At Last!

An adaptation for visual media of Asimov’s Foundation Series has been in the works for decades with occasional announcements that something was finally happening. The most recent announcement came last year when Apple launched its Apple TV+ streaming service. (Full disclosure: I work for Apple as a software engineer.) There was no release date or trailer included, not even a teaser, so one had to take the announcement with a grain of salt.

There was another announcement today, however, which does have a release date and a trailer.

I have to say it looks good. They are obviously departing from the overall plot of the books, but that’s really something that can’t be helped. The issue more is do they do a good job of it? Time will tell.

(Plus, it’s nice to see that they’re departing from Asimov’s default assumption—inevitable in the 1940s when the stories were first written—that everybody is a white male unless otherwise noted.)

Only a Hundred?

Happy birthday, Dr. A! In particular, happy centenary!

When I mentioned to my wife this morning that it was the 100th anniversary of Asimov’s birth, she said, “Oh, so you should read 100 of his books to celebrate.” Reading 100 Asimov books over the course of the year would indeed be fitting.

Meanwhile, we’ve got today’s reading to look into.

Books 100, 200, and 300 are, of course, the very aptly named Opus 100, Opus 200, and Opus 300 respectively. Houghton-Mifflin declined to do an Opus 400. According to Asimov, this is because they were getting to be too close together. Opus 100 came out in 1969, Opus 200 in 1979, and Opus 300 in 1984. Book 400 was published in 1988, so one can appreciate their position.

Book 400 is Earth: Our Home Base, which is probably among the 100 shortest books. It’s a science juvenile and over thirty years out of date, so I can’t recommend it.

Book 500 is probably The Mammoth Book of Fantastic Science Fiction. We don’t know for sure, because Asimov stopped keeping his official list with book 469, and everything after is unclear. Indeed, one could argue that we don’t even know if there was a Book 500, but I’m quite confident there is. (My own list ends with book 513.)

Of those five books, the best to go with is clearly Opus 100. All the Opus books are among Asimov’s best, but this is the best of the three. It has a sort of giddy quality, as if the Good Doctor could not quite believe he actually made it to one hundred. It also has some entertaining anecdotes, including one that ends with the immortal line, “When Isaac Asimov says it’s so, he sometimes makes an egregious ass of himself.” Plus it has “The Holmes-Ginsbook Device,” which Asimov never anthologized outside of Opus 100. (It has appeared elsewhere, just not in any of Asimov’s anthologies.) The story is very funny, although it hasn’t aged well due to its exuberant sexism. That kind of blatant objectification of women was hardly uncommon in the late 60s, even among liberals, so one may yet be able to look past that and enjoy the story.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment. There are actually two Book 200s. In the late 1970s, Doubleday, one of Asimov’s main publishers, had managed to convince Asimov to write an autobiography, the first volume of which was scheduled to come out at a point where it might be Book 200. Houghton-Mifflin, Asimov’s other main publisher, wanted the honor of doing Book 200 since they’d done Book 100. Doubleday, for its part, figured that since Houghton-Mifflin got to do Book 100, they should get to do Book 200. The ensuing compromise was this tie for 200th place.

The other Book 200 is therefore In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of Asimov’s most complete autobiography. It is also the most important, since it covers his early years up to the point where he was teaching at Boston University and breaking from John W. Campbell’s tutelage.

So which of the two should one read? I would argue for Opus 100, because it’s a lot more fun. It also has a special place in my heart. The first piece of fan mail I wrote to Asimov was in early 1974. I asked him all kinds of questions about his life, and his response was, “Tell you what. I have written two autobiographical books OPUS 100 and THE EARLY ASIMOV. In three months a third one is coming out BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE. You read those books (after all, you’re the president of a fan club) and then if you have any questions left over, you can ask them. (But I may not answer.)”

I’m sure that was his standard response to obnoxious twerps like me. If I’d asked him the same question five years later, he would have pointed me to In Memory Yet Green. Still, the fact that Asimov with his own fingers working away on his own typewriter recommended Opus 100 gives it a special place in my heart that is firmly a part of my own “golden age.”

One more note: Steven Cooper has recently finished an exhaustive—and I mean exhaustive—Asimov bibliography. It’s to be found at http://stevenac.net/asimov/Bibliography.htm. It is an incredible piece of work, beautifully and clearly laid out. I’ll add a link to the main review site, but meanwhile, please, do yourself a favor on Asimov’s centenary and give it a look. (And he agrees with me that given Asimov’s generous algorithm for counting books, he ended up over 500.)

Happy 100th birthday, Dr. A., and thank you ever so much for decades of entertainment and enlightenment.

