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The Early Asimov. Volume 1

Isaac Asimov

  The Early Asimov. Volume 1

  Isaac Asimov

  Isaac Asimov

  The Early Asimov. Volume 1

  or, Eleven Years of Trying

  To the memory of John Wood Campbell, Jr. (1910-71) for reasons that this book will make amply obvious

  Although I have written over a hundred and twenty books, on almost every subject from astronomy to Shakespeare and from mathematics to satire, it is probably as a science fiction writer that I am best known.

  I began as a science fiction writer, and for the first eleven years of my literary career I wrote nothing but science fiction stories, for magazine publication only-and for minute payment. The thought of actually publishing honest-to-goodness books never entered my essentially humble mind.

  But the time came when I did begin to produce books, and then I began to gather together the material I had earlier written for magazines. Between 1950 and 1969, ten collections appeared (all of which were published by Doubleday). These contained eighty-five stories (plus four pieces of comic verse) originally intended for, and published in, the science fiction magazines. Nearly a quarter of them came from those first eleven years.

  For the record, these books are:

  I, ROBOT (1950)










  It might be argued that this was quite enough, but in arguing so, one is omitting the ravenous appetites of my readers (bless them!). I am constantly getting letters requesting lists of ancient stories out of me so that the letter writers can haunt secondhand shops for old magazines. There are people who prepare bibliographies of my science fiction (don’t ask me why) and who want to know all sorts of half-forgotten details concerning them. They even grow distinctly angry when they find that some early stories were never sold and no longer exist. They want those, too, apparently, and seem to think I have negligently destroyed a natural resource.

  So when Panther Books, in England, and Doubleday suggested that I make a collection of those of my early stories not already collected in the ten books listed above, with the literary history of each, I could resist no further. Everyone who has ever met me knows just how amenable to flattery I am, and if you think I can withstand this kind of flattery for more than half a second (as a rough estimate), you are quite wrong.

  Fortunately I have a diary, which I have been keeping since January 1, 1938 (the day before my eighteenth birthday); it can give me dates and details. [The diary began as the sort of thing a teen-ager would write, but it quickly degenerated to a simple kind of literary record. It is, to anyone but myself, utterly boring-so boring, in fact, that I leave it around for anyone who wishes, to read. No one ever reads more than two pages. Occasionally someone asks me if I have never felt that my diary ought to record my innermost feelings and emotions, and my answer is always, “No. Never!” After all, what’s the point of being a writer if I have to waste my innermost feelings and emotions on a mere diary?]

  I began to write when I was very young-eleven, I think. The reasons are obscure, I might say it was the result of an unreasoning urge, but that would just indicate I could think of no reason.

  Perhaps it was because I was an avid reader in a family that was too poor to afford books, even the cheapest, and besides, a family that considered cheap books unfit reading. I had to go to the library (my first library card was obtained for me by my father when I was six years old) and make do with two books per week.

  This was simply not enough, and my craving drove me to extremes. At the beginning of each school term, I eagerly read through every schoolbook I was assigned, going from cover to cover like a personified conflagration. Since I was blessed with a tenacious memory and with instant recall, that was all the studying I had to do for that school term, but I was through before the week was over, and then what?

  So, when I was eleven, it occurred to me that if I wrote my own books, I could then reread them at my leisure. I never really wrote a complete book, of course. I would start one and keep rambling on with it till I outgrew it and then I would start another. All these early writings are forever gone, though I remember some of the details quite clearly.

  In the spring of 1934 I took a special English course given at my high school (Boys’ High School in Brooklyn) that placed the accent on writing. The teacher was also faculty adviser for the semiannual literary magazine put out by the students, and it was his intention to gather material. I took that course.

  It was a humiliating experience. I was fourteen at the time, and a rather green and innocent fourteen. I wrote trifles, while everyone else in the class (who were sixteen apiece) wrote sophisticated, tragic mood pieces. All of them made no particular secret of their scorn for me, and though I resented it bitterly there was nothing I could do about it.

  For a moment I thought I had them when one of my products was accepted for the semiannual literary magazine while many of theirs were rejected. Unfortunately the teacher told me, with callous insensitivity, that mine was the only item submitted that was humorous and that since he had to haveone non-tragic piece he was forced to take it.

  It was called “Little Brothers,” dealt with the arrival of my own little brother five years earlier, and was my first piece of published material of any kind. I suppose it can be located in the records at Boys’ High, but I don’t have it

  Sometimes I wonder what happened to all those great tragic writers in the class. I don’t remember a single name and I have no intention of ever trying to find out-but I sometimes wonder.

  It was not until May 29, 1937 (according to a date I once jotted down-though that was before I began my diary, so I won’t swear to it), that the vague thought occurred to me that I ought to write something for professional publication; something that would be paid for! Naturally it would have to be a science fiction story, for I had been an avid science fiction fan since 1929 and I recognized no other form of literature as in any way worthy of my efforts.

