Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘In Joy Still Felt

The Heirs of Sputnik

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Earlier this morning, it was announced that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, in recognition of “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.” The award also happens to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, which occurred earlier this week. I haven’t seen any attempt yet to draw a connection between these two events, but there was a time in which they would have been seen as inextricably entwined. These days, we tend to think of Sputnik, in the words of The Onion, as a “bleeping two-foot tin ball,” but it was regarded by its contemporaries, and not without reason, as a sinister development. On October 9, 1957, Robert A. Heinlein wrote to his friend Buddy Scoles:

I am very shook up…On the basis of payload and performance…it appeared that [the Russians] had solved the problem of precision positioning and that it must be assumed that we were sitting ducks…Everybody from the president on down was caught flat-footed by a degree of Russian engineering achievement we had not suspected they were capable of.

Heinlein had been called earlier that day by a local paper looking for a comment. He didn’t pull any punches: “I told the press that if the Russians could put that payload in that orbit then it seemed extremely likely that they could hit us anywhere they wanted to with warheads—and any time, depending on whether they had the hardware on the shelf or had to stop to build it.”

Almost exactly six months later, on April 5, 1958, Heinlein was shaken awake by his wife Ginny, who showed him a newspaper advertisement calling for a unilateral halt to nuclear testing. (It was placed by the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which was founded by the editors Lenore Marshall and Norman Cousins and counted Martin Luther King, Jr. among its supporters.) Heinlein, who didn’t trust the Soviet Union to participate in any treaty in good faith, wrote his own ad in response, titling it “Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?” He strongly hinted that the ban’s proponents, including Eleanor Roosevelt and the psychiatrist Erich Fromm, were serving as instruments, knowingly or otherwise, of communist propaganda:

The Communists are again using our own people to try to shame or scare us into throwing our weapons away…Those who have signed this manifesto have made their choice; consciously or unconsciously they prefer enslavement to death. Such is their right and we do not argue with them—we speak to you who are still free in your souls.

Ginny warned him: “You do realize, if we run this ad, we’re going to lose half our friends in town?” Heinlein went ahead and sent copies to everyone he knew, but the response was lukewarm. John W. Campbell was skeptical of the effort, expressing his reasoning in characteristic terms: “Your newspaper ads aren’t going to do much good, Bob, because the Common Man is in control…and he’s quite incapable of understanding the complexities of the systems he’s controlling.” One of the few positive responses came from Edward Teller, who wrote of their gesture of support: “Yours is the first one. Yours is the only one.”

Isaac Asimov, who later called Teller “my idea of a scientific villain,” was in favor of the ban. A few years earlier, in 1955, he had written an article titled “The Radioactivity of the Human Body” for the Journal of Chemical Education, which described—for the first time in print—the risks of exposure to the radioactive isotope carbon-14. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he recalled its surprising afterlife:

Nearly four years later, Linus Pauling published a paper in the November 14, 1958 Science that discussed the dangers of carbon-14 in a careful and systematic way. I’m sure Pauling’s article played its part in the eventual agreement on the part of the three chief nuclear powers to suspend atmospheric testing, for Pauling was one of the most prominent and influential critics of such tests, and he used the production of carbon-14 in such tests as one of its chief long-term dangers.

Asimov didn’t want to get into a dispute with Pauling over priority, but he sent him a reprint of the original article with a note attached. Pauling thanked him and replied: “I now remember that I had read the paper when it appeared…but I had forgotten about it, except that without doubt the principal argument remained in my mind.” Asimov concluded in his autobiography: “I don’t want to arrogate to myself too much importance, of course, but I think it is fair to say that I may indeed have influenced Professor Pauling, and that through him I therefore played a very small part in bringing about the nuclear test ban—and I’m delighted.” And as far as I can tell, he never discussed the issue with Heinlein.

