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It's Been a Good Life

Isaac Asimov








  It's Been a Good Life

  Edited by



  Prologue 7

  Chronology 9

  1. Russia 11

  2. The United States 13

  3. City Child 17

  4. Religion 19

  5. Prodigy 27

  6. Becoming a Writer 33

  7. Science-Fiction Fan 39

  8. Starting to Write Science Fiction 43

  9. Writing Progress 57

  10. Famous Fiction 65

  11. During the War 71

  12. Postwar, and the Army 83

  13. Becoming a Ph.D. 91

  14. Postdoc 105

  15. Teaching, Writing, and Speaking 111

  16. Beyond Limitations 127

  17. Limitations Came 135

  18. Going On 137

  19. Major Nonfiction 143

  20. Writing and Thinking about Writing 147

  21. On Prolificity 151

  22. On Writers' Problems 155

  23. Miscellaneous Opinions and Quirks 159

  24. Sexism and Love 167

  25. Life While Famous 171

  26. The Bible 179

  27. Changes 183

  28. Shakespeare 187

  29. New Experiments in Writing 189

  30. More Working with Words 193

  31. Isaac, Himself 199

  32. More on Writing 203

  33. Heart Attack 211

  34. Extending Two Series 215

  35. Triple Bypass 223

  36. Humanists 231

  37. Senior Citizen and Honors 235

  38. Working on in Gathering Shadows 241

  Epilogue 251

  Appendix A. Essay 400-"A Way of Thinking" 257

  Appendix B. Isaac's Personal Favorite: "The Last Question" 275

  Appendix C. A Bibliography of Works by Isaac Asimov 289

  Index 307


  Human life is, or should be, an adventure in self-discovery, learning what talents one has and using them successfully. Isaac Asimov knew he'd had this adventure to the fullest and, at the end, said "It's been a good life."

  No one but Isaac could tell the genuine story of that good life. Fortunately, he did-in short pieces, letters, and three large, detailed volumes of autobiography. Much of this autobiographical material is now out of print or has never been collected in book form.

  At the request of Prometheus Books, I have tried to create a onevolume condensation of his autobiography that is not primarily chronological but concentrates on what Isaac wrote about his life as a writer and as a humanist. I have also used excerpts of letters-only those he wrote to me-and I've added his favorite story and an essay on his thoughts about science.

  The epilogue is a revised version of one I wrote for the posthumously published third volume of his autobiography. His daughter, Robyn, and I decided that the new epilogue should reveal the true story of Isaac's final illness and death.

  Throughout the book, my own comments and explanations are in brackets.

  Janet J. Asimov





  I am not impressed by ancestry, since if I could trace my origins to Judas Maccabeus or to King David, that would not add one inch to my stature, either physically, mentally, or ethically. It's even possible that my ancestry might not move in the direction of ancient Israel at all.

  About 600 C.E., a Turkish tribe, the Khazars, lived in what is now southern Russia. They established an empire that reached its peak about 750 C.E., [and] about that time, the Khazars adopted Judaism as the state religion, [probably] to keep from falling under the influence of either the Byzantine Christians or the Arab Moslems, who were busily engaged in the first part of their centuries-long duel.

  After 965, the Khazars were through as an organized power, but Judaism may have remained, and it may well be that many East European Jews are descended from Khazars and the people they ruled. I may be one of them. Who knows? And who cares?

  My mother [Anna Rachel Berman] had blue eyes, and in her youth, light hair. Though my father [Judah] was brown-eyed and brown-haired, there must have been a recessive blue-eyed gene there too, for my brother, my sister, and I all have blue eyes. My hair was brown, but both my brother and sister had reddish hair. My brother's daughter has bright red hair and blue eyes; my own daughter has blond hair and blue eyes. What's more, I've got high Slavic cheekbones.

  Where did all this come from? Surely not from any Mediterranean or Turkish people. It had to be of Slavic origin and Scandinavian beyond that-plus a bit of Mongol to account for my B-type blood.

  The date of my birth, as I celebrate it, was January 2, 1920. It could not have been later than that. It might, however, have been earlier. Allowing for the uncertainties of the times, of the lack of records, of the Jewish and Julian calendars, it might have been as early as October 4, 1919. My parents were always uncertain and it really doesn't matter.

  I was born in the little town of Petrovichi, in the USSR, fifty-five miles due south of Smolensk (where a great battle was fought during Napoleon's invasion of 1812, and another during Hitler's invasion of 1941). It is farther north than the territory of any of the states but Alaska.

  According to my father's golden memories, I was "the healthiest possible" baby for two years and then I got double pneumonia. In later years, my mother told me that seventeen infants had fallen ill and that I was the only survivor [because after] the doctor had given me up she held me in her arms without ever letting go until I had recovered.

