The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
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Vol 1, Issue #3
"Stand By For Mars!"
March 2006

Fiction Book Reviews
by Caroline Miniscule

Isaac Asimov: A Life of the Grandmaster of Science Fiction
by Michael White
Carroll & Graff

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Caroline Miniscule has traveled around the world. She now stays in one place and reads science fiction. She is a graduate of D'Illyria University (the university of the mind).

In the 1980s, author Michael White toured in the rock group, The Thompson Twins. He then became a chemistry lecturer in Oxford, and became a full-time writer in 1991. He's written biographies of Stephen Hawking and Leonardo da Vinci, among others. His website is []

This book was first published in England in 1994 under the title Asimov: The Unauthorized Biography. Now it's being released by Carroll & Graf under this new title.

It's unfortunate that, 11 years on, Mr. White could not have rewritten parts of this book to correct some glaring omissions. Instead, he contents himself with a brief afterward in which he points out that he knew that the cause of Asimov's death was AIDS (contracted from a blood transfusion), but that he respected the wishes of Asimov's family not to make it public at that time. Also in this afterward he discusses the continued impact of Asimov's work.

This book is a serviceable introduction to the life of Isaac Asimov, but of more use in providing criticism of some of Asimov's work - for all that the only ones discussed are his most influential works - the Foundation and the Positronic Robot stories.

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia in January 1920. His sister Manya was born two years later, just before the family immigrated to New York, where his brother Stanley was born.

1) Emigre
2) Asimov's Science Fiction Heritage
3) College and Campbell
4) Robots
5) Marriage and War
6) Foundation
7) Family and Infidelity
8) The Science Fiction Novels
9) Fantastic Voyage to Divorce
10) Science, God and Everything
11) Divorce and New Love
12) Returning to First Love
13) Gentleman Author
14) Foreword the Foundation
Afterword: A Decade On
Bibliography - Asimov's fiction
General Bibliography
Appendix: Asimov Chronologically
Useful Websites
The family settled in Brooklyn, where Asimov's mother's brother lived. Although they faced anti-Semitism, the elder Asimov, by dint of hard work, was soon able to afford to buy a small candy store. Asimov passed much of his childhood working at that store (in its three incarnations, as the Asimov's bought a new store in a better part of the city and 'moved on up' each time.

Asimov was always one of the most intelligent children in his class at school, and as a result was pushed forward two grades - thereby always being the youngest child in his class as well, and ripe for bullying. He was also a "smart aleck" and constantly showing off.

Asimov sold his first science fiction short story when he was 18, in 1938, when the science fiction pulps were just beginning their boom and the Golden Age was on the rise. He continued to write as he went through college and got married.

He continued to write as he worked his way up to an associate professor at Boston University - and kept that title when he resigned from the University to begin writing full time.

Although Asimov and first wife Gertrude were married for 28 years, there's was not a happy marriage, and Asimov was not faithful. Eventually they separated and Asimov returned to New York. Upon receiving his divorce from Gertrude, he married Janet Jeppson, and they stayed together for a further 20 years, only separated by his death. During the last decade of his life Asimov returned to science fiction (having abandoned it for a decade for non-fiction work), with the publication of the Foundation books that brought together his Foundation and Positronic Robot universes into a coherent whole.

Michael White covers all this and more in his book...but he does not really "dig down" into Asimov's life. He only scrapes the surface. It's as if he read Asimov's autobiographies (In Joy Still Felt and In Memory Yet Green, and provides all of his information, and reactions, from them.

Asimov's sister and brother are barely mentioned. What sort of relationship did they have with their famous sibling? The problems with Asimov's son David are referred to only briefly - although White does make the comment that Asimov was perhaps ashamed of his son because he did not possesss his, Asimov's intellectual brilliance. Yet it seems from Asimov's writings in his other memoirs that David actually possessed his father's inability to get along with others, except to an even greater degree, and presumably that is why Asimov had no objections to supporting his son, who was unable to support himself.

At the time this book was written, in the early 1990s, there must surely have been people alive who knew Asimov and his first wife, Gertrude, yet there are no interviews with anyone to provide an insight into his life in Boston. There are no interviews with Asimov's colleagues at Boston University. There are no words from Asimov's daughter Robyn.

Perhaps White decided to eschew these interviews because it gave him more room to provide criticism on Asimov's work, and indeed the chapter "Forward the Foundation" describes Asimov's attempts to link up his Foundation and Positronic Robot stories into one unified whole and makes for fascinating reading.

The book is well-written and moves along quickly. As someone who likes biographies to be chronological I was annoyed at times that White would shift back and forth in time in discussing Asimov's work...the genesis of Asimov's work and White's criticism of it should have been integrated seamlessly into the book as a whole, in this reviewer's opinion.

White is not adverse to exploring the darker side of Asimov:

1) His infidelity to his wife during their marriage, and his unvarying habit, in later life, of flirting with every woman he met. Was this caused by his own feeligs of sexual inadequacy?
2) Asimov's behavior - childish and sulking - in his 7-month hitch in the Army just after the end of WWII.
3) Asimov's obsession with publishing as many books as possible. Was he still trying to impress his father who instilled in him the work ethic at the candy store so long ago?
4) Asimov's treatment of his ex-wife during their divorce proceedings, in which he fought to deny her the amount of the settlement she wanted.
5) Asimov's treatment of his son, David.
6) Asimov's treatment of the New Wave of science fiction, and the opinions of New Wave writers about him.

The book has a few errors, most of them negligible except for White's apparent confusing of the two men named Martin Greenberg (one the publisher of Asimov's books during his early years, the other, called by Asimov 'Marty the Other' the man with whom he did many, many anthologies during his later years.

This book must certainly be acquired by libraries, and those people interested in Isaac Asimov, or the history of science fiction from the 1930s onwards must certainly check it out of the library and give it a read. Only Asimov completists need purchase it for their collection.

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