  The story I began to compose for the purpose, the first story I ever wrote with a view to becoming a “writer,” was entitled “Cosmic Corkscrew.”

  In it I viewed time as a helix (that is, something like a bedspring). Someone could cut across from one turn directly to the next, thus moving into the future by some exact interval but being incapable of traveling one day less into the future. My protagonist made the cut across time and found the Earth deserted. All animal life was gone; yet there was every sign that life had existed until very shortly before-and no indication at all of what had brought about the disappearance. It was told in the first person from a lunatic asylum, because the narrator had, of course, been placed in a madhouse after he returned and tried to tell his tale.

  I wrote only a few pages in 1937, then lost interest. The mere fact that I had publication in mind must have paralyzed me. As long as something I wrote was intended for my own eyes only, I could be carefree enough. The thought of possible other readers weighed down heavily upon my every word. -So I abandoned it.

  Then, in May 1938, the most important magazine in the field.Astounding Science Fiction, changed its publication schedule from the third Wednesday of the month to the fourth Friday. When the June issue did not arrive on its accustomed day, I went into a decline.

  By May 17, I could stand it no more and took the subway to 79 Seventh Avenue, where the publishing house. Street amp; Smith Publications, Inc., was then located. [I told this story
in some detail in an article entitled “Portrait of the Writer as a Boy,” which was included as Chapter 17 of my book of essays Science, Numbers and I (Doubleday, 1968). In it, relying on memory alone, I said that I had called Street amp; Smith on the phone. When I went back to my diary to check actual dates for this book, I was astonished to discover that I had actually made the subway trip-an utterly daring venture for me in those days, and a measure of my desperation.] There, an official of the firm informed me of the changed schedule, and on May 19, the June issue arrived.

  The near brush with doom, and the ecstatic relief that followed, reactivated my desire to write and publish. I returned to “Cosmic Corkscrew” and by June 19 it was finished.

  The next question was what to do with it. I had absolutely no idea what one did with a manuscript intended for publication, and no one I knew had any idea either. I discussed it with my father, whose knowledge of the real world was scarcely greater than my own, and he had no idea either.

  But then it occurred to me that, the month before, I had gone to 79 Seventh Avenue merely to inquire about the nonappearance ofAstounding. I had not been struck by lightning for doing so. Why not repeat the trip, then, and hand in the manuscript in person?

  The thought was a frightening one. It became even more frightening when my father further suggested that necessary preliminaries included a shave and my best suit. That meant I would have to take additional time, and the day was already wearing on and I would have to be back in time to make the afternoon newspaper delivery. (My father had a candy store and newsstand, and life was very complicated in those days for a creative writer of artistic and sensitive bent such as myself. For instance, we lived in an apartment in which all the rooms were in a line and the only way of getting from the living room to the bedroom of my parents, or of my sister, or of my brother, was by going through my bedroom. My bedroom was therefore frequently gone through, and the fact that I might be in the throes of creation meant nothing to anyone.)

  I compromised. I shaved, but did not bother changing suits, and off I went. The date was June 21, 1938.

  I was convinced that, for daring to ask to see the editor ofAstounding Science Fiction, I would be thrown out of the building bodily, and that my manuscript would be torn up and thrown out after me in a shower of confetti. My father, however (who had lofty notions) was convinced that a writer-by which he meant anyone with a manuscript-would be treated with the respect due an intellectual. He had no fears at all- but I was the one who had to go into the building.

  Trying to mask panic, I asked to see the editor. The girl behind the desk (I can see the scene in my mind’s eye right now exactly as it was) spoke briefly on the phone and said, “Mr. Campbell will see you.”

  She directed me through a large, loftlike room filled with huge rolls of paper and enormous piles of magazines and permeated with the heavenly smell of pulp (a smell that, to this day, will recall my youth in aching detail and reduce me to tears of nostalgia). And there, in a small room on the other side, was Mr. Campbell.

  John Wood Campbell, Jr., had been working for Street amp; Smith for a year and had taken over sole command ofAstounding Stories (which he had promptly renamedAstounding Science Fiction) a couple of months earlier. He was only twenty-eight years old then. Under his own name and under his pen name, Don A. Stuart, he was one of the most famous and highly regarded authors of science fiction, but he was about to bury his writing reputation forever under the far greater renown he was to gain as editor.

  He was to remain editor ofAstounding Science Fiction and of its successor,Analog Science Fact-Science Fiction, for a third of a century. During all that time, he and I were to remain friends, but however old I grew and however venerable and respected a star of our mutual field I was to become, I never approached him with anything but that awe he inspired in me on the occasion of our first meeting.

  He was a large man, an opinionated man, who smoked and talked constantly, and who enjoyed, above anything else, the production of outrageous ideas, which he bounced off his listener and dared him to refute. It was difficult to refute Campbell even when his ideas were absolutely and madly illogical.

