Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall

Isaac Asimov loved large numbers. He was born a century ago this month, and when he died, in 1992, he was both the most famous science fiction writer in the ...

Isaac Asimov loved large numbers. He was born a century ago this month, and when he died, in 1992, he was both the most famous science fiction writer in the world and perhaps the most prolific author in American history. He kept close track of his publications, most of which were nonfiction, and confessed that he was generous when it came to including borderline cases, such as anthologies, in his total of nearly five hundred books: “We all want to be known for something, and I was beginning to see that there would be a good chance that if for nothing else, I would be known for the vast number of books I would publish.”

In the end, however, another number might turn out to be equally meaningful. Over the course of many decades, Asimov groped or engaged in other forms of unwanted touching with countless women, often at conventions, but also privately and in the workplace. Within the science fiction community, this is common knowledge, and whenever I bring it up in a room of older fans, the response is usually a series of nods. The number of such incidents is unknown, but it can be plausibly estimated in the hundreds, and thus may match or exceed the long list of books that Asimov wrote.

These two numbers might seem very different, but both are central to Asimov’s legacy. In his essay “The Wall and the Books” (1952), the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges marvels over an analogous conjunction, the fact that Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, ordered both the construction of the Great Wall and the burning of all the books written before his time. The historicity of the latter claim may be doubtful, but its imaginative power is not: “That these two vast undertakings … were the work of the same person and were, in a sense, his attributes, inexplicably satisfied and, at the same time, disturbed me. To investigate the reasons for that emotion is the purpose of this note.”

In Asimov’s case, we can begin by observing that both numbers were expressions of a fundamental quality of his personality. If you wanted to construct the most productive writer who ever lived, based solely on first principles, the result would look a lot like Asimov. He emerged in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, which rewarded writers who could generate reams of publishable prose on demand; he eventually learned to produce serviceable material after only two drafts. Asimov was a rapid typist; he was fond of enclosed spaces and hated to travel; he had a prodigious memory; and he specialized in popular science texts that could be researched straight from the dictionary, encyclopedia, or other common reference books.

When the playwright David Mamet was asked about his writing routine by John Lahr in The Paris Review, he said, “I’ve got to do it, anyway. Like beavers, you know. They chop, they eat wood, because, if they don’t, their teeth grow too long and they die. And they hate the sound of running water. Drives them crazy. So, if you put those two ideas together, they are going to build dams.” One could say much the same about Asimov, whose existing tendencies were enlarged—by fame, a receptive audience, and supportive publishers—into a career that bears the same relation to the output of most writers that the Great Wall does to the work of the average beaver.

When you consider Asimov’s treatment of women, you find an identical pattern. As a young man, he was shy and romantically inexperienced, which was reflected in the overwhelming absence of female characters in his fiction. He openly stated that his relationship with his first wife was sexually unfulfilling, and it was shortly after his marriage that his fingers began to rove more freely. While working as a chemist at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II, he liked to snap women’s bras through their blouses—“a very bad habit I sometimes can’t resist to this day,” he recalled in 1979—and on at least one occasion, he broke the strap.

After the war, his reputation as a groper became a running joke among science fiction fans. The writer and editor Judith Merril recalled that Asimov was known in the 1940s as “the man with a hundred hands,” and that he “apparently felt obliged to leer, ogle, pat, and proposition as an act of sociability.” Asimov, in turn, described Merril as “the kind of girl who, when her rear end was patted by a man, patted the rear end of the patter,” although she remembered the episode rather differently: “The third or fourth time his hand patted my rear end, I reached out to clutch his crotch.”

It was all framed as nothing but good fun, as were his interactions with women once his success as an author allowed him to proceed with greater impunity. He writes in his memoirs of his custom of “hugging all the young ladies” at his publisher’s office, which was viewed indulgently by such editors as Timothy Seldes of Doubleday, who said, “All you want to do is kiss the girls and make collect calls. You’re welcome to that, Asimov.” In reality, his attentions were often unwanted, and women found excuses to be away from the building whenever he was scheduled to appear.

If Asimov had an empire, it was science fiction, and his acts deserve greater emphasis because of his monumental stature.

After his celebrity increased, his behavior at conventions became more egregious, as the editor Edward L. Ferman reminisced of a fan gathering in the late 1950s: “Asimov … instead of shaking my date’s hand, shook her left breast.” Asimov was open about his practices: “I kiss each young woman who wants an autograph and have found, to my delight, that they tend to cooperate enthusiastically in that particular activity.” He defended himself by saying that he was universally seen as “harmless,” and the implication that it was all just an act culminated in his satirical book The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (1971), in which he wrote, “The question then is not whether or not a girl should be touched. The question is merely where, when, and how she should be touched.”

