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“Galaxy Blues” Part One by Allen M. Steele
“Skull Valley” by Michael Cassutt
“Dark Integers” by Greg Egan
“Night Calls” by Robert Reed
“Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov
“At Sixes and Sevens” by Carol Emshwiller
“Paid in Full” by Susan Forest
“Debatable Lands” by Liz Williams
“Leonid Skies” by Carl Frederick
“Dark Rooms” by Lisa Goldstein
“The Turn” by Chris Butler
Following the review of this issue we have included, as part of this 30th Anniversary Year of celebration for Asimov’s Science Fiction, many of the tributes to Isaac Asimov following his death in April of 1992. They appeared in the November, 1992 Special Tribute Issue to Isaac. Reprinted here for the first time, you don’t want to miss them.
Galaxy Blues—Part One, “Down and Out On Coyote,” by Allen M. Steele is the opening segment of four of a serialized novel in the author’s Coyote sequence, sharing characters with those from his last novel Spindrift. Since it is not our practice to review novels I’ll just observe that it caught my attention quickly and easily, set the stage effectively for what is to come, and made me want to read the whole thing straight through.
Hmm. What to say of “Skull Valley” by Michael Cassutt. Remember the movie Project X? The one where a secret government project trains chimps to fly so soldiers won’t be placed in danger, and how Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt aid their escape into the wild, setting them free to fend for themselves and live their own lives?
“Skull Valley” is virtually the same story, but with twists to the movie storyline. In this one, a secret government project genetically alters Neanderthal DNA and uses it to create much more human-like “enhanced” Neanderthals. Their appearance is a cross between Neanderthal and human, and their intelligence is supposedly raised just high enough so they can understand orders, thus becoming a possible new source for soldiers. Of course the experiment goes awry. A powerful Creationist senator gets the funding cut off. The 11 “subjects” are then to be destroyed, or in one case, one of them sent to an anthropologist for study and to live out the rest of his life.
Rather than being freed by Matthew Broderick, a pair of them escape and are hunted down for recapture and destruction, for they have been robbing desert homes (the story takes place in Arizona) for clothes, food, and of all things, toys. A cow has been found dead, killed by some wild animal, etc. One of the secret lab employees and a local deputy sheriff track the male and female escapees to an abandoned shack. When the confrontation takes place it is discovered they are much more human than previously believed. There is true intelligence in their eyes, they have clothed themselves, made crude weapons for survival and defense (a bow and arrow), and only wish to live in peace. The deputy sheriff decides to let them live and thereby aids their escape into the desert wilds. They have been created for ill purpose, are intelligent creatures much more “human” than anyone expected, and deserve to be free. All of the preceding is a good thing, if a road previously traveled. Except…
Cassutt decides to throw his own politics into the story, not content to once again show how secret government experiments tinkering with DNA and evolution to create soldiers is evil and has once more come to no good (one variation of the mad scientist theme, re Frankenstein, The Island of Dr. Moreau, et al). No, he uses this scenario to emphasize his views on Immigration Policy. He uses the story to take jabs at the Sheriff, who dislikes fuzzy-headed liberal thinking. He even spends time justifying the release of the escaped enhanced-Neanderthals—teenagers named Kip and Debbie—by going off on a tangent when he gives the deputy sheriff these lines:
“I thought of my family—how they had foraged and farmed in Arizona for ten thousand years, only to be pushed aside by the Spanish. And then the Spanish became the Mexicans, and they were pushed aside by the Anglos. And now the Anglos were worried that the Mexicans were coming back.
“Didn’t we all deserve a chance for a little peace? Didn’t these two?”
And…the logic is all very fuzzy, and I’m sure it was meant to target the emotions of those championing a particular view in the current immigration debate, who will no doubt find some logical connection between immigration policy and the decision to let escape two enhanced Neanderthal teenagers.
The overarching emotional appeal is a confused one, however, because “Kip” and “Debbie” (how can we not feel an emotional attachment to young Neanderthals with names right out of Beverly Hills 90210?) probably should be allowed to live their own lives, but not because of the emotionally-charged political proselytizing the author tosses in to muddy the waters. The “can’t we all just get along” restatement in the final line isn’t a solution, it’s a bromide best used as a bumper sticker. It may sound nice, but it doesn’t solve anything. As such, this weakens what is an otherwise effective story in its own right. The author veered from the true storyline of the ill-conceived and clandestine government experiment and how it affected two young people, relegating it to secondary importance in order to enlighten us with his political views. Politics aside, it made for a much weaker story aesthetically, especially given the ham-handed intrusion of same, and it is this weakening of the story as story that we (primarily) object to. One can find some aspect of politics in virtually every story if one chooses to, and to this we do not object, per se.
[We’re here reminded of something Joanna Russ wrote in one of her long ago F&SF
review columns and to which we have referred elsewhere, when readers objected to her interjecting politics into her review column. Ms. Russ answered the objection like this:
“I will—when the authors keep politics out of their stories. But they never do; in fact, it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value. Generally, readers don’t notice the presence of familiar value judgments in stories, but do notice (and object to) unfamiliar ones as ‘political.’ Hence arises the insistence (in itself a very vehement, political judgment) that art and politics have nothing to do with one another, that artists ought to be ‘above’ politics, and that a critic making political comments about fiction is importing something foreign into an essentially neutral area. But if ‘politics’ means the relations of power that obtain between groups of people, and the way these are concretely embodied in personal relations, social institutions, and received ideas (among which is the idea that art ought not to be political), then such neutrality simply doesn’t exist. Fiction which isn’t openly polemical or didactic is nonetheless chock-full of politics. If beauty in fiction bears any relation to truth (as Matthew Arnold thought), then the human (including social and political) truth of a piece of fiction matters, for aesthetic reasons.” –Joanna Russ, from “in Defense of Criticism” excerpted from her Books column in the November, 1979 issue of F&SF. Reprinted in The Best From Fantasy & Science Fiction, 23rd Edition, ed. Edward L. Ferman (Ace pb, Nov., 1981)]
Michael Cassutt is a nice guy; I like him. But reviewers don’t review people, they review stories, words on paper. I’ve enjoyed virtually all of Michael Cassutt’s too few forays into short fiction over the years. But unfortunately not this one.
Greg Egan’s “Dark Integers” is one of those difficult to describe stories. It gets complicated. We’ll begin with the main character’s job. He says that he “was entrusted with the smooth operation of a treaty that I, and two friends, had struck with an invisible ghost world that coexisted with our own.” The worlds/universes are joined through mathematics (you’ll have to read it to believe how), and along the way we are given terms and phrases like: “globe-spanning arithmetical telescope,” “deterministic quantum mechanics,” and an organization called “Industrial Algebra (IA)” that is “peddling inconsistency weapons to the Pentagon.” There’s more. We’re given an analogy: “Dark matter, dark energy…dark integers.” And “That there were living beings occupying the same space as the Earth suggested that the two universes were intimately coupled somehow, in spite of their mutual invisibility.”