  My father was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. My mother was literate and could read and write both Russian and Yiddish. They spoke Russian to each other when they wanted to discuss something privately. Had they spoken to me in Russian, I would have picked it up like a sponge and had a second world language.

  It would have been good to know the language of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Doestoevski. [But] allow me my prejudice: surely there is no language more majestic than that of Shakespeare, Milton, and the King James Bible, and if I am to have one language I know as only a native can know it, I consider myself unbelievably fortunate that it is English.



  In 1922, after my sister, Marcia, was born, my father decided to emigrate to the United States. My mother had a half brother living in New York who was willing to guarantee that we would not become a charge on the country; that, plus permission from the Soviet Government, was all we needed.

  I am not sorry we left. I dare say that if my family had remained in the Soviet Union, I would have received an education similar to the one I actually did get, that I might well have become a chemist and even a science-fiction writer. On the other hand, there is a very good chance that I would then have been killed in the course of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 to 1945, and while I hope I would have done my bit first, I am glad I didn't have to. I am prejudiced in favor of life.

  My father came to the United States in the hope of a better life for his children, and this he certainly achieved. He lived to see one son a successful writer, another son a successful journalist, and a daughter happily married. However, this was at great cost to himself.

  In Russia, he was part of a reasonably prosperous merchant family, an educated man looked up to by those about him for his learning. In the United States, he found himself penniless ... and virtually illiterate, for he could not read or even speak English. He turned his hand to any job he could get and af
ter three years had saved enough money for a down payment on a small mom-and-pop candy store and our future was assured-and shaped.

  In Russia, my mother had been the oldest of numerous siblings and had to take care of them in addition to working in her mother's store. In the United States, she had to raise three children and work endless hours in the candy store ...

  All in all, my family was never together and I never interacted with any of them except in the context of the candy store. It was in that respect that I was orphaned in a functional sense. In another sense, matters were quite the reverse. My parents were always home; I a/wnvs knew where they were, so that I was too densely sheltered.

  Then again [thanks to the long working hours], we could have no social life, so I interacted with no one but my immediate family. That, too, twisted and distorted my life and my personality in ways that must be all too apparent even now.

  Despite all that education and experience can do, I retain a certain level of unsophistication that I cannot eradicate and that my friends find amusing ... I suspect that I am never quite as unsophisticated as they think I am, but I don't mind.

  No one can possibly have lived through the Great Depression without being scarred by it.... No "Depression baby" can ever be a yuppie. No amount of experience since the Depression can convince someone who has lived through it that the world is safe economically. One constantly waits for banks to close, for factories to shut down, for the pink slip of discharge.

  Well, the Asimov family escaped. Not by much. We were poor, but we always had enough to put food on the table and to pay the rent. Never were we threatened by hunger and eviction. And why? The candy store. It brought in enough to support us. Only minimally, to be sure, but in the Great Depression, even minimally was heaven [with the price of incredibly long working hours for Isaac's parents and for himi....

  I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I'm not taking money and making change; I'm not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never very good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do-but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.

  I can only say that there were certain advantages offered by the candy store that had nothing to do with mere survival, but, rather, with overflowing happiness, and that this was so associated with the long hours as to make them sweet to me and to fix them upon me for all my life. [And Isaac goes on to describe finding science-fiction magazines for sale in the candy store] ...

  The science-fiction magazines were the first pulp magazines I was allowed to read. That may have been part of the reason that, when the time came for me to be a writer, it was science-fiction that I chose as my medium.

  Another reason was science fiction's more extended grasp on the young imagination. It was science fiction that introduced one to the universe, in particular to the solar system and the planets. Even if I had already come across them in my reading of science books, it was science fiction that fixed them in my mind, dramatically and forever ...

  However trashy pulp fiction might be, it had to be read. Youngsters avid for the corny, lightning-jagged, cliche-ridden, clumsy stories had to read words and sentences to satisfy their craving. It trained everyone who read it in literacy, and a small percentage of them may then have passed on to better things ...

  In general, the trend over the last half century or so has been away from the word to the picture. The comic magazines increased the level of looking, decreased the level of reading. The television set has carried this to an extreme. Even the slick magazines found themselves dying because of competition with the picture magazines of the 1940s and the girlie magazines that followed.

  In short, the age of the pulp magazine was the last in which youngsters, to get their primitive material, were forced to be literate. Now ... true literacy is becoming an arcane art, and the nation is steadily "dumbing down."



  [About neighborhood games] I refused to play for keeps. What I wanted to do was merely win for the honor of winning and I did not want to confuse this with material gain. This was called "playing for fun." . . . My father approved of my refusal to play for keeps. In fact, he was dubious about my playing for fun, since he felt that my time could be spent much more instructively practicing my reading or studying or trying to think great, thoughts.

