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?

They’re Always After Me Lucky Starr—

On 22 March 1951, Asimov had lunch with his editor at Doubleday, Walter I. Bradbury, and his then-agent and good friend, Fred Pohl. Over the course of the meal, someone—Asimov doesn’t say who, but I rather suspect it was Pohl—came up with the idea for a series of juvenile novels.

Television was on its way in as the next big thing in entertainment, and anybody who got in on the ground floor of a successful program might do very well, indeed. So might their publisher and their agent. Now, radio had been known for its long running series—“Little Orphan Annie,” for example, or “The Lone Ranger.” “The Lone Ranger” had been going for over eighteen years and showed no signs of stopping. Maybe a series of books about a “Space Ranger” might meet with comparable success?

Certainly it seemed worth a shot. Asimov’s one concern was quality. He’d seen some television and hadn’t been impressed with anything other than Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Maybe Hollywood would take the “Space Ranger” and turn it into something Asimov would not want to be associated with.

As it happens, “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger” was going to arrive on TV screens in 1954, and it’s exactly the sort of thing Asimov was hoping to avoid. Some episodes were eventually re-edited into movies, and the movies have in turn been incorporated into episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, one of which is available (as of late 2010) on DVD and various electronic services such as the iTunes store. (You can also get it without Joel and the bots, but why would you?) Watching “Crash of the Moons” gives one a sense of just how justified Asimov’s concern was.

Bradbury, as it happens, had a solution: use a pseudonym. Hearing that writer Cornell Woolrich, whom Asimov admired, had written using the pseudonym William Irish, Asimov opted for a common first name and a nationality as a surname. Thus was Paul French born.

As for the hero, “Starr” had a nice, science-fictional ring to it. Asimov’s wife, Gertrude, was then pregnant for the first time and they’d already hit on “David” as a name should the baby prove to be a boy. “David Starr” seemed like a good name to go with. By the time work on the second novel started, however, Asimov had changed his mind. “David” seemed a rather too pedestrian, and so our hero gained the nickname “Lucky” which is used almost invariably from that point on.

Every hero needs a sidekick. David Starr’s came in the form of the diminutive redhead John Bigman Jones. (“Bigman”—get it? ’Cuz he’s short, you see—) Bigman is an ideal sidekick. Lucky gets to be oh, so very much smarter than the rest of us that we need an reader surrogate, someone who gets to say, “What’s going on, Lucky?”

This turns out to be particularly important in the Lucky Starr books because Asimov put in as much exposition about astronomy as he could manage. If we’re writing science fiction for kids, we should be teaching them while we’re at it. This was one of his core philosophies of science fiction and not the last time he put it into practice. In any event, we also need someone who can ask, “What’s that interesting astronomic object or phenomenon over there, Lucky?” Bigman is very good at that sort of thing.

In the end, there’s enough astronomy in the Lucky Starr books that he actually uses some of it as examples of his non-fiction writing in Opus 100.

Bigman, in addition, is smart (if uneducated), resourceful, good in a fight, fiercely loyal to Lucky, and has a nicely hot temper that can create problems when the plot demands.

As for the organization Lucky works for, well, science fiction is about Science, and although Lucky can use his fists and guns better than just about anybody else, we want him to solve problems through Science and his Brains, and so we have the Council of Science which has extraordinary powers within the government. Indeed, it practically acts as if it were the government.

Add a Cool Ship, the Shooting Starr, and a couple of minor recurring characters who can help set up the story at the beginning, and we have the basic set-up. Every week—or every novel—we can have Lucky and Bigman be sent to investigate something odd or irregular, do some snooping, fight a couple of fist-fights, and catch the bad guy at the end. With Science.

The first novel in the series, David Starr: Space Ranger, includes a couple of other elements which would quickly be dropped because Asimov just found them too puerile. One is sufficiently-advanced-technology in the form of a mask given to Lucky by energy beings who live in huge caverns under the surface of Mars. The mask gives Lucky a handy disguise and provides him with a personal force field that makes him pretty much invulnerable. The other dropped element is that, while wearing the mask, he can assume the guise of the “Space Ranger,” using a name the Martians gave him. The Space Ranger was to stay a mysterious figure, rather like a standard costumed superhero, who came and went as he chose and always got the credit for solving the problem.

(And, thinking in TV terms, the fact that the mask completely obscured his face meant that he could be played by different actors, if necessary!)