The Patrick Henry campaign managed to put only five hundred signatures on President Eisenhower’s desk, at a cost of two dollars for every name, and its most lasting legacy was to harden Heinlein’s feelings toward what he perceived as leftist resistance to national security. (Of the hundreds of writers and editors to whom he sent letters, most never responded, and only a few, including Jack Williamson, expressed their support. And the most obvious result was the novel Starship Troopers, which Heinlein seems to have written in part as a deliberate provocation to his critics.) In retrospect, it’s easy to say that Heinlein was on the wrong side of history, but it was far from obvious at the time. At the start of the campaign, Heinlein wrote to Blassingame:

I don’t really expect World War III. I think we are going to go under through capitulations, the way Czechoslovakia did. I think we will suspend nuclear weapons testing, in response to “World Opinion,” after this present series this summer—and I don’t think we will ever set off another nuclear explosion. Then, after some years of apparent peace and good will, when we have effectively disarmed, something will happen…which will really annoy us. When we object, we will be handed an ultimatum—and it will turn out that we no longer have the potential to win. And we will surrender.

Sixty years later, we’re in much the same position, down to the sarcastic quotes around “World Opinion,” even if the names of some of the players have changed. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was honored for its part in supporting a treaty to ban such weapons that was adopted earlier this year by the United Nations. Not surprisingly, the United States and the world’s other nuclear powers all boycotted the negotiations, with ambassador Nikki Haley saying: “We have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?” Sputnik, let’s not forget, means “traveling companion.” And even after six decades, that bleeping tin ball—and the rockets that launched it—accompanies us wherever we go.

Asimov’s close encounter

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By the early seventies, Isaac Asimov had achieved the cultural status, which he still retains, of being the first—and perhaps the only—science fiction writer whom most ordinary readers would be able to name. As a result, he ended up on the receiving end of a lot of phone calls from famous newcomers to the field. In 1973, for example, he was contacted by a representative for Woody Allen, who asked if he’d be willing to look over the screenplay of the movie Sleeper. Asimov gladly agreed, and when he met with Allen over lunch, he told him that the script was perfect as it was. Allen didn’t seem to believe him: “How much science fiction have you written?” Asimov responded: “Not much. Very little, actually. Perhaps thirty books of it altogether. The other hundred books aren’t science fiction.” Allen was duly impressed, turning to ask his friends: “Did you hear him throw that line away?” Asimov turned down the chance to serve as a technical director, recommending Ben Bova instead, and the movie did just fine without him, although he later expressed irritation that Allen had never sent him a letter of thanks. Another project with Paul McCartney, whom Asimov met the following year, didn’t go anywhere, either:

McCartney wanted to do a fantasy, and he wanted me to write a story out of the fantasy out of which a screenplay would be prepared. He had the basic idea for the fantasy, which involved two sets of musical groups: a real one, and a group of extraterrestrial imposters…He had only a snatch of dialogue describing the moment when a real group realized they were being victimized by imposters.

Asimov wrote up what he thought was an excellent treatment, but McCartney rejected it: “He went back to his one scrap of dialogue, out of which he apparently couldn’t move, and wanted me to work with that.”

Of all of Asimov’s brushes with Hollywood, however, the most intriguing involved a director to whom he later referred as “Steve Spielberg.” In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Asimov writes:

On July 18, 1975, I visited Steve Spielberg, a movie director, at his room in the Sherry-Netherland. He had done Jaws, a phenomenally successful picture, and now he planned to do another, involving flying saucers. He wanted me to work with him on it, but I didn’t really want to. The visual media are not my bag, really.

In a footnote, Asimov adds: “He went on to do it without me and it became the phenomenally successful Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I have no regrets.” For an autobiography that devotes enormous amounts of wordage to even the most trivial incidents, it’s a remarkably terse and unrevealing anecdote, and it’s hard not to wonder if something else might have been involved—because when Asimov finally saw Close Encounters, which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this week with a new theatrical release, he hated it. A year after it came out, he wrote in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine:

Science Digest asked me to see the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind and write an article for them on the science it contained. I saw the picture and was appalled. I remained appalled even after a doctor’s examination had assured me that no internal organs had been shaken loose by its ridiculous sound waves. (If you can’t be good, be loud, some say, and Close Encounters was very loud.) To begin with there was no accurate science in it; not a trace; and I said so in the article I wrote and which Science Digest published. There was also no logic in it; not a trace; and I said that, too.

