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Asimov, Isaac 1920–
A Russian-born American, Asimov is a professor of biochemistry and a remarkably versatile and prolific writer. The author of numerous science texts, Asimov is especially adept at popularizing scientific writing. He has also written children's books and humorous and mythological pieces, but is most widely known for...
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- Critical Essays
Asimov, Isaac 1920–
A Russian-born American, Asimov is a professor of biochemistry and a remarkably versatile and prolific writer. The author of numerous science texts, Asimov is especially adept at popularizing scientific writing. He has also written children's books and humorous and mythological pieces, but is most widely known for his first-rate science fiction which includes such classics as I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2183
"Asimovian." I have used the adjective myself, and I have seen it used by others. What others mean by it I cannot say. But I would like to suggest in some detail what I have found the term to mean….
On matters of style: The typical Asimov sentence is short and clear. His sentences tend to gain length not by the accumulation of dependent clauses, but by the addition of simple sentences: not "The boy who hit the ball ran around the bases," but "The boy hit the ball, and then he ran around the bases." His verbs tend to be colorless, non-meaning-bearing linking verbs, and the meanings of the sentences tend to be carried by their nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. He does not like to use figurative language, so he almost never uses images, metaphors, similes…. Typically, one does not notice Asimov's language, unless one is aware how difficult it is to write this clearly. Lovers of language will say that he is no stylist; lovers of communication will admire and envy him. I think Asimov's language represents in a quintessential way the language science fiction writers aspired to during the Golden Age, the Campbell years of the forties. (p. 255)
The narrative point of view [in Asimov's fiction] is almost always third-person limited, with that person being the central character of the story. Even when he is working with a large cast of characters in a novel, say, and must move about among them, each scene tends to be narrated solely from the point of view of one of its participants, rather than from the point of view of an omniscient outside observer. Asimov lets us see fictional events the way we see life: through the experience and observations of only one person.
Generally, the central character of a story is named and put into action in the first sentence. That is, the subject in the first sentence we read will be the central character's proper name, and its verb will let us see that person doing something…. His central characters are usually white middle-class males on the sunny side of forty, because the market he writes for is composed largely of such people.
The problems these people have to solve generally involve the making of decisions rather than the performing of actions. At least, even in a basically action-adventure story, decision-making is shown to take precedence over doing things. Very often this decision-making is done by two or more people in conference. This tends to change the story from the personal to the political. It also has the advantage of externalizing the decision-making process and thereby giving the reader something to watch and listen to. Interior monologues are not as available to us in everyday life as conversations. This emphasis on conversation and decision-making, instead of on activity for its own sake, gives Asimov's fiction a certain cerebral quality, which is one of its most distinctive traits.
The stories usually begin very soon after a problem has arisen. The initial situation and the problem are passed along to the central character—and, in the process, to the reader—by someone who thoroughly understands both. Asimov is excellent at the dramatic form of exposition. It is another form of conversation, and he knows how to move stories through conversation. He sometimes uses the flashback for exposition, but he is less consistently good at this method. He tends either to allow the time sequence to become a bit muddled (e.g., The Currents of Space) or to become redundant by using both dramatic exposition and the flash back to pass along the same material (e.g., "The Key").
The conflicts in an Asimovian story usually involve difficulties in the way of accumulating data, in interpreting that data, and in deciding what to do as a result of the data and its interpretation. A calm, reasoned approach, rather than a hastily-arrived-at emotional one, provides the solutions to the stories. The resolutions generally mark a return to the status quo. In this sense, he is a conservative writer. The most important Asimovian theme is the importance of science (data-collecting) and reason (data-evaluating and decision-making).
Asimov's stories are set in the immediate and far future, and on Earth and distant planets circling other suns. He seldom sets stories in the past, on alternate worlds, in other dimensions, or in countries other than the United States or future extensions of the United States. His backgrounds are meticulously worked out and scientifically accurate. One leaves an Asimov story with the feeling of having lived for a while somewhere else. This ability of his to provide his settings with that "lived in" quality is another of Asimov's most distinctive features.
