiography, I. Asimov was not a continuation of the first two using the same method, but mostly a recapitulation of the two volumes using a different method and partly an extension of it with the new method.

One of the things that surprised me is that, while I knew he never turned his back on the field of SF as some other writers did and continued to appear in SF magazines with his F&SF column and frequent stories and even the occasional novel, I wasn’t aware of how trivial these things were to his overall self-perception in that era. In other words, he really did mentally move on from SF and it was mere unimportant dabbling as far as he was concerned. Part of the reason for this was due to the ease and speed with which he wrote non-fiction which coupled with his increasing mania for counting his books. By the end of his life, he counted around five hundred books and, in this autobiography, sometimes laments his failure to count something he might have or justifies to himself and his readers the things he did count but, really, this is one area at least in which his integrity fails. If you exclude counting some books in multiple revisions, all the things for very small children of very few pages, all the pamphlets and even charts, all the things he put his name on for contributions he made, all the books Martin H. Greenberg primarily edited and which he wrote introductions for, I think a reasonable count of his true written books is less than two hundred, mostly for teenagers, and often reusing the same material in different guises. It’s still a prodigious number and isn’t in need of unseemly inflation but it did indeed become a mania for him. Most of his first one or two hundred books account for most of the “solid” books and the last three hundred include few and most of those come from his return to science fiction in the period just outside the bounds of this autobiography.

Other than the book counting mania, one of the things that makes Asimov’s recounting of his successes with “charming Asimovian immodesties” and “cheerful self-appreciation” appealing is that he recounts his many failures and failings with equal openness, making a special point to admit to all the stupidities the genius committed that his friends delighted in pointing out. Many “immodest” people have a sort of meanness which involves a smug air and/or the belittling of others but Asimov’s is generally indeed “cheerful” in that he’s simply happy about characteristics he has or things he’s done and it’s an infectious joy that few would begrudge him or themselves and it’s always coupled with the admissions of the many things he couldn’t do or the few things he has failed at. Without ever saying the words or making a special point of it, it is a sort of “American success story” in which the kid of immigrant parents becomes a rich, world-famous, successful author.

In sum, it’s an interesting story told with Asimov’s considerable enthusiasm and general clarity (barring an occasional opacity such as his divorce), with much humor and general insight (barring an occasional blind-spot) and, while not as strong (especially for the less specifically Asimovian and more general SF fan) in the latter part as the earlier, it’s part of a whole (to that point) which is indispensable.

[1] I reviewed the first volume (In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, Doubleday, $15.95, 732pp, 1979) in 2020 as part of my “Asimov’s Centennial” reviews with a series of extremely detailed reviews in tandem with the SF he published in that period (and barely beyond) which make them quite inconsistent with the style of this one. Those reviews were

Birthday Reviews: Spinrad, Waldrop

This week’s stories would seem to be opposites, combining to tell us a tale of two regions as we travel to New York looking for a beautiful thing and to Mississippi looking for ugly things but, as with humanity, there’s a deeper bond beneath their surface differences.

Norman Spinrad (1940-09-15)

“A Thing of Beauty” (Analog, January 1973)


Mr. Harris sells the antiquities (which he calls the “old junk”) of a post-Insurrection United States which has fallen from power and Mr. Ito is looking to buy. He needs something for his “garden” that is just so – his wife and her folks don’t think he has any taste and he must prove them wrong to restore harmony to his home. So Harris takes Ito around New York in a Mach-whatever jumper, showing him the ruins and pointing out potential buys. Ito regretfully does not want the Statue of Liberty, would love to buy Yankee Stadium but can’t because his maniacal infatuation with American baseball would be seen as further lack of taste, and is exceedingly offended that he could possibly want the UN buildings. What he finally sees that sends him into fits of rapture is quite a comical twist and things twist again after that.

This is probably one of the first “Japan, the economic powerhouse, takes over the world” stories which took over much SF by the 1980s. It stereotypes a bit though much of that can be attributed to the antihero, Harris, who is not a nice man (though Ito isn’t either, really). He’s not so repugnant that the late humorous element doesn’t work but is unsympathetic enough that the complex ending also works on all levels.

This is one of Spinrad’s many not-so Star-Spangled Futures that were collected in a book of that name (along with some in Other Americas) and I wouldn’t steer anyone away from those but most of the stories in the first (and one of those in the second) can be found in his first two collections, The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde and No Direction Home, which I heartily recommend, along with the novella Riding the Torch and the novels Bug Jack Barron, The Iron Dream, and The Void Captain’s Tale. I wouldn’t stop there, but I’d recommend starting there.

