SCIENCE-FICTION readers devoted to the work of Isaac Asimov, that elder statesman of the field, will enjoy this account of his childhood, his growing up in Brooklyn, and the years in which he wrote the earlier (and most famous) of his works. Those familiar only with his popularizations of science or those who don't know his work at all will probably not like the book and may even wonder what moved him to write it.
Autobiography is as close to impossible as art can be and two sorts of falsi-fication are common: the bare recital of facts, in which the shape of a life gets lost, and the imposition of a novel-istic "theme" from the outside. Both under-and over-interpretation are available to the third-person biographer - but what if the biographer happens also to be the subject?
Asimov has chosen the bare-facts route; after his childhood memories (which are charming) the book becomes a fairly dry list of professional facts and a considerable number of personal ones which ought to be more interesting than they are (Asimov is surprisingly candid about a good many things) but which remain uninterpreted and hence unconnected. Either the author does not want to make the effort to treat this vast mass of material as something that demands interpreting or else he modestly regards this work as merely a mine of information for some future second-stage biographer.
Where time has provided the interpretation, Asimov accepts it, and, in his account of his childhood, the young Isaac emerges as a distinct and delightful personality - as sunny playful, and sensible as Asimov's own persona as a writer of nonfiction. His family's remembered eccentricities are lovingly presented, like his father's theories about germs and his mother's cooking. (Regarding the latter, the adult Asimov notes happily that anyone attempting to eat East European Jewish cuisine without slow acclimaticzation is risking death by "pernicious dyspepsia," but he loves it.) There is much fascinating material here about the lives of East European Jewish immigrants in the New York of the '20s and '30s, about the small businesses which drained the time and energy of whole families (the Asimovs were slaves to their seven-dat-a-week candy store: a a combination of newspaper stand, ice cream parlor, and miniature Woolworth's). He talks about the asceticism of outright poverty (dental work was an impossible luxury), and the intellectual striving, describing it without expliicitly pointing to it as a source for his own career.
A third-person biographer might dig muct out of this book: Asimov's sheltered childhood and adolescence, his isolation (the candy store was a severe controllor of his free time and thus of his social life), his situation as a favored child, his unselfconscious precocity, and his matter-of-fact training in work and the enjoyment of work. What is not here - possibly because Asimov is not conscious of how much he differs from other people in this respect - is an explanation of the extraordinary imaginativeness that produced his fiction, or the corresponding quality in that peculiar group of eccentric and poverty-stricken youngsters who created science fiction's Golden Age in the 1940s. The hard-working, precocious, naive young man described here could well have written Asimov's nonfiction. But the writer of such works as "Nightfall" or the Foundation series (two of the classics for which Asimov is famous) is not in this book.
Nor is he represented by much in Opus 200, a sampler o Asimovian fiction and nonfiction culled from the author's second 100 books. (Yes, he works hard!) OPUS 200 EMPHASIZES NONFICTION - SOMEWHAT GRAYLY - AND OF THE FICTION THE BEST IS AN EXCERPT FROM HIS RECENT NOVEL, THE GODS THEMSELVES, A CHARMING, RECENT STORY CALLED "GOOD TASTE," AND TWO GOOD SCIENCE-FICTION MYSTERY STORIES ("LIGHT VERSE" AND "EARTHSET AND THE EVENING STAR"). POLEMICAL INTENTION GIVES VITALITY OT ONE NONFICTION PIECE, "LOST IN MISTRANSLATION," BUT THE REST IS FAIRLY ROUTINE SCIENCE FACT WITH A BOW AT HISTROY AND THE HISTORIAL (NOT LITERARY, AS ASIMOV POINTS OUT) ANNOTATION OF LITERATURE. (ALSO, A VERY EARLY, ENTERTAININGLY BAD STORY, "THE WEAPON," IS REPRINTED IN IN MEMORY YET GREEN. FIRST PUBLISHED UNDER A PSEUDONYM IN SUPER SCIENCE IN 1942, ASIMOV FOR YEARS THOUGHT IT LOST.)
BOTH OF THESE BOOKS ARE USEFUL AND INTERESTING, ALTHOUGH THE MATERIAL REPRINTED IN OPUS 200 MAY BE FOUND ELSEWHERE. BUT NEITHER IS NEARLY AS GOOD THROUGHOUT AS THE EPISODE OF IN MEMORY YET GREEN WHEN ISAAC, PROMOTED TO 1B2, HIDES AT THE BACK OF HIS OLD CLASSROOM (BECAUSE HE LIKES THE TEACHER), "HOPING NO ONE WOULD NOTICE ME," UNTIL HE IS LED, SOBBING INTO A NEW ONE. THE SAME LITTLE ASMIOV CRIED LUSTILY AT HAVING TO WALK HOME ALONE FROM ELEMENTARY SCHOOL. HE WAS NOT, IT SEEMS, "FRIGHTENED OF UNHAPPY. IT WAS JUST THE APPROPIATE RESPONSE TO BEING ALONE. . . A MAN, HIS HEART TOUCHED AT THE SIGHT OF A FIVE-YEAR-OLD BOY WALKING DOWN THE STREET, CRYING, STOPPED AND SAID, 'ARE YOU LOST LITTLE BOY? WHERE DO YOU LIVE?' . . . I STOPPED CRYING AT ONCE LOOKED UP AT HIM IN INDIGNATION, AND SAID, 'OF COURSE I'M NOT LOST. I KNOW WHERE I LIVE.' . . . HAVING PUT HIM IN HIS PLACE, I RESUMED MY WAILING AND CONTINUED TO WALK DOWN THE STREET."
ASIMOV STILL KNOWS WHERE HE'S GOING, BUT THE SUBJECTIVE ALCHEMY THAT ENABLES HIM TO KNOW (AND TO GET THERE) IS NEVER REVEALED IN IN MEMORY YET GREEN. IT REMAINS A USEFUL, LIMITED, SPECIAL- AUDIENCE VOLUME RATHER THAN THE FASCINATING HUMAN EXPLORATION IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN.