Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934

    Isaac Asimov, ca. 1934.

The way I met Isaac Asimov was the way I met almost everybody else who became not only important to me as a teenager but a lifelong friend. Like every other kid in the world, I met a lot of other kids in those years from, say, 14 to 19 — in school, in the neighborhood, in the YCL, in the (don’t laugh) Olivet Presbyterian Church Thursday afternoon teenagers’ class, which I attended until I was 17. But those friends came and went and were gone, while many of the ones I met through fandom were friends all their lives — Isaac, Damon Knight, Cyril Kornbluth, Dirk Wylie, Dick Wilson. In fact, there are one or two — Jack Robins, Dave Kyle — whom I still count as friends, seventy-odd years later, although none of us are very mobile these days and it’s been a while since we got together.

I digress. (In fact, you may have noticed, I do it often.) In those days, the thing was that we kids had been captured by science fiction. And when a burgeoning fandom gave us a chance to meet other captives, we signed up at once.

Like most of us in the New York area, Isaac’s first clue that there was a way to join others came from reading Hugo Gernsback’s magazine, Wonder Stories. In an effort to improve sales, Gernsback had started a correspondence club, the Science Fiction League, and allowed some members to charter local chapters. One, the Q (for Queens) SFL, was in the New York area and was the point of first contact for most of the area’s newbies because they’d read about it in the magazine.

So the QSFL was where Isaac first showed up, but we Futurians kept an eye on their new blood. Anyone who turned up with an interest in writing sf as well as reading it, we kidnapped; that was one of the reasons the QSFL’s heads, James Taurasi, Will Sykora and Sam Moskowitz, weren’t real fond of us. And Isaac made it clear that he was definitely going to become an sf professional writer, as soon as he figured out how.

 
At that time Isaac didn’t give many indications that he would achieve that ambition, much less that he would become I*S*A*A*C  A*S*I*M*O*V. He was, if anything, deferential. Isaac was born Russian-Jewish, brought to America as a small child when his father, who had immigrated early, was at last able to send for his family.

Many of the Futurians had already begun to write sf stories, showing the mss. to each other and talking about the stories’ successes (few) and flaws (many). One or two of us had actually made some tiny sales. (Including me. I had had a truly sappy poem published in Amazing Stories.) A few of us had begun teaming up as collaborators. Isaac yearned, but he had to miss most of that. His parents owned a candy store at the eastern edge of Prospect Park, and their children had to help with the work of running it. Isaac got to our meetings when he could, but seldom to the writing sessions.

 
Candy stores are getting scarce in this 21st century, in Brooklyn and everywhere else. They did sell candy — nickel candy bars at least — but that wasn’t all they sold. They were one of the places where you went for your daily paper or favorite magazine, or for a pack of cigarettes (or for a single cigarette, price 1¢, if your bankroll was low), or for a malted or an ice cream cone if, as they mostly did, the store included a small soda fountain. They were definitely a family business, and both Isaac and his sister, Marcia, with a little help from his young brother, Stanley, had to be able to handle all parts of the business.

The easiest part was the candy bars; hand over the Milky Way, drop the nickel in the cash register and the sale was complete. The soda fountain took the most skill, and on hot summer days, when a lot of traffic might appear, it was usually Isaac’s mother behind the counter, though one of the kids might be drafted for washing and stacking the dishes. Far harder work was the newspaper stand, especially on Sunday mornings. In those days, New York still had a dozen or more daily newspapers, with a couple more from Brooklyn itself, and nearly every one of them published larger Sunday editions.

If you have seen even an Obama-era Sunday New York Times (several sections smaller than the old days), you have some idea of what a Sunday paper might look like. It comes in12 or 14 separate sections, several of them bigger than the whole paper is on weekdays, and they aren’t all printed on Saturday night. They couldn’t be. No newspaper, not even the Times, has the press capacity to print that many pages in a single session. So they would print a few sections that didn’t have to have late-closing deadlines — perhaps the Travel section, and Books, maybe the Sunday magazine — on, say, Thursday. Then, on Friday, they would print a few more, leaving only a manageable number of pages that had to be printed for the up-to-the-minute news on Saturday night.