  To my father, any boy who played ball in the street was a "bum" and was clearly in training to become a "gangster." ... "Remember, Isaac," he would say, "if you hang around with bums, don't think for a minute you will make a good person out of the bum. No! That bum will make a bum out of you."

  The result was that since I didn't play punchball often enough to develop real skill, I was an undesirable choice for a team. I developed a series of solitary ball games ...

  [In the neighborhood] the cheers, the arguments, the screaming must have been unbearable to people trying to carry on ordinary occupations. The thunk-thunk-thunk, steady and unwearying over the house, of my ball against a wall must have driven many a person insane, too. The noise was an inseparable part of the world.

  And, of course, it was pleasure. I have never been able to work up much sympathy for those who mourn the plight of city children crowded into their nasty streets. When I think back on the children of my childhood, all I can remember is that those nasty streets belonged to us and that the boisterous competition and the noisy excitement were the very breath of life to us.

  Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the thirties, especially in warm weather. Everyone would be sitting on their stoops, since air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television without exception. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops, which were thus full, and the very fullness served as an inhibition to street crime. People were everywhere, talking, laughing, gossiping, and the roadways were relatively empty.

  I would walk all over the neighborhood, daydreaming. In later years I channeled the daydreams into material for fiction, but in Decatur Street, I still hadn't reached that stage of practicality, and my daydreams were just invented and thrown away.

  To those who are not bookworms, it must be a curious thought that someone would read and read, letting life with all its glory pass by unnoticed, wasting the carefree days of youth, missing the wonderful interplay of muscle and sinew. There must seem something sad and even tragic about it, and one might wonder what impels a youngster to do it.

  But life is glorious when it is happy: days are carefree when they are happy: the interplay of thought and imagination is far superior to that of muscle and sinew. Let me tell you, if you don't know it from your own experience, that reading a good book, losing yourself in the interest of words and thoughts, is for some people (me, for instance) an incredible intensity of happiness.

  If I want to recall peace, serenity, pleasure, I think of myself on those lazy summer afternoons, with my chair tipped back against the wall loutside the candy store], the book on my lap, and the pages softly turning. There may have been, at certain times in my life, higher pitches of ecstasy, vast moments of relief and triumph, but for quiet, peaceful happiness, there has never been anything to compare to it.



  One of the ways [in the USSR] a Jew could ... work for a new world of social equality, of civil liberty, of democracy, would be to shake off the dead hand of Orthodox Judaism [which J dictates one's every action at every moment of the day and enforces differences between Jew and Gentile that virtually make certain the persecution of the weaker group.

  It followed, then, that my father, when he came to the United States and was freed of the overwhelming presence of his father, could turn to a secular life. Not entirely, of course. Dietary laws are hard to break, when you've been taught that the flesh of swine
is the broth of hell. You can't entirely ignore the local synagogue; you are still interested in biblical lore.

  However, he didn't recite the myriad prayers prescribed for every action, and he never made any attempt to teach them to me. He didn't even bother to have me bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen-the rite whereby a young boy becomes a Jew with all the responsibilities of obeying the Jewish law. I remained without religion simply because no one made any effort to teach me religion-any religion.

  To be sure, at one period in 1928, my father, feeling the need for a little extra money, undertook to serve as secretary for the local synagogue. To do so, he had to show up at the synagogue services and, on occasion, took me with him. (I didn't like it.) He also, as a gesture, entered me in Hebrew school, where I began to learn a little Hebrew. Since that meant learning the Hebrew alphabet and its pronunciation, and since Yiddish makes use of the Hebrew alphabet, I found 1. could read Yiddish.

  My father didn't stay secretary long, he couldn't swing both it and the candy store. After some months, therefore, I was taken out of Hebrew school, to my great relief, for I didn't like it either. I didn't like the rote learning, and I didn't see the value of learning Hebrew.

  I may have been mistaken in this. Learning anything is valuable, but I was only eight years old and hadn't quite got that into my head. One thing, though, remained from this early period and from my father's lectures which he would illustrate with biblical quotations. I gained an interest in the Bible. As I grew older, I read the Bible several times, [but I science fiction and science books had taught rre their version of the universe and I was not ready to accept the Creation tale of Genesis or the various miracles described throughout the book. My experience with the Greek myths (and later, the grimmer Norse -nyths) made it obvious to me that I was reading Hebrew myths.

  There was no trauma about it, no soul-searching, no internal crisis, no troubled discussions with my parents or anyone else. There nerely came a time, probably before I was thirteen, when I found myself accepting atheism as matter-of-factly as I had previously accepted religion. Nor have I ever wavered in this point of view since. The universe I live in consists of matter and energy only, and that doesn't make me in the least bit uncomfortable.