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, 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.
 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
- Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 1-21
- Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 22-27
- Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 28-34
- Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 35-41
- Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 42-47
- Asimov’s Centennial: In Memory Yet Green, Chapters 48-55 (conclusion)