Asimov: portrait of a supergamma

The man who set the stage for modern science fiction in so many ways:

If you wanted to construct the most productive writer who ever lived, based solely on first principles, the result would look a lot like Asimov. He emerged in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, which rewarded writers who could generate reams of publishable prose on demand; he eventually learned to produce serviceable material after only two drafts. Asimov was a rapid typist; he was fond of enclosed spaces and hated to travel; he had a prodigious memory; and he specialized in popular science texts that could be researched straight from the dictionary, encyclopedia, or other common reference books.

When the playwright David Mamet was asked about his writing routine by John Lahr in The Paris Review, he said, “I’ve got to do it, anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because, if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.” One could say much the same about Asimov, whose existing tendencies were enlarged—by fame, a receptive audience, and supportive publishers—into a career that bears the same relation to the output of most writers that the Great Wall does to the work of the average beaver.

When you consider Asimov’s treatment of women, you find an identical pattern. As a young man, he was shy and romantically inexperienced, which was reflected in the overwhelming absence of female characters in his fiction. He openly stated that his relationship with his first wife was sexually unfulfilling, and it was shortly after his marriage that his fingers began to rove more freely. While working as a chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, he liked to snap women’s bras through their blouses—“a very bad habit I sometimes can’t resist to this day,” he recalled in 1979—and on at least one occasion, he broke the strap.

After the war, his reputation as a groper became a running joke among science fiction fans. The writer and editor Judith Merril recalled that Asimov was known in the 1940s as “the man with a hundred hands,” and that he “apparently felt obliged to leer, ogle, pat, and proposition as an act of sociability.” Asimov, in turn, described Merril as “the kind of girl who, when her rear end was patted by a man, patted the rear end of the patter,” although she remembered the episode rather differently: “The third or fourth time his hand patted my rear end, I reached out to clutch his crotch.”

It was all framed as nothing but good fun, as were his interactions with women once his success as an author allowed him to proceed with greater impunity. He writes in his memoirs of his custom of “hugging all the young ladies” at his publisher’s office, which was viewed indulgently by such editors as Timothy Seldes of Doubleday, who said, “All you want to do is kiss the girls and make collect calls. You’re welcome to that, Asimov.” In reality, his attentions were often unwanted, and women found excuses to be away from the building whenever he was scheduled to appear.

Given the psychosexual issues and socio-sexual shortcomings of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, it’s not at all hard to understand why the two or three generations of boys who grew up reading them, and were influenced by them, featured so many sexually maladjusted individuals.

I think I was fortunate in that although I read all three of them, I was much more influenced by their contemporary, Jerry Pournelle, who, despite his prodigious IQ, was the only socio-sexually normal one of the four of them. Even as a boy, the two things that most struck me about Asimov was a) his infelicitous names for his characters, and b) his total inability to describe women or intersexual relations.