Howard Waldrop (1946-09-15)

“Ugly Chickens” (Universe 10, 1980)


The Turkey City Writers’ Workshop has a Lexicon and in that Lexicon is the notion that, “I’ve suffered for my art; now it’s your turn.” This is applied when “the author inflicts upon the reader hard-won, but irrelevant bits of data acquired while researching the story.” Well, in this story, Howard Waldrop (a founding member of that workshop) probably suffered for this art, but now it’s your turn to enjoy this masterpiece of a perfectly prepared story which inverts the critique by fusing seemingly irrelevant data into the plot and theme while contributing to a brilliant mood and voice. It starts when “a graduate student in ornithology at the University of Texas” is riding the city bus and looking at a book of extinct birds when a lady says to him, “I haven’t seen any of those ugly chickens in a long time.” What he’s looking at in that moment is a picture of dodos and so begins his trans-world journey from Texas through the South to Mauritius as he floods us with amusingly conveyed fascinating information about the dodos and the Gudger family. As an example of the flavor, an early part of the journey is described thus:

Behind the Krait house were a hen house and pig sty where hogs lay after their morning slop like islands in a muddy bay, or some Zen pork sculpture. Next we passed broken farm machinery gone to rust, though there was nothing but uncultivated land as far as the eye could see. How the family made a living, I don’t know. I’m told you can find places just like this throughout the South.

And, like a good story of the South, while it’s informative, amusing, and captivating, there’s also an angry edge to the humor which comes from the underlying pain of deprivation and loss. There are recommended stories and then there are recommended stories and this is the latter.

Birthday Reviews: Hamilton, Resnick, Webb

Purely by accident, the stories from this week’s birthday crew have the theme of immortality.

Peter F. Hamilton (1960-03-02)

“The Forever Kitten” (Nature, July 28, 2005)

Hamilton is known for galaxy-spanning doorstops but this is a short-short set fairly close to home in which a rich man is pressing a scientist to develop an immortality treatment as his youngest daughter plays with what seems to be a kitten. The treatment has worked on the feline but not yet on humans. When the hellion of an older daughter shows up, it initially seems to be a non-sequitur but isn’t and results in a minor, but economical and clever piece.

Mike Resnick (1942-03-05/2020-01-09)

“Death Is an Acquired Trait” (Argos, Winter 1988)

Resnick is probably most known for his great African-flavored stories but this one goes farther afield. A member of a species that has shed its corporeal bodies and become immortal shares their and his experiences in what turns out to be a very funny cautionary tale. Immortality is fun for awhile but forever really is a long time. One of the more notable things about this tale is how quickly it traverses infinite multiverses of time and space in such a throwaway manner.

Sharon Webb (1936-02-29/2010-04-29)

“Variation on a Theme from Beethoven” (IAsfm, February 1980)

I recall reading one of Webb’s novels long ago but no longer clearly recall its contents. Still, I suspect this novelette is fairly representative. In it, humanity has become immortal but has lost the ability to be creative, so selects some of their young people as candidates to be mortal artists (or immortals through their art) and these people have a day of choosing when they decide whether to continue their art as mortals, or to become immortal after all. David and Liss come from very different backgrounds and places in the solar system but both have artistic inclinations with his focus on music and hers on writing. They bond and we follow their time on Earth as they try to develop their arts and make their decisions.

It could be argued that the art/mortality equation is both familiar and forced and that this reads like it might have been written at a writers’ workshop, with that setting transposed into the story, but the theme is at least interesting and debatable, and the story is very well written. Both main characters (as well as David’s elderly music teacher) are quirky and breathe, the experiences feel real, and the conclusion is neither a contrived tragedy nor an unconvincing comedy, but a satisfyingly realistic mix of disappointment and hope.

