Form and Content
Isaac Asimov is known as one of the most significant writers of American science fiction of that genre’s golden age. The first volume of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, is perhaps most important because it documents his participation in that golden age as well as that of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Cyril M. Kornbluth, L. Ron Hubbard, and John W. Campbell and such science-fiction magazines as Astounding Stories (later Astounding Science Fiction), Amazing Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Asimov was born of Jewish parents in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, before the formation of the Soviet Union. The first five chapters of the book deal with the Asimov family in the time of the Russian Empire and Revolution and with their emigration to the United States in 1922. This part of the autobiography contains material showing life in the Jewish shtetlach during the Russian Empire and how that life changed after the Revolution.
In 1922, the Asimov family settled in Brooklyn. Although they were not observant Jews, they lived in a part of Brooklyn largely inhabited by other Jews. Chapters 6 through 21 deal with Asimov’s youth, the family’s attempts to make a living, Asimov’s education in the public school system and as an undergraduate at Columbia University, and with Asimov’s attempts to break into the world of science-fiction writing.
Academically, Asimov was a talented child, and these chapters detail all the joys and disappointments such a child would experience. For Asimov there were more joys than disappointments. His parents valued learning and expected him to be the smartest in his class, and until his enrollment at Boys High School he often was. Asimov entered Columbia University before his sixteenth birthday, but he was placed in Seth Low Junior College rather than in the more prestigious Columbia College. He believes that Columbia’s admissions officers considered him too Jewish to be Columbia material. Even after the demise of the junior college, Asimov was not admitted into Columbia College; he had to take classes as a general undergraduate in Columbia University, and his degree was different from those of students who attended the more prestigious Columbia College.
These chapters also deal with the struggles of the Asimov family to earn a living. Asimov’s father owned a series of candy stores in Brooklyn, and Asimov worked in them until after his graduation from Columbia. The stores sold newspapers and magazines as well as candy, and Asimov was introduced to pulp fiction there, although for a long time his father did not allow him to read it.
Surprisingly, as a teenager Asimov found time to begin writing. In John Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction, Asimov found a sympathetic editor who allowed him to bring his work directly to the office and would speak with him for hours at a time about story ideas. Although Campbell rejected all Asimov’s early attempts, each rejection was accompanied by advice and criticism. Not surprisingly, Asimov feels grateful to Campbell for his subsequent success, and he argues that Campbell was a guiding force in the establishment of the genre’s golden age.
In 1938, when Asimov was a senior at Columbia, he sold his first story to Amazing Stories. He also began to apply to medical schools, where he was not accepted, partly, he believes, because of racial quotas. Fortunately, Asimov did not want to attend medical school. He continued to write science fiction and was accepted as a graduate student in chemistry at Columbia, although on probation. In 1939 he sold his first story to Campbell and acceptances began to come more frequently. During the next three years, Asimov began the Foundation series and the positronic robots series and wrote the short story “Nightfall,” his three best-remembered classics of the golden age.
After the beginning of World War II, Asimov dropped out of Columbia University to work as a technician in the Philadelphia navy yard (with Heinlein and de Camp). He was also married. Shortly after the end of World War II, he was drafted into the army but was released early to continue his chemical research. He returned to Columbia, was awarded a Ph.D., and obtained a position as an instructor of biochemistry at Boston University’s medical school. He continued to write while in graduate school and as an instructor and assistant professor at Boston University. At this time many of his works began to appear as books rather than in the pulps, and he began to write nonfiction as well as science fiction. By the end of the first volume of his autobiography, Asimov tells of the important decisions facing him: He believed that he would not be a great research chemist and that he had reached his potential as a science-fiction writer. He was also a new father. He writes that he felt “ruefully unsatisfied.” He needed to find a new path. This new direction he describes in the second volume of his autobiography, In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978 (1980).
Erlanger, Ellen. Isaac Asimov: Scientist and Storyteller, 1986.
Fiedler, Jean, and Jim Mele. Isaac Asimov, 1982.
Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, 1982.
Hassler, Donald M. Isaac Asimov, 1987.
Slusser, George F. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of His Science, 1987.