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Correspondence with Asimov

(Compiled by John’s eldest daughter, M)

It was a strange thing to find a dozen or so postcards from Asimov in a small, understated box on Dad’s desk. I hadn’t known about this correspondence; you’d think Dad would have mentioned it to us at some point, given his devotion to the man! Good heavens, letters from Isaac Asimov himself?

(Of the three of us, my brother R had apparently known about “a few letters,” but not their extent nor tone. And we all knew Dad had received permission to photocopy Asimov books for his private collection, but none of us knew that permission had come from Asimov directly.)

“Correspondence” is perhaps being generous. Given the frequency of Asimov’s responses (and the nature of the exceptions), the good doctor was prolific at responding to fan mail, just as with everything else. This kind of earnest fan engagement is rare from authors, and it’s amazing to me that Asimov made the time for it given how busy he must have been.

We have all of Asimov’s responses, but almost none of Dad’s original letters. Surprising and disappointing. He made carbons of letters to friends and family, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and for whatever reason he chose to transcribe only Asimov’s responses — not his original letters — into his journal. We will post more material if we discover it, but given how tightly Dad was managing his massive journal, I doubt there are any “free range” copies.

Excerpts from Dad’s journal are included. Do keep in mind he was 13 when this all started.


The Pre-Journal Asimov Correspondence

[Dad wrote this as a prologue to his journal when he retyped it in August 1976, at the age of 16.—Ed.]

On December 20, 1973, I became an Isaac Asimov fanatic. I have been one ever since.

Oh, to be sure, Dr. Asimov had been my favorite writer for some time before, but on the twentieth of December, A.D. 1973, for the first time, I took steps to correspond with him. That was when I crossed the line from fan to fanatic.

As I remember, my mother was the first one to suggest how to get Dr. Asimov’s address (no one thought, at the time, of the obvious method of looking in a New York phone book). She said I ought to write to one of his publishers and ask them, so I pulled down from my shelf a book printed by Doubleday and Company, Inc., and looked for the address. Unfortunately, it simply said, “Garden City, New York.” I wrote the letter on the date mentioned above and went down to the post office to find the ZIP code for Garden City. Strange to say, I couldn’t find it, so I sent my letter minus ZIP code.

Eventually, it worked its way through the echelons of Doubleday to the desk of Lawrence P. Ashmead, who was (and is) Dr. Asimov’s number one editor. His secretary (I presume) wrote me the following reply, the first answer I have in my Asimov correspondence.

Doubleday, a communications corporation. Mr. John Jenkins, [redacted], Salt Lake City, Utah 84108. Dear Mr. Jenkins: Thank you for your letter of 20 December. Unfortunately, we cannot give out the addresses or telephone numbers of our authors. If you would like to write to Dr. Asimov, however, you can send your letter to him in care of Doubleday, and we will see to it that it is forwarded. Sincerely, Cathleen Jordan, for Lawrence P Ashmead.

The letter included Doubleday’s address (277 Park Avenue, New York City, 10017), so almost at once, I wrote to Dr. Asimov, asking a lot of awfully personal questions.

Doubleday, I have learned, forwards all fan mail to Dr. Asimov at the end of the month. Although my first letter was written in January, Dr. Asimov’s reply (which delighted me no end) wasn’t written until February. It is as follows:

7 February 1974. Dear Mr. Jenkins, 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.) Isaac Asimov

That post card, it seems, is pretty much his standard reply to all first-time correspondents. Although it is awfully impersonal, it didn’t discourage me–at once, I rushed to the library to find Opus 100 and The Early Asimov (I now have copies of both, and my second letter went out to Dr. Asimov. (I’m sorry that I can’t reprint the letters, but I’m afraid the thought of making carbon copies just didn’t occur to me at the time.) Dr. Asimov’s reply was:

6 March 1974. Dear John, I have published 150 books as of now and got far more fan mail than I can easily handle, so do not be surprised if I don't answer all your letters. BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE will be published by Doubleday and will cost $16, but a cheaper edition will be put out by the Science Fiction Book Club. My books are published in all the major languages, including French. Isaac Asimov

It seems that in my second letter I asked: 1) how many books he had published, 2) publication information about Before the Golden Age, and 3) if his books were published in French (which I was studying at the time).

Halfway through March, it became impossible for me to wait any longer, and I wrote a third letter. In it, I said one thing of importance: “Dr. Asimov, I’d like to write a biography of you. Don’t answer if it’s all right,” or something to that effect. He didn’t answer, and “The Great Asimov!” sprang into being. [This is an ambitious biography Dad wrote when he was about 15. It’s 220 pages typewritten, double spaced, and yes, we have all of it.—Ed.]

In my fourth letter, I gave him certain information about the larval stages in insects (he made a blunder in Twentieth Century Discovery) plus a lot of other things, so I got the following reply:

8 April 1974. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Thank you for your information. No, although no one cares to read my diary, neither do I offer it to anyone. I don't send out autographed pictures, just autographs. I moved to New York in 1970. I have no talent for writing for the visual media and don't care to. For subscription to F & SF write to Mr. Edward L. Ferman Mercury Pub. Box 56, Cornwall, Conn. 06753. More about quarks in back numbers of 'Scientific American'. Extra energy in fluorescence becomes heat. List of all my books in print in 'Books in Print' in public library. 'baptize' from a Greek word meaning 'dip in water'. Isaac Asimov

(As to why, in the second letter, he called me “John,” but in the third reverted to Mr. Jenkins: In the second, I asked him to call me “John.” since I didn’t deserve the respect of “Mr. Jenkins.” I assumed that he would remember, and he didn’t so I am occasionally called “John,” occasionally “Mr. Jenkins” and occasionally nothing, but more about that later, perhaps.)

The last post card I received before starting the Journal had the profoundest effect. Because of it, it was until August and September (I think) before I wrote again, and both times the letters were religion oriented and not answered (thus are the three letters he never answered, numbers three, six and seven). His fourth post card reads as follows:

6 May 1974. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Yes, but you mustn't send me too many letters. I can only write so many answers. To begin with you can *not* publish my stories. That is quite impossible. You must not even think of it. NO, NO, , NO. (Get what I'm driving at.) Photons to lumen depends on size of photon. Anything I can't type I write in by hand. You'll find Petrovichi in the TIMES ATLAS. Isaac Asimov

The first question he answered was concerning my request to reprint his stories in a fanzine I was considering, devoted only to him. The others are self-explanitory [sic].