Unfortunately, his characters do not share as much as they should in the convincingness of his settings. One does not leave an Asimov story convinced that he has lived for a little while with real people. The characters tend to do and think what they must for the sake of the story rather than for their own sake. In his fiction at least, his interest in people is theoretical not personal, general not particular. Asimov's fiction reflects an interest in the physical, chemical, biological, and astronomical phenomena that life makes available for study, not in the experience of living itself…. It focuses on what is generally true of and for us all rather than on what is specifically true of and for only one person. His fiction shows no interest in and scarcely an awareness of two extremely personal elements in all men's lives, religion and sex. As a result, his people are depersonalized to the extent of being dehumanized. I might use an aphorism to describe Asimov's characters: they are not people, they are story parts.
Fiction humanizes and specifies the general. I find it very instructive when Asimov admits he gave up science fiction for science writing so he could write directly about science without the bother of considering people and people's behavior. (pp. 256-58)
Besides these narrative techniques of style, narrative point of view, plot, theme, setting, and character, three other things strike me as being usually present in an Asimovian story. Asimov loves everything about science, including its history (and he loves history, too). Present in many of his stories are informative little history and history-of-science lectures…. Second, his fiction is filled with astronomical views, what it looks like to be out among Jupiter's moons or Saturn's rings or in orbit about a newly discovered planet of a distant star. Once again, in science fiction the sense of wonder is sight, and Asimov wants us to share that sense of wonder with him: the sublimity and the beauty of what there is to see out there. Third, Asimov's fiction reflects his delight in the surprise ending, the story that goes click! at the end….
For me, all of the above is included in the term "Asimovian."
But the adjective implies a steady state. Asimov has written fiction since 1938. Is that fiction all of a piece, or has he developed in any specific ways through the years? (p. 258)
Realistically, I can see only two major changes in Asimov's career. The first was in 1938–39 when he changed from science fiction fan to science fiction writer, and the second was in 1957–58 when he changed from science fiction writer to science writer.
During his career as a science fiction writer, however, I can detect only two relatively minor developments. One of these was in his style. His early stories abound in the violent diction of the pulps. There is more emotion of a nonrealistic sort in that early fiction. As he wrote, he mastered the medium of clear, unemotional language. A second development was in the kinds of backgrounds he used. The backgrounds of the early stories are imitated from contemporary science fiction. As he wrote, he began to put together his own backgrounds based on contemporary science. (p. 259)
[Asimov] has, I think, to choose between two kinds of story that he has in him to write. I do not expect him to turn to drastic stylistic experiments, to try to develop an imagistic style and strong verbs. He will continue to write like Asimov. The choices lie in his subject matter. He could continue to do what he has been doing of late: mining old material. The old familiar series, the old familiar settings, the old familiar characters. Supplying nostalgic trips for his many fans.
Or he could follow up in the direction I see him hesitantly looking in a couple of his most recent stories. To do this would require two major changes in attitude on his part, changes I don't believe he is ready to make. The first would be to take fiction seriously, and the second would be to write fiction about those things that are important to him….
The first change carries in it the assumption that he does not now take fiction seriously. I don't think he does. For Asimov, fiction is merely entertainment, merely a way of passing time harmlessly. He downgrades "the eternal verities" and has little use for critics who see deep meaning and significance in his work. (p. 260)
Admittedly, the general theme of his stories has always been the ability of human reason to solve problems. But what problems has human reason been set to solving in his most recent fiction?… [Later stories such as "Feminine Intuition" and "The Computer That Went on Strike" teach the] value of reason, yes, but that reason is applied to trifles which are completely beside the point of Asimov's main concerns. His stories actually serve to distract us from the real problems which he sees all around us. He cannot take his fiction seriously if he insists on using it in such inconsequential ways at a time when he sincerely believes civilization as we know it is breaking down.