This other “dark” universe is known as the “far side.” Both universes use mathematical models and computing power to connect and communicate with the other. Tensions exist when one universe’s computing power outstrips that of the other. The answer is found in strange (way beyond cutting edge) mathematical models defining computer code. In other words, whoever has the most computing power rules two co-existing universes, and the computing power depends on the nature of higher physics and math to determine algorithms needed for a stronger code. And complicated mathematical models/algorithms depend on how the nature of Reality is viewed…which is what our side is trying to determine. A couple of our Good Guys have discovered a “defect” in the “dark” universe’s computer code; but do we let them know we have it, or do we just let them think we have something that could destroy them. It’s the old Cold War scenario played out on both the virtual and cosmic scales, and all is linked through mathematics. Or something like that. Read it and tell me. It’s actually quite good once immersed and fully engaged in Egan’s uncanny insights and explanations. It is conceptually brilliant, and written so that the intelligent lay person can appreciate its genius. Easily one of the best stories of the year to date.
“Night Calls” by Robert Reed reverses the psychological conceit in Asimov’s classic “Nightfall,” but in a thoughtful manner and as shown through the eyes of two mathematicians and the young woman who has loved them both. Much like Asimov’s “Nightfall,” the story is one where our particular placement in the cosmos determines how we view the universe through our little corner of it, shaping the very foundations of our cosmologies, myths, and species psychology. A nicely done mirror-version of “Nightfall” and well conceived.
If one looks at the fiction table of contents from both the November, 1992 and Oct./Nov. 2007 issues of Asimov’s, the former a Special Tribute Issue marking Asimov’s death and the latter celebrating the 30th Anniversary Issue of the magazine that bears Asimov’s name, there is only one author represented in both: Robert Reed. A milestone of sorts.
Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” while not his personal favorite, is certainly the most revered and famous of his short work and an acknowledged classic of the genre. (Asimov, writing in 1980, admits he had written better, and that “Nightfall,” in his view, had “serious flaws and crudities as far as writing style is concerned.”) It was his 16th published story, written in March of 1941, when he was but 21 ¼ years old. It saw print in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and was both the first time one of his stories was featured as the lead story in an SF magazine, and the first time one of his stories got the cover. For the young Asimov this “was a milestone” and changed his career forever.
It was voted the best SF story of all time
by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
, for their 1970 anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame
, edited by Robert Silverberg
. To say anything of it here would be to spoil it for those who’ve never had the pleasure of reading it for the first time. Read “Nightfall” to appreciate what Robert Reed has done with the concept in his “Night Calls.”
“At Sixes and Sevens” by Carol Emshwiller tells the sad story of an older husband and wife living next door to a strange little girl and her even stranger father in what seems to be a rural community (there are goats, cows, a barn, etc.). When the father dies, the shy little girl is left to fend for herself. Her rather solitary, odd behavior (she talks to herself) as she tends her small garden leads the wife to believe the little girl, Iris, may be a witch. When Iris breaks her leg, the elderly couple take her to the hospital, and during her convalescence begin to frequent her house (replete with cat) more and more. The story is told from the point of view of the skeptical, suspicious wife, who gradually convinces herself that Iris is indeed a witch, and the cat is out to get her.
Her self-delusional descent (or is it a delusion?) into seeming madness ends with her making up spells, chanting gibberish, and dancing around under the moon in attempts to rid herself of the cat and the girl, who she is now convinced is trying to steal her old man. The denouement reveals the truth. Or does it? Is it the wife’s maniacal obsession, her hopping around in the moonlight, and her invented gibberish the cause of what happens at story’s end? Or is the little girl really a witch, fighting back quietly and with much stealth, turning her own hidden skills on the one out to harm her?
And for something else to ponder in this understated gallimaufry of a tale, kindly consider this: is it a dead-on certainty that Iris is a shy little girl or a witch, or something else?
Clues giving partial credence to any one of these interpretations and uncertainties are introduced through casually described observation—as seen through the wife’s eyes—thus making story tension revolve around the wife’s unreliable narrator role. How much of what the story gives the reader through the wife’s thoughts and eyes is real? What, and how much, are we to believe? For those who might opine that they saw the ending coming, I offer to them that this short story isn’t as much about what happens as it is who causes it to happen. “At Sixes and Sevens” is an elegantly nuanced tale, carefully crafted, and we can with a great degree of certainty guarantee it will find its way into at least one of next year’s fantasy Best Of anthologies.
“Paid in Full” by Susan Forest tells of two um…bug farmers on another world, and the giant gnats which, depending on their kind (Dark/good or White/bad), lay eggs which are nourished by the aphids and then sold, or are the rogue and deadly variety which appear at dark and kill everything they can in their feeding frenzy. One of the farmers has hit hard times and asks a favor of the other, who is forever repaying the former for a long ago debt. But now the debt has been repaid in full, and the first farmer is still extremely ungrateful (his friend has just saved his life). The story is a lesson in learning when to let go of a debt repaid when one learns that one is being taken advantage of. The gnat/aphid symbiosis, and how the eventual product is processed for profit is entertaining, as is the scene of the night terror a swarm of the deadly, blood-sucking White gnats wreaks on the terrified farmers.
“Debatable Lands” by Liz Williams reads like a medieval or dark age fantasy but winds up with sufficient evidence to render it definitely SF. The young warrior and his mother, Whiteshadow, have been taken in years ago by the local high-king. While exploring the surrounding swamp the young warrior, Curlew, comes upon a terrifying beast. Following his report to the high-king, and several attempts by others to capture or kill the monster that have ended in their deaths, the father of one of the slain youths claims the swampland in recompense for his son’s death—which is his right. Yet the land belongs to Whiteshadow and she wishes to keep it.
Why the angry father would claim such a wasteland is a mystery. Why the witch Whiteshadow does not wish to let go the wasteland is a mystery. The nature of the beast is a mystery as well, for the wasteland is where it dwells, ravaging the countryside for human flesh and able to change its spike-laden form at will. Is the high-king’s soothsayer’s vision correct when he relates of times past and dragons in the land? Or is there yet another secret about the beast and the swamp worth dying for, or for retaining as one’s own?
A dark, cold tale of greed and deceit, “Debatable Lands” is a finely wrought little story where the magic of fantasy (matter), and its SFnal counterpart (anti-matter) appear to coexist without (in a literary sense) annihilating one another. The story structure offers a different take on the traditional meaning of the term science-fantasy.
Carl Frederick’s “Leonid Skies” does standard sfnal things very well. It’s the optimistic, upbeat story of bonding between a father and son as they “camp out” inside an enclosed, electronically controlled ersatz amusement park cum planetarium in order to watch the brightest Leonid meteor storm in over 400 years. It bemoans the de-financing of the space program (moon bases are abandoned) and gives us the wonder of star gazing, the honestly felt thrill of adventure, excitement, and exploration to be found in the real world over that of faux emotions evoked through vid games and all things virtual. A tried and true example of the YA SF story to be enjoyed by kids of any age.
“Dark Rooms” by Lisa Goldstein opens in Paris in the year 1896, with Stevens, a young American artist come to France to find his way. He soon meets Georges Melies, becomes his student as Melies’ experiments with the first cinematic techniques, and after a number of years returns to America. Melies has invented a technique using painted glass which he gives to Stevens to help him secure a position with Thomas Edison’s infant movie making enterprise. One thing leads to another over the intervening years. Stevens’ career rises, he moves to Hollywood, the new Mecca of turn of the century filmmaking, and his life is flush.
Melies, on the other hand, has fallen on hard times, becoming almost destitute after losing his wife and son, and being either cheated out of money by rival young movie studios, or his films copied by others. On vacation to Paris in 1916, Stevens find Melies performing magic tricks at a train station, broke and virtually forgotten. What happens at this last meeting turns on magic—something in which Stevens has always been a disbeliever—and catharsis, revelation, and guilt surround the resolution, which is rife with dark imaginings and visions. Was this brought about by Melies’ magic or Stevens’ own guilt? “Dark Rooms” is an entertaining alternate history conjecture of what might have been.
Chris Butler’s “The Turn” at a mere seven pages is frustrating and confusing on its surface and at first reading. It asks a number of questions, either directly or indirectly, and fails to provide answers to (perhaps) all but one of them. One must piece together the world, the people, what they are doing, why they are doing it, what the Wall is, who or what the Chorus is, and what is in the canisters the people of The Raft keep flinging overboard…all by inference, from scattered descriptive bits here and there…and it wasn’t enough for me to understand much of it at all, to get a mental handle on the whole picture.
What little I could make of the front story—and I’m not at all sure this is accurate—is that there is a large generation-type land vehicle (barge?) which chugs along on and endless journey, spewing smoke and oil along the way from its engines. To its port side there is a jungle; to the starboard side there is a vast desert. The “Turn” of the title refers to the point of its journey where it meets a great enigmatic wall, about which only rumor and myth are known. In front of the wall there is what is best described as a tall, silver, needle-like structure. On approaching the wall, the “ship” captain, Quill Archer, must thread the eye of the needle with an arrow attached to a length of stout rope, which is in turn attached to the ship. On doing so, the rope is then miraculously transformed into a chain (we assume by some super-science of the Chorus, the people or gods behind the wall), which is tethered to The Raft as it swings itself around the silver needle/spire, and whipping around it, reverses its course to begin the back-half of its never-ending, pointless journey. The jungle is now to starboard and the desert to port.
During this “turning” event, the Chorus appears as human-like beings floating in the air around The Raft. They remove the sick and elderly, thus thinning the herd. This is all we learn of them.
After finishing this story, we asked ourselves the same questions as does Quill the Archer:
“What was the point of it? To hold back the jungle? Or to bring it forward? Or something else entirely? Everyone on The Raft carried out their duties without hesitation, but no one knew why.”
Unfortunately, neither do we. Unless, of course, this is meant as a symbolic exercise in the existential Futility of it All as shown by the monotonous, meaningless existence of those aboard The Raft, coupled with its attendant anti-Authoritarian implications. Quill the Archer finds his own answer to the final question, however, by leaping overboard and heading for the quickest way into the jungle, perforce trading a known, mindless existence in thrall to enigmatic Rulers (the Chorus) for the uncertainty of the Unknown, where he at least is master of his own destiny. Silver chains are still chains, and he has broken from them. Which one thereby supposes is the point, after all, and maybe the rationale for Butler offering the seemingly unconnected details in the story, or lack of answers to questions posed along the way…that none of it makes any difference in the long run; that the story’s disjointed, apparently random series of incidents revealed the outward manifestation of Quill’s inner turmoil. Which is to say, So why not jump ship and do your own thing? This leads to several fascinating conjectures as to the story’s possible larger message, beyond the specific situation in which Quill and the other inhabitants of The Raft find themselves.
One such might be that while Liberation for one may be a good thing depending on the situation, would it not mean anarchy for Society if all jumped ship? For the people living in The Raft it might be a good thing if they were to follow Quill. For any (contemporary, let’s say) society not in the same circumstances, it would mean total societal collapse; anarchy. An answer to one problem in one specific circumstance does not necessarily work as a governing, all-inclusive philosophy across the board. A necessary, but crucial distinction.
The implications of this speculation render “The Turn” a thematic variation on the Working Class vs. Ruling Class scenario, which will undoubtedly strike a chord with many readers. It’s a good theme as far as it goes, but is too often thrown out as a knee-jerk rallying cry to the less discerning masses as a call-to-arms against every imagined slight modern society has willfully and with malice aforethought perpetrated upon them…and thus encourages the “victim” mentality. As given in “The Turn,” Quill’s actions are to be championed. He tosses aside his empty drudgery, breaks from the unthinking pack, and makes a dash for freedom and his own destiny. Following through on this storyline, but in much different form, we find the identical overarching anti-Authoritarian theme present in Harlan Ellison’s classic “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” from 1965 (the story won a Hugo in 1966), when the Harlequin—one Everett C. Marm—finds his own rebellious modus operandi for bringing down the Establishment, jelly beans and all.
That said, I encourage you to read “The Turn” and see what meaning it holds for you.
As promised, below are tributes to the late Isaac Asimov following his death on April 6, 1992. They first saw print in the double-sized November, 1992 Special Tribute Issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Originally, there were 20 tributes. Alas, we did not contact the estates of the late L. Sprague and Catherine de Camp, or that of Carl Sagan, and were unable to contact the remaining three original contributors (Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Joel Davis, and Stanley Asimov).
Since this is the 30th Anniversary Year of Asimov’s Science Fiction, and editor Sheila Williams has proudly proclaimed it as such on the cover of the magazine for the entire year, and as this Oct./Nov. 2007 double issue is dated 15 years to the month from the original Special Tribute Issue to Isaac, we thought it only fitting to reprint the 1992 tributes for another whole generation of readers—in order that they might appreciate in just what high regard Isaac Asimov was held by his millions of fans around the world, and the deep love his friends, family, and fellow writers had for him. Consummate gentleman that he is, I hope Ben Bova will forgive me for this, but when reading over his tribute to Isaac for inclusion here he wrote to say that tears were once again in his eyes.
