[Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction by Michael White. Carroll & Graf, 2005. 287 pp. ISBN 0-78671-518-9.]
It isn’t often that I open a book and a review with a sigh, but that’s what I felt like as I approached first Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction, and then when I approached this review. Translated into words, that sigh might equate to “I do not envy Michael White his task!” Not before I read this brief biography, and not after.
It was this sympathy with his task that marked the reading experience first, rather than any specific reaction to it. I mean, Isaac Asimov played a major role in defining modern science fiction, and he was part of larger communities that did even more to define the field. Just list his friends, editors, and/or collaborators, and you’ve defined much of science fiction: Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, John W. Campbell, Lester del Rey, Robert Heinlein, Fred Pohl, Martin Greenberg....That handful of Asimov’s close companions has run the most influential magazines, published the most influential anthologies, defined specific subgenres, shaped trends, won just about all the awards out there (and some of the awards they didn’t win are those that exist to honor them, and bear their names). Just writing a biography that detailed the role Asimov played in these communities would have been challenge enough, and much needed. Given that the (liberally adapted) movie version of I, Robot only came out recently, it could be argued that we’re all still living in some version of Isaac’s world, and a guide to it would be great!
It gets worse. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time. He published books on damn near everything: literature, humor, math, history, and, of course, all branches of science. A biography that really explained just how one man managed all of this would be a pleasure indeed; one that explained how a Russian Jewish immigrant who labored long hours in the family store as a youngster would be even more impressive.
But wait. There’s more. Not only did Asimov write about every topic under the sun, he wrote about himself. He wrote a two-volume autobiography: In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Yet Felt. The first book was more than 700 pages long; the second was more than 800. Asimov also wrote countless columns, essays, letters, editorials, and speeches spelling out his positions on things, and reflecting on how he wrote; even to navigate the mass of raw material would be challenging. And appreciated.
Anything else? Oh, one more thing. On personal and professional levels Asimov was a) dearly beloved by many, including, clearly, biographer Michael White and b) possessed of some somewhat dark secrets, either in the eyes of his family or his own eyes. Try balancing love with respect for the dead sometime.
Why start by reviewing the list of challenges White faced? Because this book isn’t very good, and it’s worth marking just how tough White’s challenges were before I say that.
Why isn’t it very good, you may well ask. Well, the first reason is that even though White mentions that he didn’t meet Asimov in person, he was in many ways too close to his subject, if only textually and emotionally. He was also overmatched by Asimov’s intellect and writing talent. In practical terms, what this meant was that whenever White wrote about an incident about which Asimov had already written, the passage read like a blurry version of those pages from In Memory Yet Green, sort of an informed fan’s condensed version. White often reviewed exchanges in the same order that Asimov had, and reached the same conclusions. In some of the cases where White didn’t do so, he often simply added some summation of one of the other participants’ already published perspectives. For example, if a reader has read both Asimov and Ellison’s account of when the two men first met, White’s recounting of the event seems but a pale shadow of the two authors’ more lively renderings of the exchange.
Assume, then, that this biography is meant for readers who have not already bathed in the biographical writings of the science fiction world, but rather for the general reader. What does Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grand Master of Science Fiction offer these readers, and what does it do well?
First of all, IAALOTGMOSF (sorry, I had to) is clearly written. Given Asimov’s repeatedly stated preference for simple prose, I have to think he would have approved. Second, White has a handle on the core story. A new reader would come away a bit dazed by the recitation of Asimov’s output, but in a good way: White carefully marks out each stage of Asimov’s career, reviewing how it got started, the key players involved, the artistic, organizational, or professional difficulties Asimov overcame in establishing himself in these new areas, and, always, sadly, how Asimov’s near addiction to writing harmed his family.
White repeatedly underscores this element of Asimov’s psyche. Since Asimov himself essentially boasted about how much he worked, it was hardly a secret, but White does a good job of turning these boasts sideways and showing the pathological fears driving the need to produce. White also documents two or three other fairly open secrets. The result is a darker and even more complex portrait of this master of science fiction; The open secrets are threefold and at least potentially related.
The first is that Asimov’s reputation as a “lecherous old man”—someone who flirted with every pretty woman he met and stretched out a hand to pinch as many of them as he could reach—was a public face over an equally lecherous private person. That is to say, White documents several affairs, and refers to many others. This is rather obviously related to how Asimov’s first marriage disintegrated. The contrast between public author and private person caught in an acrimonious divorce is almost material for a Greek tragedy, and one wonders precisely how Asimov kept the wall between private life and writing so strong. The final “secret” is that Asimov was HIV positive and died from AIDS-related complications. While White indicates that the disease was contracted through blood transfusions during one of Asimov’s surgeries, he also indicates that the extended Asimov family had wanted the matter kept quiet. White reports that Asimov had wanted to make the matter public, but that “according to some sources, he was advised against this because of fears that the news would devalue his apartment in New York.” (White left the details of Asimov’s HIV status out of an earlier version of the book.) If true, this is sad—and reinforces White’s explicit statements elsewhere in the book about how important money was to Asimov.
So. White succeeds at evoking both Asimov’s prolific achievements and his all too human flaws. He also sketches some critical judgments of Asimov’s works, includes credible summaries of major works, and is willing to note where one of his idols stumbled. Those are all good things, and essential qualities for biographers. Why then do I say the book isn’t that good?
Well, besides the issues of emotional proximity and being overmatched mentioned above, this biography lacks one essential quality that it desperately needed: bold analysis. White occasionally speculates why Asimov did this or that, or how Asimov might have reconciled clashing ethical standards in different areas of his life (scrupulous financial honesty but cheating on his wife, for example), but is willing to present several pretty superficial scenarios and then assert which one he finds most likely.
In itself, this is only mildly disappointing. Where IAALOTGMOSF cried out for more intense analysis is not in such relatively clear matters of personal motivation, but in matters of the deep psyche, and of deep genre. (These might turn out to be the same thing.) To point out just the tip of the iceberg of unanswered questions, what was the relationship between Asimov’s personal experience and his fiction? If one wanted a place to start, one could narrow this question to sex. At one point White writes, “It is quite apparent that, although Asimov attributed his increased output of fiction and his greater powers of imagination to his sexual awakening of 1953, he deliberately chose not to interlink his real-life experience with his writing.” Um, okay...but shouldn’t the biographer do so? Where do the psychic impulses of sex emerge? How far does this prohibition extend? Did Asimov only make this deliberate delineation regarding sex, or did it extend to the realm of emotions? Of other human interactions? Most important for our purposes, how did this lack of integration between experience and writing influence his writing? His thought? Did it make his writing more successful? If so, why? And...And....
Sigh. Sigh. Here I go again. I enjoyed White’s biography of Asimov, and I’ve had a good long say about it....and I’m still sighing over what it might have been.