It's Been a Good Life
by Isaac Asimov (Prometheus Books, 2002)
(This column was first published in the May 9, 2002 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
It was said of Anthony Trollop that he wrote more books than anyone else in history -- except, that is, for his mother. Whatever their publishing scores, their records even together have long been superceded by Isaac Asimov. The simple listing of all his books fills 16 pages at the end of the delightful autobiographical monograph, It's Been a Good Life, that has been edited from his writings by his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov.
Some examples among these hundreds of his books: 38 volumes of science fiction, 24 on general science, 68 on astronomy and, yes, 3 others about himself.
In fiction and non-fiction alike Asimov was both an entertainer and a clarifier. The latter is a most important but too often belittled role when it comes to science. The public needs to know about science if only to gain its support but most qualified scientists are poor expositors. Used to communicating only to their peers, they cannot modify their language and their approach to their subject in order to reach those less technically qualified. Asimov was a fully credentialed scientist armed with a chemistry Ph.D. from Columbia University who, almost in spite of this, continued to speak the language of the public. Thank goodness he did so in so many books. We have lost a wonderful and unfortunately irreplaceable expositor.
Even in his science fiction writing, Asimov brought his erudition into play. Every reader in this field knows and responds to his broadly applicable three rules of robotics.
In this book Mrs. Asimov stresses the entertaining side of her husband simply by quoting him and getting out of his way. And the stories are not only wonderful but they show a great heart. Here, for example, in Private Asimov's quotes his army sergeant speaking to Asimov's squad leader: "'Now this guy Asimov you might as well leave alone. He's got a 160 AGCT score and they ain't going to use him anywhere except behind a desk so don't waste time on him. He's the kind of stupe that's okay on those shit tests, but he don't know his right foot from his left and there ain't no use trying to teach him because he ain't got any sense. I been watching and I can see that.'
"After that I was ignored by every officer and noncom in the place.
"When I found this out, I was indignant beyond words. Not, you understand, that I quarreled with the commanding officer's opinion of me, which I thought was accurate enough and a credit to his perspicacity. What graveled me was that no one was kind enough to whisper the news to me so that I could relax. I would gladly have agreed to have continued to do my best to make beds, clean rifles, and march, but why should I not have done it with a song in my heart?"
And here he is later straining to avoid lengthening his time in the service. He is appearing before a committee of his superiors: "Finally, one of them asked me why I had not tried out for officers' candidate school. I suggested that my eyes would not meet the required standards, but he said that objection could be met. Was there any other reason?
"This question, I knew, was the jackpot, win or lose. If I expressed disdain for officer status, then I could stay in the army for life, as far as they were concerned, and be a private every day of it. If I expressed enthusiasm for officer status, they would have me sign an application for officer training. Neither alternative was bearable and I had to find something that was neither disdain nor enthusiasm and I had to do it without perceptible pause....
"'If my eyes do not disqualify me, sirs, then I don't think that there is anything in my intelligence or in my educational background that could possibly disqualify me. However, as I am certain you all know, it takes far more than intelligence and education to make a good officer. It takes initiative, courage, and a stability of character, which, to my regret, I don't think I possess. It is embarrassing to have to admit it, but if I lied on the subject in order to become an officer, the army would discover the lie quickly enough.'
"They didn't ask me anything more, and I was relieved. I didn't want to be an officer under any conditions and that in itself was a character trait that disqualified me, so that my statement was true enough. I had phrased it in such a way, however, as to leave them flattered to ecstasy."
Indeed, Asimov made his way out of the armed forces.
Dr. Asimov came from a Jewish heritage but far from practicing this faith, he adopted secular humanism, a way of thinking he describes in these words: "Humanists believe that human beings produced the progressive advance of human society and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alleviated, it is humanity that will have to do the job. They disbelieve in the influence of the supernatural on either the good or the bad of society, on either its ills or the alleviation of those ills."
And yet this is a scholar who wrote seven books about the bible. His approach to the bible is, however, as literature, not as fact: "I have always been interested in the Bible, though I can't recall ever having had any religious feelings even as a youngster. There's a swing to biblical language that impresses the ear and the mind. I assume that the Bible is great literature in the original Hebrew or, in the case of the New Testament, Greek, but there is no question that the Authorized Version (that is, the King James Bible) is, along with the plays of William Shakespeare, the supreme achievement of English literature."
He lets little religious nonsense get by him: "It seems to me that people who believe in immortality through transmigration of souls have a tendency to think that they were all Julius Caesar or Cleopatra in the past and that they will be equally prominent in the future. Surely, that can't be so. Since some 90 percent of the human race lives (and has always, in time past, lived) in various degrees of poverty and misery, the chances are weighed against any transmigrating personality ending up in happiness. If my personality, on my death, were to transfer into the body of a newborn baby, chosen at random, the chances that I would lead a new life that was far more miserable than the one I had left would be enormous. It's a roulette game that I do not wish to play."
And finally with regard to religion, this compelling humanist tells this story: "I once listened to a woman grow eloquent over the terrible way in which Gentiles did nothing to save the Jews of Europe. 'You can't trust Gentiles,' she said. I let some time elapse and then asked suddenly, 'What are you doing to help the blacks in their fight for civil rights?' 'Listen,' she said, 'I have my own problems.' And I said, 'So did the Gentiles.' But she only stared at me blankly. She didn't get the point at all...
"The whole world seems to live under the banner: 'Freedom is wonderful -- but only for me.'"
This eminently quotable man even had something to say in favor (at least tongue in cheek) about our weather. We could use this statement as a kind of motto for Buffalo: "I would not want to live in a weather paradise like southern California or Hawaii. [In our area] the change in rotten weather from one kind of rotten to another kind of rotten is very stimulating and keeps you on the move and the thoughts racing. To live in a salubrious climate just gets you lying under palm trees while coconut milk is dribbled into your mouth by a native girl and nothing GETS DONE. Well, nothing ELSE gets done."
The list of awards that he has won is almost as long as the list of his publications, but I came away from this lovely book with the certain impression that Isaac Asimov would be quite happy to go down in history simply as a successful teacher.-- Gerry Rising