It's An Asimovalanche! The One-man Book-a-Month Club Has Just Published His 179th

Not even a cyborg could have done it. Prompted by an IQ so high no test can measure it, by a death-lock eidetic memory and by a lust to confess everything he knows to one or another of his four IBM Selectric typewriters, a 56-year-old literary prodigy named Isaac Asimov has published no less than 179 books in the last 26 years—76 of them in the last 76 months.

One hundred and fifty-four of these books are in print, a world’s record for one author, he claims. And though not one has hit the best-seller lists, more than 12 million hardcover or paperback copies have been sold in the United States alone. They provide Asimov with a superstar’s income and readers with the liveliest intellectual circus dreamed up since Chautauqua lost out to the movies.

As the most effective popularizer of science since H.G. Wells, Asimov has supplied pellucid explanations of astronomy, biology, chemistry—name the science, he’s done a book about it. As a pound-it-out pioneer of science fiction, he has produced the genre’s most celebrated short story (Nightfall) and three of its finest novels (the Foundation trilogy). And just to keep his fingers busy, he has also knocked off learned annotations of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and (so fascinated he almost forgot he was an atheist) the Bible. Not to mention a biographical encyclopedia of science, 12 volumes of history (Greece, the Near East, the Civil War), two collections of mystery stories, two murder mysteries, two fantascience mystery novels, 18 books for children, six anthologies, one joke book, one parody of sex manuals and two volumes of lecherous limericks.

Right now, Asimov has nine new books in release, nine more at the printers and six others in his typewriters—along with six articles, two science columns for Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine and an introduction to the second issue of a new periodical called Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. “The man is a natural resource,” says Dr. Carl Sagan, the astronomer who worked on the U.S. Viking project. “A Renaissance man born out of his time—thank God. In this technological century, we need an interface between science and the public, and nobody can do that job as well as Asimov. He’s the great explainer of the age.”

The time is noon and the day is bright, but Isaac Asimov’s study is dark as the cabinet of Dr. Faustus. Caught in a narrow cone of light, an electric typewriter clatters like a cattle stampede. Before it sits a thick-bodied man with a forceful profile who flails the keys and tosses his grizzled, theatrical mane like a pianist assaulting a Schubert scherzo. The phone rings. Nipping the receiver between ear and shoulder, the writer goes on typing at nail-splitting speed as he conducts a complex discussion with an editor. In 45 minutes he completes a 2,000-word article, stuffs it in an envelope, attaches a stamp, snaps the light off and, exploding energy, greets a visitor like a hardy pony trotting up to the next lump of sugar.

“I’m just not aware of the agony of creation!” he says, flinging up his arms and widening his eyes as if amazed to see no manacles. “I’m in love with writing! The typewriter is my mistress—and I can’t wait! I can’t wait to tell what I know. It’s my ruling passion. It justifies my existence.

“Thinking is the activity I love best, and writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers. I can write up to 18 hours a day. Typing 90 words a minute, I’ve done better than 50 pages a day. Nothing interferes with concentration. You could put on an orgy in my office and I wouldn’t look up—well, maybe once. When I feel difficulty coming on, I switch to another book I’m writing. When I get back to the problem, my unconscious has solved it.

“Science fiction is the hardest writing there is. On top of the usual problems of character and action, you’ve got to create a whole new society and make it believable. I can spend 300 hours on a science-fiction novel. A mystery novel takes 200 hours. But I can write a normal-length nonaction book in 70 hours. I write from memory, then check my facts. I do all my own typing, all my own research, make all my own deals—no agent.

“Some critics say I’d write better if I wrote slower. That’s like telling a sprinter he’d run better if he ran slower. If I try to write slowly I can’t write at all. What the hell, I’m not trying to be Shakespeare, I’m trying to be clear!”

Asimov is always brilliantly clear. In his galactic novels the best-rounded characters may be ciphers, but the plots are structured as precisely as proteins. In his fact books the prose may occasionally wamble but dark matters are vividly illumined. And like all great teachers, Asimov has a magpie’s eye for the startling fact.

Mammals tend to live, he has discovered, “as long as it takes their hearts to count a billion.” The steam engine was not invented by James Watt but by Hero of Alexandria—in the first century A.D. And there is a strongly established tradition that Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man who provided Christ’s tomb, visited England.

For Asimov, facts fuel imagination. “If he hadn’t become a writer,” says Linus Pauling, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, “he could have been an important creative scientist.” Asimov was among the first to propose carbon 14 in the genes as a major cause of mutation. A discussion of maximum temperatures in his magazine column gave rise to a daring theory of why stars collapse.

Images of the future ignite his speculations. When laser TV is developed, Asimov foresees billions of separate channels—enough to give every human being on earth a channel of his own. In the fairly near future of space travel, he envisions fleets of rocket ships orbiting Jupiter and fishing in its 17,000-mile-deep oceans while space tankers milk the big planet’s 8,000-mile-deep atmosphere of its helium.

