(On DVD, September 2016) Before telling you what I really think about Bicentennial Man, I’ll just take a moment to appreciate what I do like about the film, even if it boils down to intentions. I like the idea of a classic Isaac Asimov story being adapted on the big screen. I certainly appreciate how the film tries to cover a two-century period in two short hours, and I can recognize the attempt at conveying some of that future history through background details. It’s the kind of thing that makes written science fiction so interesting, and it’s rare to see it even attempted on the big screen. This being said, none of those good intentions are enough to rescue Bicentennial Man from some condemnation. The ham-fisted script never misses an occasion to be dumb, sappy, obvious or nonsensical. The vision of the future is all about changing surface and simplistic attitudes, never taking an opportunity to tackle social change in a meaningful way, or escaping funny-clothes laziness. Robin Williams is here in full-blown nice-guy persona, wasting comic energy in a role seemingly built to be as dull as possible. While the film has aged badly in seventeen years (now that we have direct experience with the introduction of technology, the way Bicentennial Man deals with its robots feels worse than off), let’s not kid ourselves: it was pretty bad even in 1999. Laced with cheap sentimentality, flatly directed by Chris Columbus and hobbled by dumb story choices manifested by even dumber character decisions, this (in many ways) showcases how badly Hollywood mishandles Science-Fiction as a genre.
Doubleday, 1994, 562 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-385-41701-2
Any discussion of Isaac Asimov, the writer, must inevitably dwell on how prolific he was. In roughly fifty years, he wrote more than 470 books (yes, more books than most people will ever read in their lifetime!), and that’s not counting the various articles, speeches and assorted miscellanea he also penned during his career.
Asimov died in 1992, but it took a few more years to publish everything he was working on at the time. One of those projects was an autobiography, I. Asimov, in which he more or less summed up his life. Incredibly enough, this wasn’t even a first autobiography for him: In 1979 and 1980, he wrote In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. While I. Asimov acknowledges these previous autobiographies, it’s also a stand-alone work. (As Asimov explains in the introduction, the first two volumes have long been out of print) Anyone interested in the writer’s life should pick up this work; it’s pretty much “the ultimate Asimov.”
Hefting in at more than 550 pages, this book is divided in 166 short thematic chapters arranged in rough chronological order; while he’ll occasionally break his narrative to describe his relationship with other persons or to give a general opinion about a given subject, most of the book proceeds from childhood to education to early adult life to late adult life to semi-retirement. Each chapter clearly announces the subject, and even though there’s no index (argh), the table of content should be sufficient for most casual reference use. A 1994 bibliography completes I. Asimov.
As far as autobiographies go, this one is quite satisfying. The scope of it is ideal, of course. There isn’t much to Asimov that’s left unexamined by the time we read Janet Asimov’s epilogue. The writing style is compulsively readable, with a good mix of humour and information, of dry self-depreciation and proper acknowledgement of his strengths. You can easily get through this tome in a few days.
Asimov is also surprisingly candid, maybe a bit more than some fans might have expected. He makes no excuses, for instance, of his rather libertine attitude towards affairs during his first marriage. He can be quite cutting regarding whom he considers idiots. The failure of his first marriage is described quickly, as is his disappointment in his son (who he describes as a “gentleman of leisure.” [P.176]) (At least Asimov didn’t live to see him implicated in a child-pr0n scandal in 1998. Oh, the things we learn while fact-checking on Google…)
But don’t assume that these few issues are emblematic of the rest of the book. When Asimov loves, he loves a lot. It’s impossible to close the book and remain un-moved by his pure love of writing. (See his notes on his divorce, P.336) His own pleasure in public speaking is also obvious, and even quite charming; he was good at it and took considerable pleasure in delivering the goods as needed, even without notes or time-pieces. His devotion to his daughter Robin is touching, and his love for his second wife Janet is the source of considerable emotion late in the book.
Isaac Asimov has not in good health for the last decade of his life, and the last fourth of I. Asimov reflects the tragic dignity in which he left. The whole book itself was written with the mindset that it would be Asimov’s final word on himself, and by the end, it’s hard to escape impending death. The last few pages are especially poignant, as we’re left to contemplate what such a first-rate mind could have done had it been allowed five, fifty, five hundred more years. Alas, Asimov is gone, and there won’t be anyone else like him. Ever.
While Asimov may take delight in presenting himself as the humble son of an immigrant shop-keeper and in assuring us that nothing spectacular ever happened in his life, he misses the point: Asimov himself is the highlight of I. Asimov, not his life history. For any fan of the author, casual or obsessive, this is the definitive book so far.
Doubleday, 1995, 332 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN 0-385-47622-1
Despite what anyone may think of Isaac Asimov’s fiction, opinion, style or latter years (this reviewer, for one, maintains that most post-1970 Asimov novels were average at best, errors otherwise), there is no denying the influence he had on SF and America during his life. This in itself would make the Asimov name pretty valuable (to publishers) even after his untimely death in 1992.
So here is another book by Asimov about Asimov. In this case, here is the Stanley Asimov-edited book of Isaac Asimov-written letters. Before e-mail, before facsimiles there was the letter, and Asimov wrote a bunch of them. How much of a bunch? “Isaac received about 100,000 letters in his professional career… he answered 90 percent of them.” [Introduction] Even considering that half these answers were on postcards, that’s a staggering mass of material.
To his credit, Stanley Asimov manages to distil a jovial book of Asimovillia, full of the Good Doctor’s own brand of immodest modesty, suggestive limericks and unique personality. A writer of nearly 500 books can’t escape having encyclopedic interests, and this is one of the most distinctive things gleaned from Yours, Isaac Asimov.
Beyond that, it’s a revealing look at the personality of the man by his writings, collected and edited by someone who knew him well. Even those who think they know everything about Asimov should learn a few things.
For instance, fans of the prurient Asimov from the forties and fifties will be surprised, even shocked, at the decidedly looser opinions of the more unleashed writer of the sixties onward. More than forty limericks, among other things, populate the pages of this book. Some of them are fairly spicy.
The book is divided in more than fifty short thematic paragraphs, among them “Being a liberal”, “Quantity”, “Campbell and Pohl”, “Fans”, “Youth”, “Memory”, “Censorship” and “Being Atheist”. Stanley poignantly ends the collection with two chapters on Health and Death. And yet, the overall tone of the book is one of cheer and good living. Asimov loved life and these letters show it.
Of course, this collection will mean more to Asimov fans that to relative newcomers. As such, it might not be worth buying in hardcover, but any serious Asimov collector should at least take a look at it.
It occurs to this reviewer that if ever humanity perfects the machine in Robert Silverberg’s “Enter a Soldier. Later, Enters Another” (Where everything known about a person is entered in a computer in order to simulate his personality), Asimov might be one of the best candidates to recreate. Not only has he left us more that 450 books from where to glean material (not including his massive autobiographies and everything everyone else wrote about him), but everyone could agree that Doctor A. should still be around.
I can’t think of a more telling homage.