David Starr: Space Ranger includes references to pirates holed up in the asteroids, and they come back as the main villains in the second book, Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. Further on, we get the machiavellian Sirians, continually trying to undermine Earth and the Council of Science. (Yes, Asimov knew even in the 1950s that Sirius was a rotten star to have a human colony orbit. He wanted to use the familiar name, though.)

It was pretty clear pretty early that Hollywood had no interest in Lucky Starr. The pseudonym was not only unnecessary, but it became a positive hinderance. Some people started to assume that Asimov was half-ashamed of his science fiction and always used the pseudonym when publishing it. By the time we got to the fourth book, Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, Asimov introduced positronic robots and the Three Laws, and if that didn’t give away who Paul French really was, nothing would.

He did have some fun in the meantime. A reviewer in one fanzine loved to bait Asimov by consistently complaining how rotten his stuff was. He did, however, praise one of the Lucky Starr books as an example of what sf should be like. Asimov took great delight in explaining exactly who Paul French was under the mask.

Asimov wrote six Lucky Starr novels over the course of the 50s: David Starr: Space Ranger, Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, and Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn. He was thinking about a seventh, Lucky Starr and the Snows of Pluto, but in the aftermath of Sputnik, he virtually stopped writing anything but non-fiction for several years and it never materialized.

The Lucky Starr books have to be counted as minor Asimov, although they’re actually pretty good. Yes, they’re aimed at twelve-year-old boys, and so the characters tend toward the black-and-white and the action toward the non-stop. Every book has some fisticuffs, and there are exclamation points galore! Really! But the books are well-crafted and enjoyable—not on a par with, say, The Caves of Steel but more along the lines of The Currents of Space.

When I first reviewed them in the 1990s, I was a little harsh on them, but the next reading came when my son was twelve. He had read them before, and so when he saw David Starr: Space Ranger in my hands, he practically snatched it away. We ended up racing to see who would reach the end of the series first. I won by a nose. In the end, with such evidence of the appeal to the target audience at hand, there was nothing for it but to up my ratings.

Cover of the 2001 Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition of the Lucky Starr novelsThe books have a spotty publication history. They seem to be reprinted every decade or so, once there’s a new batch of twelve-year-olds to throw at them. (Maybe we’re due for another round, then, since they were last in print in 2001.) Signet came out with a set of paperbacks in the early 1970s, and that’s how I first met them. Ballantine published them again in the late 1970s, and the Science Fiction Book Club put out omnibus editions in 1985 and 2001. I also own the latter, which is a surprisingly nice edition. I bought it mostly for the cover, which shows Lucky and Bigman. Lucky looks like Lucky and Bigman looks like the love child of Ginny Weasley and Bilbo Baggins. I love it. All of the reprints restore Asimov’s name as author (with “writing as Paul French” added for good measure).

One interesting feature of the later printings is the inclusion of what can only be called errata. Asimov took getting the science of the solar system right very seriously, and he was embarrassed that the explosive expansion of planetary science which hit in the 1950s and 1960s should have outdated these little volumes so badly. He therefore added introductions to explain where the books got the science wrong. This is actually a very thoughtful thing for him to do—I don’t know of any other science fiction works which contain disclaimers specifically pointing out where the “science” fails.

Cover of the 1970s Signet editionCover for the 1970s Signet edition of Pirates of the AsteroidsThe Signet paperback reprint from the early 1970s have another curious feature. This set came out two books at a time, with David Starr: Space Ranger and Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids the first pair. If you look carefully, you’ll note that the covers have been switched. The cover for David Starr: Space Ranger fits the action of Pirates of the Asteroids and vice-versa.

It may be a sheer accident, of course, but my guess as to what happened is this: The cover art came in and somebody at Signet noticed that whereas the cover for Pirates of the Asteroids featured David Starr’s face prominently, the art for David Starr: Space Ranger did not. That, they seem to have felt, was not a good thing. The first book should have the hero’s picture on the cover. And so the covers were swapped.

Finally, it’s worth noting that as of late 2010, the Lucky Starr novels are the earliest of Asimov’s books (not counting his dissertation) not available for the Kindle, the iPad/iPhone, or any other ebook platform. Given that a relatively small number of Asimov’s opera are still in print at all, let alone as ebooks, it’s remarkable that virtually all of his oldest books are so readily available for electronic book readers.

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.