In recent years, Asimov’s creative zest has explored a new form. With staggering facility he can improvise a limerick in less than 60 seconds. A recent one:

There was a young couple from Florida

Whose passion grew steadily torrider.

They were planning to sin

In a room in an inn.

Who can wait? They made out in a corridor.

The program chairman turns green. Two minutes before addressing 300 magazine writers, Asimov has just casually inquired, “By the way, what kind of speech would you like me to make?” The chairman soon relaxes. “Some say that a publisher,” Asimov announces in a booming baritone, “is a man whose waistline is larger than his IQ.” The house comes down.

Asimov talks as exuberantly as he writes. Showman as well as intellectual, he has all the tricks of the lecture hall. His sentences roll toward the listeners like combers and crash over their heads in a spray of implications. He gives about 30 lectures a year (at not less than $2,000 a gig), and rare is the month when he fails to appear at least twice on TV talk shows.

Social rewards came along rather late in Asimov’s life. Born in a ghetto village near Smolensk, Russia in 1920, he arrived in the United States when he was 3 and grew up in Brooklyn slums, where his father opened a series of small candy stores. From the time he was 9, Asimov sold candy and delivered newspapers. No time for play. Pushed hard by his father, a Talmudic scholar, the boy devoured the local public library shelf by shelf—and remembered what he read. Hipped on science and science fiction, he wrote his first science-fiction story at 15, the same year he was admitted to Columbia. At 18 he sold a 6,400-word story for a penny a word.

Eleven years of part-time scribbling made him a great name in science fiction but earned him only $7,821.75. And on $6,500, his maximum salary as an associate professor of biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine, he could hardly keep his wife, Gertrude, and their two children (David and Robyn Joan). He began to write books about science for the general public, and by 1958 they were selling so well he could afford to stop teaching. The Asimovalanche began to roll.

Asimov has created a new economic category: the penthouse industry. Success has set him up in a spectacular 33rd-floor apartment with eight rooms and panoramic views of Manhattan’s skyline, but he works as hard there as he did in the back of the candy store. Up at 6 a.m. after four or five hours’ sleep, he consumes the New York Times and a hearty breakfast. By 8 a.m. he is battering away at his IBM. With breaks for meals and phone calls, he may still be battering away at 10 p.m.

Asimov admits that if he spends three hours away from his typewriter, he has an anxiety attack. He’s so worried that his Selectric might break down and leave him unable to write that he keeps three $700 backup machines in emergency reserve. When one of them goes into the shop for repairs he pesters the shop foreman with telephone inquiries as to how the patient is doing.

Even casual acquaintances speak of Asimov’s ebullience and warmth. When he walks he bounces like a puppet on a rubber band, and for a friend in need his checkbook is always open. But he is also a man with immense, irrelevant worries. He jumps out of bed at night to see if he has locked the front door. He refuses to fly because he lives in a cold sweat until the plane takes off. “If his wife is five minutes late,” says a friend, “he’s sure she’s fallen into a manhole. And that he’s to blame. He’s the all-time Jewish mother.” When all else fails, Asimov worries about his own character. “I have the writing thing hyperdeveloped,” he may remark with a sigh, “but sometimes I think all the rest of me is withered and vestigial.”

Divorced from Gertrude in 1973, Asimov made a second marriage to a psychiatrist, Janet Jeppson, who recently published The Second Experiment, a science-fiction novel of her own. Remarriage seems to have eased his anxieties. After three years together, the Asimovs still cuddle like honeymooners—”Being in love with Isaac,” she sighs happily, “means always having nose-prints on your glasses.” Asimov explains with a chuckle: “I haven’t submitted to psychoanalysis. I’ve just decided to dread one day at a time.”

The Asimovs, in fact, have something real to dread. In 1972 both had cancer surgery. Malignant tissue was removed from his thyroid, and she had a mastectomy. Neither has suffered a recurrence, but for Janet the loss of a breast was depressing. Asimov reacted with style: “Look, Janet, if you were Raquel Welch, it might be a tragedy, but as it is I’ll have to squint to see which one was removed.” Janet burst out laughing and the crisis subsided.

And how has he reacted to his own illness? As he was wheeled into the operating room, he peered up through a haze of anesthesia and tossed off this merry little improvisation: “Doctor, doctor, in green coat/ Doctor, doctor, cut my throat;/ And when you’ve cut it, Doctor, then/ Won’t you sew it up again?”

About final things he speaks matter-of-factly. “Dickens died writing and that’s the way I’d like to go too. Some day they’ll come in and find me slumped over that electric typewriter with my nose in the keys.” Whereupon IBM will begin to get repair calls from somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy.

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