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The Early Asimov Volume 3

Isaac Asimov


  To the memory of

  John Wood Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971) for reasons that this book will make amply obvious


  After 'Time Pussy' there followed a two-month period during which I wrote nothing.

  The reasons were twofold. In the first place, Pearl Harbor put the United States in the war the day I wrote Time Pussy,' and those first two months after the debacle were too disastrous and heartbreaking to allow much in the way of fiction composing.

  If that in itself weren't enough, the time had come to try, once again, the qualifying examinations that would, or would not, grant me permission to do research. I very much felt myself to be dangling over the abyss. A second failure to pass would probably mean an end for me at Columbia. Consequently, during those hours when I wasn't working in my father's candy store or hanging over the radio, I had to be studying. There was time for nothing else at all.

  Hedging my bets rather desperately, I registered for graduate work at New York University, just in case I did not pass once again. After I took my qualifying examinations, at the end of January 1942, I actually attended a few classes at N. Y. U. while waiting for the results to be announced. - But I won't keep you in suspense. On Friday, the thirteenth of February, the results were announced. I had passed, this time.

  During the interval between the taking of the qualifying examinations and the annunciation, I managed to do 'Victory Unintentional. ' This was a positronic robot story that was a sequel to 'Not Final!' which had not been a positronic robot story. Obviously I was trying to ride the series notion all I could, in the hope of surer sales.

  I submitted it to Campbell on February 9, 1942, and if I thought Campbell would find himself unable to reject a series story, I was roundly disabused. Nor was he so impressed by 'Nightfall' and by my 'Foundation' series as to find himself incapable of making the rejection a severe one.

  On February 13, the very day of my passing into the sacred list of those permitted to do research toward their Ph. D. , my spirits were somewhat dashed when I received 'Victory Unintentional' back with a cryptic rejection, which consisted of the following, in toto, 'CHSC2CH2CH2SH. ' Campbell very well knew that this was the formula for 'butyl' mercaptan,' which gives the skunk its smell, and I very well knew it, too, and Campbell very well knew I knew.

  Oh, well! I managed to sell it anyway, to Super Science Stories under its post-Pohl editor, on March 16, 1942, and it appeared in the August 1942 issue of that magazine. Though I did not include it in I, Robot, I did include it, of necessity, in The Rest of the Robots.

  After that, though, there came another dry period, the longest I was ever to experience. Once 'Victory Unintentional' was finished, fourteen months (!) were to pass before I turned back to the typewriter. It was not the conventional 'writer's block,' of course, for that I have never experienced. Rather, it was the coming of a vast, triple change in my life.

  The first change was the fact that I was now beginning chemical research in earnest under Professor Charles R. Daw-son. Research is a full-time job and I still had to work it around, somehow, my duties in my father's candy store,. so there was bound to be very little time for writing.

  Then, as though that weren't enough, a second change took place simultaneously -

  In January 1942 I joined an organization called 'The Brooklyn Writers' Club,' which had sent me a postcard of invitation. I took the invitation to be a recognition of my status as a 'writer' and I couldn't possibly have refused.

  The first meeting I attended was on January 19, 1942. It turned out to be rather pleasant. I welcomed the chance to get my mind off the qualifying examinations and the war disasters (though I remember spending part of that first meeting discussing the possibility that New York might be bombed).

  Most of the members of the club were no further advanced in the profession than I was; nor were any of them, aside from myself, science fiction writers. The chief activity consisted of reading from our own manuscripts so that criticism from the others might be invited. Since it was quickly discovered that I read 'with expression,' I became chief reader, a role I enjoyed. (It was to be eight years yet before I discovered that I had a natural flair for the lecture platform. )

  On February 9, 1942, the third meeting I attended, there was present a young man, Joseph Goldberger, whom I had not met before. He was a couple of years older than I was. I did most of the reading that day and Goldberger was sufficiently impressed to suggest, after the meeting had adjourned, that the two of us, with our girls, go out on a double date and get to know each other. Embarrassed, I had to explain that I had no girl. With an expansive gesture, he said he would get one for me.

  And so he did. On February 14, 1942, (Valentine's Day and the day after I had passed my qualifying examinations) I met him at the Astor Hotel at 8. 30 p. m. With him was his girlfriend, and with her was her girl-friend, Gertrude Blugerman, who was going to be my blind date. -I fell in love, and when I wasn't thinking of research I was thinking of her.