For permission to reprint their various tributes we wish to express our gratitude and heartfelt thanks to Frederik Pohl, Poul Anderson (courtesy Karen Anderson), Karen Anderson, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Ben Bova, Martin H. Greenberg, Connie Willis, Jane Yolen, Norman Spinrad, Shawna McCarthy, Stan Schmidt, Sheila Williams, and Janet Asimov. A special thank you to Sheila Williams for her support, and help in contacting authors, and to Sheila Finch and Steven H Silver for their assistance also with contact information. Appreciation and thanks are also extended to James J. Murray for the cover scans.
(Isaac Asimov 1920-1992)
(from the November, 1992 Asimov’s Science Fiction)
Isaac was part of my life for more than half a century. Sometimes we worked together. I was his literary agent for a while, now and then his editor. We did some writing together, too—a couple of short stories long ago, and then Our Angry Earth just last year—but most of my memories of Isaac are not of our professional relationship but of moments we shared. I remember huddling with him over a TV set in a Boston hotel room when the first pictures of Mars were coming in, and the way he looked up at me indignantly and asked, “Craters? How come neither of us ever thought of craters on Mars?” I remember a Caribbean cruise to watch the launch of Apollo 17, when I turned around just after liftoff and saw Isaac illuminated in that giant sunburst Saturn V rocket flare with Robert Heinlein and Ted Sturgeon beside him; I wished I had had the intelligence to take along a camera so I could photograph those faces shining in that wonderful light. And I remember the Futurian days, when all of us wanted so badly to get published. In those poverty-stricken Depression times Isaac was not only a friend, he was a valuable economic asset, because when the thirst struck and the bankroll was flat I could always walk across Prospect Park to where his parents had their candy store and get a free chocolate malted from his mother. Of course there are plenty of more substantial reasons to remember Isaac—all those books, all those wonderful accomplishments—but those are some of the ones that are my own.
Isaac knew he was dying, and calmly and courageously let us know it, too. But, even though I was forewarned, when CBS woke me up this morning with the word that he was gone it still hurt. There has never been anyone else like him and I don’t think there ever will be again.
The world has lost a great writer and teacher. Those who knew him have lost a dear friend as well. Let me here recall Isaac Asimov the man.
I first met him in 1950 at a gathering in New York, along with such other demigods as L. Sprague de Camp and Willy Ley. All were as gracious and welcoming to this newcomer with a mere dozen or so items printed as they were to the most eminent colleague or, for that matter, the humblest fan. Isaac in person was a vast surprise. I had visualized a small, high-domed, reserved academic. Instead there was this guy built like a football tackle, talking ninety to the dozen and exploding firecracker strings of jests. Even the humor in his stories, most often subtle but sometimes downright Wodehousean, had not prepared me. Listening to him, however, I soon heard the wisdom inside the wit.
What contacts we had since were slight until 1959, when my wife and I made a cross-country trip from California. I wrote ahead to ask if we might call on him and his then wife in the Boston area, where they were living. It happened that he and we alike were on close terms with Anthony Boucher. Isaac wrote back to say we should visit by all means, and suggested conveying a kiss between Tony and him. Neither cared to do that directly, but why couldn’t Karen be the intermediary? He had heard her described in impassioned language. Everybody concerned was delighted by the idea, she probably most.
By then he was making his mark, which was to grow big indeed, as a science fact writer. In the course of a warm and lively evening, he told us hilariously how Boston University had tried to drop him from its faculty because he wasn’t publishing enough (!) and how he had thwarted the attempt—not because he needed the job any longer or cared about it especially but because the loss of his title would break the hearts of the two men dearest to him in this world, his father and John Campbell. That editor was so proud of having a professor among his contributors.
We met again at the same year’s world science fiction convention, where as usual he was the life of the party. Among other antics, he flirted outrageously with every attractive woman, though if she gave signs of being interested in going further he’d back off, exclaiming, “I’m all talk, all talk.” The ebullient public persona was not a pretense, which I think he was incapable of; it was integral to him. Yet behind it was always the deeply serious and humane larger part of his being.
Time passed. Geography and his dislike of travel made our encounters infrequent. They were generally at conventions, but whenever we were in New York and could arrange it Karen and I would go around to his apartment. We were cordially received, more than once taken out to lunch or dinner. Of course, we tried not to abuse the hospitality or keep him too long from the work that was his first desire. Occasional letters went back and forth. After acquiring his Treasury of Humor I fell into the habit of sending him from time to time new jokes I heard or read, in case he should compile another such book. It was a way of keeping a bit in touch.
We had our disagreements, notably political. Isaac believed in the power of the intellect and good will. After all, he was abundantly endowed with both, and they served him well. Thus he usually took the positions nowadays called liberal. I suppose one would call me either a conservative libertarian or a libertarian conservative. Human lives and the fates of nations turned on some of the issues. But not even the bitter Vietnam era changed his personal friendliness, and when in this magazine we debated the desirability of a strategic defense initiative it was with mutual respect. If there were very many people like him, his politics would be the only kind that a civilized person could embrace.
Those who knew him better will have much more to remember and tell of, but I count myself fortunate nevertheless. Goodbye, Isaac, and thanks.
As a teenager in the 1940s, I found girls’ fiction pretty boring. I read westerns and adventure and suspense and detective fiction. And science fiction—including Isaac Asimov’s.
There I found Dr. Susan Calvin, expert in the psychology of robots, who could tell the engineers why their latest design wasn’t working as expected. I found Bayta Darell: a new bride, but an honors student in history, and abler-minded than her classmate husband. It was Bayta who was prepared to kill the scholar Ebling Mis to prevent his telling the Mule when he discovered where the Second Foundation had been hidden, and did so with a single shot and no hysterics. Then there was Bayta’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter Arcadia, who could think rings around her father.
I don’t mean to suggest that Isaac Asimov was alone or innovative in writing strong female characters. But much SF in the forties had male characters only. Isaac was one of those (Kuttner, Heinlein, and Doc Smith come to mind as well) who went ahead and wrote about women who did the things the typical young male reader could find interesting. And the 9 percent of Astounding’s readers who were female found them interesting, too.
What day is it, only two days since he died? I’ve lost all track of time. Even knowing for months, it didn’t help. Even talking and crying with Janet and Marty the day before he went, it didn’t help. I find it hurts and hurts, thinking of a world and life without him in it. He was always there whenever I called to ask a stupid question, to tell him a new joke, to see if he and Janet were up for Chinese when I was coming into the City. Like everyone else, I loved him so; and there is no end to the hurting. I wrote a piece for F&SF, and all the papers that called for a remark, and the phone calls from here and overseas. It just doesn’t stop squeezing my heart. So what more is there to say? That great, dear man is gone. He said he’d never live longer than his father, Judah, had lived. 1896-1969. And we all hit him with rubber chickens, telling him he had the curse of a Russian Soul, that because he knew the answers to everything—that he would live forever, and bury all the rest of us. But he did, he knew the answers to everything, even when he’d go, and sure enough he even out-thought us on that one.