In his fiction Asimov is cheerfully optimistic. In The Caves of Steel the overpopulation problem has been solved, as have the problems of the stripping of the Earth's natural resources, of pollution, of nuclear war, of uneven distribution of wealth, of nationalism…. But we know that really he is pessimistic about our civilization's surviving this century. Where in his fiction do we find an emphasis on the things he is really concerned about?
I do not wish to be misunderstood here. I am not saying that Asimov ought to turn to the writing of what he calls tomorrow fiction…. I am trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and what I am saying is that in some of his most recent fiction Asimov seems to me to be moving in the direction of taking fiction seriously and of writing about things that really concern him. I see him doing this primarily in two works, and therefore, for me, they are the most important things he has written lately, The Gods Themselves and "Waterclap." (pp. 262-63)
"Plutonium-186" [which provided the basis for The Gods Themselves], is an ecological story on a grand scale. It is a story developing exactly those themes about which Asimov has spoken so pessimistically in his nonfiction. We are doing too little too late. Overpopulation, hunger, disease, pollution, fuel shortages, inequitable distribution of wealth—things will get a lot worse before they get any better, and they may never get any better. The resolution of the conflict in "Plutonium-186" is in accord with this thinking. (p. 264)
Where is the cheerful, slick-magazine optimism in this? This is Asimov looking at the world straight and telling us what he sees, in fiction. He is not playing intellectual games or merely being entertaining. He is saying something important, to him and to us. (p. 265)
The three separate parts of The Gods Themselves are all very good stories. Put together they do not form a unified whole. Put together in their particular order, they also show Asimov backsliding. In The Gods Themselves Asimov takes both of the two paths I have suggested are open to him, and they are incompatible in one novel. He cannot present simultaneously his bleak evaluation of the crisis situation in which we find ourselves and his buoyantly optimistic story line…. That Asimov can write "Against Stupidity" and "The Gods Themselves" I take as a hopeful sign. That he chose to cap them off with "Contend in Vain?" I take as an indication that he is not yet certain whether he is looking to his future or to his past. (pp. 269-70)
"Waterclap" integrates two projects that must fascinate Asimov both as a science writer and as a science fiction writer: the exploration of outer space and the exploration of our own oceans. He could have written an essay asserting in nonfictional terms a possible relationship between the two, but instead he wrote a story demonstrating in fictional terms that space-ocean exploration is not either-or but both-and. (p. 270)
Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., "Conclusions: The Most Recent Asimov," in his The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov (copyright © 1974 by Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr.; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1974, pp. 255-71.
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The solution to one of Asimov's most important questions, the role of the individual in history, lies in one of his most basic principles, the mystery-story structure. Can man control his fate, or is he part of a hurtling chain reaction in which individual initiatives are predestined or inconsequential? Isaac Asimov deals with this question specifically, yet we find a curious difficulty in determining his precise view. We can, however, clarify the question by examining Asimov in the context of Leo Tolstoy's theory of history….
Both Leo Tolstoy and Isaac Asimov portray the significance of human decisions and actions on a broad canvas. Immediate results are not the important factor, but whether such decisions can make a difference in the eventual outcome. Tolstoy extends his scope spatially. Asimov, availing himself of the unique feature of science fiction, extends his scope temporally as well as spatially…. Like Asimov's Hari Seldon in Foundation, Tolstoy uses [a] mathematical analogy for thinking about the consequences of man's individual actions in War and Peace…. The mathematical analogy implies that individual men are as little free to deviate from the "laws of history" as individual particles are from the laws of motion.
The Foundation Series' individual stories, with a few troublesome exceptions, come down thematically on the side of Tolstoy-like predestination. In "The Encyclopedists," set just fifty years after Seldon's death, a local mayor named Salvor Hardin finds that he can do nothing to avert the defeat of the Foundation, which is saved by circumstances beyond any individual's plan…. "The Mayors" parallels "The Encyclopedists," where a historical process saves the Foundation regardless of individual decisions. Later stories make this even clearer. Enemies call off their wars with the Foundation because of dependence on secular trade which grew up in response to historical pressures and in defiance of hidebound traditionalist policy in the Foundation's government—once again showing the dominance of broad historical movements over individual attempts to institute policy. (pp. 101-02)
The enormous military superiority of the Empire seems bound to destroy the Foundation; yet it does not because inevitable historical processes overwhelm individual acts.