  But there was also a third change, in a way the most drastic-

  With war, the job situation suddenly changed: technically trained men of all sorts were in demand.

  Robert Heinlein, for instance, was an engineer who had been trained at Annapolis. His health had retired him from active service in the Navy and had kept him retired, but his Annapolis connections made it possible for him to work as a civilian engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station of the U. S. Navy Yard in Philadelphia. He cast about for other qualified people he might persuade to join him there, particularly among his fellow science fiction writers.

  He got L. Sprague de Camp to come to the N. A. E. S. , and on March 30, 1942, I received a letter from the navy yard asking if I would consider joining them.

  I am rather single-minded and, having labored toward my Ph. D. for a year and a half, I would not ordinarily have considered letting go for anything short of a major force. - But the major force was there. I was in love and I wanted to get married even more than I wanted my degree. It occurred to me that I could suspend work toward my Ph. D. with the full approval of the school, thanks to the war emergency, and that I could also get full permission to resume after the war. And by taking a job and postponing - merely postponing - my research, I could get married.

  I went down to Philadelphia for an interview on April 10 and apparently met their requirements. I took the iob, and on May 14, having left my father's candy store at last and (at least as a worker) forever, I moved to Philadelphia. Fortunately, Philadelphia was only an hour and a half from New York by train (in those days, I couldn't drive a car and, even if I could, I wouldn't have been able to get the gasoline because of rationing). I was therefore back in New York every weekend.

  By the twenty-fourth of the month I had persuaded Gertrude to agree to marry me, and on July 26 we were married.

  During those months it did not bother me that I was doing no writing. I had too much to think of - first the war, then research, then the job, then the marriage.

  Besides, in the years up to early 1942, I never thought of my writing as anything but a way to help out with my college tuition. It was fun; it was exciting; and such success as I managed to achieve was deeply satisfying - but it had been done to serve a purpose and that purpose had been served. I had no notion that writing could be my career; that it could ever possibly be my career.

  My career was to be chemistry. All the time I was writing and selling stories, I was also slaving away at Columbia. Once I earned my Ph. D. , I intended to make my living by doing chemical research for some large industry at some munificent salary such as a hundred dollars a week. (As the son of a candy-store keeper, bro
ught up in the depression, I suffered dizzy spells if I tried to think of more than a hundred dollars a week, so I confined my ambitions to that. )

  My Philadelphia job, to be sure, paid me only fifty dollars a week at the beginning, but a young couple could live on that, those days, with taxes very small, with an apartment costing $42. 50 a month and dinner for two at a restaurant coming to two dollars (including tip).

  It wasn't the height of my dreams, but it was only a temporary war job, after all. Once the war was over, I would go back to my research and get my Ph. D. and a better job. Meanwhile, even a salary of $2,600 a year seemed to make it unnecessary for me to write. By my marriage day, I had written forty-two stories, of which twenty-eight had been sold (and three more were yet to sell). My total bachelor earnings over a space of four years had been $1,788. 50 for those twenty-eight stories. This amounted to an average earning of just under $8. 60 per week or $64 per story.

  I never dreamed at that time that I could ever do much better. I had no intention of ever writing anything but science fiction or fantasy for the pulp magazines, which paid one cent a word at most - a cent and a quarter with bonus.

  To make even the feeble fifty dollars a week that my job paid me would make it necessary for me to write and sell some forty stories a year, and, at that time, that didn't seem conceivable to me.

  It had been all right to labor at the typewriter to pay my way through school, when I had no other source of income, but for what purpose ought I to be writing now? And with a six-day, fifty-four hour week, and the excitement of a new marriage, who had time?

  The very existence of science fiction seemed to fade. I had left my magazine collection in New York; I no longer saw Campbell regularly, or Pohl, or any of my science fiction cronies. I scarcely even read the current magazines as they came out.

  I might have let science fiction die altogether, and my writing career with it, except that there were little reminders from the outside world, and little itchings inside me that meant (though-I didn't know it at the time) that writing was a great deal more to me than just a handy device to make a little spare cash.

  I had hardly begun to work at the N. A. E. S. , for instance, when the June 1942 issue of Astounding came out with my story 'Bridle and Saddle. ' And it made the cover.

  It was quite beyond my power to resist the temptation to take a copy to work and show it around. I couldn't help but feel the status I gained as a 'writer. ' Later that summer and fall, three other stories were published: 'Victory Unintentional' and 'The Imaginary' in the post-Pohl Super Science Stories and 'The Hazing' in Thrilling Wonder Stories. Each kept the science fiction world alive for me.