  We talked for over an hour that first time. He showed me forthcoming issues of the magazine (actual future issues in the cellulose-flesh). I found he had printed a ‘fan letter of mine in the issue about to be published, and another in the next-so he knew the genuineness of my interest.

  He told me about himself, about his pen name and about his opinions. He told me that his father had sent in one of his manuscripts toAmazing Stories when he was seventeen and that it would have been published but the magazine lost it and he had no carbon. (I was ahead of him there. I had brought in the story myself and I had a carbon.) He also promised to read my story that night and to send a letter, whether acceptance or rejection, the next day. He promised also that in case of rejection he would tell me what was wrong with it so I could improve.

  He lived up to every promise. Two days later, on June 23,

  I heard from him. It was a rejection. (Since this book deals with real events and is not a fantasy-you can’t be surprised that my first story was instantly rejected.)

  Here is what I said in my diary about the rejection:

  “At 9:30 I received back ‘Cosmic Corkscrew’ with a polite letter of rejection. He didn’t like the slow beginning, the suicide at the end.”

  Campbell also didn’t like the first-person narration and the stiff dialog, and further pointed out that the length (nine thousand words) was inconvenient-too long for a short story, too short for a novelette. Magazines had to be put together like jigsaw puzzles, you see, and certain lengths for individual stories were more convenient than others.

  By that time, though, I was off and running. The joy of having spent an hour and more with John Campbell, the thrill of talking face to face and on even terms with an idol, had already filled me with the ambition to write another science fiction story, better than the first, so that I could try him again. The pleasant letter of rejection-two full pages-in which he discussed my story seriously and with no trace of patronization or contempt, reinforced my joy. Before June 23 was over, I was halfway through the first draft of another story.

  Many years later I asked Campbell (with whom I had by then grown to be on the closest terms) why he had bothered with me at all, since that first story was surely utterly impossible.

  “It was,” he said frankly, for he never flattered. “On the other hand, I saw something in you. You were eager and you listened and I knew you wouldn’t quit no matter how many rejections I handed you. As long as you were willing to work hard at improving, I was willing to work with you.”

  That was John. I wasn’t the only writer, whether newcomer or oldtimer, that he was to work with in this fashion. Patiently, and out of his own enormous vitality and talent, he built up a stable of the best s.f. writers the world had, till then, ever seen.

  What happened to “Cosmic Corkscrew” after that I don’t really know. I abandoned it and never submitted it anywhere else. I didn’t actually tear it up and throw it away; it simply languished in some desk drawer until eventually I lost track of it. In any case, it no longer exists.

  This seems to be one of the main sources of discomfort among the archivists-they seem to think the first story I ever wrote for publication, however bad it might have been, was an important document. All I can say, fellows, is that I’m sorry but there was no way of my telling in 1938 that my first try might have historic interest someday. I may be a monster of vanity and arrogance, but I’m not that much a monster of vanity and arrogance.

  Besides, before the month was out I had finished my second story, “Stowaway,” and I was concentrating on that. I brought it to Campbell’s office on July 18, 1938, and he was just a trifle slower in returning it, but the rejection came on July 22. I said in my diary concerning the letter that accompanied it:

  “… it was the nicest possible rejection you could imagine. Indeed, the next best th
ing to an acceptance. He told me the idea was good and the plot passable. The dialog and handling, he continued, were neither stiff nor wooden (this was rather a delightful surprise to me) and that there was no one particular fault but merely a general air of amateurishness, constraint, forcing. The story did not go smoothly. This, he said, I would grow out of as soon as I had had sufficient experience. He assured me that I would probably be able to sell my stories but it meant perhaps a year’s work and a dozen stories before I could click…”

  It is no wonder that such a “rejection letter” kept me hotly charged with enormous enthusiasm to write, and I got promptly to work on a third story.

  What’s more, I was sufficiently encouraged to try to submit “Stowaway” elsewhere. In those days there were three science fiction magazines on the stands.Astounding was the aristocrat of the lot, a monthly with smooth edges and an appearance of class. The other two.Amazing Stories andThrilling Wonder Stories, were somewhat more primitive in appearance and printed stories, with more action and less-sophisticated plots. I sent “Stowaway” toThrilling Wonder Stories, which, however, also rejected it promptly on August 9, 1938 (with a form letter).

  By then, though, I was deeply engaged with my third story, which, as it happened, was fated to do better-and do it faster. In this book, however, I am including my stories not in the order of publication but in order of writing-which I presume is more significant from the standpoint of literary development. Let me stay with “Stowaway,” therefore.

  In the summer of 1939, by which time I had gained my first few successes, I returned to “Stowaway,” refurbished it somewhat, and triedThrilling Wonder Stories again. Undoubtedly I had a small suspicion that the new luster of my name would cause them to read it with a different attitude than had been the case when I was a complete unknown. I was quite wrong. It was rejected again.