Remembering Isaac Asimov
year 1999 must have been a good one for futurists. Every time I turned
on the television there seemed to be another prophet giving me the
lowdown on the 21st Century and beyond. The seer of the moment usually
had a book with a prophetic title and some connection to an institute
with a catchy acronym. I'd listen and before long exasperation would
set in and I'd start shouting old Wolfgang Pauli's classic line: "This
isn't right. This isn't even wrong." Then I'd start channel switching,
somehow hoping to find Isaac Asimov, string tie and flaring sideburns,
giving me the straight scoop on the century to come.
been in the soothsayer business a time or two myself and it's not
easy work. Isaac Asimov was good at it; he realized it was mostly
entertainment and he was always entertaining. His scenarios made
sense and he never insinuated that he actually knew what would happen
in the future. As Robert Heinlein put it: "A fake fortuneteller
can be tolerated but an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight.
Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved."
1979, I appeared with Asimov and science fiction writer (later computer
columnist) Jerry Pournelle on David Suskind's hour-long TV show.
The subject was the 21st Century and my sole qualification to speculate
about it was that I was then the editor of OMNI magazine. I don't
have a tape of the program so I can't say how far off the mark the
three of us were. We certainly didn't foresee eBay or porno sites
or the Dow topping 10,000.
was my first appearance on national TV and all I remember was the
seating arrangement and the tip I got from Asimov after the taping.
There were three padded swivel chairs in a row, one for each of
us, all facing Suskind's throne, and when we got to the studio Asimov
and Pournelle immediately took the two end chairs, leaving the center
one for me. After the taping, Asimov pulled me aside and said: "Here's
a tip. Never sit in the middle seat." I didn't know what he
meant until I got home and saw the actual program. On screen, I
looked like I was watching a ping pong match.
Asimov, in case you've been living on another planet for the last
half century, was a writer, an incredibly prolific writer. He wrote
hundreds of books (nearly 500 by some counts), and countless stories
and articles. He's probably best known as a science fiction writer
but he wrote nonfiction books and articles on most areas of science
as well. He also wrote mystery novels and books on humor, the Bible,
Shakespeare, mythology, ancient history, Gilbert and Sullivan, you
name it. His books show up in nine of the 10 Dewey Decimal System
library classifications, the exception being the 100s (philosophy).
Sagan called him "the great explainer of the age."
make no effort to write poetically or in a high literary style,"
Asimov once said. "I was fortunate to be born with a restless
and efficient brain, with a capacity for clear thought and an ability
to put that thought into words... None of this is to my credit.
I am the beneficiary of a lucky break in the genetic sweepstakes."
first met Isaac in the early 1970s, when I was working at the Saturday
Review of Science. I was looking for a writer to do a piece on the
upcoming 25th anniversary of the transistor and somebody told me
Asimov had just moved back to New York from Massachusetts and was
living in the Oliver Cromwell hotel on the upper west side. I called
the hotel but they wouldn't put me through to him. Then I looked
in the phone book and there he was. I dialed the number and suddenly
was talking to the man himself.
remember thinking: "Holy shit, I'm on the phone with Isaac
Asimov." I expected a secretary or an agent or maybe an answering
service; over the years I learned that he not only answered his
own phone but did his own research, his own typing, his own Xeroxing,
and managed his own business affairs. He was very much a one-man
operation. I told him about the new magazine and we made a date
for lunch the following week.
met in a midtown restaurant and he entertained me for three hours,
long enough for him to have written a sizable portion of a book.
We talked about the transistor story and established a fee and a
deadline; then we just talked. He was going through a divorce at
the time and I think he was happy to have the company. I remember
he told me at length about how he spent WW2, closeted in a Navy
office in Philadelphia with Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague DeCamp,
two other luminaries of the golden age of science fiction. Their
job was to dream up futuristic weapons that could be utilized in
the war effort. According to Asimov, nothing much came of it.
two weeks later, weeks before the deadline, he showed up at my office
door with the transistor manuscript and his latest book, a nice
inscription to me already in place. The story, "Happy Birthday,
Transistor," was published in the December 23, 1972, issue
of the Saturday Review of Science, 25 years to the day after that
remarkable device was invented at Bell Labs. We illustrated it with
a full-page photo of a birthday cake topped with 25 glittering transistors.
