What’s So Good About the Doctor?

When I started this site back in the early 1990’s, one of the mistakes I made was to assume that the bulk of Asimov fans were more or less like me. That is, I assumed that people would have something of an Asimov collection of their own and access to a public library with a somewhat larger Asimov collection, and that they read pretty much every book by the Good Doctor they could.

With this in mind, I further assumed that Asimov fans would therefore be acquainted at least in broad terms with his career and personal life. After all, not only did he write a couple of very thick autobiographies, he also talked about himself a lot in his other writing. I assumed therefore that people would know that he wrote both fiction and non-fiction, that his non-fiction was on all kinds of subjects, that Doubleday was his preferred publisher, that he was married twice and madly in love with his second wife, Janet, that he had a beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed daughter named Robyn, and so on.

That assumption may or may not have been plausible in the early 1990’s, but as time has progressed, Asimov’s books have started going out of print and there aren’t as many available in public libraries as there used to be. In any event, just because the books are available, people may or may not go to the trouble to read all of them. In particular, some people have a lot of interest in Asimov’s fiction but none at all in his non-fiction.

All this was driven home to me as I read Warren Dunn’s review of The Stars, Like Dust—. Dunn notes that one of the things that really bothered him about the book is Jonti’s smoking and surmises, “Asimov obviously smoked, at least in his youth…”

Well, no, actually. Asimov was a non-smoker his whole life.

His first wife, Gertrude, was a smoker, and naturally he knew a lot of other smokers among his friends, but he himself never took a puff. His father had been pretty strict about things like that. He was also a teetotaler, but that was in part because of his father’s influence and in part because he couldn’t handle his alcohol at all and got really drunk really easily. He endured smoking throughout his first marriage, but once he was free of Gertrude and back on his own in 1970, he became a staunch anti-smoker and did everything he could to keep people around him from smoking.

No, he included smoking in The Stars, Like Dust— and his other early fiction because there was a casual assumption in the 1940’s and 1950’s that everybody smoked. It wasn’t until the Surgeon General’s report on smoking came out in 1964 that anti-smoking campaigns took off and the percentage of adult smokers dropped.

This is something well-covered in Asimov’s various writings, yet Dunn managed to miss it. I mention this not to criticize Dunn by any means, but simply to point out that people can be very conversant with Asimov’s fiction without knowing much about the man himself. My habit in indulging in the occasional casual allusion needs, therefore, to be corrected.

(This is the main reason I included a blog when I redid the site starting in 2010. I wanted to have a way of giving some of the background information that is hopefully interesting but that doesn’t fit nicely in a review.)

Among the things I casually allude to are Asimov’s “F&SF essays.” Surely, one can’t be terribly familiar with Asimov’s writing and not know about them, right? Well, just in case—

For the past sixty years, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (usually called just “F&SF”) has been one of the major venues for original, short science fiction (and fantasy). Asimov was asked to contribute a science column in 1958 and it continued, unbroken, until February 1992, for a total of 399 issues. A 400th was put together by Janet and published posthumously in December 1994.

The column was originally 2000 words long, but that was quickly doubled. Asimov received only nominal pay, but he didn’t mind, because he was given carte blanche as to what he would write about (even though it was supposed to be a “science column”). The various editors of F&SF over the years also maintained a hands-off policy and never touched a word that Asimov wrote for the column, so he had a bully pulpit with which to express himself on anything for nearly thirty-five years.

Not surprisingly, his columns for F&SF were by far his favorite things to write. Far from missing deadlines, he had to work hard to keep from writing too many and getting too far ahead of schedule. Since he was writing for a science fiction magazine, he was among friends, as it were, and so he could be informal and chatty. In fact, most columns start with a personal anecdote, usually with Asimov himself as the butt of the humor.

Moreover, when Sputnik was launched in 1957, Asimov devoted himself to writing non-fiction as his part in the effort to improve science education in the US. As a result, he wrote very little fiction again until the 1980’s. His F&SF column therefore also made him feel like he was still involved in the world of science fiction. Certainly the fans agreed; they awarded him an honorary Hugo for his column in 1963 (“for putting the science in science fiction”). The fans of his column, moreover, were not limited to the usual science fiction geeks. Asimov got the occasional letter from people like Linus Pauling commenting on (or correcting) his work.

When the column started, a bit of schtick developed between Asimov and then-editor Robert P. Mills. Asimov referred to Mills as “Kindly Editor,” and Mills began calling Asimov “Good Doctor” in return. The schtick was dropped when Avram Davidson took over F&SF in 1962, but by then, it was too late. The nickname “Good Doctor” was firmly established in sf fandom. Asimov made mention of the nickname frequently in his own writings, and I picked up the habit from him.

Asimov himself preferred to call his columns “essays.” For the F&SF essays, their informal and personal nature makes the term not entirely unreasonable, but he pretty much called all of his short non-fiction “essays,” too, something with which literary critics might disagree.

Every seventeen issues or so, Asimov gathered his columns together, added a short introduction, and handed the result over to his friends at Doubleday and Company to publish as a book. Why seventeen? It seems that when he was working on his first book, Pebble in the Sky, he asked his editor at Doubleday how long to make it. “Oh, about 70,000 words,” was the answer, and from that point on, 70,000 words was the “ideal” length for a book so far as Asimov was concerned. 17 columns at 4,000 words each works out to 68,000 words, so add a 2,000 word introduction, and you’re there.

Not counting the five essay recyclings (Asimov on Astronomy, Asimov on Chemistry, Asimov on Physics, Asimov on Numbers, and Asimov on Science), there are a total of twenty-two F&SF essay collections. They are:

Note that these twenty-two books contain only 374 essays. Six of the early essays Asimov didn’t care to collect, and there was no interest putting out a book with the twenty published in F&SF from July of 1990 onward after Asimov’s death. (Ed Seiler tried.)

Asimov’s enthusiasm for the F&SF essays is infectious and they are a lot of fun to read. I don’t know how many your local public library may carry, but if you are starting to build your own collection of Asimov’s non-fiction, the F&SF essay collections are an excellent place to start.

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