This is a short—roughly 250 pages—biography of the Good Doctor. One’s first response is what the heck do we need something like this for? Given the more than thousand pages that Asimov devoted to his formal biographies and the innumerable other pages he uses to talk about himself elsewhere, why do we need this?
Given that, it’s a darn good book, and we do need it.
First of all, this is all of Asimov’s life in one place. This is something which is not available in any of Asimov’s works. The closest is I. Asimov: A Memoir, which isn’t in strict chronological order. In particular, the end of I. Asimov was written by Janet who was still too devestated to cover the last painful year of Asimov’s life in any detail. White does this here.
The overall result is that we get to see the whole picture of Asimov’s life better than would be the case otherwise, plus that one bit he was unable to record himself.
Secondly, and most importantly, White does not depend entirely on Asimov for material. Granted, he doesn’t seem to get anything on Asimov’s early life from his surviving siblings, and he doesn’t seem to get anything from David or Robyn and very little from Janet. He does, however, have contacts among Gertrude’s friends and some of the few people in sf who had bad feelings about the Good Doctor, which means he can give the other side of some stories, at least briefly.
And Asimov couldn’t always evaluate his own works perfectly. He once quipped that he always thought the most recent thing he wrote was his best, but it wasn’t entirely false. Some of the stories he hated were among his least works, true. Some weren’t. And some of the stuff he liked the best (like Foundation and Earth, of which he was very proud) was not his best. White shows exceptional good taste in pretty much agreeing with me on Foundation and Earth; he isn’t blind to Asimov’s weaknesses in his appreciation of his strengths. (He even says near the end of the book that Asimov wasn’t an artist, but a wordsmith. That may be rather a harsh way of putting it, considering the artistry of “The Last Question” or the middle third of The Gods Themselves, but it’s basically true, as Asimov himself would have admitted.)
This is related to the real strength of the book. Asimov was unusually good at being honest about himself. Yes, he thought highly of his strengths but he also knew his weaknesses and didn’t really try to hide them. One could argue that it was all for show, of course, that the only weaknesses he showed were part of a careful ploy, but there’s enough information independent of Asimov to know that this isn’t the case.
On the other hand, there are places where Asimov is clearly holding back something, most notably in connection with the deterioration of his marriage with Gertrude. He lets some of his own bitterness regarding Gertrude and her family show on occasion, most particularly in Asimov Laughs Again, when Gertrude and her parents are all safely dead. And he also admits that in the final analysis he was not the kind of husband Gertrude wanted. And he’s willing to admit that he was unfaithful to her. But there are still holes, and you can see them if you look.
White’s outside sources correct this to an extent. White is writing the history of Asimov, not of his marriage, so one shouldn’t expect him to give minute details of all the pain and agony back and forth. He does, however, give some of it. Asimov’s infidelities were rather more frequent than he implied, and he was not as generous to Gertrude in the divorce as he wants us to think he was (or as he probably himself though he was).
White also is able to bring out the fact that some writers associated with New Wave science fiction in the 1960’s and 1970’s felt that Asimov was involved in an attempt to blackball them, something which seems out of character but (White speculates) might have arisen out of a misunderstanding.
A number of modern sf writers don’t particularly care for Asimov’s style. (It has been pointed out that most sf writers since the 1950’s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberating avoiding anything like his style.) Several think he was a dinosaur whose works outlived their relevance. Some of that may be sour grapes, and some is just the changing of tastes as the years pass. Asimov certainly was able to instil great affection in a number of writers, not least of whom one must count that epitome of the New Wave, Harlan Ellison, and the whole issue is rather tangential to White’s overall thesis.
But the bit about the divorce and Asimov’s sexuality are not. White speculates that some of what drove Asimov was sexual frustration—Gertrude appears to have been unable to reach orgasm if not been positively frigid. His inability to get genuine love from and provide sexual satisfaction to his wife would have lowered Asimov’s overall self-esteem. Finding women genuinely interested in him sexually and who could reach orgasm with him would have altered that, to the point that Asimov might have been willing to weaken his marriage in order to strengthen his ego, helping trigger the final disaster.
And as the marriage got worse, writing would become an escape. Not only would it provide a direct escape, but it would provide a partial counter to Gertrude’s side of things. He was, after all, an excellent provider.
All this on top of there is the phantom of Judah and the candy store.
White does get a number of details wrong. Most notably he manages to miss on why Asimov used a pseudonym for the Lucky Starr books—something Asimov discussed on several occasions. He hasn’t read all of Asimov’s works, but then who has? (I’ve read all but three of his books, but am still missing lots of the bits and pieces.) His style lacks Asimov’s clarity and smooth flow. The transitions between paragraphs are occasionally rougher than they should be.
But it’s a good book. Definitely recommended for the Asimov fan who wants to see a bit more of the whole forest.
Ed Seiler, however, would disagree. Regarding White’s book, he wrote on alt.books.isaac-asimov (message ID <firstname.lastname@example.org>):
Other than the three volumes of his autobiography, there aren’t any significant biographies other than the Michael White book. I cannot recommend White’s book, although he certainly made an effort to illuminate the darker side of Asimov…
I don’t necessarily have a problem with a biographer exploring the aspects of Asimov’s life that were ignored in the autobiographies. But I do take issue with taking an approach best suited to the tabloids. White’s biography relies very heavily on the information Asimov already provided himself; without them he has maybe twenty pages of material of his own. Most of that consists of unconfirmed details from unnamed sources about Asimov’s first marriage and his marital infidelities, together with White’s amateur psychoanalysis of Asimov’s motivations and insecurities.
The rest consists of White’s literary analysis of Asimov’s science fiction, where he usually misses the point, often by quite a wide mark. In essence White took Asimov’s life story, decided that it wasn’t interesting enough as already told, and spiced it up as best as he could by scrounging for details that Asimov was either embarassed to include himself or which he deliberately omitted in order to spare the feelings of friends or family members.
No doubt their is more to Asimov’s life than what he himself related, but White didn’t spend nearly the time or effort needed to bring it to light.