Isaac Asimov, 1965.

Isaac Asimov, 1965.

All this time Isaac was continuing to write for John CampbellFoundation 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.

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  1. Jessica says:

    I am loving these stories! Thanks so much for sharing them!

  2. Jeff Zugale says:

    Man, how I love reading this stuff, Fred, it’s all pure gold and an interesting contrast with some of the stuff he wrote about himself. Marvelous!

  3. kaellinn18 says:

    The facts surrounding “I, Robot” are fascinating. I knew that the movie was nothing like the stories he’d written, but I had no idea that Asimov came up with neither the title of his book, nor the three laws. I love this blog!

  4. Robert R Chase says:

    I hesitate to correct Fred Pohl, but I am pretty sure “Grow Old Along With Me” became “Pebble in the Sky.” It was one of the first books I snuck out of the adult side of the library when I was too young to be allowed there. Lucky I was big for my age so it took a while for them to catch me!

  5. Lawrence Watt Evans says:

    The movie did use some of Dr. Asimov’s character names, in very roughly similar roles to those he’d given them.

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks for sharing all your memories with us; they’re fascinating, insightful, and fun. Your blog really has really improved the Internet’s signal-to-noise ratio, and I’m looking forward to reading future entries.

  7. Andrew says:

    Mr Pohl, thank you for your continued writings. I am finding them intriguing, enthralling, and thoroughly enjoyable to read through. Long may it continue.

  8. leslie devries says:

    Thanks so much–I have been enjoying all these so much. Aren’t we lucky to have the ‘net so I can go look up thiotimoline!

  9. supergee says:

    I think the Asimov book was Pebble in the Sky.

  10. Raul Duran says:

    Beautiful post Sr.

    Thank you for sharing such an insight into that wonderful age in Science Fiction. I could bet my house (glad I did not) on Dr. Asimov writing/inventing the Three Laws of Robotics, I feel a little sad now to find out he did not.

    Please do keep on sharing this wonderful stories with us.

    Sincerely a fan from Mexico.

  11. Gideon Rogers says:

    Mr Pohl – at last. To hear how favourite works came to be, not just as visions but collaborative constructions. This is compelling reading. Thank you for sharing these memories with us. Another plus, is that it will make the future Pohl constructed at some far time from your audit trail of works, still more convincing. We just need a few more details…..

  12. Johnny Pez says:

    Yup, the first book was Pebble in the Sky. The Stars, Like Dust was the second Doubleday novel.

  13. Watson Ladd says:

    I think Isaac Asimov remembered his defense a bit differently. In his memoirs he says the question was “what are the thermodynamic properties of resublimated thiotimoline?”. It’s still a wonderful story either way and it is always fun reading about these tales behind the tales.

  14. Erica Ginter says:

    The memory of thiotimoline is alive and well. One of our cats is named Thiotimoline because he purrs before you pet him. My husband’s parents are both chemists, and the puzzled looks on their faces when we told them our new cat’s name were priceless. It was a chemical, obviously, but one they had never heard of! They much appreciated the joke when it was explained.

  15. Tom Galloway says:

    Just to be clear, getting a Ph.D. does not automatically result in getting tenure. Once one gets a Ph.D. and a job as a tenure-track professor (which increasingly is less and less the case), it\’s usually around 5-7 years before one comes up for tenure. Which, depending on the school, can easily be as scary a process as the Ph.D. exam. There are some schools and departments, particularly at places like Harvard and Yale, that almost never give their junior faculty tenure, preferring to recruit already tenured at other schools\’ faculty for their tenured positions. If I\’m recalling correctly from his autobiography, Asimov was not an automatic shoo-in for tenure at BU due to a combination of relatively weak research results and personality clashes with some of the administration, although of course he did get it.

  16. Tina Black says:

    When we went to see I Robot at the theatre, most of the KC SF Society was seated in three rows. I stood up and called up to a film geek seated above me: “D**, repeat after me: ‘This film has nothing to do with Isaac Asimov.'”
    “Repeat after me: ‘This film has nothing to do with Isaac Asimov.'” [snickers start]
    “‘The title is only a coincidence’ — repeat it D**!” [laughs]
    “It is completely unrelated.”
    “It is — hey wait a minute! What about Susan Calvin?”
    “A coincidence, D**, a coincidence!”

    My work there was done. He even enjoyed the movie for what it was, instead of crying about it for what it was not.

  17. book publishers says:

    Isaac Asimov will be remembered for his fine position and intensely bright genius. His work is really worth reading more than once.