Asimov’s essay on Close Encounters, in fact, might be the most unremittingly hostile piece of writing I’ve seen by him on any subject, and I’ve read a lot of it. He seems to have regarded it as little more than a cynical commercial ploy: “It made its play for Ufolators and mystics and, in its chase for the buck, did not scruple to violate every canon of good sense and internal consistency.” In response to readers who praised the special effects, he shot back:

Seeing a rotten picture for the special effects is like eating a tough steak for the smothered onions, or reading a bad book for the dirty parts. Optical wizardry is something a movie can do that a book can’t, but it is no substitute for a story, for logic, for meaning. It is ornamentation, not substance. In fact, whenever a science fiction picture is praised overeffusively for its special effects, I know it’s a bad picture. Is that all they can find to talk about?

Asimov was aware that his negative reaction had hurt the feelings of some of his fans, but he was willing to accept it: “There comes a time when one has to put one’s self firmly on the side of Good.” And he seemed particularly incensed at the idea that audiences might dare to think that Close Encounters was science fiction, and that it implied that the genre was allowed to be “silly, and childish, and stupid,” with nothing more than “loud noise and flashing lights.” He wasn’t against all instances of cinematic science fiction—he had liked Planet of the Apes and Star Wars, faintly praising the latter as “entertainment for the masses [that] did not try to do anything more,” and he even served as a technical consultant on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But he remained unrelenting toward Close Encounters to the last: “It is a marvelous demonstration of what happens when the workings of extraterrestrial intelligence are handled without a trace of skill.”

And the real explanation comes in an interview that Asimov gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, in which he recalled of his close encounter with Spielberg: “I didn’t know who he was at the time, or what a hit the film would be, but I certainly wasn’t interested in a film that glorified flying saucers. I still would have refused, only with more regret.” The italics are mine. Asimov, as I’ve noted before, despised flying saucers, and he would have dismissed any movie that took them seriously as inherently unworthy of consideration. (The editor John W. Campbell was unusually cautious on the subject, writing of the UFO phenomenon in Astounding in 1959: “Its nature and cause are totally indeterminable from the data and the technical understanding available to us at the time.” Yet Asimov felt that even this was going too far, writing that Campbell “seemed to take seriously such things as flying saucers [and] psionic talents.”) From his point of view, he may well have been right to worry about the “glorification” of flying saucers in Close Encounters—its impact on the culture was so great that it seems to have fixed the look of aliens as reported by alleged abductees. And as a man whose brand as a science popularizer and explainer depended on his reputation for rationality and objectivity, he couldn’t allow himself to be associated with such ideas in any way, which may be why he attacked the movie with uncharacteristic savagery. As I’ve written elsewhere, a decade earlier, Asimov had been horrified when his daughter Robyn told him one night that she had seen a flying saucer. When he rushed outside and saw “a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum” in the sky, he was taken aback, and as he ran into the house for his glasses, he said to himself: “Oh no, this can’t happen to me.” It turned out to be the Goodyear blimp, and Asimov recalled: “I was incredibly relieved!” But his daughter may have come even closer to the truth when she said years later to the New York Times: “He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

From Sputnik to WikiLeaks

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In Toy Story 2, there’s a moment in which Woody discovers that his old television series, Woody’s Roundup, was abruptly yanked off the air toward the end of the fifties. He asks: “That was a great show. Why cancel it?” The Prospector replies bitterly: “Two words: Sput-nik. Once the astronauts went up, children only wanted to play with space toys.” And while I wouldn’t dream of questioning the credibility of a man known as Stinky Pete, I feel obliged to point out that his version of events isn’t entirely accurate. The space craze among kids really began more than half a decade earlier, with the premiere of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and the impact of Sputnik on science fiction was far from a positive one. Here’s what John W. Campbell wrote about it in the first issue of Astounding to be printed after the satellite’s launch:

Well, we lost that race; Russian technology achieved an important milestone in human history—one that the United States tried for, talked about a lot, and didn’t make…One of the things Americans have long been proud of—and with sound reason—is our ability to convert theoretical science into practical, working engineering…This time we’re faced with the uncomfortable realization that the Russians have beaten us in our own special field; they solved a problem of engineering technology faster and better than we did.

And while much of the resulting “Sputnik crisis” was founded on legitimate concerns—Sputnik was as much a triumph of ballistic rocketry as it was of satellite technology—it also arose from the notion that the United States had been beaten at its own game. As Arthur C. Clarke is alleged to have said, America had become “a second-rate power.”