16 November 1974

Today, I received a post card from the illustrious doctor. The post card was written on the twelfth, my un-birthday, and reads as follows:

12 November 1974. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Your astronaut is partaking of the motion of the Earth, along with whatever other motion he has. While he is orbiting the Earth, he is moving with it around the Sun, and whatever he does, that motion has to be subtracted, so Newton survives. As to my personal beliefs, that is personal, isn't it? Isaac Asimov

I’ve received four other post cards from Dr. Asimov, one in February, March, April and May. I’ve not written him much in the last six months, but I have been serious when I have. I might quote the other letters at a later date.

But I don’t know whether or not he’s an athiest [sic]. Oh, well.

31 January 1975

Today, I again undertook to write Dr. Asimov:

Dear Dr. Asimov,

I am sure that you remember the experiment conducted in 1953 by Stanley Lloyd Miller, wherein he showed that amino acids could be produced in conditions on Earth about four billion years ago.

For a science fair project, myself and others have undertaken to repeat this experiment. We are using your book, Photosynthesis, as our guide to setting up the apparatis [sic], but there is one thing which is bothering us.

According to you, Miller produced hydrogen cyanide. This is a drawback. We would like to go through with the experiment, but we are terribly afraid that we might spring a leak despite elaborate precautions, or that the entire thing might blow up, filling the immediate area with hydrogen cyanide, a thought that we find somewhat disquieting.

So, we need to know exactly how to neutralize (you know what I mean) hydrogen cyanide, just in case it may leak into the atmosphere. Seeing as you are a biochemist, we felt that we could ask you. So, how does one neutralize hydrogen cyanide?

Second, could you recommend a book that would tell which solvents to use, how long to use them, and which stains or chemicals to use to detect the various compounds produced (especially the amino acids)?

I read your recent article in SEVENTEEN magazine, and it delighted my English teacher no end, because all along, I have been saying that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a rotten science fiction writer, yet you praise him nonetheless.

(I also read your story in the February BOYS' LIFE, and I thought it was up to your usual level of excellence; but the paragraph on you in the same issue was terrible. I'm going to complain to them about it.)


John H. Jenkins

1 February 1975

I shall send the letter off today.

In the same issue of BOYS LIFE, as I mentioned in the letter, is a paragraph on the Good Doctor. It was terrible. It claimed that he had only one hundred forty books published, that he was a professor of biology, and that the movie Fantastic Voyage was made from his book. I am therefore writing to the “Dear Abby” of the Boy Scouts, Pedro, to complain.

5 February 1975

Today, I received in the mail an answer to my last letter to the Good Doctor:

4 February 1975. Dear John, You must not set up your experiment by what I say!!!! You must go to Miller's original paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Your teacher will help you find it perhaps. Burroughs is a good *story-teller*. And yes, the Boys Life people got several little points about me wrong but oh well--- Isaac Asimov

[…] As I finished writing the previous part of today’s entry, I looked up to my bulliten [sic] board and took at [sic] all of my other letters from Isaac Asimov, and I found, to my surprise, that the first letter by him to me is dated 7 February 1974.

It has been exactly one year since Dr. Asimov has first found out about me–a whole year.

I can’t describe the feeling that I have now that I realize that, he off in New York, and I in Salt Lake, we have both lived for one year since he first received a letter from the crazy kid John Jenkins. In that time, in that one year, I have written him eight times, and I have received six replies. Seven of the times I wrote to him, I wrote in care of Doubleday & Co., Inc., but on the eighth, I wrote to him for the first time at his home address.

19 April 1975

Today, I received a reply from Dr. Asimov to my most recent letter:

16 April 1975. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Anywhere it says that HALF-BREED appeared in Astounding is a typographical error. I am up to 160. If I stay alive, Opus 200 may come in 1979 or 1980. Isaac Asimov

13 May 1975

Well, as you undoubtedly know, yesterday was my birthday, the one upon which I turned fifteen.

[…] I got only a few things: one thousand (!) sheets of typing paper, a record, a cake, and a stereo on which to play the record.

Today, in fact, I was much happier to see something else that I got:

7 May 1975. Dear Mr. Jenkins, I was named for my maternal grandfather and am not aware of any previous IA. Science Digest lost its editor and underwent a face-lifting. I was outlifted. I write a column now for a magazine called American Way which is distributed on all its flights by American Airlines and in all Americana hotels. I imagine I average 50 pieces of fan mail a week. Isaac Asimov

This is the eighth post card I’ve received from Dr. Asimov for the eleven times I’ve written him. I don’t plan to write him again for a while.

21 July 1975

First of all, I’ve received an answer to my most recent letter to Dr. Asimov (on this one, he gives his return address, which shows that he’s moved: 10 West 66th Street, 33-A/New York NY 10023):

16 July 1975. Dear Mr. Jenkins, I think you have just about all of them. There's THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM which appeared in the May 74 F & SF and BICENTENNIAL MAN which will appear in an anthology next February. Since Hugo Winners I, it happens that I have received three Hugos. They didn't stop me from doing Hugo Winners II, so all is well. Isaac Asimov

(By an interesting coincidence, “That Thou Art Mindful of Him” is his novelette which has been nominated for a Hugo award this year. In my letter, I expressed a fear that if he wins, he may be disqualified from doing The Hugo Winners, volume III, but it doesn’t seem to bother him any.) [He since has. John–11/29/78]

29 February 1976

Last Sunday, I wrote a letter to Dr. Asimov, as I have done several times in the past (twelve, to be precise[…]). And, yesterday, I received my traditional post card answer (the tenth) […].

25 February 1976. Greetings, Thanks for calling my attention to the afterwords in BEST OF ISAAC ASIMOV. The publishers just used old plates whenever they could, tO save money, and kept those afterwords and I didn't notice, since I'm rather sloppy about those things. I have asked that the offending paragraph be removed. As for the point about the fall of the Roman Empire---well taken for the October issue which comes out within days of the quintadecacentennial. If I think of a good notion, I'll use it. Isaac Asimov

“The October issue” refers to the October F&SF, in which Dr. Asimov has a monthly column. I had suggested to him that perhaps he could write an essay on Rome for the quintadecacentennail [sic].