Review: The Trouble with You Earth People by Katherine MacLean

The Trouble with You Earth People
by Katherine MacLean

Date: 1980
Format: Trade paperback
ISBN: 0-915442-95-7
Pages: 237
Price: $4.95
Publisher: Donning (Starblaze Editions)


  • “The Trouble with You Earth People” (Amazing, 1968-02, novelette)
  • “Unhuman Sacrifice” (Astounding, 1958-11, novelette)
  • “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl” (Analog, 1975-01, short story)
  • “Syndrome Johnny” (Galaxy, 1951-07, short story)
  • “Trouble with Treaties” (Star SF #5, 1959-05, novelette, with Tom Condit)
  • “The Origin of the Species” (Children of Wonder, 1953-03, short story)
  • “Collision Orbit” (SF Adventures, 1954-05, short story)
  • “The Fittest” (Worlds Beyond, 1951-01, short story)
  • “These Truths” (Royal Publications, 1958, short story)
  • “Contagion” (Galaxy, 1950-10, novelette)
  • “Brain Wipe” (Frontiers 2, 1973, short story)
  • “The Missing Man” (Analog, 1971-03, novella)
  • “The Carnivore” (Galaxy, 1953-10, short story)

The opening and title story, “The Trouble with You Earth People,” is a first contact tale involving aliens who appear somewhat dog-like (possibly illustrated on the back cover). It tackles human taboos which manifest in suppressed language and suppressed thought which, in the story, result in an inability to fully make contact with the aliens or to understand their science (drawing on Whorf). It’s a delightfully oddball tale which simultaneously feels like a classic Silver Age tale of first contact and a thoroughly New Wave “dangerous vision” with its alien expressing its joy of meeting and desire for understanding by taking off its clothes and telling the thoroughly flustered elderly anthropologist, “You are beautiful. I would fertilize you if I could.”

Themes of repression and the use of animal-like aliens to help construct what are almost beast fables abound. There are bear-like aliens (or teddy-bear-like aliens) on Venus in “The Fittest,” which questions what defines the “fittest” to survive and the lion-like aristocats of “These Truths” which demonstrates that all cats might be brothers and shows how they might be encouraged to be more democratic, not to mention a menagerie of various herbivores whose fears of humanity’s aggression result in a tragically high cost in “The Carnivore.” Among the many stories which feature some element of repression, “Brain Wipe” is one of the more direct, dealing with an abusive father and his son who faces the titular punishment. “Origin of the Species” is more of a superman story and considers what it was like for the Promethean monkeys who were more human than their counterparts and what it would be like for a post-human among today’s humans, including the various kinds of repression it would face.

For one reason or another, while none are bad, these aren’t the strongest stories. “These Truths” has an odd tripartite structure which initially feels like it’s going to be time travel or alternate history (something MacLean rarely or never does), “Brain Wipe” lacks any sort of catharsis or conceptual breakthrough, “Carnivore” is somewhat similar in that regard and suffers from problems such as humans not actually being “carnivores,” and so on. Another of the less successful tales is “The Trouble with Treaties” which, perhaps due to being co-written, feels less like MacLean and aims at humor but doesn’t always hit the mark (though mileage may vary). It involves an aggressive multi-species empire running into a ship full of pacifist psionic humans and their goldfish, parakeets, and cat.

On the other hand, one of the strongest, if not the strongest tale is the second, “Unhuman Sacrifice,” which deals with the two crewmen of a small starship, the missionary they’ve had to convey to an alien world, and the natives who have a bizarre coming-of-age ritual which involves tying the youths upside down to trees and is sometimes fatal. From religious motives, the preacher wants to intervene with words and, from compassion, the initially resistant crewmen get involved with action. If you don’t see it coming, the result should be shocking and, even if you do see it coming, the result is well-constructed and still thoroughly effective. A couple of my favorite parts involve the main native’s very strange yet completely plausible perception of what the humans must be and the extremely exciting “fighting the flood” scene that basically forms the climax. In terms of combining dramatic action and thoughtful concepts, this is SF at its best.

(As “Unhuman Sacrifice” is a classic first contact tale, “Contagion” is an example of the classic “lost colony” tale and enjoyable, if less successful. The biology of the drastic effects of the first colonists on the second wave seems far-fetched, to say the least, and there are other issues but it’s a dramatic tale with interesting psychosexual dynamics, replete with irony, and with an interesting Catch-22.)

The third tale, “The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl,” is part of MacLean’s four-story “Hills of Space” set. Another example in this collection is “Collision Orbit.” I’m not sure of the precise political philosophy term but both stories depict a sort of anarchist or libertarian frontier society of tin cans (or “barrels”) in the Asteroid Belt in which people are supposed to be quite self-sufficient and non-aggressive but can defend themselves to an extent and depend on their neighbors for even more defense, all done in a sort of ad hoc communal way. The first tale is a very peculiar and funny tale of a Christian mother and her passel of children. When one goes out to make his way in the world and comes back with a sinful girl from a gambling hell as his fiance (fancifully illustrated on the front), relations are strained but, when the thugs from the gambling hell arrive to force her back to work, the family members again band together and demonstrate their resourcefulness. Similarly, when the protagonist of “Collision Orbit” is faced with a gang of robbers on the run who try to take over his establishment, he also shows he’s not to be trifled with.

