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Remembering Isaac Asimov

The 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.

I've 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."

In 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.

It 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.

Isaac 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).

Carl Sagan called him "the great explainer of the age."

"I 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."

I 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.

I 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.

We 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.

About 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.

I 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.

I 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."

I 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."

A 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.

Asimov's 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."

I 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.

In 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."

I 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.

I 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.

Some 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."

Isaac 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.

I miss him.

Frank Kendig, January, 2000



fk and Isaac Asimov, 1979