Saturday, January 2, 2010

Asimov's Guide to Immortality

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of Isaac Asimov. His name is one that has become synonymous with science fiction, an association that has lasted for decades, but which is due only partly because of his work as a science fiction writer. Look over the five hundred or so books that have appeared under his name, and you’ll find twenty-two science fiction novels and sixteen short story collections, along with one novelization and thirteen collaborations. It’s a respectable output, but plenty of other writers have produced more and better-known works. So why is the name “Asimov” the one people think of when they think of science fiction?

The answer is that Asimov has an advantage that no other science fiction writer has. It is the reason his name remains in the public eye even today, eighteen years after his death. It is the reason you can still find his books sitting on the shelves of bookstores everywhere. It’s due, in short, to the fact that Asimov has a magazine named after him. It has been appearing since 1976; it still appears today; and as long as it appears, Isaac Asimov will remain the leading name in science fiction.

The story of Asimov’s Science Fiction can be traced back decades before the magazine’s debut. One can trace it back, in fact, to a science fiction story Asimov wrote in February 1941 called “Super-Neutron”. This story was the first expression of what proved to be a lifelong ambition of Asimov’s: to produce a series of stories that consisted of the after-dinner conversation of a group of friends. “Super-Neutron” took place at a monthly luncheon meeting held by four friends who called themselves the Honorable Society of Ananias, and who competed with each other in telling complicated but realistic-sounding lies. The story sold, and appeared in the September 1941 issue of Astonishing Stories, but Asimov was unable to follow up “Super-Neutron” with more stories of the Honorable Society of Ananias. As Asimov himself wrote in The Early Asimov, “There was never a second story, not even the beginnings of one, not even the idea for one.” Asimov made another attempt in May 1950 when H. L. Gold asked him for a story for the first issue of Galaxy magazine. He wrote “Darwinian Poolroom”, using as a model the conversations over lunch he had with his fellow faculty members at Boston University School of Medicine. Gold accepted the story, and it did indeed appear in the first issue of Galaxy, but his lack of enthusiasm was enough to convince Asimov not to produce any sequels.

When Asimov did finally achieve his ambition to write a series of after-dinner-talk stories, it was the result of a chain of events that began with a wedding that took place on June 7, 1943. That was the day that a chemist and science fiction fan named John D. Clark married operatic soprano Mildred Baldwin. Baldwin couldn’t stand Clark’s friends, who included many notable East Coast science fiction writers, and they returned her dislike. However, one of them, Fletcher Pratt, was able to devise a compromise: in 1944 he founded a men-only dinner club called the Trap Door Spiders. The club would have no officers and no bylaws; its only purpose was to allow its members, consisting of Clark and his friends, to meet for dinner once a month. This would enable Clark to socialize with his friends while giving him an excuse not to bring his wife.

Although Asimov was one of Clark’s friends, he did not immediately become a member of the Trap Door Spiders: at the time it was formed, he was employed full-time at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, which left him little time for social activities. After World War II, Asimov was drafted into the U. S. Army, then after his discharge he pursued a doctorate at Columbia University, then was appointed to the faculty of Boston University, all of which kept him too busy (and after his move to Boston in 1949, too far away) to join the Spiders. In fact, it was not until Asimov separated from his first wife and moved back from Boston to New York City in 1970 that he finally had both the time and the opportunity to join the Spiders.

After moving to New York City, Asimov made the acquaintance of actor David Ford, who lived in the same apartment building as Asimov’s girlfriend/future second wife Janet Jeppson. After seeing Ford in the musical 1776 on January 7, 1971, Asimov and Jeppson went out to dinner with him, and visited him in his apartment. They found that Ford had acquired countless curios, so many that they filled his apartment. Ford told them a story about how he once left a repairman in his apartment while he was walking his dog. When he returned, he became convinced that the repairman had stolen one in his absence, but that he had so many that he couldn’t tell whether or not one of them was missing.

The following month, Eleanor Sullivan, the managing editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, sent Asimov a letter asking him for a mystery story. Ford’s story was still in Asimov’s mind, and he was intrigued by the idea of hiring a detective not to find something that was missing, but to find whether something was missing. Furthermore, Asimov decided to use the Trap Door Spiders as a setting for the story. He created a fictionalized version of the Spiders called the Black Widowers, populated it with fictionalized versions of half a dozen of his friends (including John D. Clark), and had them try to figure out during their after-dinner conversation how to tell whether or not their guest had been robbed. Asimov finished the story on March 6 and took it in personally to Sullivan, whom he now met for the first time, and with whom he became fast friends. The story was published in the January 1972 issue of EQMM as “The Acquisitive Chuckle”, and when he read it there Asimov discovered that it was being touted as the first of a series. Asimov was not displeased. The Black Widowers would give him a chance to fulfill his long-time ambition of writing a series of after-dinner-talk stories. Asimov had no difficulty coming up with more story ideas for his Black Widowers, and over the course of the next five years he would appear from time to time at the offices of EQMM to hand in his latest story and flirt with Sullivan.

This was the state of affairs in 1976, when the publisher of EQMM, Joel Davis, decided that he wanted to expand the reach of Davis Publications. This was the era of the first big Star Trek conventions, and Davis decided to take advantage of this growing market by publishing a new science fiction magazine. Since he was already publishing Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Davis figured that his science fiction magazine ought to have the same sort of title: [well-known science fiction writer]’s Science Fiction Magazine. Davis had come to know Asimov well from his visits to EQMM, so he decided to name the magazine after him. On February 26, 1976, Asimov visited EQMM to hand in his latest Black Widowers story, and Davis put the proposition to him. Asimov very tentatively agreed, mostly because he didn’t think the project would get off the ground. He was wrong, though, and on December 16, 1976 the first issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, dated Spring 1977, was published.

The magazine went from quarterly to bimonthly to monthly publication, and was soon recognized by the science fiction community as one of the country’s top science fiction magazines, a reputation it has maintained ever since. Asimov himself passed away on April 6, 1992, but the magazine has continued (currently under the title of Asimov’s Science Fiction), and as long as it does, the association between Asimov and science fiction will continue.

And I think he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.


Nancy Green said...

this is wonderful. what a great post!
can I link to it? I was just talking to my husband about Ursula LeGuin and how bummed I am that the new blockbuster movie has space aliens that look like Abercrombie and Fitch models.
there's room for imagination, for sure.

Thomas Kalinowski said...

Link away, Nancy.

Nancy Green said...

We space cadets have to fly together.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

I think you are giving relatively short shrift to Asimov's general influence and predominance in the field; he was an early letter writer to the various pulp magazines, a favorite of John Campbell, a regular toastmaster at conventions and an anthologizer of some fairly influential tomes (Hugo Winners, Before the Golden Age). To attribute his lasting presence in the field to a magazine that is (sadly) fading in circulation and influence does not do the man justice.

He contributed in one fashion or another regularly to most of the magazines, was a go-to for television interviews, etc., etc. and his contributions to the field far exceed lending his name to the davis publication