James Gunn’s Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction

Faith J. Cormier penned this review.

My interest in this book was twofold. First, I think the first science fiction novel I ever read was Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage. In the 35 or so years since, I’ve read quite a few of his other works — science fiction, science non fiction, mysteries, autobiography — though by no means all of them, and I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read. Second, Isaac Asimov was a Mensan, and so am I. This always made me feel that there was a tenuous sort of connection between us (I feel the same way abut Jean M. Auel and Scott Adams). A shared fondness for feghoots only strengthens that. (For those who are curious, a feghoot is a shaggy-dog type joke with a pun as the punch line. For example, “Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes?” as the last line of a story about a wildcat who ate a pair of Roy Rogers’ footwear.)

So I was predisposed to like this book, or at least to find it interesting, and I was not disappointed.

This is more a literary biography than anything else. While James Gunn hits the high points of Asimov’s life, they don’t get much attention. What does get page space is Asimov’s writing. Gunn does not linger over the non-fiction, but he summarizes most of Asimov’s important fiction, including several of his short stories and novellas, the Foundation and Robot novels, and The Gods Themselves. If you haven’t read much Asimov and think you might like to, this is not the book for you, because it gives away the plots. If you have read a lot of Asimov, this shouldn’t be a problem. You may even find, as I did, that you remembered certain books or stories but had forgotten who had written them. For scholars, Gunn also includes a chronology of Isaac Asimov’s life, a checklist of his works and a short bibliography of works about him. The book has a moderately detailed index.

Gunn also includes the transcript of an interview he did with Asimov in 1979, when he was preparing the first edition of Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, which won a Hugo Award. Several times in the interview, Gunn proposes theories about Asimov’s works and Asimov says things like “You’re perfectly right” and “I think perhaps you’re right” and “Well, now, I’m glad you said that, because this is not something I have myself spent time thinking of, but I think you’re right now that you present it.” Unless Isaac Asimov was being terribly polite, and that doesn’t seem likely, he believed that James Gunn understood him very well and agreed with Gunn’s analyses. This can be good or bad. If you like the confrontational, sensational, muckraking sort of biography, any approval by the biographee is suspect. However, if you’re looking for accuracy, it’s nice.

For more information on Isaac Asimov, you can start here, or in your local library or bookstore, where you will find that many of his books are still in print. You may very well have to go on a waiting list for some of them at the library.

James Gunn is professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas. You can find out more about him at his official Web site.

(Scarecrow Press, 2005)

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