With the coming of a Foundation series on Apple TV a whole new generation is going to Google Isaac Asimov and discover how creepy he was. Asimov made a lot of predictions that have more or less come to pass–robots taking jobs for instance–but what he never foresaw was an early twenty-first century culture intolerant and contemptuous of his groping of non-consenting women .
Which isn’t to say people at the time weren’t repulsed and, in the case of his victims, degraded and humiliated. Among the women of the science fiction scene he would be referred to as ‘The Man With A Hundred Hands’ and many went to great lengths to keep a distance. But the community in general (and society at large) indulged his behaviour as a loveable foible. Asimov could, quite without shame and not an iota of empathy, write passages such as this:
“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.”
That’s from his book The Sensuous Dirty Old Man. Yeah that’s a thing he wrote and, no, as far as I can tell it’s not part of his Foundation series. Defenders call Sensuous satirical but, given the author’s personal behaviour, that definition of satirical comes from some other timeline where Jonathan Swift ate Irish babies.
Tolerance for Asimov’s proclivities ran so high at science fiction conventions he was even asked to host a lecture on sexual harassment techniques, the title of which, The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching, hammers home just what a tawdry hell-show twentieth century conventions must have been. Let’s be honest, there’s almost certainly a deeply rancid iceberg below that ghastly surface, the full extent of which we’ll never fully know.
Within his sphere Isaac Asimov was a mutton-chopped titan, one it would be foolhardy for any budding writer to clash with. The man was surfing a long wave of household-name star-power and in turn said wave was carried along a firmament of post-war patriarchy which, in later decades, would be reinvigorated with that unique male chauvinism inherent to the sexual revolution. When one man angrily confronted Asimov about assaulting his partner it was the former who got thrown out the con. This was Isaac’s world and the young women of sf had to live in it.
Which I find infuriating, increasingly so as I get older. What each of those women suffered is maddening enough but, on a wider (and frankly more selfish) level, thinking about the damage his harassment and all the saluting of that harassment have potentially done to literature makes me grind my teeth volubly. Because If I were an aspiring writer and young woman back then I’m not sure my relationship to SF conventions would have been a long one. What great writers, what mind-blowing and genre upending works have we lost? What would the canon now look like if this sweaty-trottered culture had never existed? The New Wave, for one, could only have been a wider and more diverse church. It only looks like it does now on account Ballard, Spinrad etc didn’t have breasts. What lost zeitgeists, Isaac? Fuck’s sake…
But why am I bringing up all this ghoulishness? After all, you’ll find far better blog posts on the subject than anything I can offer. Well, I made a bit of a discovery. Nothing paradigm shifting, no recently discovered papers or anything. Just an entry in Asimov’s wikipedia page that I think is interesting and maybe should be better known.
Isaac Asimov, science fiction author, kept getting his arse pinched. He didn’t like it.
But, my, who would do such a thing?
I covered sci-fi author Alfred Bester in a post some time ago, concerning his tale of meeting fascist looney-tune John W. Campbell. He tells a great and insightful anecdote. What comes across about Bester in any story involving him is he’s a cool cat not even slightly awe-struck by SF’s top tier. Well, why should he have been? Throughout his writing career he was making better money elsewhere; in television, popular magazines, you name it. Science fiction was merely what he liked to do. He didn’t fear its hierarchies.
In an obituary for Bester published in the 1987 SFWA’s Nebula Awards volume, Asimov wrote:
He always gave me the biggest hello it was possible to hand out. I use the term figuratively, because what he gave me more than once (lots more than once, especially if he saw me before I saw him) was more than a verbal greeting. He enclosed me in a bear hug and kissed me on the cheek. And, occasionally, if I had my back to him, he did not hesitate to goose me.
Oh no. I’m sorry to hear that Isaac. He continues:
This discomfited me in two ways. First, it was a direct physical discomfiture. I am not used to being immobilized by a hug and then kissed, and I am certainly not used to being goosed.
A more indirect discomfiture and a much worse one was my realization that just as I approached Alfie very warily when I saw him before he saw me, it might be possible that young women approached me just as warily, for I will not deny to you that I have long acted on the supposition that hugging, kissing, and goosing was a male prerogative, provided young women (not aging males) were the target.
It’s at this moment he almost- almost– reaches some kind of enlightenment:
You have no idea how it spoiled things to me when I couldn’t manage to forget that the young women might be edging away.
I wonder if Alfie did it on purpose in order to widen my understanding of human nature and to reform me. No, I don’t think so. It was just his natural ebullience.
Well, here’s the thing, Isaac. After reading this I did a quick search and no other author, specifically no male author, mentions Alfred Bester doing this to them. I used to read Fred Pohl’s blog right up until he passed away and, though he had a fair few Bester anecdotes none of them involved getting ‘goosed’ or even hugged. It was as if this discomfiting behaviour- and bear with me a moment, this is quite a theory I’ve been working on- was entirely centred on Isaac Asimov.
Now, I don’t think Bester was trying to widen Asimov’s understanding or reform him, not exactly. I think Bester just enjoyed hazing bullies and the self-entitled. Which, of itself, can be a very attractive hobby when you’re at a convention full of puffed-up nabobs and their fawning fans, especially if you’ve nothing to lose. Not the means Bester chose, I hasten to add, but certainly the energy behind it.
Of course two wrongs don’t make a right. In an ideal world Alfie Bester would have used his standing in the community to bring focus on Isaac’s behaviour and the culture around it but that’s probably asking too much of the era. It might not have achieved anything anyway. Perhaps Bester knew that.
I prefer restorative justice over punitive justice, the latter appealing to our lower, apish instincts. But, dammit, something really appeals to me about Isaac Asimov stepping sheepishly through a con hall, looking around corners, forever cowed by some over-feelie bloke who he could neither physically or verbally dissuade. Knowing his peers would mock and berate him if he ever did. Yup, there’s an ugly sliver in me, a bronze age throwback, some biblical goon, that really grins to picture it.
Am I a bad person? I guess I must be. But in a story with no good ending (that even now, in contemporary conventions, is still waiting for a good ending) I’ll take what rough justice I can get.