Campbell knew right away that he had reason to worry. Lester del Rey writes in The World of Science Fiction:

Sputnik simply convinced John Campbell that he’d better watch his covers and begin cutting back on space scenes. (He never did, but the art director of the magazine and others were involved in that decision.) We agreed in our first conversation after the satellite went up that people were going to react by deciding science had caught up with science fiction, and with a measure of initial fear. They did. Rather than helping science fiction, Sputnik made it seem outmoded.

And that’s more or less exactly what happened. There was a brief spike in sales, followed by a precipitous fall as mainstream readers abandoned the genre. I haven’t been able to find specific numbers for this period, but one source, the Australian fan Wynne Whitford, states that the circulation of Astounding fell by half after Sputnik—which seems high, but probably reflects a real decline. In a letter written decades later, Campbell said of Sputnik: “Far from encouraging the sales of science fiction magazines—half the magazines being published lost circulation so drastically they went out of business!” An unscientific glance at a list of titles appears to support this. In 1958, the magazines Imagination, Imaginative Tales, Infinity Science Fiction, Phantom, Saturn, Science Fiction Adventures, Science Fiction Quarterly, Star Science Fiction, and Vanguard Science Fiction all ceased publication, followed by three more over the next twelve months. The year before, just four magazines had folded. There was a bubble, and after Sputnik, it burst.

At first, this might seem like a sort of psychological self-care, of the same kind that motivated me to scale back my news consumption after the election. Americans were simply depressed, and they didn’t need any reminders of the situation they were in. But it also seems to have affected the public’s appetite for science fiction in particular, rather than science as a whole. In fact, the demand for nonfiction science writing actually increased. As Isaac Asimov writes in his memoir In Joy Still Felt:

The United States went into a dreadful crisis of confidence over the fact that the Soviet Union had gotten there first and berated itself for not being interested enough in science. And I berated myself for spending too much time on science fiction when I had the talent to be a great science writer…Sputnik also served to increase the importance of any known public speaker who could talk on science and, particularly, on space, and that meant me.

What made science fiction painful to read, I think, was its implicit assumption of American superiority, which had been disproven so spectacularly. Campbell later compared it to the reaction after the bomb fell, claiming that it was the moment when people realized that science fiction wasn’t a form of escapism, but a warning:

The reactions to Sputnik have been more rapid, and, therefore, more readily perceptible and correlatable. There was, again, a sudden rise in interest in science fiction…and there is, now, an even more marked dropping of the science-fiction interest. A number of the magazines have been very heavily hit…I think the people of the United States thought we were kidding.

And while Campbell seemed to believe that readers had simply misinterpreted science fiction’s intentions, the conventions of the genre itself clearly bore part of the blame.

In his first editorials after Sputnik, Campbell drew a contrast between the American approach to engineering, which proceeded logically and with vast technological resources, and the quick and dirty Soviet program, which was based on rules of thumb, trial and error, and the ability to bull its way through on one particular point of attack. It reminds me a little of the election. Like the space race, last year’s presidential campaign could be seen as a kind of proxy war between the American and Russian administrations, and regardless of what you believe about the Trump camp’s involvement, which I suspect was probably a tacit one, there’s no question as to which side Putin favored. On one hand, you had a large, well-funded political machine, and on the other, one that often seemed comically inept. Yet it was the quick and dirty approach that triumphed. “The essence of ingenuity is the ability to get precision results without precision equipment,” Campbell wrote, and that’s pretty much what occurred. A few applications of brute force in the right place made all the difference, and they were aided, to some extent, by a similar complacency. The Americans saw the Soviets as bunglers, and they never seriously considered the possibility that they might be beaten by a bunch of amateurs. As Campbell put it: “We earned what we got—fully, and of our own efforts. The ridicule we’ve collected is our just reward for our consistent efforts.” Sometimes I feel the same way. Right now, we’re entering a period in which the prospect of becoming a second-rate power is far more real than it was when Clarke made his comment. It took a few months for the implications of Sputnik to really sink in. And if history is any indication, we haven’t even gotten to the crisis yet.

The Watergate Fix

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Gore Vidal

“I must get my Watergate fix every morning,” Gore Vidal famously said to Dick Cavett in the final days of the Nixon administration. In his memoir In Joy Still Felt, Isaac Asimov writes: “I knew exactly what he meant.” He elaborates:

I knew we had [Nixon]…From that point on, I took to combing the Times from cover to cover every morning, skipping only the column by Nixon’s minion William Safire. I sometimes bought the New York Post so I could read additional commentary. I listened to every news report on the radio.