A Good Foundation for High School English

Today I was reading an article on Lifehacker listing books that should be dropped from reading lists for high schoolers and some that should take their place. I definitely disagree about Dante’s Divine Comedy being dropped—I first read it when I was in junior high, myself. At the same time, I was surprised to see Foundation on the list (or at least the first two sections).

After I finished jumping up and down, I stopped to think. That’s really a rather odd choice. It’s not the best of the original Foundation  “novels,” although it makes sense not to read the other two until you’ve read it. (Personally, I read Foundation and Empire first and am none the worse for the experience.) Still, not my first choice.

When I was in high school, one of my English teachers decided to have a student-taught module on science fiction. I was among the students who got to run the show. We had a reading list, and the one Asimov piece we put on it was “Reason.” On the whole, I still think it’s a reasonable choice, although now I’d more likely be lazy and put “The Last Question” in its place.

What would my choice be for a book by Asimov to put on a reading list for modern high schoolers? One of the chief things to keep in mind is that you need something that a modern high schooler could reasonably get a copy of, which leaves out Nine Tomorrows or Chemistry and Human Health.

On the whole, I’d have to go with one of three: I, Robot, The Caves of Steel, or The End of Eternity. All three are still in print. I, Robot is probably the most influential of the three and is probably the best choice to pique a high schooler’s interest. The other two, on the other hand, are (I believe) Asimov’s best novels.

Any other suggestions?

One Year to Go…

Happy birthday, Dr. A.!

I have traditionally written an entry to celebrate Asimov’s putative birthday—putative, because his actual birthday was unknown. For one thing, Asimov was Jewish and not ethnic Russian. For another, Russia had only recently switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian. Finally, record keeping in early communist Russia was not exactly at its highest pitch. The actual date was probably somewhere between early October 1919 and early January 2010; January 2 was always the day he celebrated. 

To get back to the point—I have traditionally celebrated Asimov’s birthday by writing a blog entry suggesting reading for the day. I missed last year accidentally. I actually had an entry ready but forgot to post it. I’m making doubly sure not to miss this year.

There are really two ways (say I) to celebrate Asimov’s 99th birthday. The first is to pick a book whose official book number is a multiple of 99. The other, which is new to this year, would be to read a book whose last two digits in the official list are “99.”

With the first technique, we have:

This is a hard choice. On the one hand, if you have access to the Story-a-Month™ Calendar—and gaLAXy but you’re a lucky dog, you—the sheer rarity makes it attractive.

Life and Time is an F&SF essay collection. They’re always easy reads and among his very best non-fiction.

Still, I’d have to go with the Guide to the Bible. Asimov was a secular Jew and atheist/agnostic, and by no means a Biblical scholar; but the Guide to the Bible is still top-notch and an excellent introduction to the historical background first century Christianity. For a general audience interested in the New Testament, it’s top-notch. 

(I will profess to being prejudiced here. Not only is it the only book on this list from my own “golden age,” but I’m going to be teaching an adult Sunday School class on the New Testament this year. It will be handy.)

As for the second algorithm:

This is another hard choice. I love #199 dearly, but it’s forty years out-of-date, and considering how much we’ve learned about the outer solar system since it was published, it’s badly out-of-date. How Did We Find Out About Computers? is part of the “How Did We Find Out” series, which are all excellent but for children. 

The real problem here is Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 25. Again, it’s excellent. For the purposes of reading top-notch science fiction from the period between 1939 through 1963 the series is unmatched. This is the very last in the series, too, which gives it a melancholy air. In the end, because Asimov’s involvement in the editorial process was minimal, and because none of his own fiction appears therein, I’d have to recommend giving it a pass. 

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Volume Two it is, then. My own paperback copy is in bad shape, since I tripped and fell while walking home from the bookstore after buying it. (A neighbor’s dog seems to have decided that I was spending too much time walking upright.) 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a nice mug of hot chocolate, curl up in my favorite comfy chair, and get to reading.

Book of the Day and Administrivia

The Good Doctor would have been 96 today, and so we should contemplate what to read in celebration of the fact.

Book 96 is The Shaping of England, book 192 is One Hundred Great Science-fiction Short-short Stories, book 288 is Intergalactic Empires, book 384 is Our Milky Way and Other Galaxies, and book 480 is Norby and the Court Jester. There is a surprising amount of competition this year, as The Shaping of England, One Hundred Great Science-fiction Short-short Stories, and Intergalactic Empires all get 3/3 ratings. If I were to limit myself to only one of the three, I would probably go with One Hundred Great Science-fiction Short-short Stories, because it’s the most light-hearted and therefore marginally to be preferred for a celebration.

I should also take advantage of the opportunity to apologize to anybody who has tried to contact me at any point in the last year or so. 2015 is not going to go down as one of the better years in my life, and there was a lot going on that kept me from paying much attention to an awful lot of things, not just this site. I am keeping my fingers crossed that 2016 will be better.

