Marooned off Vesta: more of why I love sf/f
My dad’s idea of a vacation was to go camping and catch fish. Unfortunately, these trips not only never involved a camper, they also never included tents. We slept in sleeping bags under the stars gathered around the dying embers of the fire we’d cooked dinner on. If it was raining, the whole family would crowd inside the cab of Dad’s pickup and try to sleep sitting up all squeezed together.
I wasn’t terribly good at any “outdoorsman” sorts of skills, and Dad never missed an opportunity to tell me just what a clumsy, stupid, sissy I was whenever I did anything incorrectly. Though, for the record, he never called me anything as nice as “sissy.”
So I didn’t much enjoy those vacations.
The last one we took, before my parents’ marriage took its final turn for the worse, was when I was 13 or 14 years old. Shortly before we had left on the trip, I had acquired a paperback copy of The Early Asimov, Volume 1, and had packed it along. I’m not sure why that particular book had jumped out at me in the small bookstore that we had visited with my Great-grandma on a weekend trip to a nearby town that was large enough to have an actual bookstore. My best guess is that, since Asimov was at that time the author of a monthly science essay that appeared in each issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that I had recognized his name.
I remember waking up early in the morning several times on that camping trip, my parents and sister still asleep, and going to the pickup to retrieve the paperback book from my bag. Then I sat and read until Dad woke up. Just looking at the cover of my worn old copy of the book brings back memories of the early morning light, the sounds of wind in the leaves overhead, and the nearby creek.
The Early Asimov was first released as a hardcover, single volume book a couple of years before I found the paperback. It is a collection of a bunch of Isaac Asimov’s short stories from the first nine or ten years of his career; specifically stories that had not already been included in any other anthologies. But the book isn’t merely an anthology—in between each story, Asimov wrote about how he came to write the story, along with describing other stories he wrote at the time that either had never been published, or had been and were in other collections. These interludes were much more than mere introductions to the story, they amounted to an autobiography. And the story this autobiography told was how a Russian-Jewish kid from Brooklyn discovered science fiction in the magazine rack of his family’s candy store, and became a published professional sci if writer before he exited his teens.
Isaac’s personal story gave me at least as much hope and wonder about the possibilities of the future as his science fiction did. The stories themselves were entertaining and thought-provoking. Asimov clearly loved science, and he was perpetually optimistic that great things could be accomplished with the proper application of knowledge.
And he wrote good stories.
Not just a few stories. He published over 300 books. He wrote science fiction novels, of course, and collected his short stories into anthologies, but he also wrote science fact books, history books, books on literature, and so much more. I mentioned his monthly science column—he wrote 399 of those from 1958 until his death in 1992. About every year and a half he collected the last 15 to 17 of them into a book, wrote additional introductory information, and published them (Janet Todd Rubin gives a great explanation of the importance of Isaac’s science columns here: (Almost) Everything I learned about science I learned from Isaac Asimov). And then there were the many limerick collections…
But back to the sci fi:
His Foundation series, besides being the first collection of novels to be awarded a Hugo as a collection, established the concept of psychohistory: a science of applying mathematical formulas to the actions of large populations to predict various outcomes. His Robot stories were the first to posit artificial intelligences that did not turn on their masters, and he was the first person to coin the word “robotics” which has become the name of the real engineering discipline he described in the books.
And then there were his mysteries. Science fiction mysteries at first (including the Wendell Urth science fictional science mysteries), but also a series of mystery short stories set in contemporary setting (Tales of the Black Widowers, and sequels), and two straight murder novels. Though my favorite of those, Murder at the ABA which was set at a booksellers convention, isn’t entirely serious. One of the supporting characters in that one is Asimov himself, and he portrayed himself very self-deprecatingly, making his character the comic relief of an otherwise serious murder investigation.
I didn’t really know all of that at the time, but reading that book over the course of several mornings on that vacation, Isaac Asimov gave me hope that I could write science fiction and get it published, too. Hope not only that I could write and get published, but that there were people out there interested in the things I was interested in. I didn’t have to remain trapped, like the protagonists of “Marooned off Vesta” stuck with no propulsion, no radio, a limited amount of air, and a year’s supply of water. I could rig up a propulsion system from the things I had, and get to a safer place.
His writing style was described as unadorned. Some people complained that he very seldom described his characters or the settings. I think that was a strength. His stories focused on the plot. His characters were defined by their words and deeds. He described only those things that needed to be described to understand the story, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Allowing the reader to imagine characters who weren’t always white, for instance.
He raised questions, and answered them with a mix of science and humor that made the future seem like a very inviting place. And his willingness in many anthologies and essays to share anecdotes of his encounters with other writers (not to mention the many stories of the times he was Toastmaster at a Hugo Award ceremony) made the world of science fiction writers and fandom seem an even more welcoming place.
He was quick to laugh, and quicker to make others laugh. Sometimes too quick. He had to have thyroid surgery at one point in his life, and when they gave him the tranquilizer before they move the patient into the operating room, he began singing and joking with everyone. When the surgeon came into the operating room, Isaac sat up, grabbed the doctor’s scrubs in both hands, and blurted out, “Doctor! Doctor! In green coat! Doctor, won’t you cut my throat? And when you’re finished, Doctor, then, Won’t you sew it up again?”
The nurses got him back down and the anesthesiologist put him under. The nurses later told Isaac’s wife that the doctor couldn’t stop laughing for nearly five minutes. When he included this story in one of his essays, he noted, “They say I’ll do anything for a laugh, but I think that making a surgeon about to take a scalpel to me laugh so hard he can’t hold an instrument may have been a step too far.”
I could easily ramble on and on about Asimov, the awards he won, the records he set, the serious science circles he moved in, and the many, many bookshelves in our house filled with his books. He loved knowledge and he loved explaining things (two traits that I know more than a little about), and he wrote in a way that encouraged you to think, to be curious, and to meet challenges with confidence and a smile.