The fourth tale, “Syndrome Johnny,” anticipates James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain” with its biological tale of plague and comes right on the heels of de Camp’s Brazil-centered Viagens stories in depicting a Federated States of America which has more of a Spanish than English flavor. (Incidentally, “The Trouble with Treaties” and “Unhuman Sacrifice” and perhaps others feature “brown” characters who may be of South European, African or other ancestry.) This is also partly a superman tale or “next stage” story and can be interpreted as being extremely tough-minded and cynically realist. Like “Contagion,” it may be a little “super science” more than scientifically realistic, but is still quite interesting.

“The Missing Man” is the largest and most significant chunk of her other series of Rescue Squad tales, which were fixed up into the novel Missing Man (1975). I recall enjoying the novel but, very similarly to Silverberg’s Nightwings, the fixup sort of buries the special excellences of the core novella, regardless of its own merits or that of the other pieces. It tells the tale of the empathic George and the logical Ahmed who are searching for the missing man, Carl Hodges. Hodges is a computer and repair man of a futuristic New York in which there are, for example, underwater Brooklyn and Jersey domes. He has wandered into a “teener” gang’s area and been captured. His knowledge of the city’s weak points is being used by the gang’s clever terrorist leader as a method of extortion/political activism, beginning with the destruction of the Brooklyn Dome. With its overpopulated city and its gangs and activism, it is part of its “turn of the Sixties” era and kin to other stories such as Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room!, but when it describes commuters glued to their portable TVs akin to our “phones” and describes people literally living in “kingdoms” of similar people akin to our metaphorical internet bubbles (while “nonconformists who could not choose a suitable conformity” live in “mixed places”), it seems quite contemporary. Either way, her future city is a brilliant conception, the empathic and half-lost George is an interesting protagonist, the initial stages of the story are well-plotted, the action when George is desperately trying to escape the Jersey Dome is exciting, and the philosophical/technical moments of the later stages are provocative, even if the plot starts to decohere a bit at that point. (Since this is the story I first read in Nebula Award Stories Seven which led me to explore MacLean further, I obviously recommend it, even if it didn’t blow me away the way it did on a first reading.)

As mentioned, some of this collection’s recurring motifs are unconventional social structures (“The Trouble with Treaties,” the Hills of Space stories, “The Missing Man”) and aliens (usually of a familiar animal-sort) almost always in first contact scenarios. One thing that’s remarkable is that only one is a “the world watches as the aliens arrive” sort of tale and they’re all different in their ways, showing creativity in ringing the changes on the type. Another recurring motif is psi powers, which feature in several stories in some way or another (“Trouble with Treaties,” “The Fittest,” “The Missing Man”) but rarely in an especially magical or comic book way. Multiple stories are biologically-focused and deal with evolution and/or next-step supermen (again, not in a comic book way) and deal with the question of what is “fit” and how to survive. Some involve crime and punishment, which ranges from assimilation in “Collision Course” to brain wipes in “Brain Wipe,” along with the kindred subjects of taboo and religion. Perhaps the main impression this group of stories leaves the reader with is that of species struggling against limitations and trying to persist in an effort to become something greater.

I don’t know how her first collection, The Diploids (1962), would fare on re-reading, but I recall it being superb. Based on the recollection of that collection, I would say it was the more essential of the two but The Trouble with You Earth People is still recommended as a whole. Individually, I recommend “Unhuman Sacrifice” and “The Missing Man” and also appreciated the title story, the two “Hills of Space” stories, “Syndrome Johnny” and “Contagion,” while the rest are never less than readable.

(A caveat on the physical book: it is “edited and illustrated by Polly and Kelly Freas” but the interior illustrations are sparse, the book is filled with typos, and the prefaces to the stories are confusing and only one is attributed. I don’t know if the rest are by MacLean, the Freases, or Hank Stine (the one attribution). But it’s a nicely constructed book with durable covers and excellent front and back art and, depending on the story, is one of the few ways or the only way to have it in book form.)

Edit (2018-05-26): re-positioned cover image, rearranged the bibliographical information, added “ex libris” tag.