25 April 1976

Yesterday, I received an answer from Dr. Asimov to my fourteenth letter I have written to him over the two years and whatever since February of 1974. It reads as follows:

21 April 1976. Dear Mr. Jenkins, TRIANGLE is just a binding-together of three of my novels, PEBBLE, STARS, and CURRENTS (I think). I don't usually list it, but apparently I did in this case. As to why I did the commercial---because I had never done one before, that's why. The official book count as of now is 172. Isaac Asimov

I rather think that he’s angry with me, because in his last post card, he started out with “Greetings,” but here he is back to the stilted “Dear Mr. Jenkins.” Indeed, in the last post card I got the distinct impression that he likes me (which is improbable), but here, I don’t. But, then, perhaps I was overly rude in complaining about the commercial.

[From Dad’s journal on 21 March 1976: “Would you believe that Isaac Asimov has bent so low as to appear on a television commercial? It’s almost enough to make one turn in one’s Isaac Asimov post cards in disgust.” I know Asimov had been in some magazine ads, including some for the TRS-80 (which in retrospect might explain why we owned one), but I can’t find the TV commercial Dad is talking about. Insights are welcome.—Ed.]

13 August 1976

5 August 1976. Greetings, Thanks for your good words. Unfortunately the Biographical Encyclopedia was a one-man job. No help. So lots of little errors slipped in. My most recent essay collection is entitled THE PLANET THAT WASN'T. It's not in soft-cover as yet. If you have that one, the next won't be out for a year and a half and it doesn't have a name as yet. The number of my books as of this month is 177. Isaac Asimov

So he’s back to “greetings” […]. I wonder why.

4 March 1979

I’ve written to Dr. Asimov again. That’s something I haven’t done for two-and-a-half years […]. This time, however, I kept a carbon of my letter, and I’ll give it to you [the journal reader] when I get his reply. Odd, odd indeed. [The carbon is nowhere to be found 🙁 —Ed.]

11 March 1979

6 March 1979. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Thanks for the information on 'cynic'. The second volume of the autobiography was handed in along with the first volume. It will be published on or about 1 March 1980. I think the the rate of increase in year is due to solar mass loss is indetectable, but I'm not sure. I'll have to ask some astronomer. Isaac Asimov

So much for reading the end of his autobiography before August of 1981.

[…] I may just write Dr. Asimov again before too long. You see, when down at the Library yesterday, I decided that the time had come for me to check out any books of his I haven’t read yet (I decided that because it seemed logical they might have bought some new ones in the three or four years since my collection passed theirs in size and I finished reading theirs, anyway), and I dug up three: The Golden Door, Mars, and Quasar Quasar Burning Bright. The Golden Door has occasion to mention the Manifesto forbidding polygamy (now part of the DEC, as you well know)–and in his time-line at the end of the book, Dr. Asimov says that the Mormon Church gave up polygamy on 6 November 1890. Something big like that would never be done on 6 November, but on 6 October or 6 April, at [the LDS general] conference. I looked in the D&C [Doctrine and Covenants], and I was right. It was 6 October 1890 that the Church voted the Manifesto as binding. I don’t know how much Dr. Asimov would like my sending him an erratum sheet, but, well, we’ll see.

2 September 1979

I wrote Asimov on the twenty-first of last month, and, as of yesterday, I got no answer back. This means that, either he has moved since my last letter (which I doubt) or he simply didn’t answer, and I rather think that’s the case. This is the first time he hasn’t answered me for five years, certainly the first since I started the Journal, and is therefore depressing. I wonder why, though. I can guess with the other three times […]. I am very much bothered, and, since I need an answer to one of my questions, I’m just going to have to write him again, perhaps this next Tuesday but probably not since I already have just piles and piles of letters to write.

4 September 1979

28 August 1979. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Yes, you can Xerox the LAND OF CANAAN appendices for your own use. I already have my advance copy of GREAT SF STORIES, VOLUME 2, so it ought to be on the news-stands momentarily. ASIMOV ON ASTRONOMY has a new cheaper hard-cover reprint because the original edition is now out of print. The actual count of published books is now 206 and I expect it to be at least 210 by the end of the year. Thank you for the correction of the date on 'the Manifesto' Thank you for understanding the difficulties of being a one-man writing machine. Isaac Asimov

So he did answer, after all. Hm. The mail was just slower than I’d expected, slower than it’s ever been before. Oh, well.

4 October 1981

26 September 1981. Dear Mr. Jenkins, I am indeed counting the anthologies, because I do work on them and they are time-consuming. However, I may have to reconsider, if they distort the count too much. At the present moment, the official count is 239. Isaac Asimov

This is the fifteenth post card I’ve received from Dr. Asimov, for a total of nineteen letters written to him in the last seven-and-a-half years. […] That means that, on the average, he’s written me once every six months for what is now almost an eighth of his life. He’s very good to his fans, really.

[For this one, we do have the carbon copy of what Dad sent.—Ed.]

22 September 1981. Dear Dr. Asimov, I hate to intereppt your busy schedule, Dr. Asimov, but I have an urgent question I need your help on. I have been, for quite some time an ardent collection if vour books and I like to flatter myself that I've got the largest collection of Asimovia in the intermountain West--certainly the aargest in the state of Utah. Unfortunately, however, the money I have to buy your books is rather limited and so I can't afford to go around buying books that have your name on them if they aren't really your books. I've run into a few, then, that I'm not certain whether included [unclear] by you on your official list of Books-that-Isaac-Asimov-Has-Written. The Books in question are: *Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts*, ahd those collections of science fiction stories that you've been editing with Martin Greenberg, or Martin Greenberg and Joseph Olander such as *The Great Science Fiction Stories One* through however many there are at the moment, *The Future in Question*, and so on. If, then, you could kindly tell me whether or not you intend to count these and similar books in your official reckoning of your books, I would be very grateful. (By the way, just what is your official count of books published at the moment, anyway?) Sincerely, John H. Jenkins

23 February 1983

[…] I received today:

17 February 1983. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Thank you for being so enthusiastic a reader. You may Xerox anything you need to for your personal use. The total number of my published books as of now is 269, of which 46 are anthologies. I am in the home stretch of the new Lije Baley. 'Nightfall, Inc.' is my corporation. Isaac Asimov

3 March 1983

I Xeroxed four books by Asimov yesterday, and bought a fifth on Tuesday: Inside the Atom (1st ed.), The Kingdom of the Sun, The World of Nitrogen and The Best New Thing, and Worlds Within Worlds, respectively. That gives me 192½ out of about 270–I am within eighty, for the first time ever that I can remember. I may soon pass two hundred. In any event, I am unhappy to discover that the two Libraries in Salt Lake have so few books by Asimov which meet my three criteria for Xeroxing: 1) they must be out of print (else I could buy them); 2) I must not own them (else why spend more money on them?); and 3) Asimov must own the copyright (else I have no legal permission to Xerox the whole book). This third may change by the end of the current session of the Supreme Court, depending on their decision in the Betamax case. We’ll see.

