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focused on his “hobby” over his “job,” especially as the former became increasingly competitive with and then far superseded the latter as a source of income.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:


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:

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

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.

Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 22-27

My last post on Asimov’s autobiography left off with Asimov having made his first sales and having graduated from college in chapters twenty and twenty-one. This post[1] discusses chapters twenty-two to twenty-seven (which includes “Making My Literary Mark,” describing the writing of “Nightfall”). In the course of those chapters, he describes the genesis of the first World Science Fiction Convention and the trivial fan wars around it, the outbreak of a real war with Hitler’s invasions of Poland and others, his first unconsummated love affair, and his decision to become a chemist rather than the doctor his father wanted. (This involved struggling with a Nobel-prize winner.) Meanwhile, he also continues to suffer literary rejections, softened by the occasional acceptance (often from his friend, Fred Pohl) and Campbell’s continued faith in him and willingness to work with him.

With Asimov’s increasing grasp of how to write professional copy tailored to a given market and Campbell and Asimov’s establishment of the Three Laws of Robotics after a couple of preliminary robot stories, Asimov begins to get the hang of making sales. Campbell then gives him the commission to write “Nightfall” and Asimov notes that he received a bonus from Campbell and that Willy Ley was extremely impressed by it. An incident Asimov recounts, but a connection he does not make, involves Campbell taking a picture of Asimov the day Asimov came in to discuss minor revisions to the story. Asimov describes how Campbell would, in later years, whip out the picture of skinny, pimply, mustachioed Isaac Asimov and ask people to guess who it was (no one could) but I think it also indicates that Campbell knew he had an epochal story on his hands and wanted to capture the moment. Still, despite the SFWA declaring in the late 60s that it was the best science fiction story of all, Asimov doesn’t count it as even his best story (listing “The Last Question,” “The Bicentennial Man,” and “The Ugly Little Boy” as three superior ones).

As Asimov had ended the chapter prior to his meeting Campbell with a suspenseful “at the door with Campbell on the other side” sort of moment[2], so it is a testament to Asimov’s writing skill, even in non-fiction, that the story of the creation of the Three Laws is interesting and that of creating “Nightfall” is downright exciting. Aside from conveying the overarching concept that perseverance through rejections pays off, he also includes several good tips he got from others. When Asimov got stuck writing “Reason,” Campbell told him, “Asimov, when you have trouble with the beginning of a story, that is because you are starting in the wrong place, and almost certainly too soon. Pick out a later point in the story and begin again.” Asimov describes how he applied that then and in the future, using dialog or flashback to cover the earlier parts if necessary. He also followed a good tip from Nelson S. Bond about what matters—when Asimov still occasionally got tangled up in fan fights in the letters columns as a professional, Bond advised him to simply stop. And Asimov continues to include humorous anecdotes such as what chemistry geeks do for fun with chemicals that modify the urinary output of unsuspecting victims (such as Asimov) and why blue would have been a more effective choice than red.

Speaking of chemistry, Asimov went on to try for his Ph,D. but initially ended with only an M.A. and the prospect of trying again. He tried to break into Unknown again using another collaboration with Pohl but Campbell rejected it. Finally, he took a very rare vacation and ended up in a place where everyone was Jewish and some more anti-Soviet than anti-Nazi, one even advocating an invasion of Russia by Germany and an alliance of America with Germany so that the Soviets could be crushed by an invasion from the Pacific as well. Then some remarkable things about race come up, with Asimov drawing a parallel between some people’s mistreatment of Jews and the mistreatment of blacks by whites (including Jews). This didn’t go over well. This part of the book ends with that one individual getting part of her wish, as Hitler invades Russia which, while ultimately disastrous for Hitler, was terrifying to Asimov at the time.


[1] This is extracted and slightly revised (with an appended paragraph covering chapter twenty-seven) from “Isaac Asimov: The First Nine Stories, June 1938-May 1939” and, if you’ve already read that, there’s little need to read this.

[2] The description of the first meeting with Campbell is repeated almost verbatim from The Early Asimov, as are many other anecdotes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if other earlier works were used in the same way.

Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 1-21

Tomorrow is the traditional date for Isaac Asimov’s birthday and would have marked his one hundredth. In honor of this, I’m currently making my way through his two-volume 1,560-page autobiography and intend to read all his science fiction along the way. I’m about to switch to some of that early fiction because I’ve completed page 241 and chapter 21 which ends with his ironically ignominious graduation from “Columbia” while chapter 20 has recounted his “First Sales.”