I read and listened with greater attention and fascination than in even the darkest days of World War II. Thus my diary entry for May 11, 1973, says, “Up at six to finger-lick the day’s news on Watergate.”

I could find no one else as hooked on Watergate as I was, except for Judy-Lynn [del Rey]. Almost every day, she called me or I called her and we would talk about the day’s developments in Watergate. We weren’t very coherent and mostly we laughed hysterically.

Now skip ahead four decades, and here’s what Wired reporter Marcus Wohlsen wrote earlier this week of a “middle-age software developer” with a similar obsession:

Evan is a poll obsessive, FiveThirtyEight strain—a subspecies I recognize because I’m one of them, too. When he wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t shower or eat breakfast before checking the Nate Silver-founded site’s presidential election forecast (sounds about right). He keeps a tab open to FiveThirtyEight’s latest poll list; a new poll means new odds in the forecast (yup). He get push alerts on his phone when the forecast changes (check). He follows the 538 Forecast Bot, a Twitter account that tweets every time the forecast changes (same). In all, Evan says he checks in hourly, at least while he’s awake (I plead the Fifth).

Wohlsen notes that the design of FiveThirtyEight encourages borderline addictive behavior: its readers are like the lab rats who repeatedly push a button to send a quick, pleasurable jolt coursing through their nervous systems. The difference is that polls and political news, no matter how favorable to one side, deliver a more complicated mix of emotions—hope, uncertainty, apprehension. But as long as the numbers are trending in the right direction, we can’t get enough of them.

Princeton Election Consortium

And it’s striking to see how little the situation has changed since the seventies, apart from a few advances in technology. Asimov had to buy two physical newspapers to get his fix, while we can click effortlessly from one source to another. On the weekend that the Access Hollywood recording was released, I found myself cycling nonstop between the New York Times, Politico, Talking Points Memo, the Washington Post—where I rapidly used up my free articles for the month—and other political sites, like Daily Kos, that I hadn’t visited in years. (I don’t think I’ve been as hooked on political analysis since George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, which still stands out as a golden age in my memories.) Like Asimov, who skipped William Safire’s column, I also know what to avoid. Instead of calling a friend to talk about the day’s developments, I read blog posts and comment threads. Not surprisingly, the time I spend on all this is inversely correlated to the trajectory of the Trump campaign. During a rough stretch in September, I deleted FiveThirtyEight from my bookmarks because it was causing me more anxiety than it was worth. I still haven’t put it back, perhaps on the assumption that if I have to type it into my address bar, rather than clicking on a shortcut, I won’t go back as often. In practice, I’ll often use a quick spin through FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and Talking Points Memo as my reward for getting through half an hour of work, which is the only positive behavior on my part to come out of this entire election.

Of course, there are big differences between Vidal and Asimov’s Watergate fix and its equivalent today. By the time Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, Nixon’s goose was pretty much cooked, and someone like Asimov could take unmixed pleasure in his comeuppance. Trump, by contrast, could still get elected. More surprising is the fact that the overall arc of this presidential campaign has been mostly unresponsive to the small daily movements that analytics are meant to track. As Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium recently pointed out, this election has actually been less volatile than usual, and its shape has remained essentially unchanged for months, with Clinton holding a national lead of between two and six points over Trump. It seems noisy, but only because every move is subjected to such scrutiny. In other words, our obsession with polls creates the psychological situation that we’re presumably trying to avoid: we’re subjectively experiencing this race as more volatile than it really is. Our polling fix isn’t rational, at least not from the point of view of minimizing anxiety. As Wohlesen says in Wired, it’s more like a species of magical thinking, in which we place our trust in a certain kind of magician—a data wizard—to see us through an election in which the facts have been treated with disdain. At my lowest moments last month, I would console myself with the thought of Elan Kriegel, Clinton’s director of analytics. The details didn’t matter; it was enough that he existed, and that I could halfway believe that he had access to magic that allowed him to exercise some degree of control over an inherently uncontrollable future. Or as the Wired headline put it: “I just want Nate Silver to tell me it’s all going to be fine.”