[This journal excerpt isn’t related to Dad’s correspondence to Asimov as such, except that contains Dad’s criteria for choosing what to Xerox “for [his] personal use.” Dad photocopied quite a lot of Asimov’s books, and such copies acted as “stand ins” in his near-comprehensive collection. As time went on, and increasingly empowered by the internet, he acquired real copies of rarer and rarer material, after which time the Xeroxed copies were discarded. Discarded, of course, meant they were designated as “scratch paper” for the children to doodle upon, or to use to print unimportant documents with the family’s LaserWriter. It was a very normal thing for us to have random pages of random books on the reverse of all our drawings and printouts, and I maybe spared a thought for them when the toner made the pages stick together, but mostly I took all this for granted. Didn’t every household have thousands of pages of three-hole-punched “scratch paper” for throwaway scribbles?—Ed.]

26 October 1983

The following came in the mail yesterday:

26 October 1983. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Thank you for your long, interesting and informative letter of 20 October. I appreciate it. I also appreciate your kind words about the histories which petered out for *exactly* the reasons your thought. Many scientists have blamed me for their plight; you are the first historian to do so. I'm delighted and I hope it gives you a happy life. Isaac Asimov

[…] With four exceptions […] Asimov has replied to every letter I have written him. Now, I don’t remember clearly either the time or the circumstances of the fourth, so I may be wrong in remembering it at all. There are, at least, three of which I am certain: one requesting permission to write a biography of him, where I specifically stated, “don’t reply if the answer is ‘yes'” so that I would be more likely to get permission; one basically written about the [Mormon] Church which probably offended him badly; and one written from Hong Kong [where Dad was serving as an LDS missionary—Ed.] to which he may have found it difficult to reply. (Well, inconvenient.) Thus, the basic limitation on what Asimov writes to me personally is what I write to him.

Secondly, most of what I wrote to him was in the first glorious realization that he would actually write back. After I got his first post card, I started writing letters to him with machine-gun rapidity. It wasn’t really until his reply number 12 that that died off.

Anyway, since the first item in my Asimov correspondence was the letter I wrote to Doubleday in 1973 asking for his address, I thought that this would be a convenient place to summarize the first ten years of my firing letters off to him and getting little post cards back.

With regards to this latest post card, I would like to say the following by way of explanation: Having recently read his essay “Crowded!” in Science, Numbers, and I, and with the later sequel “More Crowded!” in The Sun Shines Bright in mind, I wrote him at some space about Hong Kong. These two essays are about the world’s “Great Cities,” those with a population of over one million. In neither essay is Hong Kong mentioned, and my letter was an explanation as to why Hong Kong was not mentioned in the sources on which Dr. Asimov based his material and why it should be counted as a Great City.

While I had his attention, moreover, I thanked him for his excellent history books for tennagers [sic]. I expressed dismay that he hasn’t written any for some time, and speculated that perhaps history books for teenagers written by a biochemist cum science fiction writer simply didn’t sell well no matter how well-written, and so Houghton Mifflin, the publisher, lost interest in them. I asked him for more if he could talk H.-M. into it, adding that because of these books, I am a graduate student in history today. (This is true. It was the wonder of The Roman Republic that got me turned on to history as a study. The wonder of that has lasted since the first reading back, I believe, in 1973 […], until just this past month when I have finally decided not after all to become a Roman historian. That’s a lot of impact for one book.)

Anyway, since I was not asking any specific questions, only giving information, I didn’t expect any sort of an answer to come back. After all, Dr. Asimov is a busy man and does get a lot of fan mail. I was therefore surprised to get an answer, and more than a little delighted. It is a particularly nice and ego-satisfying answer, at that.

26 May 1988

I have spoken to Isaac Asimov.

[That’s the whole entry for the day!—Ed.]

6 June 1988

Now, as for the Asimov thing.  On Wednesday the 25th of May, […o]n her way home, [my wife H] was listening to an AM radio station, “Magic 61” which plays soporific old-fashioned music which we will both probably love when we’re sixty and seventy, and which [H] rather likes now.  She heard an advertisement for a talk show to be broadcast that night, a call-in show, with Asimov as the guest, and suggested that I may want to call in or at least to listen.

Well, I did listen.  At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to call because I wasn’t sure what I would say, but after a while, I thought of a question (namely, “What is the official count?”) and started to call.  It was a two-hour show, and I tried repeatedly for over an hour before, fifteen minutes before it was to end, it started to ring.  And then it rang for a couple of minutes before someone came on and said, “Hello, what city are you calling from?”

“Berkeley, California,” I said.  (Yes, yes, I know it’s Albany, but Berkeley isn’t entirely wrong and has a lot more prestige than Albany.)

“Please turn your radio down,” said the voice, and I knew that I was next.

The only trouble, however, was that I couldn’t tune this particular station in on the clock radio in the study, and so I had the stereo on in the other room.  On the other hand, I was on the telephone in the study, since I’d been working […] while I was in here.  I called to [H], “[H], turn the radio down!” but she was watching TV in the bedroom while doing some calligraphy, trying to drown out the noise of Asimov’s voice, I guess, and couldn’t hear me.  So, I closed the door and got back as far from the door as I could to avoid the confusion of the delayed signal and waited.

Then the moment came.  “Berkeley, California,” said the host, “you’re on the air.”  At that instant, all rational thought ceased in my mind.  I was talking to Isaac Asimov, a demigod whom I had all but worshipped [sic] for most of my life.  I don’t have Harlan Ellison’s self-assurance (”You’re not so much,” he is rumored to have said the first time he met Asimov), and at critical moments (e.g., proposing marriage to people, talking to people 270 of whose books I own), my verbal skills vanish and I am left to make incoherent noises.

