The Good Doctor’s Voice
Isaac Asimov would have turned 94 today. Sort of.
I used have a ritual, every time I entered a bookstore. Between of the ages of (say) 12 and 16, I might glance at the magazine rack or the new book section, but after a few minutes I'd head for science fiction and fantasy, where I'd immediately look for the A's. For Isaac Asimov.
Not that I expected to find any new titles. By the time I discovered his work, Asimov had been dead for a couple of years, and his publishers had mostly finished collecting his odds and ends into a few final books.
So why did I keep gravitating to that part of the shelves? I couldn't have explained it then. Looking back, I think I wanted to reassure myself that he was still there. Still waiting for someone else to discover him.
There's nothing unusual, I think, about looking back and searching for personal origin stories, but it may be particularly tempting if you happen to have a certain geeky mind-set. And if you do, well, there's a good chance that those origins will be geeky.
For me, there are two beginnings. There's the 6-year-old Anthony, crying loudly after watching the astoundingly bloody opening of Jaws: The Revenge; to finally shut me up, my dad bought me my very first comic book. And there's me four or five years later, wandering the Borders bookstore near my home and stumbling across a paperback called Foundation.
I still remember staring at the cover by Michael Whelan, with an old man in a wheelchair, surrounded by a futuristic city. I remember reading the introduction and hearing, in my head, a friendly voice that told me about the distant world of the 1940s, when Asimov wrote the stories I was about to read. And I remember how that introduction eased me into the far future of Foundation, with its vast Galactic Empire.
Most of all, I remember finishing the book and thinking: More. Now. I tore through the rest of the original trilogy, then the sequels and prequels that he wrote decades later. At the end of his career, Asimov tied the Foundation and Robot series together, so it was natural for me to make the leap from Forward the Foundation to The Caves of Steel, then to The Naked Sun, then to the rest of his science fiction.
Eventually I finished the futuristic stuff, so I turned to everything else. Asimov famously boasted about writing a book in every major class of the Dewey Decimal system, and I followed him to the mystery section, to science, to Shakespeare, and to history — I even managed to finish his 700-page doorstopper, Asimov's Chronology of the World, on a long family road trip. (Sadly, I never made it to his volumes of dirty limericks.)
And as I followed him, I was learning. As a teenager, you're ready to embrace your favorite authors' big ideas, but even as an adult, Asimov's core tenets stay with me. (For one thing, valuing rationality above superstition. For another, actually caring about what the world will be like in a hundred or a thousand years.)
That's not all I was learning. See, one way he managed to attach his name to such a staggering number of books (nearly 500, though the exact total depends on how you count) was by editing a long list of anthologies, many of them collecting classic science fiction. Until then, I'd only read a few scattered books in the genre: Dune (because of the computer game), 2001 (because of the movie).
By the time I was done with the anthologies, I wasn't just an Isaac Asimov fan, but a science fiction fan too.
It's easy to see his shortcomings. Asimov's books feature large casts of characters, but those characters are rarely memorable. Many of his most famous stories consist of scene after scene in which people stand around and argue about abstract ideas. And although it may be unfair, I think a contemporary reader can't help but notice that Asimov's worlds, for all their super-intelligent robots and galaxy-spanning starships, are obviously rooted in the '40s and '50s — if you read the Foundation trilogy, you'll find a curious absence of personal computers, and you'll realize that virtually every scientist and politician is a man.
In spite of all that, I keep coming back for the Asimovian voice, the one he used no matter what he was writing. Fact or fiction, the Good Doctor always convinced you that ideas matter and the universe can be explained. There are times, I admit, when the voice can feel a little smug, a little insufficient, but it's still an important voice, a comforting one. When I'm looking for pure reading pleasure, it's the voice I return to.
There's also the sheer scale of his best work. I'm not talking about length (though the final novels did get pretty long), but rather the scope of his vision. If one of fiction's virtues is its ability to take us out of our own heads, Asimov goes even further, encouraging us to look beyond our daily needs, beyond our friends and family, beyond our countries, beyond our world and the times in which we live. The ultimate expression of this idea may be "The Last Question," a story that covers the lifespan of the universe in fewer than 5,000 words.
Even on the relatively smaller scale of the Foundation books, I still find deep (if slightly dry) pleasure in watching each generation of characters struggle with galactic history. Over the course of hundreds of years, the books dramatize the simple fact that everything changes — there's no all-encompassing defeat of evil, no grand utopia at the end, just one political or economic problem that has to be solved, and then a different one, and then another. To me, that felt real in a way that outweighed the dated technology.
Asimov loved cities, especially New York. That's borne out by his history — after growing up in New York, his work took him to Philadelphia and then Boston, but in 1970, he returned to Manhattan for good. And it's clear in his fiction — in the grandeur the Foundation books give to the planet-city of Trantor, and in the entirety of The Caves of Steel, which describes a future version of New York with loving detail.
After regularly visiting New York for years, I finally moved here myself at the end of 2013. I flew in from a conference in Berlin, and as I walked off the plane, I felt the usual surge of excitement, but different this time, because I was here to stay.
As I waited in line to get my passport checked, I remembered my first trip to New York, 12 years earlier. It had come at the end of a family visit to the East Coast, and I was feeling awkward and insecure, because my mom had insisted on touring Princeton, where I'd been wait-listed, and where I was constantly surrounded by kids who had actually been accepted.
Then we drove northeast and looked across the water at Manhattan. The city's real-world skyline was impressive enough its own, but to me, it was overlaid with images from my imagination. When I looked at Manhattan, I saw Metropolis, I saw Gotham City, and more than anything, I saw Trantor.
At the beginning of In Memory Yet Green, the first of several memoirs (yes, he was prolific on that front too), Asimov noted that the date of his birth is unknown: "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." However, he insisted, "It doesn't matter," and Jan. 2 is the day that he chose to celebrate.
So happy birthday, Isaac Asimov. I may no longer look for you every time I enter a bookstore, but I know you'll be on those shelves for a long time. You'll certainly be on mine.