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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.

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?