I stammered out something about having always enjoyed Asimov’s works more than Heinlein’s, with all respect to the late Mr. Heinlein (he died only a couple of weeks ago), since the subject of “is Robert A. Heinlein really the best science fiction writer” came up.  Then I think I mentioned that I own 270 of Asimov’s books (it is actually slightly more than that, but I forget the exact number), and asked The Question.  “How far behind you am I?” I may have said.  “That is, is the figure of 365 which has been given a couple of times during the show accurate?” […]

Well, it turns out it isn’t.  Asimov is now up to 390.  I got the impression that the host of the show was just reading from the jacket of Prelude to Foundation, which is just out and does have the figure of “over 365” on it.

“So then we can expect Opus 400 within a year?” I asked.  Asimov said something vague in acknowledgement that we might, if he lived, and I said “Thank you,” and hung up.

Well, as [H] said, it was a good thing that the calls were anonymous.  All that anyone need know is that some jerk from Berkeley, California, made a fool of himself on national radio before the avid ears of millions of listeners, and that said jerk was me can be safely left unknown.  I really am embarrassed about the whole thing, and having been so incredibly nervous has certainly robbed the moment of some of its excitement.  Still, I have spoken to Asimov on the phone now, and that is something.

(Halfway through, [H] heard a familiar voice and came out.  “Is that you?” she asked, just in time to hear me say “Good-bye.”  Oh, well.)

10 September 1989

2 August 1989. Dear Mr. Jenkins, I'm sorry, but there was no OPUS 400. It was coming too quickly after OPUS 300, and it was getting ridiculous. Maybe I'11 do an OPUS 500, if I can stop things long enough to do it. Isaac Asimov

(TV Guide had in a late-July issue an article by Asimov on the 20th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon.  The article casually mentioned the fact that he was the author of 425 books.  Since I knew—from constantly keep up on things in Books in print—that Asimov hasn’t published an Opus 400, I was curious and wrote him to see if I had simply missed it, or Houghton-Mifflin had declined to publish it, or what, and if there might be some other means of finding out what his books #301 to #400 were.)

23 December 1990

29 November 1990. Dear Mr. Jenkins, Since the book count is now at 461, I would have to send you a list of 161 books and that is not a practical project for me. The best thing to do is to go to the library and look up the lastest BOOKS IN PRINT (Author volumes). That would list every book I have in print in hard covers. Those not listed are out-of-print and there would be small chance of getting them anyway. As for the specific books you mention SCIENCE FICTION BY ASIMOV is listed in my book number because it contains a few stories not in any of my other books. A HISTORY OF PHYSICS and is, however, merely three of my books combined and I do not list it in my book number. Data is a positronic robot and there is no secret in the program that he was inspired by my robot stories. Gene Roddenberry is a good friend of mine and always asks my permission after he does something. Isaac Asimov

This is the longest reply I’ve ever received from Asimov to anything I’ve sent him, but it’s also the only time I’ve ever sent him a self-addressed, stamped envelope in which to reply.  I was rather hoping that he might keep a running list of his books on his word processor and therefore be able to print one up in a flash to send off—alas, however, it would seem he does not.  I did ask him about a couple of books which had (I felt) questionable status and for the current Count, just in case, however.  And, as you can tell, while I had his ear, I asked him a question that has been circulating among Star trek:  The next generation [sic] fans for some time:  The show claims that Data is an “Asimovian” robot in that he is built using positronic circuits.  Is he, however, an “Asimovian” robot in the more important sense of having (in any form) the Three Laws of Robotics built into him.  Rather frustratingly, Asimov misunderstood my question and failed totally to answer it.

8 April 1992

[Isaac Asimov passed away on 6 April 1992. Dad sent this to the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup a few days later.—Ed.]

I don’t think that it’s really sunk in for me that Asimov has died.  He’s been my favorite writer from the day I first identified one.  I’ve been collecting his books for most of my life and spend more time than perhaps I should trying to reread them regularly.  (Even at 60 pages a day, it still takes three or four years to make it through just the ones I own!)  

I can’t honestly say that his stories are among my favorite science fiction, if only because for the purposes of my reading I classify them as “Asimov” and not “sf”.  Although I feel that his later works are not his best and that some of his books are positively bad (even Homer nods), there are innumerable books of his I look eagerly forward to rereading each time, most particularly his F&SF essay collections.  His ability to explain, to entertain, to tell stories real and fancied was marvelous, making learning effortless and understanding easy.

His effect on my life was incalculable; there’s so much he introduced me to.  He was a catalyst over and over, motivating and encouraging me to read more about everything from the Bible and Shakespeare, through history, down (or is it up?) to Gilbert and Sullivan.   My personal philosophy, my major in college, my professional career, all have felt and feel his influence.  

I never met him in person.  I spoke to him only once, on a radio call-in program.  I was so tongue-tied when he came on the line that I could hardly stammer out my question (how many books have you written as of _this_ month?).  I wrote him several times, including a number of embarrassingly gushing epistles as a teenager.  He didn’t answer them all, but when he did, he was always polite and kind, no matter how obnoxious I might have been.  

In particular, I was known in my younger years to try to convince of the errors of his atheistic ways.  He did not strike back.  As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate that his humanism was based in a fundamental faith in people, that knowledge and understanding, armed with the scientific method, can overcome intolerance, ignorance, and hatred.  I came to feel that for Asimov, there are no problems we cannot solve if only we can be prevented from turning against ourselves.  As such, he displayed many of the fundamental ethical virtues I value in religion to a far greater extent than too many of the pious.  

I will miss him badly.  

John H. Jenkins


How to bring across the impact Asimov — and Dad — has had on our lives? For me at least, growing up, Asimov was set dressing for Dad’s office, if not the whole house. We had the designated “Asimov bookcases” (and we still call them that, though they contain different books today). Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine came in the mail regularly and was left laying around in various places in the house. A print of Michael Whelan’s Arkady painting, matted and framed, hung on the wall in Dad’s office. Never mind the ubiquitous “scratch paper.” And the books — the sheer, overwhelming quantity of books! We have never in our lives had enough bookshelves for all of Dad’s books. They spilled out into every room in the house, and many had to be stored in boxes long-term, tucked wherever they would be most discreet.

