All posts by tseng

A Day of Universal Celebration

The Good Doctor would have turned 93 today. For reading purposes, that gives us:

Book #93: Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Volume One

Book #186: The Hugo Winners, Volume Three

Book #279: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 10, 1948

Book #372: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 17, 1955

Book #465: How Did We Find Out About Pluto?

Of the five, How Did We Find Out About Pluto? is easily the least worth re-reading. There isn’t anything particularly bad with it, but it was published nearly a quarter-century ago, and that’s a long, long, long time in astronomy. Our understanding of Pluto has not unnaturally—well, let’s say changed in the interval.

The three anthologies are solid enough, but nothing spectacular. That leaves the Guide to the Bible as the book of choice. It’s perhaps a bit much for one day, but definitely worthwhile. (And forty-four years is not nearly as long in Bible studies as a quarter century is in astronomy.)

The best thing is that the Universe is joining in the celebration this time around. The Earth reached perihelion this morning at 4:38 a.m. (UT). This isn’t an uncommon occurrence, but a nice bit of lily-gilding nonetheless.

Anniversary

It was one of those moments that sticks with you.

Not one of the big ones, mind, the ones that everybody is supposed to remember: Martin Luther King’s assassination, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, the Columbine shootings, Challenger exploding. No, this was one of the little ones, the ones that mean something to only a few people, or even only one.

In my case, I was popping into the Burger King on El Camino Real in Sunnyvale, and something in a newspaper vending machine caught my eye. There it was, on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News: Isaac Asimov had died.

His death wasn’t entirely a surprise by any means. He had been ill for quite some time. Forward the Foundation was being serialized in Asimov’s Science Fiction with the understanding that he might die before it was finished, and he had given up his essay column in F&SF. Still—

I think what I miss most is his science writing. Of all the things he wrote, his explanations of science have proven the most ephemeral, because science moves ever forward. New things become known, and old perspectives change. The past twenty years have seen enormous advances, particularly in astronomy. Why, we even have a space probe orbiting Vesta, the setting for Asimov’s first sale. (No word from NASA on whether or not the wreck of the Silver Queen has been spotted.) How wonderful it would be to settle in to an easy chair and read the Good Doctor waxing eloquent about string theory or Uranus, the rings of Saturn in all their incredible complexity, or small robots indefatigably working their way across the Martian sands.

As for me, I’m grateful: grateful to have been enlightened and entertained; grateful for brief, fleeting contacts; grateful for endless summer days, cat in lap and book in hand; and grateful to have my life improved by this remarkable man.

Let me then propose a toast as we all raise our glasses of Martian Jabra water: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the irreplaceable author we used to have.

A Day Late and a Credit Short

Asimov’s 92nd birthday was celebrated the world over yesterday, and now that we’re all recovered from our hangovers and/or sugar rushes, I thought I should do what I ought to have done yesterday and provide a recommended reading list for the post-birthday celebrations.

Book 92. The Dark Ages. Having written numerous books on ancient history, Asimov for the first time turns to what happened in Western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Excellent.

Book 184. How Did We Find Out About Outer Space. Not bad for a science juvenile, but best read only if you’re in a hurry for something.

Book 276. Starships. A decent science fiction anthology but really Asimov-related. Feel free to skip it.

Book 368. How Did We Find Out About the Brain?. Like its cousin above, unobjectionable and short.

Book 460. The Mammoth Book of Vintage Science Fiction. This is the longest but probably the best of the lot overall. Asimov-wise, it’s only notable for including “The Martian Way,” but it’s a nice excuse to read (or reread) the whole book.

It’s harder to pin things down with the short stories, because there isn’t an official order, but roughly speaking (and assuming I’m doing this correctly), the choices would be “Gimmicks Three,” “Party by Satellite,” “The One Thing Lacking,” and “To Your Health.” None of these are major Asimov (although three of them do get two spaceship-and-suns), and unfortunately none is terribly easy to find these days. Unfortunately, “Party by Satellite” is the only one available as an ebook (from Fictionwise), and it is by far the worst of the lot.

Hopefully by 2 January 2013, I’ll have gone through Ed Seiler’s Asimov Online site and have determined the correct F&SF essays to read in celebration of Asimov’s 93d birthday. Meanwhile, you may as well go ahead and just read them all. You’ll thank yourself in the morning.

Asimov in the Deseret Alphabet

I do have interests other than Asimov, one of them being the Deseret Alphabet, a phonetic alphabet for the writing of English derived by my 19th century forebears. In the interest of promoting experimentation with the Deseret Alphabet, I’ve converted Asimov’s short story “Youth” to the Deseret Alphabet in the usual haphazard way I go about such things.

The plain text version is available, but at the moment it isn’t being shared, so if you want it you’ll have to ask first.