Neither the most brilliant generals nor the most powerful emperors can save the Galactic Empire from disintegration. And it apparently does not matter whether the Foundation's leadership is brilliant, insipid, or even treasonous. (p. 102)
Troublesome exceptions prevent this from being a settled matter, however. One exception arises from the fact that the Foundation exists, supposedly, because Hari Seldon foresaw thirty thousand years of savagery and planted the two Foundations to reduce the interregnum to a single thousand years. Seldon's life itself appears to illustrate human actions changing history.
The second half of Asimov's Foundation and Empire introduces another possible exception. Here a character named the Mule uses his mutant telepathic powers to control men's emotions and conquer the Foundation. He then enters an apparently non-predestined struggle with agents of the Second Foundation who have similar telepathic powers. However, neither the Mule nor the Second Foundation bears decisively on the question of the consequences of normal human actions, since their changes rely on superhuman qualities.
The problem of determining whether Asimov feels an individual can influence his species' fate also extends to The End of Eternity (1955), where ordinary humans who have no mutant qualities do alter history with the aid of time travel. The novel clearly argues, however, that such intervention is unwise. (pp. 102-03)
We have now clarified the question: Asimov's plots and statements often closely resemble Tolstoy's in their support for a theory giving individuals, even the greatest individuals, virtually no sway in influencing history; however, in apparent self-contradiction, Asimov frequently demonstrates individuals who do influence history. (p. 103)
"Liar!" (1941), one of the earliest and best stories of I, Robot (1950), provides the missing clue, demonstrating that Asimov's view of man's ability to direct his destiny is not one of blind necessity but a theory of crucial opportunities.
A telepathic robot named Herbie presents the initial problem of Isaac Asimov's short story "Liar!" The routinely-produced robot has unexpectedly developed the ability to read minds; Susan Calvin faces the challenge of determining why and how this happened.
Complications occur because Herbie the robot must follow Asimov's First Law of Robotics: "A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." Whenever a human being asks him an emotionally important question, Herbie always gives the answer he knows the human wants to hear. He can read their minds and knows when they will be hurt emotionally by the truth. Thus, Herbie tells thirty-seven-year-old Susan Calvin that Milton Ashe loves her, when in fact, Milton loves a cute little young blonde. When she discovers the truth, Susan attacks Herbie with a paradox which his "positronic brain" cannot handle, causing him to short out. "You can scrap him now—" says Susan, "because he'll never speak again."… (pp. 104-05)
Like any good story, "Liar!" has a number of interesting facets. Unfortunately, attention to these other aspects has deflected consideration of the story's significance to the theme of man's influence on mankind's fate….
[The crucial point is that] solving this particular technical problem has the potential to alter radically the course of human civilization in Asimov's fictional universe. The alteration might conceivably be for the worse through some unlikely ironic sequence, but would probably be for the better. For if Susan can find out how Herbie reads minds, other robots can be constructed in imitation. This alone would mean profound changes in man's society….
But even more important, discovering Herbie's principle of telepathy might open up the road to telepathy for all mankind, a boon that could vastly expand man's horizons. Failure to solve the problem of Herbie denies telepathy to man for hundreds of thousands of years in the universe as Asimov later imagined it. (p. 105)
Herbie is one of those fantastic scientific accidents that permit unexpected breakthroughs many years or centuries before they would have otherwise occurred…. "Liar!" tells the story of [Susan's] failure to follow up the accident—by which she forfeits her chance to be one of the most important human beings in the history of the universe. (p. 106)
Susan Calvin was a scientist, one of the greatest of her age. In Asimov's fiction, mankind depends on such people to save us by their calm, clear-thinking solutions, while lesser personages give way to emotion. In a very uncommon weak moment, Susan betrayed that trust. And since her scientific calling forms the essence of her identity, Susan Calvin also betrayed herself, becoming, even more than Herbie, a "Liar!"
