Shortly after Isaac Asimov’s death in 1992 his memoir I. Asimov was released by Doubleday. It is a series of essays Asimov wrote, seemingly, from the narrative and the date of its publication, on his death bed. The book meanders—it starts at childhood, but jumps forward to his early writing career, and then back. It is a patchwork of related postcards rather than a chronological narrative of his life, and it works very well.
The essays run about four or five pages—sometimes longer, sometimes shorter—and cover a specific event, person, or idea. He discusses his early life in detail; specifically, working in his parent’s Brooklyn candy store as a boy surrounded by the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, which he wasn’t allowed to read until he convinced his father the science fiction magazines were about science.
The bulk of the book is devoted to his literary life, which, in his own estimation was his life. In several sections of the book he wrote he would rather write than anything else. He did not enjoy travel, and while he did enjoy the company of others, he did not tend to seek it out, and, especially in his early years, he had difficulty getting along and making friends.
He touches on his major works—The Foundation series; specifically the original trilogy—“Nightfall,” “The Ugly Little Boy” and many others. He freely admits he enjoyed writing nonfiction more than fiction, and in fact, he considered himself a much more accomplished writer of nonfiction. A sentiment I tend to agree with; however I enjoyed the original Foundation trilogy immensely when I read it as a teenager.
The most interesting essays in I. Asimov are the short pieces he wrote about his experiences with other science fiction writers. He had lifelong relationships with many writers, some of whom were part of the science fiction fan club The Futurians. The Futurians, as Asimov describes it, was an off shoot of the Queens Science Fiction club. The split occurred because the Queens club wanted science fiction to keep itself above politics, and specifically not speak out against fascism, which was spreading across Europe at the time, and The Futurians wanted fascism denounced. The Futurians included Frederick Pohl, who has written extensively about the club on his blog, Cyril M. Kornbluth, and Donald A. Wollheim.
He also writes admiringly of John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (ASF), who gave Asimov his first real hope of publishing his science fiction stories and also, later, gave him the idea for his short story “Nightfall”. The seed for the story came from a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay titled “Nature”.
Asimov seemingly knew everyone writing science fiction in the 1940s through the 80s. A few of the more interesting comments Asimov makes about his contemporaries follows.
H. L. Gold. Gold was the editor of Galaxy; a top tier science fiction magazine where Asimov placed several stories. Gold was an ill-tempered editor, who changed story narratives and titles, and replied with meanness when the authors objected. Galaxy serialized Asimov’s novel The Stars, Like Dust and changed the title to Tyrann; “Worst of all was his pernicious habit of writing insulting rejection letters.”
Robert Heinlein. Heinlein is considered the father of modern science fiction, and Asimov worked with him during World War II, as a civilian employee of the Naval Air Experimental Station (NAES) in Philadelphia. Asimov wrote that he and Heinlein had an uneven friendship. He quipped about Heinlein:
“…although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward. This happened at just the time he changed wives from liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far right conservative woman, Virginia.”
Clifford D. Simak. In 1938 when Asimov was still a teenager he wrote a letter to ASFregarding Simak’s story “Rule 18”; he didn’t like the story much. Simak wrote a polite letter to Asimov inquiring what he didn’t like about the story. In response to Simak’s letter Asimov wrote:
“…I promptly reread [it]…and I found, to my intense embarrassment, that it was a very good story and that I liked it.”
I. Asimov doesn’t have the depth and detail of an autobiography. It has the feel of a congenial conversation, but it seemingly reveals his character, and he makes a point to highlight his flaws. It is an appealing book written by one of science fiction’s most well-known writers, and it is more entertaining and enlightening than I would have imagined.
This review originally went live June 3, 2012; however the stories Mr Asimov tells in its pages has stuck with me over the past few years, and I have especially been thinking about it again over the last several weeks.