A PDF version is available at http://bit.ly/jNMlun. This uses a sans serif Deseret Alphabet font I made using Deja Vu as a starting point, and I’m playing around a bit with the letter shapes, so it does’t look like the Deseret Alphabet you’ll see on Wikipedia.

As for why “Youth,” it’s the only thing by Asimov in the public domain, or so Project Gutenberg thinks. I haven’t proofed it yet, so it probably has misspellings galore. I’m going to revise my program to convert text to the Deseret Alphabet to try to get it to do a better job. When I do, I may or may not revise this.

We’re Number Seventeen! We’re Number Seventeen!

Google had a particularly intriguing logo today, and clicking on it revealed that it’s the 183 birthday of French author Jules Verne (aka Joolz Voin, according to joke 356 in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor). That’s definitely something to celebrate, even if 183 is a rather uninteresting number.

Well, Google lead me to Wikipedia, and Wikipedia politely informed me that Verne is the third most translated “author” of all time according to something called the Index Translationum, a database of known translations maintained by the United Nations (!). And while playing around with the Index, I got to their page of the fifty most translated authors and was rather surprised when I glanced down the list.

There, nestled at position number 17, right between Arthur Conan Doyle and Pope John Paul II is none other than Isaac Asimov.

I was expecting that Asimov would be relatively frequently translated, but I did not expect him in the top 50, let alone so close to the very tip-top. He outranks the Bible (#26), for goodness sake. Granted, that’s the whole Bible; the New Testament by itself is at number 13—a rather, um, interesting number for the Word of God. Still, the Bible? There are more translations of Asimov than of a book he wrote several books about.

Asimov outranks such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens (#27) and Leo Tolstoy (#24). Asimov is the second-highest sf writer on the list, and the only “modern” sf writer to break the top fifty—Heinlein and the late Sir Arthur Clarke are nowhere to be seen.

The modern authors who outrank Asimov (such as Barbara Cartland [#7] and Stephen King [#10]) generally make it there by virtue of being major best-sellers, and they tend to have a lot of movie or TV tie-ins. Even Agatha Christie (#2) and Georges Simenon (#15) have well-known films and/or TV series based on their works. There has yet to be a really successful film or TV series derived from Asimov (the I, Robot movie doesn’t count).

Now, granted, Asimov gets there partly because of his breadth. The Foundation Trilogy alone is going to make him among the most translated of sf writers, but his non-fiction has also been proven to travel well to other languages. In fact, if you look at the science writers in the top 50—well, unless I’m mistaken, there’s just the one. Only two “non-fiction authors” outrank Asimov (Lenin [#6] and the aforementioned New Testament [#13]), and inasmuch as both of them provided the philosophical foundations for major political powers, they have natural advantages Asimov lacked.

All in all, it says a great deal for Asimov as a writer that his works have proven so popular in translation.

And Then There Was One (Well, Three)…

I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction Book Club. I’ve been a member at least four times over the course of my life—you sign up, get your cheap books, fulfill your obligation, then wrestle with the hassle of all the books they send you “accidentally” because you didn’t get your reply card back to them in a timely fashion until you can’t take any more and quit. It was quite a scam, really. I don’t know how many books I ended up paying for because it was less bother than sending them back.

Nowadays, it’s not nearly so bad, since it’s all online. I get an email telling me that there are new featured selections and I go at once to their Web site to say that I don’t want them. Getting books I don’t want is a thing of the past, and I’m content to stay a silent customer until something I’m really interested in comes along.

I do check periodically to see what they’ve got by Asimov, just to keep an eye on what’s out there. (I do the same with bookstores.) Over the weekend, I did one of my periodic sweeps and was rather disheartened to see that they actually have only one: a Foundation Trilogy omnibus.

(Ironically, since it contains just the first three books, the cover is artwork by Michael Whelan for a paperback edition of Foundation’s Edge.)

That’s sad, really—not because Asimov published 500+ books and most of them are unavailable, even the really good ones. A lot of those books are science books, after all, and science books have a limited shelf life, and a lot of Asimov’s books are anthologies which also have limited shelf lives (but for different reasons). That’s OK. Nor is the problem that Asimov wrote a lot of really good science fiction which is out of print. His heyday was some fifty to sixty years ago, after all, and not much from that far back is still around, not even the good stuff.

No, the problem is that Asimov wrote some truly seminal books and they’re being neglected by the current crop of science fiction readers, at least, if the SFBC is any indication. I mean, lacking Nemesis is probably a good idea, lacking The Gods Themselves is plausible, lacking Nine Tomorrows seems inevitable, and lacking The End of Eternity is on the disappointing side yet acceptable—but no I, Robot? Seriously?

This is particularly unfortunate since there is considerably more Asimov currently in print from Dobuleday, which was historically one of the big firms responsible for the various book clubs out there, as a way of boosting sales of the books in their catalog albeit with cheap editions.

For the record, Robert A. Heinlein has three books in the SFBC catalog, two of which are omnibus editions of some of his juveniles from the 1950’s and the third of which is Stranger in a Strange Land—a nice sampling, really, of his work. As for Arthur C. Clarke, he’s down to one, too, and that one is a late collaboration with Stephen Baxter and not one of his really important solo efforts (e.g., Childhood’s End), so he’s even worse off than Asimov.

Scott on Asimov on Cable

Thanks to that Neil guy for pointing out to me the announcement that Ridley Scott will be doing a series for the Science Channel called Prophets of Science Fiction. According to the full press release (available on io9), “ PROPHETS OF SCIENCE FICTION explores legendary figures; including Isaac Asimov, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, and examines how their work often inspired future discoveries decades before they took place.”

One hopes that Scott is better at making television documentaries than his press agent is at punctuation. (And who the heck are Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, anyway?)

Happy Birthday, Dr. A!

And what better way to celebrate Asimov’s 91st birthday than to read a copy of his 91st book, The Near East? If you happen not to have a copy—all too likely, I’m sorry to say—alternate suggestions are:

Obviously, there are some of these I would recommend over others, but any of them would make a fine celebratory read.

Opus 500

Preparing an Isaac Asimov bibliography would not be an easy task in any event, but one feature of his writing makes it particularly problematic: his books have numbers.

When Asimov published his 100th book in 1969 (called, naturally enough, Opus 100), he included selections from the first 99 and—and this is an important bit—a numbered list of books 1 through 100. Two more “opus” books followed, Opus 200 in 1979 and Opus 300 in 1984. Both had numbered lists.

Asimov’s book count was very important to him. Not only was it a matter of personal pride, but friends and acquaintances would invariably work into conversation the question, “So how many books is it now, Isaac?” I even used my one chance to talk to the man to ask the question (and tell him I liked him better than Robert A. Heinlein). Even worse, if someone asked him the question one week and asked it again two weeks again, they acted like he was slacking off if the number hadn’t gone up in the interval.

(Or so Asimov claimed. Let’s face it, though—turning out books rapidly was his part of his schtick, and he was justifably proud of it.)

Naturally, if he was counting books for almost his whole life, he was numbering them, too, and the official book numbers extended beyond Opus 300. Unfortunately, there was no Opus 400. His four hundredth book came only four years after his three hundredth, and his Boston publisher, Houghton-Mifflin, had no interest in publishing another celebratory volume so soon after the previous one, particularly since sales of Opus 300 weren’t exactly stellar. Book number 400 was therefore Earth: Our Home Base.

Asimov did prepare another official list of books. It was part of the manuscript for I. Asimov: A Memoir and therefore complete as of early 1989, when the manuscript was finished. The list in the MS covers 469 books and includes book numbers. Since Asimov’s death was clearly not far away, even in 1989, the decision was made to publish I. Asimov: A Memoir posthumously. For the actual publication, the bibliography was touched up slightly and the book numbers removed.

I don’t know when Asimov actually stopped counting his books and assigning them book numbers. He was so very ill the last few years of his life that he trimmed his work down to the bare minimum. He was able to complete a few major and several minor projects, but eventually he abandoned his diary, which he had kept faithfully from the time he was a teenager, and even his beloved F&SF science column. Doubtless, at some point before he died, he stopped the book list. Even if he did keep a complete list, current as of 6 April 1992, it certainly wasn’t consulted for the publication of I. Asimov: A Memoir, because the bibliography there misses quite a few items, most notably all of the “Ask Isaac Asimov” series published by Gareth-Stevens.

Now, suppose you’re trying to do a complete bibliography for another author, say William Shakespeare. How many plays did Shakespeare write? At first, that might seem like a relatively straightforward question to answer, but it’s not, for three reasons. One is that Shakespeare collaborated on some plays. Some plays are mostly Shakespeare but partly somebody else, and other plays are mostly somebody else and partly Shakespeare. Which ones do you count? Another problem is that lots of plays were published anonymously in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Might some of them be by the Bard? And there are plays which contemporary sources say Shakespeare wrote but of which we have no trace, most notably Love’s Labors Won. Might we know about these, only by another title? The net result is years of work for Shakespearean scholars.

We have the same problem with Asimov when we try to ferret out books from 470 onward, with the added wrinkles not only of having to be consistent with a canonical list, but also of having to figure out in what order books were published.

