X-Message-Number: 705
Date: 07 Apr 92 14:35:56 EDT
From: "Steven B. Harris" <>
Subject: Isaac Asimov, R.I.P.

Isaac Asimov, R.I.P.

   It was with sadness that I heard about the passing of Isaac
Asimov today.  His death was not unexpected for those of us who
have followed his doings, but such things are always a shock

   For those of you who don't know him, Isaac Asimov is (was) the
premier science writer of this century.  He was born in Petro-
vichi (then in the U.S.S.R.) in 1920, emigrated with his family
at age three to America, and grew up the son of Jewish candy
store owner in Brooklyn.  He showed early brilliance, but after
getting a Ph.D. from Columbia and climbing the scientific
academic ladder to professor of biochemistry at Boston University
School of Medicine, discovered that he was not really a re-
searcher, but a writer.  (His department head discovered the
same, apparently, and Asimov left academia for the world of full-
time professional writing in 1958 with an institutional foot
planted firmly on his posterior).

   Boston Med School's loss (such as it was) was the world's
gain, for Asimov was a polymath possessed of the world's clearest
writing style and an associative memory of encyclopedic scope. 
(By all accounts, including his own, also an ego of proportionate
magnitude).  He ended up writing more than 300 books, on subjects
across the spectrum from the religion to history to science to
several categories of fiction.  

    He was one of my boyhood heros.  From early on I read every
book of his that I could lay my hands on, from science fiction to
science fact.  It was Isaac Asimov who got me interested in
chemistry at the age of 10, with books on the chemical elements
and the history of chemistry.  Because of him I started on
organic chemistry at age 15 with _The World of Carbon_ (can't
start any more basic than that book) and later taught myself bio-
chemistry early in high school, all from Asimov's books. (Anyone
who says that science is a mystery to them has no excuse:  just
go to your local library and look in the author index system
under "A"). I had originally planned to be a medicinal chemist
and did not quite end up going down that path, but it is no
exaggeration to say that Asimov is in a major way still re-
sponsible for my career in medicine.  

   Last Fall, when I heard through a mutual acquaintance that
Asimov was gravely and irreparably ill, I obtained his New York
City address and wrote a belated first and only fan letter to him
at his apartment, one which not only said Thank You, but which
also contained a lengthy plea that he reconsider the idea of
cryonics (I also sent him the most recent Alcor handbook).  I
didn't have much hope for this last action, since for years I'd
been reading Asimovian essays on overpopulation, and I was even
aware of one essay from the 70's in which Asimov had specifically
attacked the idea of cryonics.  Still, I thought it no harm to
try, and I did need to tell the man how much his writing meant to
me.  If my letter gave him a single smile it was worth the time
it took to write it.

   He never answered.  And (worse) he didn't take me (or anybody
else) up on the challenge.  I learned later that he had long had
some contact with certain members of Alcor NY, so it turned out
that even as regards Alcor I probably wasn't telling him anything
about cryonics that he didn't already know.  Asimov's problem
with cryonics was not lack of access or money (his writing had
made him rich), and certainly was not lack of brains or scienti-
fic knowledge-- his problem lay elsewhere.  

    Asimov was a contradictory man: although his mind ranged
through time and space in his books, in real life he was a
lifelong acrophobe (who never flew in his life) and more im-
portantly, an agoraphobe-- a man who was much more comfortable
with a typewriter in a sealed apartment in an overcrowded city
(see _Caves of Steel_) than physically exploring new things. 
Such people do not like even the thought of being physically
thrust naked into the future.  As we cryonicists have observed of
certain science fiction fans, when it comes to the future, they'd
rather travel there by armchair, or not at all.

   Moreover, while Asimov was a rationalist, an atheist, and a
committed humanist (he was a founder of the American Humanist
Association), he was also heavily liberal or even socialist in
his politics.  In consequence, many of his popular writings
abound with cautionary warnings about the damage which would be
done to "society" or "mankind" by personal immorality (such as
overpopulation, stoppage of natural selection, stultification of
research because of lack of fresh viewpoints in positions of
power, etc).  Whatever you and I may think of these arguments,
they were enough for Asimov, and he had enough integrity to back
them up with his life when the time came.  

   And perhaps this was not so hard to do, considering the way
Asimov saw things.  For as a science fiction writer his view of
the future was not overly bright, and (again) his phobias seem to
blame.  Asimov's future worlds are either giant warrens of
humanity (where overpopulation would make the idea of life exten-
sion a joke), or else empty worlds where people live in such
psychological isolation that living long seems a punishment. 
Neither of these futures sounds like much fun, but Asimov could
not seem to break free of one idea or the other.  Asimov's
stories also frequently describe another kind of joylessness:
people fighting hopelessly against some ridiculous and restric-
tive social custom or belief in either a crowded or empty world--
a custom which seems perfectly rational to the persons who hold
it.  There is considerable irony here, for Asimov himself died
doing exactly what everyone around him was doing in the way of
dealing with death, as much caught up in the social norms of his
own culture as any of the various "enforcers of the status quo"
in one of his stories.  Again he could not seem to break free.

   In any case, whatever the reason, Isaac Asimov is gone, ashes
to ashes.  The lesson for us, if there is one, is the familiar
one that the road to radical life extension is a rocky one.  It
isn't enough to be lucky of circumstance, intelligent, knowledge-
able, atheistic, or incredibly rich (For what is a man profited,
if he shall gain the whole Walmart, and lose his own suspen-
sion?).  You can, as an individual, have all these things and die
anyway, because you still have psychological and political
hurdles you can miss.  As Asimov missed his.  Asimov really
believed he needed to die in order to give me more space (thanks,
Dr. A, it feels much roomier now), but then again, he'd never
flown over Arizona in a commercial jet.  He really believed that
personal immortality would stop human evolution, and I suspect
that his ego would have prevented him from absorbing any argument
that cultural and genetic evolution will become the same thing in
a few years.  Asimov really BELIEVED that powerful and inflexible
people need to be removed by death in order to make a better
world.  He was a man of considerable power who believed this

    And let us admit it-- perhaps he was right.  But what if he'd
changed his mind?
                                  Steve Harris

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