We were taught to treat books with respect (never dogear the pages!), but all of Dad’s books were used. Yes, many were secondhand acquisitions, including library discards, but many were his originals from the 70s and 80s that became worn through normal use. For Dad, collecting books wasn’t about keeping them shrink wrapped on the shelf as part of a pristine set, it was about having them so he could read them and lend them and shove them into bags or coat pockets so they could stow away and fill the idle moments. (And maybe some of the not-so-idle moments, too.)

I think I love reading because it’s the closest we can get to a time machine. I was only five when Asimov died, but I can still get to know him today through his writing, which has lent him a permanence that is impossible for most of us to achieve. Almost all of Asimov’s postcards to Dad are older than I am, but those words, too, return to life when they are read. Each one is a moment caught in amber, a snippet of time sent to the future, connecting Asimov to Dad and to whoever else reads them hereafter.

Dad died a year ago today. He, too, has achieved some small measure of permanence, from this blog, to his Asimov review site, to his personal journal, to his NaNoWriMo fiction, and the letters he sent to his favorite author as a boy. Thank you, Dad, for giving your words to us.

Rest in peace, John H. Jenkins

This is John’s son, writing with bad news.

Early Tuesday morning, February 28, 2023, John H. Jenkins passed away in his sleep, aged 62. We don’t know the exact cause of death, but he had been in the hospital on Sunday for severe chest pain, for which they were unable to find a cause.

Thank you to anyone and everyone who supported him over the years. I will be keeping this website up and maintained for as long as I am able. If you wish to honor his memory in some tangible way, please leave a comment below, or simply pick up an Asimov book and start reading.

happy birthday, Dr. A!

Asimov would have been 102 today, so there are some books one might want to read in celebration.

The book numbers for anything published in 1992 or later are to be taken with a shaker or two of salt, of course, meaning none of the 500s are 100% certain. Still, there can be no doubt that among the fifteen books listed here, the two one might want to read are I. Asimov and Yours, Isaac Asimov; the former would be my choice. Extraterrestrial Civilizations is a solid third.

The remainder are, for the most part, either anthologies or non-fiction for pre-teens.

One (I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay) is not, strictly speaking, and I only include it in my list on a technicality, and even then only because I like it so much.

Another, The Future in Space is likely not to have any input from Asimov at all and only gets listed because I’ve been too lazy to follow through on that.

Finally, Gold deserves an honorable mention at least, but as is true with most of Asimov’s later anthologies, it includes stories both good and not-so-good; as a result, I tend not to think very highly of it.


Joke 312 in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor—which I highly recommend—is about one Moskowitz who is an expert in Yiddish but doesn’t know the Yiddish for a particular English word. He goes to an old woman who speaks no English to try to get her to say the Yiddish word, which he does by spinning elaborate scenarios to which he hopes she will respond with the word in question. He fails several times—it’s a long joke—but finally comes up with a story to which her response is what he wants. Sort of. She gives him the word he’s after, true enough, but in English—not Yiddish.

The word is “disappointed.”

Asimov helpfully provides the Yiddish word in his discussion of the joke, but he spells it in Latin letters so I can’t write it properly, and he apparently disagrees with what Google Translate says on the subject anyway. He says it’s entoisht. Google Translate says it’s disapoynid. I like Asimov’s version better.

So why am I entoisht after ten hours of television that covers one hundred or so pages of book? Let’s answer with some spoilers.

Am I unhappy that the show departs so heavily from the books? Not in principal. I expected that, and you’re going to have to do a lot of expanding to turn so few pages into so much television. Indeed, much of what they did was good on its own terms. The genetic dynasty, in particular, was an inspired decision. The world-building had significant virtues, since it handled nicely the idea of the Empire being a multicultural one.

Some of the changes were gratuitous, I thought. I’m not sure what they gained by making Jump technology an Imperial monopoly, for example, especially since they thereby implied that other interstellar travel was not FTL. (There is a throwaway line that suggests otherwise, but it was not very prominent.) The idea that slower-than-light is practical for interstellar travel would be sloppy writing indeed in a hard science fiction series.

Some of the changes were flatly wrong, however, and show that the creators either didn’t understand their source material or lacked faith in it. And I don’t just mean their genuinely bad treatment of psychohistory. Rather, the original Foundation “trilogy” is built around the idea that solutions to problems are found by thinking through them. This is characteristic of Asimov’s fiction.

Thus, Salvor Hardin in the books is a shrewd politician who knows how to exploit and manipulate people, not a tough-as-nails warden who has a mystical connection with her birth parents.

Terminus is ideal for the First Foundation not because it’s a harsh environment that will make tough people who can survive tough circumstances. Terminus is ideal because it’s resource-poor and will require clever people who can, of necessity, move science and technology forward just to survive, making more from less.

The Empire isn’t bad because it’s harsh and oppressive. The Empire is, on the whole, good, and the main “badness” comes because it’s stagnant, and its people are no longer original thinkers.

In the book Foundation, the first Seldon crisis has a simple solution—hold four knives at four throats. Here we have two changes, one gratuitous and one not. The non-gratuitous change is to reduce the number of rival kingdoms from four to two. That makes sense because it simplifies the storyline. The gratuitous change is to alter the name of one of the kingdoms to “Thespis”. What’s wrong with “Smyrno”? “Loris” is also given as the name of one of the Four Kingdoms. That would work, too. (Asimov does not give an unambiguous indication of the fourth kingdom’s name.)

In any event, Hardin’s clever solution is to make it clear that any one of the Four Kingdoms which has exclusive control over the Foundation’s superior technology would find the other three easy prey, meaning they’d strike pre-emptively in a three-on-one pileup. As a result, an awkward balance of power is maintained because nobody trusts anybody else.

As an aside, we also have the alteration of a fatuous (but clever) courtier into a stern but rather stupid military commander. In the books, Lord Dorwin appears to make Imperial assurances to the Foundation but phrases things carefully so that he actually does nothing of the kind. On the show, Kray Dorwin is a commander who manages to get his ship destroyed with a single shot. Again we have a change of a clever man into a man of action.

And as an aside within the aside: If the Empire builds stuff so well, why is it so easy to destroy things? The Sky Bridge also came down without much effort.

Back to our main thread. If the solution to the first Seldon crisis is political, the solution to the second is sociological (per Asimov). Hardin is able to win through by cleverly exploiting the cargo cult that has grown up around the Foundation’s technology. He retains ultimate control of the Imperial derelict because he’s smart enough to have built the proper relays into the refit.

