Great Explainer; ISAAC ASIMOV; Caesar was not a tossed salad

Words pour from Isaac Asimov's typewriter like water thundering over the Grand Coulee Dam. No staring at blank paper for him. Each morning he snuggles into his office, cracks his fingers, ad turns on the words as easily as most people turn on the lights.

Publishers hardly have time to breathe. Typesetters work overtime. Whole forests are condemned to paper by the chattering of his IBM Selectric.

Science fiction and science fact are his forte, and volumes such as "I, Robot ," "Fantastic Voyage," and "Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright" have established his reputation as unofficial press secretary to the Space Age. But his wide-ranging uriosity has also produced books for children and limericks for adults; annotated guides to Shakespeare, Byron, and the Bible; and histories of Egypt, the Roman Empire, and Constantinople.

A good year means at least 10 books, and last year was a good year. Thirteen rolled off the presses, including numbers 200A and 200B (two publishers wanted his 200th work) and the first volume of an autobiography. He is up t No. 216, not counting the 10 or so already written but twiddling their thumbs, waiting to be published.

When asked why he writes so fast, he shrugs and pulls at his sideburns. The most striking feature of his face, they look like bushy strips of hair creeping down his cheeks, trying to become a chin strap.

"The natural tendency is to put the best face on it and say, 'Well, I write that many books because I'm so bright and I have such enormous talent, and I just think clearly and out it comes.' But it's perfectly possible that somebody else, answering for me and without my own urge to make myself look good, might say the reason he writes so many books is because he is easily satisfied. None of this striving for perfection for Asimov. However he slaps it down on paper, that's good enough for him."

ISaac Asimov is a certified scientist -- he has a PhD in chemistry from Columbia -- and like most scientists he was trained to probe for results, the bottom line, the outcome of experiments. the test of his work is whether or not people buy it. They do, so he is satisfied.His publishers' profits are a concrete penomenon. Asimov respects concrete phenomena. His speed also reflects the energy he brings to his desk each morning. Unlike authors who agonize over the difficulty of creation, he revels in the pleasure of his job.

"Most of the writers I know don't like to write, the actual mechanics. They like to be enthusiastic about something they're going to write, and they like to have the finished product in their hands, but the actual process of writing can be painful. this is sad, and I'm glad I missed that part of the profession."

He grew up in the Brooklyn candy stores owned by his father, a Russian immigrant. Forbidden to sample the merchandise, young Isaac was drawn to the racks of pulp magazines whose covers enthralled him. Forbidden to sample the magazines, he spent much of his childhood inventing strategies to legally read them. By the time he graduated from Boys' High, resistance had crumbled and he was allowed a daily diet of "doc Savage," "G-8 and His Battle Aces," and "Tom Swift."

He was always the brightest kid in the class, the one you could count on to explain the math homework or help with the physics experiment. His addiction to science fiction magazines survived his years at junior college and at Columbia, and some penny-a-word stories for the pulps he pounded out, for the pulps are still being reprinted today.

Science fiction was not overwhelmingly lucrative, so he chose a dual career. Continuing to write in his spare time, he ascended the ladder of academia, eventually reaching the rung of associate professor of biochemistry at Boston University. But he describes himself as an "indifferent" research scientist, and when, in 1958, his royalties totaled five times his salary, he threw in his test tubes for his typewriter.

He has not written a novel in some years, preferring instead to concentrate on science fact. His success is based on a gift for reducing the irreducible, so the layman cna understand the cosmic vagaries of modern science.

"Science can, if used properly, do a great deal to make human life better, human beings more secure and happier. It has in the past. Science, if used improperly, can do a great deal of harm, destroy our civilization and ourselves. The secret is in the manner of using. And in order to decide how to use science , people have to understand science. Otherwise they're just guessing. They're getting their answers by listening to internal greed or to internal emotions and not to real understanding. If there's anything which is life and death to understand it is science. And so I try to do my little bit to help. I would hate to see public will exercised on the basis of superstition and ignorance."

But he also says science should not become a priesthood. As researchers dive into the icy ethical waters of genetic research and other sensitive subjects, he feels the public has the right to demand that scientists consider the moral issues raised by their research.

It is very easy, he said, for scientists, in their ivory towers, to become indifferent to "anything outside the immediate experiments. . . . "It think it is estremely important, therefore, that the general public prod them unduly and in the wrong direction and force the scientists to defend themselves than [to allow them] to remain completely indifferent and allow things to drift. That can be dangerous."

Shifting in his chair, he speaks slowly. He is the type of person who often appears at meetings, receives awards, or speaks at conventions, and at these gatherings he is almost always asked to pass a judgment or make a prediction of some kind. His name then appears in short press releases, such as "Isaac Asimov , receiving the Washburn Award for Science, predicted a world food shortage will be the crisis of the '80s," or "Isaac Asimov, today told the student body of Wheelock College that immortality would be a bore." He knows his words carry some weight, so he seems to examine them routinely for content before speaking.

"I must admit I'm not particularly keen on being a sage. It's rather pleasant to be one, but it has its dangers. When people ask questions about things I really don't know the answer to or haven't even thought about, the temptation is to put on my sage mantle and whomp up something. I don't think that's right. However, I dare say my resistance is not perfect, and that every once in a while I do fall prey to the temptation. So I'm not sure that every quote I've ever been credited with is a pearl of wisdom."

But it is obvious he takes pride in his role as all-purpose expert, the Great Explainer. His economic success has given him the freedom to write what he pleases, and over the years he has explained algebra to people terrified of math , outlined the Roman Empire for those who thought Caesar was a salad, and guided non-English majors through the pages of "Paradise Lost." Asimovian articles have appeared in magazines as diverse as Chemistry, High Fidelity, National Geographic, and Ladies' Home Journal.

"In fact, I would suppose that I could write on any subject that I chose to write on that interested me sufficiently, and be fairly confident that somebody who was convinced he didn't care for that particular subject would find himself interested."

He says this with a curious sort of detachment, as if discussing the weather.

"It's just that I understand what I read. And my way of writing about a particular subject is my way. I can make it understandable. And I generally write for people who are not in the particular field I'm writing about. I write my history for nonhistorians, for example."

He toys with his string tie and looks satisfied. His "Asimovian immodesties" are leavened with a natural ingenuousness, and he comes across as a likable man. He has garnered honor, fame, riches, and the love of publishers, and carries forward America's tattered belief in a better life through science.

But his personality has at least one inconsistent quirk. This man of the future, who writes about robots, spaceships, and the stars, refuses to fly, because he is frightened of airplanes.

"It's an unreasoning fear," he sighs, "but who's perfect?"

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