So what more is there to say? Here’s a little one, that in and of itself doesn’t mean much, except that it was so absolutely Isaac, it might give you a chuckle.
Back in 1978 Ben Bova and I sued Paramount and ABC-TV and a couple of smoothyguts thugs for copyright infringement, for stealing a TV project called “Brillo,” based on a story Ben and I had done. And part of their defense was the cockeyed assertion that Ben and I couldn’t sue them for picking our pockets because we had taken the idea for “Brillo” from Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel.
So Isaac was subpoenaed to give a deposition by the deep-pockets attorneys for the studio; and I flew to New York to be there when Isaac gave his deposition: the New York Hilton, 10:10 A.M., October 1st, 1979. It rained that day.
He walked into the hotel room where I was waiting with my attorney, Henry W. Holmes, Jr., and the attorney representing the firm of Rosenfeld, Meyer & Susman, Esqs., a guy named Robert H. Rotstein, Esq., and he shook off his umbrella, and he shucked out of his raincoat, and he hugged me long and hard, and Robert H. Rotstein, Esq. went several shades of pale.
For the next six hours—with but a short lunch break—this Rotstein, Esq. questioned Isaac. I have a copy of the transcript taken by the Certified Shorthand Reporter/Notary Public who took the deposition for use at the trial, and in a moment I’ll quote directly from it. But it was an amazing performance.
Clearly, Rotstein, Esq. only had the vaguest idea of the man he was chivvying, only the barest notion of the size of the intellect he was trying to confound. Isaac ran him in ever-decreasing circles, always answering fully and without hesitation, perceiving in advance where some convoluted and prolix query was going, and responding at one point to the query “Do you think Mr. Ellison and Mr. Bova misappropriated The Caves of Steel?” that he and I and Ben had been friends for almost thirty years (at that time), and that I wasn’t the sort of pal who would steal from a pal, and even if I were that kind of rat, I wasn’t stupid enough to steal one of the most famous stories ever published in the genre, and even if Ben and I were that stupid, that he didn’t give a damn, because we were friends and if we’d needed to borrow from The Caves of Steel it was all right with him, and he concluded with this:
“Despite everything I have heard today, and despite the fact that I’m even sensitive to the appearance of that sort of thing, I know absolutely that Harlan took no liberties with The Caves of Steel, and he is still my friend, and if I may say so, I don’t believe he’s the kind of person who would take undue liberties in the first place and if he were tempted to, it wouldn’t be with a friend, and it wouldn’t be with a book such as this.”
Well, that took care of that.
Every time they tried at trial to introduce the concept of “borrowing” from Isaac, either my attorney or the judge would wave Isaac’s deposition under their noses, and they would retreat, mumbling.
But that isn’t the anecdote. Nor is the anecdote that Isaac was the sort of man who would give up a full day of his life to sit in a close, overheated, uncomfortable little hotel room to be deposed (which he hated a lot), just to help a friend. No, the anecdote that might give you a chuckle is this:
Right at the git-go, 10:10 A.M., after the unwary Rotstein, Esq., had asked Isaac to state his name and address, here is the verbatim record of Q&A:
Q: Dr. Asimov, would you state your current occupation?
A: I’m a writer.
Q: How long have you been writing professionally?
A: Forty years. That’s not approximate. That’s exact.
Q: Exact? Don’t you overstate? I recall from your bio data that you published your first story, called “Marooned Off Vesta” sometime in the latter part of 1938.
A: It was sold on October 31, 1938; it was published, that’s the magazine it was in, reached the newsstands on March 19, 1939. It was the March 19, 1939 issue of Amazing Stories. Exact is a precise word, Mr. Rotstein.
Are you chuckling? Yeah, well, terrific. That’s about all we’ve got left, two days later. A few chuckles, a great many memories, all that love with no place left to send it, and the incalculable, profound, lifelong effect he had on millions of people. But it doesn’t quell in even the smallest degree the hurt and the loss that remains.
—Harlan Ellison (“ISAAC” copyright © 1992 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Harlan Ellison is a registered trademark ®.)
There’s an enormous vacant space where he was. For all of my forty years in this field—and for a decade or so before I got here—Isaac was rampaging around the premises, writing wonderful stories, telling outrageous jokes at the top of his lungs, casually imparting vast erudition at unlikely moments, improvising astonishing limericks, flirting in a deliberately self-parodic way with any available member of the opposite sex. You never had to work hard to find him at any convention: a bow wave of laughter preceded him. He was never alone in public; crowds gathered around him like iron filings around a magnet; the Isaac Effect was immediate and unmistakable. And now, bewilderingly, he’s gone.
His fiction was notable more for its ideas than for its characters, the critics like to say. And indeed two of the greatest characters he created—R. Daneel of The Caves of Steel and Andrew Martin of “The Bicentennial Man”—were robots.
But he created a third great character even more vivid and unforgettable than those two, and that was himself. I think he must have been a shy, awkward, insecure boy, with nothing much to commend him except a phenomenally high I.Q. and a clear, strong tenor voice. I suspect that he was as irritating to be around as most young geniuses are, the prototypical nerd. And it was out of such raw materials he fashioned the charming, energetic, wildly amusing, ferociously productive, marvelously entertaining man we knew, the most beloved figure in the history of science fiction.
I had the privilege of knowing him for more than thirty years—a long and rewarding friendship, in which even our occasional [benign] quarrels were interesting events. Now, like the rest of us, I have to get used to the idea of living with his absence. At least I had the opportunity to know him, for which I will always be grateful, for the universe will get only one Isaac Asimov and it was my great good luck to be on hand while he was. He leaves us all with wonderful memories; but the world is a far grimmer and grayer place now that he is no longer here.
This is the hardest writing task I have ever tried to do. For more than thirty-three years Isaac Asimov has been like a big brother to me. His death is like a personal blow, as if a part of me has been torn out of my body.
Isaac died at 2:30 A.M. Monday 6 April in University Hospital in Manhattan. His wife Janet and his daughter Robyn were at his bedside when he went peacefully in his sleep. He had been ill for a long time, so ill that he had been unable to write. And that, quite more than any disease, was what killed him.
For Isaac was his writing. No man has ever had so public a life. The man literally is his books. Almost all of him is on one of those millions of pages, almost every incident, every detail of a rich and mostly happy life. If you want to know Isaac, to hear his voice, to understand his thinking—just start reading. He put himself on paper, almost completely.