  And although my New York coterie of science fiction editors, writers and readers were gone, I was left not entirely bereft.

  Working with me at the N. A. E. S. were Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp, and I kept up a close social relationship with both. To be sure, each had quit writing for the duration but they were far more successful writers than I was and I hero-worshipped them. In addition, John D. Clark, who was an ardent science fiction fan and who had written and published a couple of stories in 1937, was living in Philadelphia at the time and we frequently saw one another. All three kept the science fiction atmosphere about me.

  It was on January 5, 1943, though, that the real trigger came. On that day I received a letter from Fred Pohl to the effect that he was planning to rewrite 'Legal Rites' and was going to try to sell it again. That was exciting. He wasn't to succeed in selling the story for six more years, but of course I had no way of telling that. To me it seemed that another sale was in the offing and that I was an as-yet-active writer.

  Besides, 'Legal Rites' was a fantasy and I had never yet satisfied that long-standing desire to write and sell a fantasy to Unknown. Five times I had tried, and five times I had failed.

  On January 13, quite suddenly, a week after the letter had come and fourteen months after my last-written story, the urge overwhelmed me. I sat down to write a fantasy called 'Author! Author!'

  Quickly I found there was something lacking. It was the first time I had ever tried to write something for Campbell without conferences with him. I missed the inspiration that invariably came through talks with him; I missed his encouragement. In fact, I wasn't sure that I could write at all without him. So the story limped and there were dry spells. I didn't finish the first draft till March 5, and the final version wasn't ready for mailing till April 4, 1943.

  It had taken me nearly three months to write the story. To be sure, it was twelve thousand words long, but 'Bridle and Saddle,' which was half again as long, had taken me only three weeks.

  Perhaps if 'Author! Author!' had been rejected, it might have been a long time before I would have had the courage to try again. Fortunately, that was never put to the test. I mailed the story to Campbell on April 6, 1943 (the first time I ever mailed him a story instead of handing it to him), and on the twelfth the check of acceptance arrived. There was not even a revision requested, and what's more, Campbell paid me a bonus for the first time since 'Nightfall. ' I received one and a quarter cents a word, or $ 150 in all. My sixth try at Unknown had succeeded.

  It was the equivalent of three weeks' pay at the N. A. E. S. for something that had taken me, off and on, three months. However, the three months' work on 'Author! Author!' had been of a totally different kind than the three weeks' work at the N. A. E. S. would have been, and the receipt of the $150 check was infinitely more exciting than picking up a similar check, or even a larger. one, earned in the course of a punch-the-time-clock job. (Yes, indeed, I punched a time clock at the N. A. E. S. )

  As it happened though, the happy excitement with which I greeted the sale was premature. I had scaled the heights of Unknown too late, and though I had the money, I didn't have the magazine. Robert Heinlein brought me the sad news on August 2, less than four months after the sale.

  Unknown had been having a difficult time of it. Sales weren't high enough, and after its first two years of operation it had had to switch from monthly to bimonthly issues. Now the war had introduced a paper shortage and Street amp; Smith Publications decided to save what paper it could receive for the more successful Astounding and let Unknown go.

  At the time I made my sale, there were only three more issues of Unknown fated to be issued and there was no room in any of them for 'Author! Author!' The story remained in the vaults of Street amp; Smith indefinitely; a story sold, but not published; and the $150 check was deprived of most of its fun as a result.

  There is, however, a happy ending. Twenty years later, Don Bensen of Pyramid Publications was publishing a paperback anthology of stories from Unknown, he asked me for an introduction. With glad nostalgia I complied, writing it on January 15, 1963, almost twenty years to the day after I had started writing the only story I ever sold to the magazine. In the course of the introduction, I referred to the sad story of my attempts to write for Unknown.

  The 1960s were not the 1940s. In 1963, the mere mention of an existing Asimov story that had never been published produced excitement, and Bensen wrote to me within three days, asking to see the story. I dug out the manuscript (I saved them now, you see, even for twenty years) and sent it to him.

  He asked permission to include it in a second anthology of Unknown stories (pointing out that it had been accepted by the magazine). I explained he would also need permission from Campbell and the publisher. They very kindly granted the permission, and in January 1964, twenty-one years after it was written, 'Author! Author!' was finally published and I finally - after a fashion, and glancingly - made Unknown.