bought maybe a dozen articles or stories from him for one magazine
or another over the years. He always delivered ahead of deadline
which alone made him unique in my experience. I'm hard pressed to
name another writer who even once delivered early. And when the
particular magazine was in New York he always delivered in person
and always with another inscribed book.
was fascinated by Isaac's work habits. I knew he worked all the
time; there was no other way to produce what he did. All the manuscripts
I got from him were Xerox copies and I could sometimes see little
dark lines on the page between paragraphs. He obviously liked to
cut and paste. He was an expert typist, a fact he credited to his
father, a Russian immigrant who bought Isaac his first typewriter
for $10. When his father saw Isaac typing with one finger he said:
"I see people doing the typewriter with all the fingers like
a piano." Isaac said he didn't know how to do that and his
father responded: "All right, then find out how. I catch you
once more doing with one finger, I take away the typewriter."
interviewed Isaac for Psychology Today in the early 1980s and asked
him how fast he wrote; he said: "Ninety words a minute."
I said that was how fast he typed and I wanted to know how fast
he wrote. He said, again: "Ninety words a minute."
week after the Psychology Today interview I received a transcript
of the tapes from the typist. Magazine folks know that transcripts
of feature interviews require an enormous amount of editing. The
reason is simple; people don't talk in complete sentences. They
grunt and burp and repeat themselves and loose their train of thought.
Playboy is notorious for the amount of editing that goes into their
interviews. Other magazines too. The Asimov transcripts, on the
other hand, needed no editing at all. They read just like an Asimov
book or article - clear, straightforward, interesting. Isaac spoke
and wrote with a single voice.
astonishing output actually accelerated over the years. According
to The New York Times, it took him 20 years to write his first 100
books, less than ten to write the second 100 and less than six to
knock off the third. "Writing is more fun than ever,"
he said in a 1984 when he hit the 300 mark. "The longer I write,
the easier it gets."
bought my first Isaac Asimov science fiction story in 1978, for
OMNI magazine. The story was called "Found!" and it appeared
in OMNI's premier issue (October, 1978). I saw a lot of Isaac in
those days. Dick Teresi and Scot Morris, both editors on the magazine,
knew Isaac well and Ben Bova, OMNI's science fiction editor, was
perhaps his closest friend.
1979, OMNI threw a breakfast at the Four Seasons to celebrate the
publication of the first volume of his autobiography, In Memory
Yet Green. There were several hundred guests and at each place was
a copy of the autobiography, compliments of the magazine. The affair
went on for several hours with presentations and speeches, and after
it was over Isaac stayed around for more than an hour autographing
books for the guests. I waited until he finished and then apologized
for the inconvenience, telling him it went way beyond the call of
duty. Isaac flashed me his patented smile and said: "Once I
sign them, they can't return them."
got married around that time and gave a large party in my apartment
to celebrate. My wife was working in a bank then, and her side of
the guest list was mainly bankers and lawyers. Mine was science
editors and writers with a few musicians tossed in. Somebody called
it the meeting of the suits and beards. Isaac came with his wife
Janet. Bob Guccione, my boss at the time, brought his girlfriend
Kathy Keeton and two Penthouse Pets. The Pets caused quite a stir,
especially among the suits. At one point, a guy came up to me with
a dazed look on his face and I asked him if he had just run into
a Pet. He grinned ear-to-ear and said: "No, I just ran into
Isaac Asimov!" I figured he had his priorities straight.
cut my teeth on Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Robot novels. On
my desk is a well-worn copy of his Biographical Encyclopedia of
Science and Technology. It contains the life stories of more than
1,500 scientists over 5,000 years, arranged chronologically. I dip
into it at least once a week, checking to see if Lavoisier was really
interested in street lighting or if Roentgen ever patented his discovery
of X rays. One summer I read it straight through, cover to cover;
I recommend it for a crash course in the history of science.
years ago I wrote a chapter for a book commemorating the 25th anniversary
of WNET/13, New York's public television station. The subject of
my chapter was the station's science programming over the years
and it began: "Everything I know about science I learned from
reading Isaac Asimov and watching public television."
Asimov died in 1992. He was 72. He was notoriously hostile to charlatans
and quacks, a staunch defender of reason above all else. He was
not only smart but funny, which was a nice feature in the author
of Asimov's Treasury of Humor and The Sensuous Dirty Old Man. He
loved P. G. Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes, puns and limericks, string
ties and side burns, all women.
Kendig, January, 2000