The Asimov That Was


Were they sideburns or mutton chops? Does it matter? (Illustration by Jay R. Thompson)

My imperfect memory tells me that the first grown-up book I read and enjoyed was “2010: Odyssey Two,” the sequel to the far more famous “2001: A Space Odyssey,” both written by Arthur C. Clarke.

I wasn’t seeking “2010” when I happened upon the book in the LaPorte High School library. Maybe I was looking for a book-report subject. I don’t know. But I ended up loving that book. Still, for some reason, 20 years or so passed and I still never read any Isaac Asimov.

C’mon! Clarke and Asimov? They’re like galaxies and supermassive black holes — they go together. In the last few years I’ve begun reading Philip K. Dick and Orson Scott Card, but their names are new to me — I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the names Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Many noteworthy and well-reputed authors have eluded my recreational reading and the reading required by schooling but, considering my enthusiasm for space and its exploration, the lack of Asimov in my literary diet has become unhealthy.

In July, to intervene and cure this deficiency, my youngest brother gave me a charmingly worn paperback of “The Planet That Wasn’t,” a collection of Asimov’s essays. Yes, Asimov wrote more than science-fiction. Not only that, he shines. Such wit! Such humor!

No, it’s more than that. Asimov is brilliant. I’m only into the third essay but the book has already become one of those sought-after literary experiences in which the reader feels they’re sitting before a large fireplace next to the author who, obviously in a smoking jacket and puffing a pipe for some reason, speaks directly and intimately with the reader. Anyhow, Asimov weaves a yarn and I pick up on the subtle quips, the humor between the lines, and the sly grins from the author.

As is often the case, this miracle of literature didn’t occur because the reader was special, but because the writer was a wielder of mystical literary powers the rest of us can only envy.

In this context, I was struck Monday night when the popular Facebook page “I fucking love science” posted a letter from Isaac Asimov to Carl Sagan from 1974.

Come to find out, Asimov wrote to or about Sagan more than once. I guess that makes sense. Asimov was, after all, doing the same thing as Sagan. They were ambassadors for science. And while many space geeks probably know Sagan better than Asimov, the latter’s writing was as captivating and as easy to understand as the former. In this special club of ambassadors also belongs, of course, today’s Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The three offer different flavors, but they’re all ice cream. Tyson’s writings and diplomacy are humorous, lighthearted, and almost universally accessible — a little grown-up at times, especially if you listen to StarTalk, but accessible. Sagan seems more about the awe, inspiration, and wonder of the universe than Tyson’s direct advocacy for science. And then we have Asimov. All I know of him is the paperback in my satchel.

While he maybe went about it in a way different from Sagan and Tyson, Asimov still made the mysteries of the universe accessible, from the formation of the solar system to Kepler’s Third Law (that’s sort of a joke because the two things are, in a way, about the same thing). But I get the sense that Asimov didn’t write to inspire children or to inspire people in general. It wasn’t advocacy. He was just having fun. Asimov wrote about the things he cared about in the way he felt like writing about them. After all, a man with sideburns on that scale couldn’t possibly be taking things too seriously.

A quick internet search and I begin to sense the size of Asimov’s shadow, of what I’ve been missing. Guess it’s time to start reading not only more of Asimov’s writing, but also time to read more writing about Asimov. Who was this guy?

In the mean time, I recommend you find an old copy of “The Planet That Wasn’t”. Some of the scientific facts are, due to the three decades of dust, naturally out of date. But the concepts are sound, and damn easy to take in. Reading Asimov is kinda like chewing on beef jerky with cracked peppercorns — spicy enough to be fun, but easily digested.

I leave you with a passage from Asimov’s essay “The Olympian Snows.” The author is describing his enjoyment of good titles. Sometimes, when he thinks of a good one, he’ll “deliberately invent an essay to fit around it.” Asimov was pleased with himself for having come up with the title “The Snows of Olympus.” Then things went wrong.

“Then, a few days later, when I was whiling away some moments at a newsstand, I suddenly became aware of the name of my good friend Arthur C. Clarke on the cover of Playboy, though I don’t remember how I came to be looking in that direction. Interested to see what my dear friend Arthur might have to say, I steered austerely past acres of female skin and reached the indicated page.

“—And do you know what Arthur had there? A very brief discussion on Mars, and the title he had tacked on was “The Snows of Olympus.” I’m probably the only person in history who gasped and choked and jumped up and down while staring at a page in Playboy that had no trace of womankind upon it.

“I had to think quickly and I did. The next time I meet my rotten friend Arthur, I intend to choke him and beat his head against the wall since it’s clear to me he did it on purpose. And meanwhile, I quickly changed the title of my article into something completely different, as you will already have noticed.”             — Isaac Asimov, from “The Olympian Snows”



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