JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

The One With the Asimov Post Card

About five years after I spoke to Isaac Asimov on the phone, I sent him a fan letter.

I was now living in State College, PA, and the previous year, in April 1970, Dr. Asimov had made an appearance on the Penn State campus to speak at Schwab Auditorium about a week before the first Earth Day. I, of course, attended.

Dr. Asimov’s lecture was sponsored by Penn State’s Science Fiction Society, whose faculty advisor, Philip Klass, provided the introduction. This was fitting and proper since Klass and Asimov were old friends, and Klass actually wrote excellent science fiction stories himself under the pseudonym William Tenn.

Schwab Auditorium at the Penn State campus

There was only one problem. Professor Klass proceeded to give Dr. Asimov possibly the worst introduction anyone has ever received.

By that I mean he went on and on for at least fifteen minutes, and he was absolutely hilarious!

He first listed some of Dr. Asimov’s many achievements, and the many and varied fields in which Asimov had expertise, and then he said: “But I don’t want you to get the idea that Isaac Asimov is a renaissance man. Let me list some of the things he hasn’t done!”

And as he brilliantly listed the many accomplishments Asimov had not yet achieved, he had the audience in stitches. For example, he said, “Isaac Asimov has never performed Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera.”

How could anyone possibly follow such an introduction?

Finally, Professor Klass finished, and he turned the podium over to his introductee. As Asimov reached the podium, he turned to the audience and in his rich baritone sang: “Bella figlia dell'amore…” The opening line of the great quartet from Rigoletto.

And he brought down the house.

The rest of the evening Asimov had the audience in the palm of his hand as he spoke extemporaneously on a variety of subjects loosely framed by the topic of the slow historical adoption of lightning rods due to religious objections.

Anyway, it was the following January that I decided to send him a fan letter in which I referenced the lecture, and I expressed my pessimism about the future of humanity because of religious and other absurd belief systems. I also noted that in recent years he had become more outspoken in his writings, making clear his atheism and his support for certain liberal causes such as women’s rights, and I wondered if this might have alienated any of his audience. After adding a few additional compliments, I concluded with a firm wish that he continue writing in his current vein.

I knew from the phone call that he lived in Newton, Massachusetts, and I further recalled reading somewhere that he actually lived in West Newton, so that’s how I addressed it.

And then I pretty much forgot about it.

Until a few weeks later I received a post card from Dr. Asimov with a post mark from New York City. Clearly, he had moved on. And fortunately, the Post Office had forwarded his mail.

His reply was short and gracious:

2 March 1971

Dear Mr. Troutman,

Thank you for your kind words. As far as I know people aren’t mad at me.

But let’s hope for the best for the human race.

Isaac Asimov

Asimov Postcard front.png


Asimov Postcard back.png

The One With the Asimov Phone Call

Sometime in the spring of 1966 when I was 17, I was gathered with a group of my fellow high school classmates at Maryann Shelhamer’s house on a Sunday afternoon. Maryann had a tape recorder, and I had a telephone tap (a simple one that attached to the back of the receiver via a suction cup, if I recall correctly), and we were amusing ourselves by making crank phone calls.

When that turned out not to be as amusing as we expected, we decided to try to call a celebrity. I’m not sure just whom we considered, but at some point I suggested trying Isaac Asimov, who was my favorite science fiction writer.

Isaac Asimov

I don’t know why the others acquiesced, being I was the only science fiction fan present. (After all these years I no longer recall exactly who was there. Maryann, of course. Probably Mary Lou Bliss and Gary Wells and Randy Klopp. Maybe Dennis Keener. Possibly Debbie Miller and Carol Hill. Arlene Herr and/or Eric Blouch? Conceivably one or two others. Of those I named only Gary, Eric, and possibly Dennis had ever read any science fiction, but none of them were major fans, as far as I can recall.)

Since it was my idea, I placed the call, and I’ve preserved the recording for all these years even though it embarrasses the crap out of me. However, I’ve been assured by everyone that who has heard it in the intervening years that I need not be embarrassed by it. Doesn’t matter, I still am.

Anyway, I’ve converted it into a Youtube video so that I could add subtitles and a few other explanatory notes. I’ve also tried to enhance the audio at points where it needed enhancing. So here is the entire recording, including the interaction with the operators with nothing suppressed.

I’d just like to point out that my reasons for feeling embarrassed by it are as follows:

  • It’s painfully clear that I didn’t expect to get through to Dr. Asimov, so I didn’t have any idea what to say to him. Thankfully I did think of something to ask him.

  • I forgot that he had a PhD, so I addressed him as “Mr.” rather than “Dr.” This is especially painful for me because in science fiction circles he was affectionately referred to as the “Good Doctor”.

  • My Pennsylvania Dutch accent, which I have long since suppressed, is readily apparent.

  • Just my general fanboy demeanor. I’m such a dork on that call.

One last comment. If you listened to the whole thing you will have noticed that I said we were all great fans of his and had all read his novels. That was a lie, of course. But I figured he could hear the others laughing in the background so I felt I needed to address the fact that I was not alone. So I lied to Isaac Asimov.

Predestination

My two favorite science fictions authors when I was a teenager were Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Actually I think they still are.

Anyway, one of my favorite short stories by Heinlein was “—All You Zombies—”, which despite the title has absolutely nothing to do with zombies. It was perhaps ten pages long and packed a lot of story into that short space. I don’t think I ever imagined it would be filmed, or if it ever was converted into a movie, surely Hollywood would totally mess it up.

Happy to report that I was wrong. I just watched the 2013 movie Predestination, and it’s about as faithful a rendering of Heinlein’s story as is possible to do. So faithful that it uses many bits of Heinlein’s dialog (which I still recall even though it’s been years since I last read the story), and even includes a jukebox song that Heinlein references during a key scene. Of course, it's not really a product of Hollywood, having been made in Australia.

Clearly it had to expand on the story a bit to fill out its 90 minutes, and that’s the source of both its greatest strength and its one weakness.

Its strength is that it humanizes Heinlein’s major characters by expanding on their motivations and letting their emotions show through. The initial meeting of two of the characters, which occurs more than halfway through, was a very moving moment. Sadly, by adding one additional plot thread, the movie also loses a bit of the tightly controlled logic of Heinlein’s original; but since the movie does so many other things right, I can’t get too upset about that.

Its a time travel story, and that's all I'm going to say about the plot; if you plan to see it, I recommend not reading anything else about it.

Currently its only available on disc and pay per view, but I do recommend it highly.