So it’s disappointing that the ultimate solution to the first Seldon crisis in the show is to share control of the planet-killing Invictus. Worse, they’re building more like it. The implication is that the Foundation, Anacreon, and Thespis are going to create a military empire that rules by force.

This brings me to the real disappointment: the ending. There are two grudges dominating the final political configuration at the Terminus end of things. The Thespins and Anacreons have been fighting one another and been rather nasty about it for hundreds of years. The Seldon AI tells them that all that warfare was based on a lie. Why should they believe him? Even if they do, that doesn’t settle four hundred years of grievances.

Even worse, Anacreon has just slaughtered a significant percentage of the Foundation’s population, mostly unarmed, none with military training, and children among them. Suddenly, however, after Seldon’s speech, the Anacreons and Terminusianites are sitting down around the campfire, drinking tranya and singing “Kumbaya.” The primary storyline ends in a horribly, horribly contrived fashion.

That leaves the bizarre end to the Imperial storyline. The degree of planning—and the degree of coincidence—needed for the rebels’ plot to proceed as far as it did is unbelievable. The Empire’s inability to discover the plot earlier is also unbelievable. (Seriously, do they not do genetic scans of the clones to make sure there are no random mutations?) Brother Day’s emotional collapse is the most plausible part of the whole thing, but I’m not sure I can suspend my disbelief sufficiently far as to encompass it. (Lee Pace’s acting—which is always impressive—helps.)

Having a storyline where coincidence is needed to resolve the plot isn’t necessarily bad storytelling. Dickens does it all the time. Shakespeare does it. Asimov himself does it. It’s different, though, when the characters rely on coincidence. Having my hero sit on an airplane next to an old girlfriend during a brief time when both are available is standard Lifetime movie fare. For him to get on a flight and wait impatiently for her to take the seat next to his becomes bad storytelling when she actually shows up. Either he’s been an incredibly good stalker, or he’s incredibly lucky that his planned coincidence actually occurs. (Or, apparently, he’s Salvor Hardin.)

Oh, and a final aside: Demerzel is definitely not Three Laws compliant. My daughter, who watched the series with me as an aid to seeing it from the perspective of someone who had not read the books, instantly called that one out. “If people know anything about Asimov,” she said, “they know about the Three Laws of Robotics.” I could go on and on about how Demerzel’s murder of Brother Dawn might be possible in theory in Asimov’s future history, but not possible in practice.

Visually, the series is stunning. Effects-wise, the series is top-notch. So far as world-building goes, it is marvelous—but where story is concerned, it stumbles badly at the most crucial point. Up until the last episode, this would have rated three-out-of-three spaceships-and-suns for the general audience; but it failed to stick the landing, and that knocks it down a notch. (It was already at two-out-of-three for the Asimov fan.)

I was very frustrated in watching “Foundation,” not because it departed from the books, but because it kept some of the trappings yet entirely jettisoned the core. I was disappointed because, in the end, it could not maintain the momentum it had built up. It could and should have done better on both counts.

Two and Three

I waited until yesterday to watch episode 2 of the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, “Preparing to Live,” and until today to watch “The Mathematician’s Ghost,” episode 3. The reason is simple enough.

There were a lot of changes from Asimov’s story-telling when it was adapted for streaming. That’s to be expected. Transitioning between two very different forms of story-telling eighty years apart is going to require that. And the powers that be have chosen to expand the story considerably, which is also fine so long as they do it well.

However, given the constraints on my reviews, I faced a dilemma. My practice has been to give two ratings, one for the Asimov fan and one for the general audience. Granted, that was only for the books, but still I felt honor-bound to at least attempt the same with a series based directly on the books.

Now, reviewing the first episode, “The Emperor’s Peace,” was pretty straightforward because it basically covers the first part of Foundation, “The Psychohistorians.” This is all well and good, because I have something to do a little compare and contrast with. (The fact that I still haven’t written up a review is irrelevant. I’m used to reviewing stuff years or decades after publication, after all. <insert emoji here>)

The next story in Foundation, “The Encyclopedists,” takes place a full fifty years later, whereas it was clear that the next two episodes of the streaming series would largely take place in the gap between the two. They would be harder to judge in terms of the Asimov fan vs the general science fiction fan. I wanted to have someone who hadn’t read the books on hand to better gage the reaction of someone in the latter camp.

As it happens, neither of my daughters has read the books. The eldest tried but got bored because “it’s just two guys sitting in a room talking to each other,” which is not altogether a false assessment for the bulk of the first few sections. The youngest has not even tried. She was therefore my guinea pig, and I had to wait until she was available.

The good news is that I actually liked both episodes on their own merits. The exploration of what it means to be one-third of an emperor continues to be fascinating, and it was nice to get Demerzel, er, fleshed out a bit. There was a good sense of world-building where Terminus is concerned, both on the story level and the story-telling level. Terminus in the books is not nearly as harsh an environment (so far as we’re ever told), so having the colony struggle more is definitely a nice touch. It’s rather too small, of course, but we’ll let that pass.

The ending of the second episode has come under considerable criticism. From the perspective of the Asimov fan, that’s because—well, it is just totally different from the characterization we see in the books. Having Seldon leave Trantor contradicts the books, for example, and the relationship between Raych and Seldon is more strained than one would expect from the books. And, of course, Seldon dies in the “wrong” way.

From the perspective of a person unfamiliar with the books, the ending is definitely muddy and confusing. Why are the characters acting this way? It seems so contrary to the way they’ve been acting hitherto.

Well, if you’re a fan of the books and can survive the non-book-continuity bit, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Within the series (but not the books), Dornick and Seldon are the only two who understand psychohistory, and the books firmly state that if the population whose future is being predicted know too much about that future, too much about what psychohistory has to say, well then the whole process will fall apart. For the Plan, the real Plan, to succeed, the Foundation needs to be kept in the dark as much as possible. So Gaal and Hari have to be removed as early as can reasonably be managed.

The books’ solution is much neater, of course. Just leave Hari on Trantor both because he’s too old to travel and because someone can reasonably be left behind to tie up loose ends. Since there are more than two people who understand psychohistory, having some of them go to Terminus will be safe (and even desirable) so long as they make sure they don’t teach anybody what they know. And they don’t.