The “almost” is significant. What Isaac never put on paper was a harsh word about any living person. He was not a Pollyanna, and there were certainly people who hurt him. But he never used his enormous talent or his powerful position to harm anyone. Never a word. I don’t think it would even have occurred to him to try.
Nor did he put on paper his own endless kindnesses and his tremendous generosity. He bragged about the number of books he had written, yes. He boasted of his sexual prowess even though he was the most faithful of husbands. But he never mentioned how unfailingly helpful he was to his fellow writers. My own career got its real start thanks to Isaac.
We had barely met, back in the mid-50s when we both lived in the Boston area, when Isaac phoned me to say the editor of Amazing Stories was going to offer me the assignment of writing a series of articles speculating on the possibilities of life on other worlds.
“She wanted me to do it,” Isaac explained cheerfully, “but I’m too busy so I told her you knew more about the subject than I do.”
Before I could say anything more than, “But—but—“ Isaac went on. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell you everything I know, and you must know something that I don’t, so you’ll know more about the subject than I do!”
He was as good as his word, and that series of articles established me as a recognized name in the science-fiction world.
For years—no, decades—any writer in the field could phone Isaac with questions about science. He was an invaluable human encyclopedia for us all.
And the only person he ever criticized in print was himself. When he started to write the first volume of his autobiography, he seemed worried that it was getting so long. “I’ve written six hundred pages and I’m only nine years old and nothing has happened yet,” he said.
Then he told me that he was going to be absolutely honest and put down every dumb thing he had ever done in his life. “No wonder it’s getting so long,” I blurted. He put that into the second volume.
I have a thousand happy memories of Isaac. Only the past year and a half have been sad. “I’m seventy-one and a half years old,” he told me from his hospital room last year, “and I don’t like it.”
Isaac is a true Horatio Alger story, a tale of the American dream come vividly to life. Born in Russia, brought to Brooklyn when he was three, working in his parents’ candy store as a youth, he was attracted to the fanciful covers of the early science fiction magazines. Anyone who disdains the “lurid” covers of those “pulp” magazines should hang their head in shame: those magazines gave us Isaac.
No matter how successful and famous he became, in his own mind Isaac always saw himself as that poor kid working hard to get ahead.
Work hard he did. And cheerfully. Isaac was one of those very rare writers who really enjoyed the physical act of writing. Most of my friends are writers. Hardly any of them thinks of their actual work at the keyboard as fun. It’s tough, draining, exhausting labor. Not for Isaac! To him, a perfect day was to get up bright and early, go to his office, and write until suppertime. Maybe a break for lunch.
That’s how he produced all those books. And articles. And short stories. And limericks. He worked. He enjoyed his work. He would not willingly get into an airplane, and he went to sea on cruise liners with some trepidation (Janet loves to sail), but he could roam the universe in his mind. We are all the richer for it.
A word about his writing. Some have said Isaac was no stylist. Some have said his kind of science fiction went out with the dinosaurs. Some have said that his non-fiction writings about science were “mere popularizations.”
Isaac always said that he was a genius. He was certain of that and he saw nothing wrong with telling the world that it was so. In assessing his work, I would have to agree with Isaac rather than his detractors. He was a genius. His genius lay in the uncanny ability to take any subject, no matter how abstruse, and explain it so that anyone who could read could understand the basics of that subject. That takes real genius. If that is “mere popularization,” then what the world needs is more popularizers. I have tried writing about science, with some modicum of success. But I stand in awe of Isaac’s ability to make readable sense out of anything, in a style that sounds just as if he’s having a conversation with you.
Isaac almost single-handedly created the field of science “popularization.” Before he turned his hand to writing books about science for the general reader, science popularizations were rarely published. Once in a while a prominent scientist might turn out a book on his own specialty, but these were few and far-between.
Isaac created an industry in books about science for the average reader. Today’s Carl Sagans, Lewis Thomases, Steven Jay Goulds and Dennis Overbyes owe their publishing opportunities to Asimov. Nationally popular magazines such as Omni and Discover would never have been started if Asimov had not proved that publishers can make money from science writing.
His fiction is a monument to this field. His early works are classics. His later novel, The Gods Themselves, which won a Nebula and a Hugo, he wrote mostly as a challenge to himself to see if he could re-enter the fiction field after having written only nonfiction for more years than most of his critics had to their lives.
Although he modestly gave the credit to editor John Campbell, Isaac invented the Three Laws of Robotics. His robot stories inspired a whole generation of young technophiles to try to build the machines that they read about in Isaac’s stories. In that sense, Isaac did not predict the future so much as create it.
He has been called “a natural resource and a national treasure.” He was that, and more. Despite his façade of braggadocio he was basically a modest man. A hard worker. A giant in American literature. A good and faithful friend.
There is an oft-told story about the first time Harlan Ellison met Isaac. Harlan says that after reading so many Asimov stories in his youth, he expected their author to be a mighty-thewed superhero with a positronic brain.
He was, sort of. All that and more. There will never be another like him.
But before I break down and cry, let me recall one of thousands of happy moments. Isaac once told me that when he started reading the science-fiction magazines off the rack of his father’s store, the old man was very suspicious about their contents. Isaac explained that he was reading science fiction; it was about science, which his European-educated father could appreciate.
“Science fiction?” his father asked. “Like Jules Verne.”
“Who?” asked young Isaac.
“Jules Verne,” pronouncing it with a decided French accent. “Surely you’ve heard of him. He wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and From the Earth to the Moon—“
“Oh!” exclaimed Brooklyn-educated Isaac. “You mean Jooles Voine!”
That’s the Isaac I want to remember. Happy. Loving. My friend. My brother.
Isaac would want me to start with a joke, so here goes:
I once tried to do a bibliography of all of Isaac’s published work.
Pretty funny, huh?
I even got my university to give me a year’s sabbatical to work on it—that’s another joke, although I was earnest enough at the time. It was impossible, because Isaac produced too much, with articles under so many variant titles, with so many combinations of omnibus volumes, with so many abridged editions, that I don’t think anyone will ever be able to produce a complete listing. The foreign editions of his books alone run well into the thousands.
Many of you know how wonderful Isaac was to me, how much we cared about each other, and how important he was in my life. Let me relate a few anecdotes that will tell you something about Isaac and what was important to him:
Isaac had millions of fans, and he received what must have seemed like millions of fan letters. Before failing health overtook him he answered every letter, briefly of course, usually but not always with a postcard, but he tried not to answer the same person twice—and his legendary memory enabled him to remember almost every exchange. His letters and papers are up at the library at Boston University, but he kept three fan letters (and only three) at home that tell you much about the incredible diversity of his readers and admirers—one from Dwight David Eisenhower, one from Orson Welles, and the one that I think meant the most to him, from Tommy Smothers.