In the introduction, Asimov says that “nothing of any importance has ever happened to me and it will take all my writing skill to obscure that point.” Nevertheless, the tale of his Jewish ancestors in Czarist Russia and his parents living through its change into the USSR is extremely interesting. That persists as the family makes the arduous transition from respectable townsfolk in the old home to “greenhorns” in a strange new country where they don’t even yet speak the language, with their only help coming from one relative who had immigrated earlier. The tale continues with young Asimov’s early life as precocious class clown and his family’s attempts to find the One True Candy Store which will make them rich (which, if it didn’t do that, did enable them to survive the Depression). That gets the reader well into the book and it only begins to flag after several candy stores, moves, and school changes as that takes on a bit of sameness despite being enlivened with Asimov’s perspective and wit. On page 89 he says, “I read omnivorously and without guidance. I would stumble on books about Greek myths and fell in love with that world. When I discovered William Cullen Bryant’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, I took them out of the library over and over. Unaware that they were classics I was supposed to read and should therefore avoid, I enjoyed them and read and re-read them, often beginning again as soon as I had finished, until I had almost memorized them.” Discussing his little brother Stanley on page 99: “[W]hen he had grown big enough to stand up in the carriage, I amused him by starting and stopping the carriage so that he would sway back and forth and laugh. A woman scolded me for doing so, feeling I was endangering the child. When I got home, I complained to my mother that some strange woman had scolded me “for just doing this.” I demonstrated it, and Stanley immediately tumbled out of the carriage—and don’t think I didn’t get a hiding promptly.”

The momentum increases greatly for the science fiction fan as he soon begins trying to write science fiction in a serious fashion. This came about when the latest issue of Astounding didn’t show up at the candy store on time. Living nearby, with the price of travel being cheaper than mail or a call, he goes to the offices of Astounding to inquire and, the second time it happens, he meets John W. Campbell (p.196). He begins trying to break into Astounding but can’t sell anything anywhere at first. He finally does sell his first story to Amazing and then, after several tries and some work with Campbell, manages to sell his first story to Astounding which only resulted in a few more rejections right after that. Still, from his earlier letters which were published in the famed letters column, Brass Tacks, and then his actual publication, he begins correspondence with some writers and meets other local fans and writers. The great names of the Golden Age begin to spangle the pages.

Asimov says, “John Campbell was not quite twenty-eight years old at the time I first met him. Under his own name and under his pen name of Don A. Stuart, he was one of the most famous and highly regarded authors of science fiction, but he was about to bury his writing reputation forever under the far greater renown he was to gain as editor.

“Campbell was a large man, an opinionated man, who smoked and talked constantly, and who enjoyed, above anything else, the production of outrageous ideas, which he bounced off his listener and dared him to refute. And it was difficult to refute Campbell even when his ideas were absolutely and madly illogical.”

(Asimov footnotes this to add, “And illogical they certainly seemed to be to me, for he was always an idiosyncratic conservative in his view on life, whereas I was an idiosyncratic liberal—and we never agreed on anything. Yet although he stood somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun in politics, he was, in person, as kind, generous, and decent a human being as I have ever met.”)

Then Asimov describes how Campbell worked with him, sending him often detailed rejection letters which the notoriously criticism-averse Asimov read with profit and which gave him more enthusiasm to write. He mentions that he would like to pay his debt to Campbell by helping other aspiring writers but laments his inability to do so. “I am not Campbell. In some ways, I have passed beyond him, but in the essential characteristics that made him my literary father, I am but a pygmy to him. I don’t have his ability to bestow enthusiasm and self-confidence; I don’t have his endless fertility of mind. Most of all, I don’t have his capacity to help others along miles of successful pathways while remaining behind himself.

“In other words, he was the quintessential editor, who fertilized and nourished a whole generation of writers, and I am only a writer, completely wrapped up in myself. Campbell could point out what was wrong with a story and describe precisely what ought to be done to correct it. I can’t even do that for my own stories…”

But it wasn’t only Campbell who went into making Isaac Asimov, the writer. Describing his being steeped in the nineteenth century fiction that was available to him (aside from the pulps) his pre-publication style was rather purple but he particularly admired Clifford D. Simak’s straightforward approach and sought to emulate it. He also benefited from his friendship with the brilliant and critically astute Frederik Pohl.

So I’ve been greatly enjoying this and am now primed to dive into a long delayed re-read of Asimov’s fiction. (My recollection of “the early Asimov” is that there were two chains of Robot and Foundation mountains and an additonal peak of “Nightfall” towering over numerous adequate tales but we’ll see.) If I can stay focused, this blog may begin to look like itself again.

Edit (2020-01-07): Changed post title from “Isaac Asimov’s Centennial.”