So the ending of the second episode is definitely muddier than one would like, but it lets Goyer (et al.) add a bit of conflict, flesh out the side characters—well, to be more accurate, create them out of whole cloth—and make their universe a bit richer. For example, the fate of the Anacreonians and Thespians is very chilling and very well-done.

The third episode more directly involves the set-up for “The Encylopedists,” and again major liberties are being taken, particularly where Salvor Hardin and the Time Vault are concerned. Some of it will be make clearer in future episodes I am sure. If they continue to hold semi-close to the books, I’ll be fine. If they start to deviate more significantly, I think I’ll start to have problems.

Also, hey, Daneel, Three Laws. Enough said.

First Pass at the First One

Well, Apple TV+ actually made the first two episodes of Foundation available a day early (or else there was some spectacular timey-wimey shenanigans going on), so I was able to watch the first episode Thursday night. I haven’t had time to watch the second yet.

I’ll post a longer review on the main site, but my overall impression is somewhere towards the positive end of the spectrum. On the whole, it looks gorgeous and the acting is excellent. It stays reasonably close to the written material. Most of what is added works well. There are definitely some head-scratchers even within the show’s own continuity, and some gratuitous changes from the source material. And it felt too long. One of my rules of thumb is that if I start to wonder how much of something is left, then it’s too long.

Still, major kudos for how they started out. Three spaceships-and-suns for the non-Asimov fan, and two for the true believer.

Also, hello, Daneel. You’re looking good.

Great-ish Expectations

So the first two episodes of Foundation will drop tomorrow on Apple+ (seriously, guys, can’t you name a streaming service without a plus sign?), and not long ago, I was asked by my beautiful, brown-eyed, brunette daughter what I expect. The answer is easy enough:

I expect that it will be very good; and

I expect that it will be very different from the books.

And that’s okay. There’s always the issue of adapting from one medium to another, and a video series from the early 2020s has an entirely different audience from a pulp-sf-magazine reading audience in the 1940s with an entirely different background and entirely different expectations. I don’t object to the adaptors adding their own creativity to the series, so long as they keep the core intact.

(If you want a faithful adaptation, by the way, the BBC audio plays from the 1960s are readily available and, except for some scenery chewing towards the end, very good.)

At the same time, there is one big problem. I don’t care for the Foundation books outside of the first three very much, and the reason is simple enough: I read the first three when I was twelve.

Asimov believed that the 1940s was a “golden age” of science fiction because of John Campbell’s incredible skill at editing Astounding and grooming a large cadre of talented writers. At the same time, he believed that the real “golden age” of science fiction is twelve. Books, movies, and TV shows you first encounter around that age acquire a special magic that nothing else can ever capture. In particular, your emotional response to what comes later never has the patina of nostalgia and wonder that the earlier material has.

Oh, you can come to love material you encounter later, but it’s never with the same passion as what you meet at age twelve. I love Star Trek more than Star Wars, because I saw the former when I was around twelve and the latter when I was seventeen. And I love Second Foundation more than Foundation’s Edge for similar reasons. Indeed, because the Foundation books from Foundation’s Edge onwards involve some implicit retconning of earlier material, material from my own “golden age”, I tend to get very impatient with them. Again, that has nothing to do with their inherent quality; it’s a purely subjective response.

So the Foundation series may prove too frustrating for me to really enjoy. If that happens, it will likely be a shame, because it will be purely because of my own nostalgia; and that is an entirely illogical response.

On to the Second Century

The time has come once more to celebrate Asimov’s birthday by reading one of his books. I’m going to try something different this year, however. In the past, I’ve included in the list of candidates only the books whose book number is a multiple of Asimov’s age: books 99, 198, 297, 396, and 495 for his 99th birthday, for example. This is rather unfair to a lot of books, because they get past over as a result; so this year, I’m going to include those books which would otherwise be skipped; to wit—

Book 101: ABC’s of Space

Book 201: In Memory Yet Green [1]
Book 202: Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1, 1939

Book 301: Science Fictional Olympics
Book 302: Fantastic Reading: Stories and Activities for Grades 5-8
Book 303: Banquets of the Black Widowers

Book 401: Ancient Astronomy
Book 402: Unidentified Flying Objects
Book 403: The Space Spotter’s Guide
Book 404: Norby Down to Earth

Book 501: The Ugly Little Boy
Book 502: Forward the Foundation
Book 503: The Positronic Man
Book 504: The Mammoth Book of Modern Science Fiction
Book 505: Frontiers II: More Recent Discoveries About Life, Earth, Space, and the Universe

(As always, the book numbers are based on my own listing, which is one of the possible extensions of Asimov’s official one.)

The advantages of the new system are instantly obvious. If I just selected among those books whose numbers are multiples of 101, I would have as my best option Banquets of the Black Widowers, with Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1, 1939 a solid second. By including otherwise “skipped” books, we have a number of better choices.

Among those new choices, there are two that really stand out: In Memory Yet Green (the first volume of Asimov’s autobiography) and Forward the Foundation (the last Foundation book). Indeed, it is not easy to choose between the two. If one is more interested in Asimov as a person, then the former wins. If one is more interested in Asimov’s fiction, then the second comes in first (as it were).

Or, of course, if one is truly ambitious, one could attempt to read all fifteen in one day.

[1] In Memory Yet Green is actually a special case. As noted last year, there is a two-way tie for 200th place in Asimov’s listing. Asimov’s two major publishers both expected to publish his 200th book, you see, and so he compromised by proclaiming a tie. He wasn’t always consistent about the tie, however, so Opus 200 is sometimes listed as book 200 and In Memory Yet Green as book 201. Of course, even if one read In Memory Yet Green last year, there’s no harm in reading it again.

At Last!

An adaptation for visual media of Asimov’s Foundation Series has been in the works for decades with occasional announcements that something was finally happening. The most recent announcement came last year when Apple launched its Apple TV+ streaming service. (Full disclosure: I work for Apple as a software engineer.) There was no release date or trailer included, not even a teaser, so one had to take the announcement with a grain of salt.

There was another announcement today, however, which does have a release date and a trailer.

I have to say it looks good. They are obviously departing from the overall plot of the books, but that’s really something that can’t be helped. The issue more is do they do a good job of it? Time will tell.

(Plus, it’s nice to see that they’re departing from Asimov’s default assumption—inevitable in the 1940s when the stories were first written—that everybody is a white male unless otherwise noted.)

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 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.