Astounding Stories #9: “The Mule”

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"The Mule" by Isaac Asimov

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

Of the four writers who stand at the heart of Astounding, the one who has been the hardest to pin down is Isaac Asimov. This might seem surprising, given that the other three figures are John W. Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard, all of whom, by any measure, had personalities and private lives of daunting complexity. Asimov, by contrast, seems like a relatively accessible figure: his life was comparatively uneventful in its externals, and he spent much of it in the lab at Boston University, giving speeches, or writing at home. He was also the author of two enormously detailed volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, that track his life on almost a daily basis, which would make them indispensable primary sources even if they weren’t also a huge pleasure to read. (A third volume, I, Asimov, is less essential, but still a must for fans.) He was also more of a public figure than any other science fiction writer of his time. With his glasses and sideburns, he was instantly recognizable, and I suspect that he might be the novelist, of any era, whom the greatest number of living Americans would be able to identify at sight. Decades after his death, he still has the highest name recognition of any writer in the genre. But separating the persona that he deliberately cultivated from the real man underneath presents undeniable challenges—all the more so because Asimov managed to convince millions of readers that they knew him well, when he really kept so many aspects of himself under close guard.

Asimov’s unique status as a celebrity also encourages a number of misconceptions about his career. He’s often cited as a monstrous fiction-writing machine, as Stephen King did in a recent essay for the New York Times on whether a novelist can be too productive. After evoking the likes of Max Brand and Alexandre Dumas, King continues: “And then there’s Isaac Asimov, who sold his first short story at nineteen, hammered out more than five hundred books, and revolutionized science fiction.” But there’s a big misapprehension here. Asimov was undoubtedly one of the most prolific writers who ever lived, but not on the fiction side. When you add up his novels and short stories, it’s an impressive body of work, but not that much larger than that of many other writers of his generation, and Asimov could go for years without producing much in the way of fiction at all. It was in nonfiction, and particularly in popular science, that he made his greatest mark on the world’s libraries, as well as on the consciousness of the public. For most of his life, Asimov was among the most highly regarded of authors within the closed circle of science fiction readers, but he didn’t have a mainstream bestseller until he returned to the Foundation series toward the end of his career. It was in the sheer volume of his nonfiction—which Asimov was among the first to realize would be newsworthy in itself—that he became famous to a general audience, less because of any one book than thanks to the familiarity of his face and byline.

Portrait of Isaac Asimov by Rowena Morrill

This makes it a little harder to objectively evaluate his fiction. There’s no doubt that he would be regarded as a major writer within the genre, even if he hadn’t become so famous outside of it, but his output is frankly more mixed than that of, say, Heinlein. It took Asimov a while to find his footing—although we should never forget, as King points out, that he was unbelievably young when he sold his first stories, and that he did much of his growing up as an author in full view. His single greatest breakthrough, “Nightfall,” has been voted the best science fiction story of all time on multiple occasions, although Asimov himself felt that it was overrated. The positronic robot stories are an indisputable landmark as a whole, but I’m not sure if any one installment in the series inspires particularly warm feelings in readers, and its most significant element, the Three Laws of Robotics, was really developed by Campbell. And Asimov’s limitations as a writer are more evident than they are in the best of his contemporaries. I’ve come to believe that Heinlein, Sturgeon, and the writing team of C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, to name only the most obvious examples, could do just about anything, while Asimov seemed more comfortable working within a narrow range: it’s impossible to imagine him writing a story like “Vintage Season” or “Killdozer.” He helped define the genre, but he rarely strayed from a specific subset of it during the golden age, and it wasn’t until later, in stories like “The Last Question,” that he began to push into unexplored regions.

But I don’t want to understate his talent, because many of the stories he wrote during this early period are extraordinary. My personal favorite is “The Red Queen’s Race,” a relatively unheralded work about a professor who tries to change the future by sending physics textbooks back in time to ancient Greece: maybe it’s because of my own classics background, but I think it’s a perfect story. And then there’s the Foundation series, which remains his most lasting achievement, despite what even Asimov, on rereading it after three decades, saw as a decided lack of action or conventional suspense. (“I read it with mounting uneasiness. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever did.”) Elsewhere, the writer James Gunn notes that “the romance is almost invisible,” which is another way of saying that there are almost no women in sight. Still, it remains a fascinating work, in part because of the appeal of the notion of a secret society of psychohistorians, which had a strange afterlife when Campbell tried to create one for real at the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And it includes one undeniably great novella, “The Mule,” which was Asimov’s own favorite. It benefits from having a significant female character for once, in the form of Bayta Darell, and a stunning twist ending that still works like gangbusters today. Asimov wrote it in response to Campbell’s insistence that the Seldon Plan, the “connecting backbone” of the series, had to be disrupted: “I was horrified. No, I said, no, no, no. But Campbell said: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and I knew I wasn’t going to sell him a no, no.” And as Asimov himself knew well, even the best of plans have a way of going in unexpected directions—and in life as well as in fiction.