The story highlights the interplay between accident and human initiative in Asimov…. And for Asimov, as for Tolstoy, the individual often resembles a tiny straw in the grip of a hurricane. But there are moments in Asimov's universe where individual decision counts; and Asimov uses science fiction's freedom to range over time to demonstrate such moments. An Asimov character might unwittingly pass the moment, distracted for example by the random thrusts of vanity. But credit can go to the person—more often a scientist than a ruler—who recognizes the moment and acts. And in The End of Eternity Asimov rejects the cautious time travelers who would remove from man the burden of acting at the vital moment or forever losing the chance.
On the one hand is blind science fiction optimism that future technology will allow a free human race to solve all present problems. On the other is blind Tolstoyan resignation to the inevitable. Asimov finds the subtle middle ground between the extremes. (pp. 106-07)
Raymond J. Wilson, "Asimov's Mystery Story Structure," in Extrapolation (copyright 1978 by Thomas D. and Alice S. Clareson), Vol. 19, No. 2, May, 1978, pp. 101-07.
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What makes Isaac run? What drives this Brooklyn-reared son of Russian-Jewish immigrants to work so assiduously at his typewriter … that he has turned out 199 books in 29 years, thereby earning himself a reputation as one of the leading science-fiction writers and the pre-eminent science popularizer of our day?
Readers who seek the answer to this question will not be disappointed by ["In Memory Yet Green,"] the first volume of Asimov's projected two-volume autobiography. Indeed, he gives the game away early on. Compulsive writers, he makes clear, are made, not born…. (p. 13)
Asimov goes on to detail his writing career…. (He is, as one might guess, an inveterate diarist.) He writes candidly of his relationship with Joan W. Campbell Jr., the editor of "Astounding," whose knack for nurturing young talent was responsible for what has come to be known as the Golden Age of science fiction. He also writes about his first wife, Gertrude, about his friendships in and out of science fiction and about his discovery that he was not a genius (or even particularly adept) in such academic disciplines as mathematics. In all such matters, Asimov never strays very far from the facts. Although he can describe quantum mechanics and resonance theory in a few clear paragraphs, the "soft" sciences, such as psychology, have little appeal for him. (pp. 13, 32)
For any readers unfamiliar with the Asimov oeuvre, "Opus 200" offers a selection of excerpts from his last 100 books (actually, his last 99—Asimov, as he concedes, is not much on math)….
Because Asimov is already hard at work on his next hundred books, it seems almost beside the point to apply the usual critical standards to his output. In an age dominated by science—yet mortally afraid of its practitioners and largely ignorant of its methods—Asimov's compulsion to describe the most arcane discoveries in simple declarative sentences can only be applauded. His aim is clarity, and this he usually achieves. (p. 32)
[An] important question is whether Asimov can possibly be trusted as an authority in so many different fields. Specialists will no doubt find fault with his treatment of individual subjects…. On the whole, however, he has probably done more than anyone else to give scientifically illiterate readers a feeling for the excitement and accomplishments of modern science. (p. 33)
Gerald Jonas, "No Fulyack He," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 25, 1979, pp. 13, 32-3.
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Science-fiction readers devoted to the work of Isaac Asimov, that elder statesman of the field, will enjoy [In Memory Yet Green]…. Those familiar only with his popularizations of science or those who don't know his work at all will probably not like the book and may even wonder what moved him to write it.
Autobiography is as close to impossible as art can be and two sorts of falsification are common: the bare recital of facts, in which the shape of a life gets lost, and the imposition of a novelistic "theme" from the outside….
