All this time Isaac was continuing to write for John Campbell — Foundation stories, robot stories, all kinds of stories. Perhaps his biggest hit for John, though, wasn’t exactly a story. It was what came to be called “a non-fact article,” this one a dead-pan scientific report on a compound called “thiotimoline,” which had the curious property of beginning to dissolve before it was added to a solvent.
For a time I was back in the literary-agency business, handling Isaac among most of the other top sf writers in the world. The publishing of science fiction in book form in the U.S. had just begun, and I wanted Isaac to get in on it. The trouble was that Doubleday, the most interesting of the hardcover houses, had decided that they wanted new works, not reprinted serials taken from the pulps. (It was a dumb decision, and later, when they realized what they were missing out on and reversed it they made a fortune out of those old Foundation and robot books.)
But at the time that was policy and I couldn’t argue them out of it. But I happened to know that Startling Stories had asked Isaac to write a short novel for them and then, when he did, rejected it. When I told him what I had in mind, he dragged it out of the dead file and handed it to me. “Fred,” he said, “this is my only copy. Be very careful of it, because if it gets lost, you are no longer my agent.”
That pulled my cork. I think it was the only time in my life that I was really mad at Isaac. I all but threw the manuscript back at him. “Isaac,” I said — well, I think yelled, “we’re talking about grown-up publishing here. You’re the author. You give me a manuscript, I try to get it turned into a book, but I’m not the one who provides the manuscript.” (There may have been a few expletives thrown in here and there.)
Anyway Isaac backed down, we were friends again, and Doubleday was glad to have the book. Isaac had called it “Grow Old Along With Me.” Walter Bradbury, the editor who wrote the contract, called it The Stars, Like Dust, and if I’m not mistaken, it’s still in print today.
If the established New York publishing houses were too proud to pick up reprints from the pulps, the fan-owned semi-pros who had started the whole thing weren’t. What I couldn’t sell to Doubleday or Simon & Schuster I mostly sold to them. Isaac’s robot stories, for instance, went to Martin Greenberg’s Gnome Press. When I handed the manuscript over to Marty, he said, “I don’t have to read this, I’ve already read them all. I’ll write a contract. But I need a title and there isn’t one on the script.”
He was right. No new title occurred to me, but I’d admired the title on an Eando Binder robot story — “I, Robot,” borrowed from the great Robert Graves novel, I, Claudius — and it wouldn’t matter what we put in the contract, because the title could always be changed and titles aren’t copyrightable anyway. So said the contract, and the Binder title just never got changed.
Funny story: Isaac had told me that “his” Three Laws of Robotics were actually given to him by John Campbell — Isaac had just tinkered with the wording. But when the movie people actually made a film called I, Robot, the story that was filmed had nothing to do with Isaac’s actual stories but was something written and published by another writer, and all they used of Isaac’s work was the title and the Three Laws. Neither of which had been his.
In 1948, Isaac got his Ph.D. It is the custom before that degree is granted for the candidate to appear before a sort of jury of people who already have the degree, who question him or her at depth about various details of the particular field of study involved. When Isaac went before the group for his orals, he expected they would make him sweat and they did.. Then, when he was just about ready to flee from the room, the most senior of his questioners said, “Now there is one subject we haven’t touched on, but it may be the most important of all. Mr. Asimov, what are the properties of the compound thiotimoline?”
And Isaac knew he had it made. As he had. Not only the degree, but also a job, teaching biochemistry at Boston University (not to be confused with the famous Catholic school, Boston College) and no one could take it away from him because he had been granted tenure. With his wife Gertrude — Gittel for short — and their two babies, he could now look forward to a comfortable and stress-free life in New England.
He was, however, not quite prepared for superstardom.
Final installments coming up when I write them.