Isaac Asimov at 92

Today would have been Isaac Asimov’s 92nd birthday. Come April, he’ll have been dead for 20 years. It is hard to believe. It is still one of my biggest regrets that I never got to meet him. I really started to broaden my science fiction reading right around the time he passed away. At the time, I may have only read one or two things by Asimov, but of course I knew who he was. In the spring of 1994, his retrospective memoir, I. Asimov was released and I learned a whole lot more about him–and regretted at once never reading his stuff sooner. In the 20 years since, I’ve read that book, and his two other autobiography volumes nearly 20 times. And I’ve read just about everything else he’s ever written. My Asimov collection is my favorite part of my personal library.

At times like this, I often imagine an alternate history in which Asimov did not die at 72, but continued to live on for another twenty-five years or so, much like his friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. What would Isaac have thought about the Internet? Would he, like Pohl, have started a blog? What would he think of the publishing world today, with e-books and the battle for profits? It is impossible to say for certain, but he wrote enough during his life to make some educated guesses.

I’ve often thought of Asimov as a proto-blogger. He didn’t do his writing online, but he wrote thousands of essays, many of them in an informal, colloquial manner for which he became famous. The style is very much what many bloggers today (myself included) have adopted. Of course, there was no ability to post comments to those essays, but he received tens of thousands of letters in response to his work and views over the years, and he did his best to answer all of them. By his brother’s accounting, Asimov may have replied to as many as 100,000 letters over the course of his life. How many bloggers have posted as many comments? Asimov enjoyed interacting with fans and I think a blog would have made it easier for him to do this. On the other hand, he was a workaholic and loved to write more than just about anything. So while blogging might be an easy means to interact with fans and others, if it took him away from what he loved, I suspect he’d look upon it with suspicion.

As for publishers and publishing today, that’s a more difficult question to answer. Asimov was fiercely loyal to Doubleday, although he published books through many publishers. He was unique in that he worked with his publishers directly, rarely using an agent or assistant. He was able to do this because (a) he worked with them for so long, and (b) his workload built up steadily that he could manage the increase over time. I suspect he would have praised the idea of e-books, a vision that science fiction has had for decades. But I also suspect that he would still find a romance in reading a paper book, something that would be hard to shake for someone who has read that way for decades.

Twenty years later, Isaac Asimov’s legacy is still strong. As of this writing, the paperback edition of Foundation is ranked 12,067 in all Amazon paid books. The Kindle edition of the book is ranked 1,799 in all Amazon paid books. The Kindle edition is also ranked #1 in Science Fiction -> Series on the Kindle store. Many of the Kindle editions of his books are ranked in the top 100 on the Kindle store, even twenty years after his death. When I go into bookstores, his most popular fiction still finds a prominent place on the SF shelves. What is remarkable about this is that the original stories that made up Foundation were first published in Astounding some seventy years ago. To be ranked so highly so many years later is telling.

But Asimov wrote a lot more than just science fiction. He wrote 399 monthly science columns for F&SF. He wrote thousands of other essays, to say nothing of hundreds of books on science, humanities and history. There has not been as prolific a popularizer as Asimov since his death in 1992.

Sometimes, I daydream that Asimov is still alive and that I open up the March 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction to read his monthly editorial. I scan the contents page and along with a novella by Nancy Kress and a short story by Kij Johnson and Robert Reed, there’s a novelette by Isaac Asimov. What would he have written about, here at the beginning of 2012? Would it be another Foundation story? More likely a robot story but what kind of robot story? Or would it be something completely different? It’s a fun little game to play, but I always come out of the reverie a little saddened that it will never come to pass.

Happy Birthday, Isaac! It’s good to know you are far from forgotten here in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

17 thoughts on “Isaac Asimov at 92

  1. Today would have been Isaac Asimov’s 92nd birthday.

    Technically. I remember an old essay about the calendar Asimov did when he talked about how since he was born in pre-Georgian calendar Russia, the date in Western terms was unclear.

    He celebrated today as his birthday though, for what its worth.

