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It's Been a Good Life by Isaac Asimov, edited by Janet Jeppson Asimov
(Prometheus, $25, 309 pages + 8 pages b/w photographs, hardback; March 12 2002.)

Culled largely from Asimov's three volumes of autobiography but with the addition of such items as extracts from letters to his wife Janet (who compiled and annotated this volume), cover scanIt's Been a Good Life is a sort of Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! portrait, delivered in bite-sized chunks, of the major Golden Age science-fiction writer, proselytizing rationalist, prolific popularizer of science, and author of lay introductions to a whole host of subjects from the Bible to the works of Shakespeare. It offers a thoroughly entertaining, fast read, complete with a complement of good jokes and revealingly funny anecdotes. More importantly, it introduces us to the company of a thoroughly engaging man; by its end one wishes one could have had Isaac Asimov as a friend, even if the friendship would on occasion have been an argumentative one. That is, really, more than one can expect from a straightforwardly biographical or autobiographical work; just as Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! achieved a more intimate introduction to Feynman the human being than did James Gleick's eminently worthwhile, highly readable, very comprehensive Feynman biography Genius.

Asimov, as we discover, never lost his fannishness. In part this may have been loyalty: decades later, he still expresses a fannish love for John W. Campbell Jr and his meetings with him, even though at the time he abhorred much that Campbell stood for and the abhorrence actually increased as time went on. And well towards the end of his life, Asimov still displays a fannish awe in his accounts of his encounters with the famous -- fairly frequent encounters, because by this time he was a living legend in his own right. This is not bad in a person, of course -- fannishness is, after all, nothing if not an expression of an overall enthusiasm for life, experience and discovery that we would all wish to cultivate in ourselves -- but it came as a great surprise (to this reviewer at least) quite how much it seems to have influenced Asimov.

And there was a downside to it. It is quite manifest that Asimov was a genius -- even without the inarguable evidence of his extremely high IQ, no one could have produced such an astonishing number of books on such a wide diversity of subjects without being a polymath of such a high order as to be indistinguishable from genius. Yet, while reading It's Been a Good Life, more and more one gets the creeping feeling that somehow all this genius was wasted. His early science fiction was brilliantly entertaining and of course did a tremendous amount to mould the modern form of the genre, yet at no time can one put a hand on one's heart and say that it was challenging; it made no attempt to alter the reader's worldview. Again, his countless works of nonfiction, while astonishingly impressive in toto are far less so when examined individually; perhaps most useful of all of them was Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, yet even this, as anyone who has ever made much use of it will attest, has to be cross-checked against other and more reliable sources before its data can be accepted and its occasionally oversimplified interpretations trusted.

Perhaps what is really the case is that the price anyone pays for being a generalist is that one's comprehension of at least some of the subjects within one's designated scope is superficial; the scope of Asimov's generalism was truly astonishing, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that he tended to be a bit sloppy on the detail, whether factual or conceptual.

There is, however, I think a little more to it in Asimov's instance than that. His otherwise admirable anti-elitism affected his writing as well. Take this comment:

Of course, it helps if you don't try to be too literary in your writing. If you try to turn out a prose poem, that takes time ... I have therefore deliberately cultivated a very plain style, even a colloquial one, which can be turned out rapidly and with which very little can go wrong. Of course, some critics, with crania that are more bone than mind, interpret this as my having "no style." If anyone thinks, however, that it is easy to write with absolute clarity and no frills, I recommend that he try it.

This simplified style became more pronounced in his fiction as the years went by; reading his later novels, from Foundation's Edge (1982) onwards, time and again one desperately wishes that he would put a little more of that unnecessary floridity into his style, because by then what had once been a laudable transparency had descended to pedestrianism. But, more significantly, his urge towards written clarity seemed to affect not just his prose style but also the content of what he wrote. The truth of the matter is that in some areas of knowledge, notably but not exclusively the sciences, a full understanding cannot be presented to the lay reader in terms that he or she will comprehend. Scientists such as Stephen Hawking and the vastly underrecognized Paul Davies have made an excellent fist of conveying at least a partial understanding of very abstruse ideas to the lay reader who's prepared to work at it; but most such readers give up by about page 3 because unwilling to put in the necessary cerebral effort. Very few readers would have that difficulty with an Asimov popularization -- which is to his credit -- but at the same time you don't get nuttin for free: you may come away from an Asimov popularization thinking you've gained a good understanding of the subject, but the chances are that the "clarity" you've so much appreciated will in fact have misled you entirely. Just as crystal-clear writing can obscure the reader's vision of the scene, so can crystal-clear explanation obscure understanding of ... well, of what in fact is not being explained, even though writer and reader may think it is.

All of that said, this is as charming a book as Asimov obviously was so charming a man. And it is very much an Isaac Asimov book rather than a Janet Jeppson Asimov book; his widow is to be commended for having made that so. In other aspects, however, her editorial hand is less assured; the editorial apparatus tends to be rather sloppily written, and she should not have been satisfied with such shoddy proofreading and indexing. For example, in the Bibliography we are told on page 190 alone not only that Asimov published a 1950 story collection called I, Robert but that the collaborations with Robert Silverberg (Nightfall, The Ugly Little Boy, Forward the Foundation and The Positronic Man) were solo efforts. That sort of error, presumably perpetrated throughout, is appalling in what purports to be a definitive bibliography of the author.

But it's the anecdotes, often deliciously self-deprecating, that remain in the mind. Some of these concern Asimov's loudly trumpeted rationalism, which brought him little popularity in the Bible-blinded USA of the late 20th century (he was named Humanist of the Year in 1984 by the American Humanist Association, and by the time of his death was still serving as President of that organization); others concern sf, and writing, and science, and publishing. All are of course personal tales, but the truly personal ones -- those involving family and close friends -- are perhaps the most affecting. Let me summarize the feel of this excellent book by quoting one:

    After my parents sold the candy story [sic: "store" is meant], my mother decided to go to night school and learn how to write. She knew, of course, how to write Yiddish perfectly and Russian just as perfectly, but neither used the Latin script. She had to learn that to write English.
    She learned quickly and in a very short time was able to send me short letters in painstakingly formed English writing. One of the teachers at the night school finally nerved himself to ask The Question (as the Asimov family referred to it).
    "Pardon me, Mrs. Asimov," he said, stopping her in the hall. "Are you by any chance a relation of Isaac Asimov?"
    My mother, who was four feet, ten inches tall, drew herself up to her full height and said, proudly, "Yes. He is my dear son."
    "Aha," said the teacher, "no wonder you are such a good writer."
    "I beg your pardon," said my mother, freezingly. "No wonder he is such a good writer."

Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 31 August 2002