It's Been a Good Life by Asimov, Isaac, 2002

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Isaac Asimov has been dead since April, 1992, but I still have a weird relationship with his ghost. I typically have a low opinion of his writing. I think that a lot of his story concepts were good enough, but as I sit here and think back on the Asimov stories that I have read in the past, I remember them being quite stilted, very dry and way too damn polite. I honestly do not see how he could have ever been elevated to the level of Heinlein and Clarke. But I tell you what: I'll be damned if I can put many of his books down once I have actually started them. My wife, who is not a SF fan at all, has told me that she can always tell when I am reading an Asimov book, because I will moan and groan as I leaf through the pages, but I won’t acknowledge her when she calls my name out because I am so engrossed. So why have I read Foundation so many times over the years? Probably because I love it. But I hate it too, so go figure. This week's review is of an Asimov book, but this one was put together from Asimov's journal posthumously by his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov. Its Been a Good Life was constructed from the same source material that Asimov used to write his own three-volume autobiography, but since it was put together by a different hand it has a slightly different feel to it. Does it feel more honest than the autobiography? Maybe a bit, but since it was written entirely by Asimov, you can tell that it is him speaking. In other words, none of the attitude or self-aggrandizement is missing.

The book is arranged chronologically, more or less. It starts at the time when Asimov emigrated to the U.S. from Russia at age two, and goes through many of the major events in his life, including his introduction to the Futurians:

At last I met people who burned with the same fire that I did; who loves science fiction as I did; who wanted to write science fiction as I did; who had the same kind of erratic brilliance that I had. I did not have to recognize a soul mate consciously. I felt it at once without the necessity of intellectualizing it. In fact, in some cases, both within the Futurians and without, I felt soul-mathehood and eternal friendship even with people whom I didn't really like.

His own pulpish ways:

I still write my fiction in that manner - making it up as I go along - with one all-important improvement. I have learned that there's no use in making things up as you go along if you have no clearly defined resolution to your story...

Fortunately the book also has much to say about the relationship between Asimov and John W. Campbell, about whom there has not ever been, and likely will never be a really good biography:

Campbell was a large man, an opinionated man, who smoked and talked constantly, and who enjoyed above anything else, the production of outrageous ideas, which he bounced off his listener and dared him to refute. And it was difficult to refute Campbell even when his ideas were absolutely and madly illogical. And illogical they certainly seemed to be to me, for he was always an idiosyncratic conservative in his view of life, whereas I was an idiosyncratic liberal - and we never agreed on anything. Yet although he stood somewhere to right of Attila the Hun in politics, he was, in person, as kind, generous, and decent a human being as I have ever met.

Asimov had a lot of conflict with Campbell during their lives:

For instance, in the story I made certain distinctions between the emotional reactions of Africans and Asians compared with those of Americans and Europeans. Campbell had suggested the passage rather forcefully and I had included it reluctantly, since I wanted to sell the story...After that I did my best to wriggle out of such situations. When Campbell suggested bits of business here and there, either in preliminary discussions or during a request for revision, I would agree, but then if I disapproved, I would just forget to include it, or I would twist it into something I found inoffensive. I'm not sure I always succeeded, but I did (it) almost all the time certainly.

And later problems that developed in Astounding bothered Asimov, though his loyalty for the man was never defeated:

(I)f Doubleday's stock was going up with me, Campbell's was doing down. Now that he had broken with dianetics, he grew increasingly interested in parapsychology or, as it is also called, psionics, or, simply, psi. Increasingly, the stories in Astounding involved telepathy, precognition, and other wild talents.

It bothered me that Campbell's predilections should be so reflected in the magazine. It bothered me that I should see so many of his editorial comments so quickly translated into stories by over cooperative authors. What's more, Campbell's editorials, which had grown to four thousand to six thousand words long in each issue, began to infuriate me with their ultraconservative and antiscientific standpoint.

I was having a stronger and stronger impulse to stay away from him, but the ties of love, and the memory of all he had done for me, kept me from ever breaking with him.

What comes through here loud and clear, is that Asimov was a competent, capable man, who doubted his abilities not in the least, and who loved what he did for a living. He surrounded himself with peers who could live up to his own high standards, and who loved him back. It really does seem to me that it was a good life. Jeppson obviously loved him a great deal, and this book is a fitting monument to that love. And that a different hand than Asimov's own created the thing certainly helped make this one easier to read. It also imparted more information, and was more open. It is in this volume that it was revealed for the first time that Asimov died of complications arising from AIDS, which he contracted after a transfusion with tainted blood during a bypass surgery in 1983. Through journal entries Jeppson makes it crystal clear that Asimov's inclination was to go public with the story, but his doctors and family convinced him to stay quiet, lest he fall into disrepute. Jeppson corrected that here and set the record straight, and made a passable attempt at showing what the decline in health was like for an early AIDS victim, when the disease guaranteed one a slow, miserable and untimely death. Certainly there was much, much more to Asimov's life than writing Golden Age SF. He was an educator, a lecturer, a toast master, an anthologist, an editor, and probably one of the most prolific authors of non-fiction of the twentieth century. And although he did willingly chain himself to his typewriter (and later, his word processor), he raised a loving daughter and kept romance alive in his marriage. That's my idea of a good life, to a "T."

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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