Doesn’t sound like anything Isaac had to worry about so far, right? But those early sections were delivered to the news dealers early, too, and then all the vast last-minute stuff comes pounding in, probably around three or four a.m. on the Sunday morning, and all the papers need to be assembled and stacked on the newsstand and begin to be sold by maybe six.

Not every copy of every paper, no. When you’ve put together a dozen copies of the Herald-Tribune you can turn to start on the Brooklyn Eagle or the Times-Union. But they all have to be assembled some time, and besides somebody has to take the customers’ money when they start arriving and, often enough, decide they might as well pick up a pack of Camels and a Hershey bar as long as they’re there. And there are more of them than on a weekday, because the customers that would normally get their News or Mirror from a subway kiosk on the way to work aren’t going to work today. (And don’t forget that Sunday night you have to start bundling the unsold copies to return to the publisher for credit.)

So Sunday was not a day of rest for the Asimov family. The good part was that it was usually financially good, but it made it tough for Isaac to get to many sf gatherings.

 
Back in the Soviet Union, Father Asimov had been a respected professional, something like an American accountant., but in America, held up to the world as the land of opportunity, his Russian credentials weren’t accepted: thus the candy store. He was determined that his son be respected. He was quite aware that Isaac had the intelligence to become a doctor — or any other top profession, but M.D. was his first choice. And he was determined that Isaac not be trapped into any adolescent follies that might endanger achieving that prize.

For instance, there were all those pulp magazines (comics had not yet reached their time of dominance) that lined one wall of the store.

When any family member was alone in charge of the store and business was slow, there was no particular harm in their picking up one of the magazines and reading a few pages between customers, as long as they didn’t crease the pages. But now Mr. Asimov saw that there was unsuspected harm. They were distractions for young people who should be concentrating on studies, so he forbade them all, but especially Isaac, to read any of the pulps. And for Isaac that was the worst news ever, because printed on pulpwood paper, and thus lumped in with the Westerns and the detective magazines, were Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories and, most indispensable of all, Astounding.

This could not be born. Isaac reviewed his possible strategies. The obvious one was to sneak a copy of Astounding off the racks and only read it when his parents were out of the store. The worst part of that was that the apartment they lived in was just across the street, and from any of the major windows you could see right into the store. Isaac had no doubt that his father’s commands were for his own good and didn’t want to disobey them — even less wanted to be caught at it.

So he went about it a different way. In the store with his father Isaac pulled copies of Amazing, Astounding and Wonder off the shelves and laid them before his father. He pointed out that each one was described as science fiction. That is, fiction about science, and therefore a kind of reading that would actually help Isaac with his increasingly arduous science studies. After some thought, his father saw the wisdom of that. The ban was lifted, and from then on whenever there was a lull in the store — and all the soda glasses washed and all the homework done and the floors swept — Isaac was free to take the latest Astounding down and lose himself in the works of Murray Leinster and Doc Smith, as long as he didn’t crease the pages.

 
(Part 2 of the Isaac Asimov story comes along, as always, as soon as I write it.)

 
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30 Comments

  1. Grant Schindler says:

    As a long-time Asimov fan, I’m blown away to be reading new material about Isaac in 2010. Thank you so much for sharing these stories, and I look forward to the next “I don’t know how many”-minus-one installments.

  2. Jan.Erik L says:

    Thank you for the wonderful story about yourself and Isaac.
    It truly was wonderous to read :) I came here through a link on
    Scalzi’s blog. I have tweeted your story as well..

    I’m looking forward to reading more.. Thanks again!

  3. Charlotte says:

    Thank you! I will look forward to part 2…

  4. Betsy Dornbusch says:

    Thanks for this look into the early history of one of our Greats.

  5. atsiko says:

    First, I\’d like to second Grant. Now, to expand:

    As someone who grew up much to late to experience the pulps and early science fiction in general, stories like this are fascinating. To be able to get a peek into the early lives of great authors like Isaac even more so. Especially since the sort of formaive experiences described here are beyond replication.