So far as figuring out what to count or not, Asimov’s basic criteria were:

  1. He counted anything which was a stand-alone publication, including books proper, pamphlets, calendars, and wall charts
  2. He counted anything whose contents were pretty much entirely authored by him, even if he didn’t actually put the book together
  3. He didn’t count omnibus editions of multiple books, except for The Complete Stories, Volume 1
  4. He counted anything he spent about as much time on as it would take to write a book himself

The first three criteria are pretty straightforward, but the last one is problematic. There are several anthologies published rounding out series he worked on with Martin H. Greenberg. It’s not clear how much work he actually did on some of those. There are a couple of books published by Gareth-Stevens which look to have actually be written by someone else. It’s not clear how much work he did on those. Finally, there are adaptations and expansions of his work by Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison. He counted at least one of Silverberg’s novelizations because Silverberg consulted with him while writing it, so he’s likely to have counted the other two. In the case of the Ellison screenplay, he’s known to have read it and liked it, but I don’t know if he was consulted by Ellison over the course of its creation or if he would have counted it.

As of December 2010, my own list of Asimov’s books includes 514 items. One is his doctoral dissertation, which he never counted himself. (It gets to be Book 0—I somewhere picked up the idea of changing a one-based list into a zero-based list to squeeze in something extra at the beginning, I’m not sure where.)

One of my 514 items is my Book 444 (The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction). Double-checking Ed Seiler’s more thoroughly researched list, I see it marked as doubtful, so I may have to remove it. I need to double-check the list in the Boston University archives on that one.

There are otherwise five books which I’m almost certainly listing erroneously. They are:

There are another four books where I’m simply not sure. They are:

This isn’t the end of the problem, because I may be missing some books. Wikipedia has an Asimov bibliography, and although I haven’t examined it thoroughly, some things do stand out. One is that it’s clearly based on a combination of Ed’s data and my list. The other is that it does have at least one item which I don’t list, something called “Ibotics,” by which I think is meant Isaac Asimov’s History of Ibotics. That’s a 1997 illustrated novel attributed to Asimov and James Chambers, and from the description, it doesn’t sound like Asimov at all, but I’ve ordered a copy from Amazon and we’ll see when it gets here.

Speaking of Amazon, they also list six books as being by Asimov and Elizabeth Kaplan. One is our friend Henry Hudson: Arctic Explorer and North American Adventurer. The other five are all part of the “Ask Isaac Asimov” series and were published in late 1992 or early 1993. They are: How Do Airplanes Fly?, How Do Big Ships Float?, How Does a TV Work?, How Is Paper Made?, and What Happens When I Flush the Toilet?. There’s currently an Elizabeth Kaplan literary agency in New York, and I’m willing to bet that’s the same Elizabeth Kaplan.

Since Gareth-Stevens explicitly gives Kaplan co-credit for these six books, I’m willing to accept that when they give Asimov sole credit, he deserves it and the book counts. The question remains, what does it mean when they give him co-credit? None of these are sufficiently complex that, even ill, he couldn’t write or dictate them in a very brief period, he may have done at least some work on the books before he died. The only question is, did Kaplan work from notes Asimov left, or did she write the whole thing and Asimov’s name was merely added because of the series it was in?

Now, the smart thing to have done would have been to write Greenberg, Silverberg, Ellison, and Gareth-Stevens (or Kaplan) in the 1990s to get some clarifications. They’re all still around; it may not be too late yet, although I doubt any of them would be exactly thrilled to answer me. The next smart thing to have done would have been to work out a URI scheme for the reviews of the post-1989 books that didn’t depend on the book numbers remaining stable.

And, of course, the third smart thing to do would be to go back to Boston and bury myself in the archives for a month. Somehow, though, I don’t know that my wife would go for that…

There is a point to this whole exercise, of course, and it has to do with the magic number 500. We know what book was the last one Asimov saw a physical copy of before his death; that was Asimov Laughs Again and is Book 490 or thereabouts. Depending on what one counts and what one does not count, and depending on how coherent Asimov was in the last few months of his life, he may or may not have had the requisite number of books still in the pipeline to push him over the 500 mark when he died, and he may or may not have been aware of the fact. Even if one omits all the doubtful cases, he has definitely hit 500 since his death.

In an ideal world, everything would have worked out so that he would have known that Book 500 was very close, he would have been able to put Opus 500 together, and Houghton-Mifflin or somebody would have published it. But then, in an ideal world, the book count would be nearing 1000, and he would be preparing to celebrate his 91st birthday next month.

The Mysterious Case of the Russian Writer and the Italian Scooter

I just happened to have finished reading The Currents of Space on my iPad, and for no particular reason I looked over the “About the Author” at the end. It starts out:

Isaac Asimov was one of the great SF writers of the twentieth century. Born in Russia in 1920, he came to the United States with his parents when he was three years old and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. “Marooned Off Vespa” was his first short story to be published; he was nineteen.

So are there Vespal Virgins to be found the world over, and do they get buried alive if they violate their oaths of celibacy?