  2. In his autobiography, he wrote that his birthdate could have been as early as October 1919, but his parents used January 2, 1920 and that’s how it stood. This later had an important impact on his draft status during WW-II. If he had used the October 1919 date, he would have been too old to have been drafted in 1946. But because he chose to keep that January 2, 1920 date, into the Army he went.

  3. Yeah. So its really an artifact of his decision than correlating it to where the Earth was in its orbit when he was born. 🙂

    It’s Tobias Buckell’s birthday today, and I am sure he is pleased to share a birthday with Asimov, even if its a birthday Asimov “decided on”.

  4. I think if Isaac were alive today, he would be appalled at the anti-science attitudes espoused by the right wing politicians. He would be striving to explain concepts like global warming to the general public.

  5. As someone who was a close friend of Isaac’s, I was so happy to read your tribute to him today. He and I performed together in the Gilbert & Sullivan parodies I wrote and he dedicated his book, “The Winds of Change” to me as a result. He always had faith in me as a young writer and my proudest day was when I got to tell him that my children’s book, “Is Your Mama a Llama?” Was going to be published. My book has now been in print for 22 years and not a day goes by that I don’t think of and miss him. His briliance as an author was obvious, but he was also an amazingly witty and amusing public speaker, actor and singer with a lovely tenor voice, all talents that have inspired me in my own subsequent career as a writer, professional speaker and actor. My son, Joshua Isaac, born in 1985, was Isaac’s godson; as a special favor to me Isaac stood up for him at the christening even though he was a practicing atheist! What saddens me, though, is that the general public seems to be forgetting Isaac’s legacy…the Biography Channel has yet to profile him, although they’ve featured many lesser celebrities from pop culture, and I often get a blank stare from adults and young people who don’t recognize his name unless I bring

  6. up a reference to the most recent films based on his writing…ironic, since we al know how little resemblance Will Smith’s vehicle bore to the original “I, Robot” anthology. I’m really hoping with the loyalty and enthusiam of fans like you Isaac’s legacy will continue to grow and earn the popular recognition it deserves. I’m so proud to have been his friend and so glad to know I’m not the only one celebrating his birth today…have a piece of chocolate cake in his honor–it was his favorite!

  7. Deborah, wow, thanks for sharing that. I just looked up my copy of The Winds of Change, and there you are, along with your “G&S Parodies.” 🙂 I, of course, am extremely envious. He wrote somewhere that he felt that the only reason people remembered John Campbell was because he–Asimov–wouldn’t let anyone forget. I sometimes feel the same about Asimov. His books, fiction and nonfiction, are such a big part of my life, and indeed a large reason why I became a science fiction writer. I do what I can to pay it forward. In the late 1990s, I briefly corresponded with Janet, letting her know how much Isaac (and her own) books meant to me, and she was kind enough to reply with encouragement (this was before I’d sold my first story). I’ve been able to let all those authors who had an influence on me know that I succeeded–in some small way–at being a science fiction writer–except for Isaac. I had to tell Janet instead and it saddens me that I can never tell him in person. But I live through other people’s stories–like your own–and I’ve heard many. They always make me smile.

  8. Jamie and Michael, thank you both so much for your response to my comments. I forgot to mention that I was known as “Dagmar” to Isaac and my G&S friends back then, but now go by my legal given name, Deborah. That’s why Isaac’s dedication is to “Dagmar” and not “Deborah.” I wish I could remember meeting you and your brother at G&S, Miichael, but I don’t recall it. Did you attend the banquets where my parodies, starring Isaac, were performed? I have some wonderful photos of Isaac playing various characters, including the Belgian detective “Percule Horrot” in my satirical Agatha Christie-type murder mystery, presented at the Clam Broth House in Hoboken almost 30 years ago! As always, he was a pip! Happy Birthday, Isaac!

  9. I remember you as Dagmar but assumed you were using your given name now. I don’t recall attending any of the parodies (as high school students, Andrew and I couldn’t get to everything), but I think you were there the night I did a dramatic recitation of a Bab Ballad with friends performing the roles, and when I lost my place Isaac called out exactly where I was, to much laughter from the audience.

    FYI, you might be interested in this 1997 article I wrote, “Asimov and Me”:

    http://jophan.org/mimosa/m21/burstein.htm

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