As the writer Stephanie Zvan has noted, other men routinely enabled the idea that he was only giving a performance. In 1961, the publisher and fan Earl Kemp invited Asimov to give a “pseudo lecture” titled “The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching” at the following year’s World Science Fiction Convention, in Chicago, promising to provide “some suitable posteriors for demonstration purposes.” Asimov declined, but added that he might be persuaded to participate “if the posteriors in question were of particularly compelling interest.” Everything was delivered with a wink, allowing Asimov—who identified as a feminist—to credibly pretend that he was just playing along.

Yet many of these encounters were clearly nonconsensual. When the author Frederik Pohl questioned his tendency to touch women “in a fairly fondling way,” Asimov replied, “It’s like the old saying. You get slapped a lot, but you get laid a lot, too.” Asimov’s biographer Michael White quotes “a friend’s wife” who was pinched at a party: “God, Asimov, why do you always do that? It is extremely painful and besides, don’t you realize, it’s very degrading.” And in a photo—reproduced above—taken by Jay Kay Klein at a convention in 1967, Asimov wraps his arms around a woman who is obviously pushing him away, looking straight into the camera as she tries to avoid his kiss.

“Whenever we walked up the stairs with a young woman, I made sure to walk behind her so Isaac wouldn’t grab her tush,” the writer Harlan Ellison is quoted as saying in Nat Segaloff’s biography A Lit Fuse (2017). “He didn’t mean anything by it—times were different—but that was Isaac.” Ellison may not be the best witness for the defense—he was widely criticized for grabbing Connie Willis’s breast onstage at the Hugo Awards in 2006—but I regularly hear the argument that Asimov was simply a product of his era. You certainly don’t need to look far to find parallel offenders, including Asimov’s friend Randall Garrett, of whom Frank Herbert recalled, “You could follow his movements … by the squeals of the women whose bottoms he had just pinched.”

But excusing Asimov by saying that some of his contemporaries were guilty of similar transgressions is like downplaying his productivity by pointing out that other authors were prolific. In “The Wall and the Books,” Borges rejects an analogous explanation: “Burning books and erecting fortifications are the usual occupations of princes; the only thing unique about Shih Huang Ti was the scale on which he worked. That, at least, is the opinion of certain Sinologists, but I believe that both acts were something more than an exaggeration or hyperbole of trivial dispositions. To enclose an orchard or a garden is common, but not an empire.”

If Asimov had an empire, it was science fiction, and his acts deserve greater emphasis because of his monumental stature. His collaboration with the editor John W. Campbell produced such milestones as the story “Nightfall,” the Three Laws of Robotics, and the “psychohistory” of the Foundation series, all of which had an incalculable influence on the field. In the wider world, with his trademark sideburns and glasses, Asimov was one of the most recognizable writers alive, and in his familiar capacity as a public speaker, essayist, and talk show guest, he became the most prominent ambassador of science fiction to the mainstream.

The damage he caused was inseparable from his power. In general, Asimov chose targets who were unlikely to protest directly, such as fans and secretaries, and spared women whom he saw as professionally useful. There were exceptions—he chased the editor Cele Goldsmith around her desk—but he preferred to focus on women who were more vulnerable, which inevitably raises the issue of mentorship. Asimov benefited enormously from Campbell’s encouragement, and he later supported younger men in a similar way, but his behavior naturally closed him off to creative women at the beginning of their careers. Some of these women flourished in editorial roles, but others had reason to be wary of the most famous writer in science fiction, and they had to work unassisted by many of the factors that had allowed Asimov himself to reach his full potential.


Join the Mutant Resistance!

By Stephanie Burt

This was a tragic loss, and it set the tone for the entire genre. From an early age, Asimov was drawn to the communal aspects of fan culture, but he made it more difficult for women to experience that sense of community. Women have long occupied an ambiguous place in science fiction, where they have been alternately welcomed, dismissed, and harassed. Asimov took advantage of what he called the rising percentage of “shrill young girls” at conventions in the 1960s, and his unique position at such events—he was invariably the center of attention—made his example especially insidious. His admirers looked to him as a model of how to behave, and fandom was complicit for years in his serial misconduct in ways that have never been fully acknowledged.

Asimov has always meant a lot to me, and the best qualities of his work—his rationality, curiosity, and imagination—changed thousands of lives for the better. Yet the visible edifice of his hundreds of books needs to be balanced against the unseen wall that he built around the heart of science fiction. His actions had a negative impact on an untold number of women, and when we account for their unheard voices, it isn’t hard to draw the same conclusion as Borges: “Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled his empire because he knew that it was fragile, and destroyed the books because he knew that they were sacred books, books that teach what the whole universe teaches or the conscience of every man. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the building of the wall are acts that in some secret way erase each other.”


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt and Kelley McKinney. icon

Featured image: Isaac Asimov the Kiss again, Nycon 3 (1967). Photograph by Jay Kay Klein / Regents of the University of California