Asimov has chosen the bare-facts route; after his childhood memories (which are charming) the book becomes a fairly dry list of professional facts and a considerable number of personal ones which ought to be more interesting than they are (Asimov is surprisingly candid about a good many things) but which remain uninterpreted and hence unconnected. Either the author does not want to make the effort to treat this vast mass of material as something that demands interpreting or else he modestly regards this work as merely a mine of information for some future second-stage biographer.
Where time has provided the interpretation, Asimov accepts it, and, in his account of his childhood, the young Isaac emerges as a distinct and delightful personality—as sunny, playful, and sensible as Asimov's own persona as a writer of nonfiction…. There is much fascinating material here about the lives of East European Jewish immigrants in the New York of the '20s and '30s, about the small businesses which drained the time and energy of whole families. (p. 1)
A third-person biographer might dig much out of this book: Asimov's sheltered childhood and adolescence, his isolation …, his situation as a favored child, his unselfconscious precocity, and his matter-of-fact training in work and the enjoyment of work. What is not here—possibly because Asimov is not conscious of how much he differs from other people in this respect—is an explanation of the extraordinary imaginativeness that produced his fiction, or the corresponding quality in that peculiar group of eccentric and poverty-stricken youngsters who created science fiction's Golden Age in the 1940s. The hard-working, precocious, naive young man described here could well have written Asimov's nonfiction. But the writer of such works as "Nightfall" or the Foundation series (two of the classics for which Asimov is famous) is not in this book.
Nor is he represented by much in Opus 200, a sampler of Asimovian fiction and nonfiction culled from the author's second 100 books. (Yes, he works hard.) Opus 200 emphasizes non-fiction—somewhat grayly—and of the fiction the best is an excerpt from his recent novel, The Gods Themselves, a charming, recent story called "Good Taste," and two good science-fiction mystery stories ("Light Verse" and "Earthset and the Evening Star"). (pp. 1, 5)
Asimov still knows where he's going, but the subjective alchemy that enables him to know (and to get there) is never revealed in In Memory Yet Green. It remains a useful, limited, special-audience volume rather than the fascinating human exploration it might have been. (p. 5)
Joanna Russ, "The Astonishing Asimov," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), April 1, 1979, pp. 1, 5.
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Before the nineteen-fifties, many critics considered the science fiction mystery novel an improbability—if not an impossibility…. [It was assumed] that both detective fiction and science fiction are frivolous literary forms and that both are too limited in scope and techniques to permit fusion between them….
[But, an examination of the two genres] would have noted the intellectual openness of both genres and emphasized that the spirit behind both is that of inquiry, of the willingness to use reason to explore all possibilities. It would have pointed out, moreover, the ways in which writers of both genres have striven to get beyond the conditioning of their societies and to overcome mind sets. (p. 109)
Given the openness and liberating attitudes of both detective fiction and science fiction, one would have been justified in predicting their fusion—and Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester and Stanislaw Lem have amply confirmed any such prediction. (p. 110)
Before attempting to blend classic detective fiction with science fiction, Asimov established a set of ground rules. He noted that ordinary mystery writers created puzzles which offered the reader a fair chance to anticipate the solution and argued that science fiction mystery writers must do the same….
Asimov has stressed the puzzle as much as any classic detective fiction writer, but he has also placed a high value on atmosphere and theme. In his two science fiction detective novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, he took pains to create a future world in many respects radically different from our own….
Asimov's setting clearly met the requirements of science fiction, but it also provided the basis for his puzzle in the first of his two novels. In The Caves of Steel, the motive for murder was a hatred of robots and a desire to return to a supposedly simpler way of life without the threat of technological displacement….
