While I read both Robot novels as well as the Foundation trilogy in my formative years, I was never an Isaac Asimov fan, instead inclined towards Robert Heinlein, whose mid 1960s novels of time travel and sex captivated my attention much more. (Of the other of the big three, Arthur C. Clarke, I had read only one novel, so clearly didn’t prefer him either.) As I moved into my college years, I formed an irrational resentment towards Asimov, based somewhat on the new novels that instantly became bestsellers yet were staid and dull by 1980s SF standards that was quickly embracing the much rougher terrain offered by cyberpunk. I had subscribed to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine by the mid-1980s, because that’s where cyberpunk was being published, and the monthly editorial by Isaac Asimov struck me as both egotistical and self-serving in all the worst ways. As a budding writer, I also had started to note a writer’s style, and Asimov’s unadorned, straight- forward approach was much less appealing than the flash of other authors. Time has a way of making you re-evaluate the opinions of youth, and 30 years later I find that I have a better appreciation for writing that is clear and simple. And while my fiction writing career never took off quite like I expected, I can remember those halcyon days and lambast myself for being a young punk (and not one of the cyber variety).
I’m not even sure why I picked up this third volume of Asimov’s autobiography to read. But I’m glad I did because it helped me to reconcile my memories of the 1980s with my modern self. There’s no doubt that Asimov had an ego, but it was well- deserved: he had carved out a writing career based on productivity, consistency, and loyalty. What I discovered is that I had more in common with Asimov than I realized. Like me, he found school easy up to a point, after which he realized that he wasn’t going to go any further. His skill instead was at explaining things, leading him to be an excellent teacher even if he was a mediocre researcher. Again, I was astonished to discover such a statement of humility and understanding of his own limitations, something that had never come out in his editorials. This was just one of several surprising admissions herein.
Much of the book is personal; it is an autobiography, and as he says, his favorite subject was himself, but along the way you get a much more complete vision of the person behind that self-aggrandizement. He’s brutally honest about his first marriage and the reason it failed, as well as his infidelities. He was often quick to take offense, but also willing to forgive if apologized to. That same quality led him to be incredibly loyal to both friends and publishers, way beyond the expectations of the time. He often states that he never progressed beyond writing the type of science fiction that was popular in the 1950s, but it becomes clear that that wasn’t the only part of his psychology that was beholden to those times. In later years, the casual lechery (innocent as it might have been) would cause some concern, but by then his reputation shielded him from most complaints.
The best thing about this book is just how very frank it is: about his low-level misogyny (he belonged to a number of male-only groups throughout his life), how much he earned in certain advances and his relationship with editors and publishers, his atheism, his health, and, throughout it all, his dedication to writing.
[Finished 17 February 2019]