So, How Do You Pronounce “Noÿs,” Anyway?

Over the weekend, I listened to the audiobook of The End of Eternity, one of Asimov’s best novels (if not the best), and while doing so, I found myself eager to see if it would resolve one of the questions which has plagued me since I first read the novel as a Cub—how on Earth does one actually pronounce “Noÿs”?

I know I’m not the only one to face this dilemma, although I suppose there are people to whom it is obvious. Strangely, I never wrote Asimov to ask him when he was alive, nor can I recall a place where he addresses it in his writings. As a pre-teen first encountering the name, I was completely baffled by the two dots over the y and so half-heartedly pronounced it as if the two dots weren’t there, that is, like “noise” (/nɔɪz/, 𐑌𐐬𐐮𐑆*)

The reader of the audiobook, Paul Boehmer, consistently used the pronunciation “noy-ess” (/ˈnɔɪˌɛs/, 𐑌𐐬𐐮𐐯𐑅). Although inclined to believe the professional reader, I would nonetheless dispute his pronunciation of Mallansohn (/məˈlɑnˌsən/, 𐐣𐐲𐑊𐐪𐑌𐑅𐐲𐑌 [or maybe /məˈlɔnˌsən/, 𐐣𐐲𐑊𐐫𐑌𐑅𐐲𐑌, as I speak a dialect of English where the cot-caught merger has taken place and can’t easily distinguish the two—instead of / ˈmælənˌsən/, 𐐣𐐰𐑊𐐲𐑌𐑅𐐲𐑌, which seems to me obviously correct), among other names, so I’m not at all sure.

Looking seriously at the name, we need to figure out the two dots. Asimov spells his made-up names according to English spelling conventions, and English doesn’t make extensive use of diacritic marks. In general, in the Latin scripts, two dots aligned horizontally over a vowel is one of two diacritics, either a diaeresis or an umlaut. The latter indicates a shift in vowel sound and is not used natively by English. The former is used natively by English (albeit rarely), and indicates a vowel is explicitly pronounced when you would expect it to be part of a diphthong (as in noël and zoölogy) or to be silent (as in Brontë).

Since this is an English spelling, the dots would have to be a diaeresis and indicate that the name is pronounced with two syllables, “no-ys.” That gives us the first half easily enough, “Ys” as an English syllable is still a bit of a puzzle, but there is a legendary city named Ys whose name is pronounced “eess” (/iːs/, 𐐨𐑅) in English, and that should solve it.

“Noÿs” is pronounced with two syllables, “no-eess” (/ˈnoʊˌiːs/, 𐐤𐐬𐐨𐑅).

There is an interesting corroboration available via other languages. I do not happen to own a non-English copy of The End of Eternity, but it was made into a film in the USSR in 1987 as Конец Вечности. The Russian Wikipedia article on the film helpfully includes a cast list, making it simple to find that one Вера Сотникова played a character named Нойс Ламбент, the given name being pronounced  “no-eess” (/ˈnoʊˌiːs/, 𐐤𐐬𐐨𐑅).

So there you go.

*I am contractually obligated to include the Deseret Alphabet when discussing matters of English pronunciation.

 

And the Nominees Are…

In celebration of what would have been the Good Doctor’s ninety-fifth birthday, I’d like to recommend the following:

There is really no contest here. Despite my fondness for Larry and his almost Encyclopedia Brown-like powers of deduction, The Key Word is pretty slight, and What is an Eclipse? even more so. Of the two anthologies, I’d go for Encounters over Wizards; but I’m loathe to recommend an anthology at all. Photosynthesis, on the other hand, is a solid and not particularly outdated science popularization written at Asimov’s peak as a science writer; and for those of us plagued with cold and snow, it’s a good reminder of what will be in just a few months’ time.

The award, then, clearly goes to Photosynthesis.

Good Advice from the Good Doctor

io9 added an article yesterday of advice entitled “Twelve quotes from authors to remember when starting your first book.” Quote number 11 (“It is the writer who might catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition.”) is from Asimov, but the article makes up for this low position on the list by illustrating the article with a very nice painting from the 1980’s of Asimov at his Selectric typewriter working his magic. Share and enjoy.

The 2014 Asimov Birthday Book Candidates

In honor of what would be the Good Doctor’s 94th birthday, we have the following book choices:

There really isn’t much of a contest this year. What with Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, and the innumerable other Mars probes which have been working hard for the past decade or so, Mars, the Red Planet is definitely showing its age. Thirteen Horrors of Halloween is fine—but not in January. Christopher Columbus: Navigator to the New World—not if you’re over seven.

So that leaves Words from History and Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov. Both are good choices, but if reading a book to honor Asimov, Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov is definitely the better choice, if a bit much to do in one day. It would be almost perfect if it were an ebook.