To solve the puzzle, the reader must overcome the mind set that a human being is always recognizably a human being. (p. 111)
Significantly, the detective in The Caves of Steel … had to overcome his own conditioned hatred of robots before he could envision this solution. He also had to abandon his conditioned respect for a superior officer…. [In both of these novels] Asimov blended the conventions of science fiction and detective fiction to reinforce the social message that men should not allow their societies to shape their thinking to the extent that they cannot conceive of alternate ways of living and of viewing reality. Men must be open to change or pay a very heavy price for trying to remain in place, possibly even that of eventual extinction. (p. 112)
Steven R. Carter, "The Science Fiction Mystery Novels of Asimov, Bester and Lem: Fusions and Foundations," in Clues: A Journal of Detection (copyright 1980 by Pat Browne), Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 109-15.∗
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Isaac Asimov is a polymath of awesome proportions. He is one of the most prolific writers of our time. His name is synonymous with all that is best in science fiction. He is a hilariously funny speaker, as I have had cause to find out first hand. In short, Mr. Asimov is a man to be reckoned with.
So how is it possible that his autobiography ["In Joy Still Felt"] is so boring? First of all, it's very long…. It reads like a very thorough bibliography, with snippets of personal life thrown in for color…. Most segments describe the book he is working on, the lecture he is about to give, or a little anecdote about his children…. Now this may be valuable information for a Ph.D. student, but it's sparse fodder indeed for connoisseurs of the genre.
Occasionally, its terse, non-committal style reminded me of the quirky laconicalness of Bertrand Russell's autobiography, but Russell's was shorter, funnier and avoided being simply a shopping list of his publications and lectures. I suppose the answer is that Mr. Asimov's life is mostly publications and lectures—a fine life, but not the stuff of literature.
Caroline Seebohm, "Nonfiction in Brief: 'In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov 1954–1978'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1980, p. 16.
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In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of [Isaac Asimov's] autobiography, was mostly about his discovery of science fiction, his love affair with it, his first attempts at writing it, and his eventual success. The second volume, In Joy Still Felt,… is devoted to the way in which his efforts were directed from science fiction … to nonfiction. More precisely it describes how he became a publishing phenomenon and a financial success, how his marriage of 28 years ended in divorce, how he returned to New York, found a second wife, suffered through a thyroid cancer operation, a heart attack and his second wife's mastectomy, and enjoyed the fruits of his labors.
What is important to the sf reader, however, is Asimov's intimate relationship with the science-fiction world. Asimov writes simply, engagingly and with great frankness about all aspects of his life…. But one of the book's great attractions is the way it chronicles the development of science fiction from the time it was just getting started in the magazines almost up to the present, all through the experience of a man who was involved with most of sf, first as reader, then as fan, writer, book author and, finally, institution.
James Gunn, "Science Fiction," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), May 25, 1980, p. 8.∗
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Much of [In Joy Still Felt] is fascinating. In addition to chronicling his personal and professional lives, Asimov offers intelligent perceptions of such varied topics as aging and mortality, politics and politicians, and fan clubs as sub-cultures. His several anti-Nixon diatribes are particularly biting and he claims his pro-feminist ideas ante-date the Women's Liberation movement by several years. Especially touching are the emotions he displays toward his daughter.
But Asimov is most enlightening when he deals with writing. He explores, in part, his writing, his methods and techniques, his ability to work on two, three, or more projects simultaneously. Quite convincingly, he defends his generalist approach to writing and attacks parochialism. His relationships with editors offer additional insights into Asimov the writer and Asimov the man.
I have some criticisms. Often, just when he begins to expound on a topic of import or interest, Asimov drops it, lapsing into a vacuous moment or two. Particularly unnerving is his constant obsession, at least until he reaches 1962, with revealing how much money he earned annually. Also, despite the appendix listing his published works, he is compelled to tell what books were published each year. This, it is supposed, can be written off as what Asimov calls "cheerful self-appreciation."
Asimov is a man of extremes, leaving little or no middle ground. He is extremely intelligent and extremely opinionated. He is obsessed with writing, which, to him, is the "essence of life." It is without doubt a tribute to his extraordinary writing ability that In Joy Still Felt is a lucid, highly readable, and interesting book.
Ron Marinucci, "Autobiography & Biography: 'In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954–1978'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 4, July, 1980, p. 136.