One time I arrived at his apartment to find him in his underwear, sitting cross-legged on the floor, happy as a lark. He was indexing one of his giant science books, sitting there placing 3 x 5 index cards in neat little piles around him.
He owned and used a computer by then, but when I suggested there existed some excellent dedicated index software that would cut the time involved to a fraction of doing it by hand, he looked at me with a horrified expression and said, “but that wouldn’t be any fun!” And as Janet, who he loved dearly, can tell you—it really was fun for him. Of the many hundreds of writers in various genres I have come to know and work with, Isaac was unique—for him, writing was as natural as breathing—no pain, no angst, no blocks—just pure joy. The words flowed from him effortlessly; he had enormous stamina. He was also as natural a speaker as he was a writer, a rare combination in itself. He loved to do both.
For more than a decade we talked every night of the year with few exceptions; we talked about everything—current events, politics, science, simply everything—how Sally, Roz, and Janet put up with it I’ll never know. He was like a second father to me, and the best and most loyal friend a man could ever have.
And I still jump every time the phone rings.
—Martin H. Greenberg
I was at the American Chemical Society meeting in San Francisco when I heard about Isaac’s death. The next day one of the presented papers was on his chemistry-related science fiction stories. “I didn’t plan on this paper being a memorial,” the speaker said. “As you all know, Isaac Asimov died yesterday.” They didn’t all know, and behind me a chemist said, “Oh, no!” as if he had just been told about the death of a dear friend.
It reminded me of something that had happened at choir practice a few weeks before. Isaac’s illness had been announced in F&SF, and after practice a soprano came up to me. “How is Isaac doing?” she asked, as if he were a mutual friend. Which I think he was. Isaac wasn’t just another famous person, a “celebrity” whose name was familiar because he was in the news. People felt like they knew him—through his editorials, through his science columns, through his stories and books.
Maybe it was because he put so much of himself into those stories and columns and editorials. He frequently said his writing was his life, and everyone who read “the Good Doctor”’s comments in Asimov’s felt like they were in the same room with him, listening to him talk. He was interested in everything, especially science, which he could explain better than anybody. (My husband uses battered copies of The Universe and Understanding Physics to explain complicated concepts to his physics students because “Asimov can make anything seem simple.”)
Nothing shows his love of science better than his science fiction. Not just his robot stories—and the Foundation series, but less known stories like “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline,” which had a packed roomful of ACS members rolling in the aisles (they even laughed at the graphs), and his classic scientific explanation of how the goose laid those golden eggs, “Pate de Foie Gras.” He’s in those stories—his clear-headed logic, his mischievous wit, his energy, and, above all, his boundless love of science. It’s no wonder everyone feels like they knew him.
He will be sorely missed. By my husband and the hundreds of other science teachers who relied on his science books and articles to explain difficult subjects with dazzling clarity. By everyone who got to know “the Good Doctor” through his answers to their letters to Asimov’s. By my librarian and all the hundreds of other librarians who use his eloquent defenses of books and freedom of speech to fight censorship. By everyone who loves robots and mysteries and science. By chemists and choir members and all the other people who thought of him as a friend. By me.
He will be missed and missed and missed.
ISAAC ASIMOV: AN AFFECTIONATE MEMORY
Writing in Time Magazine, book critic Stefan Kanfer said of Isaac “The vertical pronoun frequently occurs in the author’s conversation, but there is as much self-concealment as self-promotion in his talk.”
Actually, I think there was a genuine enjoyment of his fame; a kind of genial bemusement.
Three years ago I discovered a message on my answering machine: “This is for Jane. Please call Isaac Asimov. A-S-I-M-O-V.” It was so charmingly revealing, so astonishing, I left it on for a month and played it over and over for friends and family.
I was the SFWA president during whose term Isaac received his Grand Master Award. At that time everyone who had been awarded a Grand Master was still alive and there was a kind of ongoing joke that receiving one conferred immortality. Oh Isaac—I wish that were so. But the law of averages—which you could explain better than anyone—still works. At least one of your books is sure to remain in print forever.
How to bid a true and dignified good-bye to Isaac Asimov? How indeed? He was a genius, and he knew it. He had an ego the size of Jupiter, and justifiably so, and he had the grace to know that too, and take the piss out of himself when he felt he needed it. He was the grandest of intellects, surely one of the great minds of the twentieth century, and yet, behind a smokescreen of Great Man wisecracks, the humblest of men with friends and readers.
I remember a party at my apartment in New York where a guest approached Isaac. “You are the great Dr. Asimov?” she said, setting him up and continuing to sing his fulsome praises as his grin spread toward his ears.
“Indeed I am,” Isaac said when she had finished.
“Well, your socks are falling down.”
Isaac looked down. They were. He laughed and laughed and laughed.
This was the author of hundreds of learned tomes, who nevertheless could write The Sensuous Dirty Old Man by Dr. A and appear anonymously on the back cover with a bra for a mask. This was the author of a thousand limericks, and a thousand and one unprintable ones.
This was also the man whose three laws of robotics have probably set the framework for human-cybernetic moral calculus forever. The author of the Foundation books, and The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Gods Themselves, and a handful of absolutely perfect short stories like “Nightfall” and “The Ugly Little Boy.” This is the man who can fairly be called the greatest, most prolific, most puissant popularizer of science who ever lived.
He loved writing with a boyish innocence. He never had an agent. He almost never turned an assignment down. When I asked him why a great writer like himself had agreed to write a novelization of a schlocky movie like Fantastic Voyage, he shrugged, and said simply: “They asked me.” Then he frowned, and got about as angry as I’d ever seen him get, which wasn’t much. “They also promised I’d get to meet Raquel Welch,” he said sadly. “But they lied.”
Her loss, old friend, an honor that Ms. Welch, alas, will now never get to have, a pleasure she will be forever denied, though of course you never really did see the world that way, despite many stories on yourself to the contrary.
So farewell to dear Dr. A
The purest of spirits I say
The Prince of the Pen
And the sweetest of men
Ever to have enlightened our way.
Science fiction, they say, is supposed to create a “sense of wonder,” but it accomplishes this all too rarely. There was, however, a science fiction writer who accomplished it on a daily basis. No one who knew Isaac Asimov, or even knew of him, could fail to be amazed by his prodigious abilities in every field to which he turned his hand.
I first met Isaac in 1978, when, as a mild-mannered editorial assistant, I was introduced to him on my second or third day on the job. As is the case with most of the reading world, he’d been one of my heroes practically since I’d been old enough to read. As I read more and more SF, he became almost a mythical figure, his name turning up in book after book, magazine after magazine. His Laws of Robotics appeared in stories and TV plots and books that weren’t even his. I’d read of things called “cons” at which one could actually meet this Dr. Asimov, but that seemed beyond the realm of possibility to me. And suddenly, here he was. In the flesh, so to speak.
