Today would have been Isaac Asimov’s 92nd birthday. Come April, he’ll have been dead for 20 years. It is hard to believe. It is still one of my biggest regrets that I never got to meet him. I really started to broaden my science fiction reading right around the time he passed away. At the time, I may have only read one or two things by Asimov, but of course I knew who he was. In the spring of 1994, his retrospective memoir, I. Asimov was released and I learned a whole lot more about him–and regretted at once never reading his stuff sooner. In the 20 years since, I’ve read that book, and his two other autobiography volumes nearly 20 times. And I’ve read just about everything else he’s ever written. My Asimov collection is my favorite part of my personal library.
At times like this, I often imagine an alternate history in which Asimov did not die at 72, but continued to live on for another twenty-five years or so, much like his friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. What would Isaac have thought about the Internet? Would he, like Pohl, have started a blog? What would he think of the publishing world today, with e-books and the battle for profits? It is impossible to say for certain, but he wrote enough during his life to make some educated guesses.
I’ve often thought of Asimov as a proto-blogger. He didn’t do his writing online, but he wrote thousands of essays, many of them in an informal, colloquial manner for which he became famous. The style is very much what many bloggers today (myself included) have adopted. Of course, there was no ability to post comments to those essays, but he received tens of thousands of letters in response to his work and views over the years, and he did his best to answer all of them. By his brother’s accounting, Asimov may have replied to as many as 100,000 letters over the course of his life. How many bloggers have posted as many comments? Asimov enjoyed interacting with fans and I think a blog would have made it easier for him to do this. On the other hand, he was a workaholic and loved to write more than just about anything. So while blogging might be an easy means to interact with fans and others, if it took him away from what he loved, I suspect he’d look upon it with suspicion.
As for publishers and publishing today, that’s a more difficult question to answer. Asimov was fiercely loyal to Doubleday, although he published books through many publishers. He was unique in that he worked with his publishers directly, rarely using an agent or assistant. He was able to do this because (a) he worked with them for so long, and (b) his workload built up steadily that he could manage the increase over time. I suspect he would have praised the idea of e-books, a vision that science fiction has had for decades. But I also suspect that he would still find a romance in reading a paper book, something that would be hard to shake for someone who has read that way for decades.
Twenty years later, Isaac Asimov’s legacy is still strong. As of this writing, the paperback edition of Foundation is ranked 12,067 in all Amazon paid books. The Kindle edition of the book is ranked 1,799 in all Amazon paid books. The Kindle edition is also ranked #1 in Science Fiction -> Series on the Kindle store. Many of the Kindle editions of his books are ranked in the top 100 on the Kindle store, even twenty years after his death. When I go into bookstores, his most popular fiction still finds a prominent place on the SF shelves. What is remarkable about this is that the original stories that made up Foundation were first published in Astounding some seventy years ago. To be ranked so highly so many years later is telling.
But Asimov wrote a lot more than just science fiction. He wrote 399 monthly science columns for F&SF. He wrote thousands of other essays, to say nothing of hundreds of books on science, humanities and history. There has not been as prolific a popularizer as Asimov since his death in 1992.
Sometimes, I daydream that Asimov is still alive and that I open up the March 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction to read his monthly editorial. I scan the contents page and along with a novella by Nancy Kress and a short story by Kij Johnson and Robert Reed, there’s a novelette by Isaac Asimov. What would he have written about, here at the beginning of 2012? Would it be another Foundation story? More likely a robot story but what kind of robot story? Or would it be something completely different? It’s a fun little game to play, but I always come out of the reverie a little saddened that it will never come to pass.
Happy Birthday, Isaac! It’s good to know you are far from forgotten here in the second decade of the twenty-first century.