Another early Asimov letter in Astounding

I had intended to write about the first letter in the Brass Tacks column for the April 1940 issue of Astounding as part of Episode 10 of my Vacation in the Golden Age, and by the time I had finished my write-up, I’d forgotten about it. (I hadn’t made reference to it in my notes for that issue.) But I think it is a good letter to look at for a number of reasons, the first being that he includes a list of his top 10 stories for 1939. Here is 20-year old Asimov’s list:

  1. One Against the Legion by Jack Williamson
  2. Lifeline by Robert Heinlein
  3. Gray Lensman by E. E. Smith
  4. Cosmic Engineers by Clifford D. Simak
  5. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey
  6. Rope Trick by Eando Binder
  7. Nothing Happens on the Moon by Paul Erust
  8. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt
  9. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam
  10. Smallest God by Lester del Rey

Four of these stories I haven’t read including “One Against the Legion”, “Cosmic Engineers”, “Rope Trick”, and “Nothing Happens on the Moon”. For the stories that I did read in the second half of 1939, I rated them as follows back in Episode 6:

  1. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam
  2. Greater Than Gods by C. L. Moore
  3. Discord in Scarlet by A. E. van Vogt
  4. Misfit by Robert Heinlein
  5. Luck of Ignatz by Lester del Rey

I have read “The Day Is Done” which is one of my all time favorite stories, so if I include that in my list, it goes to the top and pushes everything else down by one.

It is interesting to me to look at my picks against the 20-year old Asimov’s. Asimov is a hero of mine, I love both his fiction and his nonfiction and I share his views on many political and social issues. But wow, there is a pretty big difference in our tastes and some of that has to come from growing up in different generation, and more importantly in different stages of the evolution of science fiction.

A couple of Asimov’s picks are interesting in retrospect. In his retrospective memoir I. Asimov, he wrote,

My favorite del Rey story is “The Day Is Done” (May 1939 ASF), which I read in the subway and cried over. I incautiously told him that once and he has held it over my head ever since.

That story is on his list, and indeed he rated it higher than “The Smallest God” (which, I agree with some of the commenters on that post, seemed much more like an Unknown story than an Astounding piece.)

And while I can understand how “Gray Lensman” would make it in to the top 3, I cannot for the life of me understand why Asimov would include “General Swamp” in his top ten, and not only that, but rate it higher than Kelleam’s “Rust” which in my modern-day opinion was a far superior story (although a comparison is really unfair–one is a novel, the other is a rather short story).

del Rey became one of Asimov’s best friends–a lifelong friend–as did another writer from that time, L. Sprague de Camp, who appears on neither his list nor mine. Of de Camp, Asimov writes in that April 1940 letter:

The only thing that bothers me is that L. Sprague de Camp isn’t on it. He’s got a pair of five-star articles printed during 1939, but I’m considering only stories. However if you want to see him done justice, wait until you see my list of ten best of 1939 for Unknown.

This seems to jibe with what Asimov wrote half a century later of de Camp (also from I. Asimov):

He is one of those science fiction writers who can manage fiction and nonfiction with equal ease. He has written many books on fringe aspects of science and has always maintained the strictest rationality in doing so. He has also written wonderful fantasy and excellent historical novels.

Isaac Asimov also said that he modeled his clear style of writing on Clifford D. Simak, and indeed, Simak is on that young Asimov’s list with “Cosmic Engineers” in the number 4 spot.

He goes on to make an important point about the quality of the magazine:

Can you imagine any other magazine in which yarns like “Ether Breather”, “Misfit”, and “Black Destroyer” would not be included in the first ten? ‘Sa dirty shame.

Finally, and rather amusingly, the brash young Asimov writes about his own piece that appeared in the July 1939 Astounding (Episode 1):

Voice from the gallery: “Hey, Asimov, where you put ‘Trends’? Asimov refuses to answer.

Our history is more than the stories themselves, more than the issues and the accolades. It is a history of people, kids who became fans at an early age, tried their hand at writing the stuff they loved so much, found other fan, talked, and breathed science fiction, watched it develop and grow. Some of those young fans became one and the same with the genre, lived with it and through it their entire lives, formed opinions and world views from within it. There were squabbles and battles, fans eviscerating writers and vice versa. But look what a rich field has been left in its wake. And look, sadly, at how few from those early days are still around. Soon they will all be gone, like the last veteran from World War I, and it will be up to us to keep the history alive for future generations.


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