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 It’s a science juvenile and over thirty years out of date, so I can’t recommend it.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.

4 thoughts on “Only a Hundred?”

  1. Happy Asimov centenary day!

    Thanks so much for the kind words about the Bibliography. I had a lot of fun assembling it, and I hope others will find it interesting and/or useful.

  2. Thank you for this. (And the link to Cooper).
    Today a new Asimov “book” arrived by mail (Is our planet warming up?), too late to be read at his birthday. But I did celebrate quietly.

    It is a pity that there are only a few books available these days by the Good Doctor. And the ones you can get are ugly editions.
    How I wish Doubleday would at least publish the final F&SF essays.
    Also, someone should collect and publish all the letters and postcards. (Hm, maybe I could do it once I retired.)

  3. An update!

    Since my bibliography was released, Ed Seiler has generously shared with me the results of his own researches into the dating of Asimov’s stories. This information, derived from the index card records kept by Asimov himself, provides a huge amount of precise chronological data that is available nowhere else. I have reordered the items in Part I (the catalogue of Asimov’s fiction) based on this information, and I gratefully acknowledge Ed’s help in improving this section of the Bibliography so that it is as accurate as possible.

  4. Since the late 70s I have been reading Asimov’s books. I bought over a hundredth. He was an important part of my intelectual development and of course a source of enjoyment. His 100 anniversary is a wonderful ocassion and I also want to congratulate you for your great work in this site.

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