    Now that so much of the fandom has virtual haunts on the web, there\’s not as much incentive for fan groups and cons and other sorts of face-to-face interaction. There\’s still a vibrant fan scene, of course–cons included–but the actualities of it seem so different than what\’s presented here.

    Definitely looking forward to the next post.

  6. Peripatetic Entrepreneur says:

    Please write what you can about Dr. Asimov. He is my acknowledged early teacher of science, history, mathematics and a dozen other subjects. I wrote about my feelings for him when Arthur Clarke died two years ago, here: http://www.steussy.com/blog/?p=288

    Thank you for this.

  7. Christopher says:

    Thank you this was wonderful. I look forward to catching up on your blog.

  8. Jerry says:

    That’s one reason I love Asimov. He achieves his ends using logic rather than resorting to subterfuge. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment.

  9. Stefan Jones says:

    I’m looking forward to part II.

    Today’s convenience stores fill the same role as candy shops vis-a-vis immigrants looking to get established.

    @Michael: Fascinating that the basic shell of the place is still intact. I guess Brooklyn isn’t as renewal-crazy.

    My grandparents had a restaurant — Fugazzi’s — in Greenwich Village; the whole building was torn out and replaced with a KFC.

  10. Andrew says:

    Both your writing and that of Isaac Asimov have been an inspiration to me growing up, and have filled my days with wonders end-to-end. To find your blog, and to read your writings about Mr Asimov, has made this a good day.

    I thoroughly look forward to reading more. Best of health and happiness to you.

  11. milieu says:

    Thank you so much! Isaac Asimov was, is, and always will be one of my favorite writers, and a personal inspiration. The dude truly never stopped learning, and I honestly do not know how his brain fit in one body. It’s amazing to hear something of the early days.

  12. Alan Kellogg says:

    If you can’t defy, co-opt. :)

  13. Jason Burnett says:

    Thanks for writing this – as a long-time fan of Asimov (or, at least, as long as one can be when one wasn’t born until 1973), I always enjoy reading more about him.

  14. E. J. Garcia says:

      Only recently I’ve grown a sudden and strange interest (read: obsession) with the works of Isaac Asimov; perhaps I’ll start with I, Robot and/or Foundation, right after I finish “Jem” by some old coot named Frederik Pohl.

    Either way, your new post on the early exploits and upbringings of Isaac has got me more pumped than ever to start reading up on this late, great master of the science-fiction genre. Sure can’t wait for part two of this I don’t know how many part saga!

  15. Ronan O'Driscoll says:

    Wonderful. Looking forward to more in the series.

  16. Teka Lynn says:

    Oh, Isaac. Pulling the wool over your father’s eyes like that. For shame.

    This is truly wonderful. I just read it aloud to my husband and we were both enthralled. Thank you for sharing stories of an marvelous writer in your own marvelous style.

  17. Robert Nowall says:

    I’m a little surprised at the response this one got—I guess Asimov remains a crowd pleasing subject. I enjoyed his work, and also there was a time when almost every letter I wrote to the magazine that bears his name wound up published.

    I can’t say I’m as enamored of Asimov now as I was thirty years ago. No doubt some of it involves my own evolving political positions—I won’t go into detail, seems I’ve been down that road too many times.

    I suppose one item in his autobiography was a warning sign I didn’t pick up on. He writes of how he grew up in Brooklyn, and managed to become a rabid Giants fan. I should’ve known something was wrong with him then and there…

  18. jsallison says:

    I have been a fan of Dr Asimov since about \’72 or so when I was handed an old, dog-eared copy of Analog in Jr high school (or mebbe it was Astounding) that had a story of his, and later, an F&SF issue with one of his columns. After reading all of his fiction, I branched out to his writings in other genres and was never disapppointed. I always thought it unfortunate that his work didn\’t really lend itself to film. And yes, I\’ve seen probably three different versions of Nightfall on television, and they all miss the mark. Started reading some other guy\’s stuff when the good Dr mentioned a guy with a last name of problematic pronunciation, something close to \’Pohl\’, see how well I did that?