It’s a sad fact of life that when you meet one of your long-time heroes you are often disappointed. He or she may well turn out to be unpleasant, unclean, or unfriendly. This demi-god, this paragon of virtue, turns out to be only human after all. In fact, the only exception that I have ever encountered to this universal rule was Isaac Asimov. Not only was he exactly as I’d pictured him, he was more so. God, he was full of life. Life and songs and jokes and limericks and god-awful puns. He was not only the demi-god I’d envisioned, he was practically a candidate for full-fledged deification.
I was not the only one to think so, either. As editor of the magazine, I read all the reader mail before it was forwarded to Isaac, and one day I came upon a letter so remarkable it has stuck with me to this day. A woman proclaimed proudly that she had at last unmasked the true identity of Isaac Asimov. His name was only a not-too-clever alias, she wrote, meant to explain his true nature to those wise enough to see through it. Of course no mere human could write all those books or know all the things in all the fields that Isaac did, and his name, the woman said, proved it. Isaac Asimov—clear enough:
“I sack as I move.” Not very well disguised, are you, “Doctor”? she wrote.
Isaac and I shared a good laugh over the letter. Not a likely candidate for sainthood, was Isaac, much less godhood, at least according to the rather narrow standards applied by most of the world’s organized religions. But if these labels were to be applied fairly, to those who enriched the world and the people they touched, who left the universe a better, finer, saner, smarter place than they found it, then Isaac Asimov’s name should be at the top of the scroll.
I miss him more than I can say.
Isaac Asimov is perhaps best known, these days, for the sheer volume of his output. Those who are actually familiar with his writing remember also the immense scope of such works as the Foundation series, and the even larger future history to which that belonged. Those are part of what I remember, too, of course, as are the impact of such stories as “nightfall” and “The Dead Past” when I first read them. But I also remember with special fondness a little gem of a story, barely two pages long, called “The Immortal Bard.”
The plot is simple: a physicist builds a time machine, brings Shakespeare back to the twentieth century, and enrolls him in a colleague’s Shakespeare course—which he flunks. “What cannot be wracked from words in five centuries?” poor Will laments. “One could wring, methinks, a flood from a damp clout!”
I could hear Isaac in those words. He didn’t think much of critics who made careers out of digging “hidden meanings” out of other people’s creativity, or of writers who bury their meanings in obscure verbiage. Isaac wrote with a straightforward lucidity that left little doubt about what he was trying to say. It has become fashionable in some circles to disparage this quality as “lack of style,” but I decided quite early that it was something rare, refreshing, and richly deserving of emulation. I still think so.
Isaac was one of my favorite people decades before I met him, for the myriad hours of entertainment and mental stimulation he gave me, and for the kind of mind I could tell had produced them. Later I had the privilege of knowing him as a friend, and my admiration only increased. Among my most pleasant memories are the science fiction weekends Joyce and I spent with Isaac and Janet at Mohonk Mountain House in New York. His writings enriched my life immensely, but what I’ll miss most is Isaac himself.
When I was sixteen, my dad took me to my first science fiction convention. Beforehand, he wrote to Isaac Asimov telling him how much we wanted to meet someone who, quoting from Isaac’s own description of himself in his introduction to The Hugo Winners, was “sane and rational, fearless and intrepid, witty and forceful, and, above all, devilishly handsome,” someone, he added, who reminded him of himself. Isaac wrote back that though he would probably be mobbed by his fans, he was sure that if I were as charming and sweet as most sixteen-year-olds, he’d be able to find a few minutes to talk to us.
I was completely in awe of Isaac. I was also awkward and shy. I did not think myself particularly charming, and I was absolutely mortified when midway through the banquet, my father decided it was time to go over and introduce ourselves to Isaac. With his prodigious memory, Isaac immediately recalled their correspondence and delightedly insisted we join his table. This table was directly in front of the headtable, and for the next hour, Isaac heckled the toastmaster and traded good-natured barbs with the speaker. When his masculinity was jokingly attacked, Isaac seized my hand and waved it wildly in the air for all to see. By rights, I should have died of embarrassment, but I was having too much fun to remember to do so.
At the time, I thought that this experience, sitting with the quintessential public Isaac Asimov, would be one of the highlights of my life. Yet, though the incident remains a fond memory, what I truly treasure was that I became the colleague and friend of the private man at the magazine that bears his name.
For the past ten years, I’ve spent a part of nearly every Tuesday morning with Isaac. His visits to the office were both joyous and serious. Isaac told me jokes and limericks, and sang snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan (often inventing his own lyrics). He tried out material that was going into his editorials and speeches, and we talked about almost everything—from politics, religion, science, and history to people inside and out of the science fiction field, letters from the readers, and of course, the magazine.
Isaac loved the magazine. He didn’t have to stop by every week. We could have handled everything over the phone and through the mail, but I know he enjoyed coming in to see us. He saw the magazine as a continuing forum for the short story writer. Science fiction magazines had given his stories their first home, and he wanted to be sure that that tradition continued for other writers. He stood behind us one hundred percent, and every one of our successes gladdened him.
He did miss a few Tuesdays. Sometimes due to illness, and sometimes because Janet had actually convinced him to take a break and spend a couple of days out of town. While we missed him on the days he was away, I knew that a two- or three-day trip to Mohonk or Washington, D.C. meant he would bounce back in the following week with a story about George and Azazel or a mystery for Ellery Queen.
Tuesdays are a lot quieter and emptier around the office now. They have been ever since he first fell seriously ill. I miss his visits, I miss being called “Sweet Sheila” in his editorials, and I miss the sane and rational, fearless and intrepid, witty and forceful and irreplaceable man. I’m happy, though, to have lived in a world in which Isaac Asimov was my own dear sweet friend.
The day before Isaac died, Robyn, Stan, Ruth, and I were all in his hospital room. He couldn’t really talk, but he smiled at us when conscious. At one point I said to him, “Isaac, you’re the best there is.” He smiled faintly, shrugged and nodded. We all laughed and he seemed to relax.
He was indeed the best. He once had a dream in which someone said that Isaac Asimov made his money out of beaten swords. Still in the dream, and in real life after he woke up, Isaac ran to tell me how happy he was to know that he earned a living from the instruments of peace—that thou shalt beat thy swords into plowshares—but in Isaac’s case, into pens, for the pen is mightier than the sword.
Isaac filled his life with creative work, with love, and with ebullient good humor. He loved to laugh and make others laugh. He was a joyous man. Please remember him that way.
Entire contents copyright © 2007 Tangent Online. No part of the contents of the special Isaac Asimov “In Memoriams,” may be quoted in whole or in part without the express consent of the individual contributors. All Rights Reserved.