Life Itself and the art of the memoir

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Roger Ebert

Over the weekend, I finally picked up a copy of Life Itself, the late Roger Ebert’s extraordinary memoir and valediction for one of the richest of recent American lives. I’m not sure why it took me so long to read it, but I suspect that it had something to do with my own resistance to Ebert’s shifting cultural role in his final years: as someone who grew up on his reviews—and basically learned how to read and think in the process—I liked to think of Ebert as more of a private friend. As the reaction to his illness and death made abundantly clear, though, that’s how he seemed to many of us. He was funny, accessible, unfailingly wise, and the last of the great figures from a golden age of journalism. Not surprisingly, his memoir is a delight, the first book in ages that I’ve been physically unable to put down. Ebert’s personality always came through in his reviews and essays, which amount to a disguised autobiography delivered over five decades, but here he speaks more candidly about the subjects he couldn’t discuss before: his alcoholism, his love life, his struggles with weight, and the curious business of being both a critic and a public figure with greater name recognition than many of the filmmakers he covered.

Life Itself is organized thematically, which allows me to skip from chapter to chapter in search of whatever tidbits I feel like reading about at the moment. There are juicy sections devoted to Ebert’s friendships and interactions with such directors as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Russ Meyer, and an especially memorable chapter on Gene Siskel, all crammed with anecdotes, jokes, and memories. Ebert’s closing mediations on sickness, silence, and mortality are all the more moving because of the crowded eventfulness of the life that preceded it. And the way the memoir moves from one subject to the next, allowing the reader to browse with ease, creates a curious impression: it feels less like a book than a conversation, or even like the man himself, as if we’ve all been given the chance to hear Ebert’s voice on whatever we feel like talking about one last time. As far back as Montaigne, who concealed his autobiography beneath a series of seemingly disconnected reflections, readers and writers alike have known that an author lives most fully within a structure that makes that kind of interaction possible, allowing us to open happily to the middle and dive in—which, after all, is the way we experience the lives and minds of those around us.

Vladimir Nabokov

When I look at the memoirs and autobiographies I’ve enjoyed and revisited the most, I find that most of them have this kind of thematic structure, so that the life becomes less a dry series of dates and events than a set of perspectives that allow us to regard the author from every angle. As Borges writes:

A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of all the organs of his body; another, on the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and with the dawn.

Such a book, with each chapter devoted to a different inner history, would be much more readable than the staid chronological scheme favored by most biographers. (Borges continues: “One life of Poe consists of seven hundred octavo pages; the author, fascinated by changes of residence, barely manages one parenthesis for the Malestrom or the cosmogony of ‘Eureka.'”) And while this book can only be written by one person—its subject—that’s all the more reason to wish that more writers would take this approach when the time came to set down something meaningful about their lives.

My own short list of favorite memoirs, for instance, consists almost entirely of works with this sort of arrangement: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, Self-Consciousness by John Updike, I, Asimov by you know who. (Curiously, one of my favorite autobiographies of all, Asimov’s earlier volumes In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, takes the opposite approach, treating each minor event in the author’s life as if he had no knowledge of what was coming next. The fact that Asimov gets away with it—especially given that most of his life was spent at a writing desk—only speaks to his talents.) It’s perhaps no accident that all these books, like Ebert’s, are obsessed by the idea of mortality, as expressed in Nabokov’s opening lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Writing one’s memoirs, like writing of any kind, is an attempt to cheat death, or of ensuring that some fragment of our thoughts or personalities will survive us when we’re gone. And if you want to outlive yourself, the best way is to tell us what you thought about a few important things, as Douglas Hofstadter writes of his late friend Randy Read: “Perhaps these musings, dancing and sparking in the neurons of a few thousand readers out there, will keep alive, in scattered form, a tiny piece of his soul.”

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