  19. Jim Minz says:

    I’ve been enjoying your stories for more than three decades, Fred. I know that’s only a fraction of how long you’ve been writing them, but I wanted to say thanks, not just for the fiction, but for keeping the memories of science fiction alive. To peer into its humble and illustrious beginnings is an amazing treat.

    Be well,
    Jim

  20. Dwight Decker says:

    Somewhere, Asimov wrote about discussing science fiction with his father, I would guess after the ban was lifted. Papa Asimov referred to some writer with the mysterious-sounding name of “Zhool Vayrn,” and it took a while for young Isaac to figure out it was a Russian-influenced simulation of the French pronunciation of the author he knew in Brooklynese as “Joolz Voine.” (Above paraphrased from memory.)

    This blog item brought back a couple of unexpected memories for me. Back during my paper route days circa 1966, the Sunday Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch was printed exactly the same way. The funnies and other feature sections were delivered to the distribution office on Thursday and the more timely news sections showed up early Sunday morning. We paperboys were often impressed into service assembling the papers before loading our bikes and delivering them. So the practice of printing Sunday papers in stages must have been pretty universal.

  21. Brenda Krekeler says:

    What an excellent “true to life” story ! My friend Karen loves Isaac. I think he is amazing as well but well I’m in love with the Heechee series author. The Blue Event Horizon remains on my top 10 list. We have a very dedicated scifi club at scificinnnati.com We meet 2-3 times a month for over six years and we are a tight group. Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl are part of our ongoing, fascinating discussions. We will look forward to your next “Isaac story when you write it!” Thanks for such a unique insight.

  22. Manu says:

    Thanks Fred for the beautiful story. In his autobiography, Asimov touches only briefly on his relationship with his father and his family background – to the point where it almost seems like an afterthought to him. This seems to be a trope of many of the Futurians, including you – as if your true parents were in fact Doc Smith and Campbell. Any thoughts?

  23. Steve Boyko says:

    Fred, I had no idea you had a blog. I have been a fan of yours for a long time. I came here from John Scalzi’s blog and I am amazed to hear more about Isaac Asimov. Now to read back in your blog…

  24. cube says:

    Thank you for sharing that with your readers. Young Isaac was wise enough to figure out a solution for his problems. I’m not surprised.

  25. Mark Morris says:

    Yay! That was a fun read and very interesting too. Life affirming as well.
    Did you guys have New York accents back then?
    The comments above made me wonder about that. When I read your blog, I imagine your voice as midwestern–I suppose because I was born and raised in the midwest.

  26. Stu in Iowa says:

    Thanks for sharing, I haven’t read Foundation in quite a while. Maybe I’ll get all the books out of storage and read them again.

  27. Michael Parker says:

    It’s really fantastic to learn more about my hero, Isaac Asimov. My love of science fiction was kindled when my father (my other hero) gave me his copy of “I, Robot” when I was nine years old (might even have been a little younger than that). Luckily for me he had a treasure trove of SF in both hardcover and paperback; Pohl, Clarke, Niven, Card and many others.

    My great-grandparents were also Russian Jews who came to this country about the same time that Isaac did so I feel a deep connection with him. It may seem strange, but one of my dreams growing up was to meet Isaac Asimov. Alas, to my regret, I never did. Reading such personal accounts of him is the next best thing to having met him. Thank you. Being a great fan of yours, I hope that I’ll have the good fortune to meet you, especially as I am now an aspiring science fiction writer (just got an honorable mention in Writers of the Future).

  28. detective marcel says:

    Great post! Will try and see if I can find my old Foundation book and read them again. :)

  29. Artim says:

    Re: the Foundationi have to agree with this G. The weird thing is, I just was wondering if they were going to ever make a movie of the seeris a day before you posted this, and started searching the internets for any information about it. I found the same information linked to above. I have to agree with other comments I read that the first book doesn’t work well as a movie just cause it’s a bunch of stories that I think would be hard to connect, and if they somehow managed, it would be a connection that would anger fans. And I do not want to be angered. I think they should do a TV seeris as well. Then maybe I’d get cable.At the same time, I think it might be interesting to bring in the Robot Series as well, Elijah Bailey story first, followed by the foundation seeris what a set of shows that’d be