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empathy deficit entitled babies misogyny sexual assault sexual harassment

Isaac Asimov: Prolific author, even more prolific sexual assaulter

By David Futrelle

The famously and rather ludicrously prolific science fiction and popular science writer Isaac Asimov — who claimed to have written or edited some 500 books — was born a century ago this month, and the occasion has inspired tributes in a variety of languages.

But there’s an uneasy tone to some of these tributes, because this longtime sci fi hero, who died in 1992, had a dark side hidden in plain sight — he was known not only as a tireless prose machine but also as a man who regularly, and enthusiastically groped women and sometimes tried to force them to kiss him.

Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women by the pussy; Asimov liked to grab and pinch women’s asses. Indeed, as Stephanie Zwan has documented, he was so well-known for this behavior that he was once asked to deliver a speech at a science fiction convention on “The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching.” While Asimov declined, partly because of the hassle of finding women who would consent to appear on stage with him so he could demonstrate his technique on them, he did suggest that he might change his mind “if the posteriors in question were of particularly compelling interest.”

Normally, of course, Asimov didn’t ask permission before pinching, or doing anything else; as he once joked to fellow science fiction luminary Frederick Pohl that, using his particular technique, “you get slapped a lot, but you get laid a lot, too.”

Within the science fiction community Asimov’s behavior was treated (at least by men) as little more than a sort of side effect of his affable personality — like a tendency to make bad puns, which might occasion both groans and laughs. Indeed, it was his reputation as a basically harmless lech that allowed him to get away with routine sexual harassment and assault for decades.

As biographer Alec Nevala-Lee has noted, Asimov’s

reputation as a groper became a running joke among science fiction fans. The writer and editor Judith Merril recalled that Asimov was known in the 1940s as “the man with a hundred hands,” and that he “apparently felt obliged to leer, ogle, pat, and proposition as an act of sociability.” …

It was all framed as nothing but good fun, as were his interactions with women once his success as an author allowed him to proceed with greater impunity. He writes in his memoirs of his custom of “hugging all the young ladies” at his publisher’s office, which was viewed indulgently by such editors as Timothy Seldes of Doubleday, who said, “All you want to do is kiss the girls and make collect calls. You’re welcome to that, Asimov.” In reality, his attentions were often unwanted, and women found excuses to be away from the building whenever he was scheduled to appear.

After his celebrity increased, his behavior at conventions became more egregious, as the editor Edward L. Ferman reminisced of a fan gathering in the late 1950s: “Asimov … instead of shaking my date’s hand, shook her left breast.”

Another Great Man who turns out to have been a massive shit.

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Naglfar
Naglfar
2 years ago

This is awful. Whenever there are this many stories of people someone assaulted, you know there’s probably at least as many, if not many more, people that were assaulted but whose stories never came to light.

I at one point enjoyed a few of his novels and short stories. Obviously I no longer will be recommending those.

In science fiction, there are so many reprehensible people who continue to get the spotlight while more diverse authors are stuck in the shadows. A very problematic trend, and I hope that this can change. I enjoy science fiction, but I am hesitant to participate in many community events because of that toxicity (see: Vox Day and the Sad Puppies, Isaac Asimov, etc).

Crip Dyke
Crip Dyke
2 years ago

@David:

Thanks for this, but I thought you should know:

Stephanie Zwan

is actually Stephanie Zvan, with a V.

weirwoodtreehugger: chief manatee

Ugh. This one makes me sad because he was the first non-children’s author I liked as a kid.

I did a book report on him and made a robot to go with it. And I had a video about the planets that he narrated that I watched every other day in 2nd and 3rd grade (the other days were for Wizard of Oz).

Joekster
Joekster
2 years ago

Aw crud. I should stop quoting his statement on the American cult of ignorance, then.

He was also one of my favorite writers growing up.

Fungoides. Mycosis fungoides.

Unicorn Rider
Unicorn Rider
2 years ago

This is gross and disappointing. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if there’s any well known person truly worthy of being admired. I know not everyone is a serial harasser, but still.

I personally think that since he’s already deceased, we can appreciate the stories on their own merit, since he can’t profit from it anyway. I get that not everyone feels that way though.

katster
katster
2 years ago

Our heroes all have feet of clay.

The original Foundation trilogy was one of those formative works for me. Heroes using their *wits* to get out of problems instead of their blasters? What does it mean to live knowing that your future is somewhat preordained? And what happens when a random variable is introduced?

Then I found out how much of an ass he was to women. And the person on the other end of that correspondence (Earl Kemp) is a pretty big name in the part of science fiction fandom I found myself in, which just made it worse.

I’ve decided I won’t stop recognizing his works — Foundation and I, Robot are some of the ur-texts of the genre, and the latter contains the Three Laws of Robotics, which still influences designers of robots and AI. That said, if I recommend them, I now add the caveat about his lecherousness and treatment of women so people have the full picture.

-kat

Definitely not Steve
Definitely not Steve
2 years ago

Well, my first favorite sci fi author was Orson Scott Card, so I’ve already been on this disappointment train. (Although, mine also came with the embarrassment I will forever feel that I actually liked that intellectualist masturbation fantasy, once.)

Surely there are more than enough decent and good people who have written – and are still writing – excellent fiction in the world. I hope their works can rise to at least a fraction of the prominence that Asimov’s have.

Snowberry
Snowberry
2 years ago

Yet another reminder that, while ambition and disdain for other people’s autonomy don’t entirely overlap, they do overlap with an alarming degree of regularity.

Catalpa
Catalpa
2 years ago

Ugh. Always a disappointment to find out that creators are shitty people. I hope that the women he assaulted didn’t have any more experiences like that.

That said, I enjoy a number of HP Lovecraft’s stories, and that guy was an utter asshole in every way. It’s up to everyone’s own judgement, but I think that it’s not necessarily bad to consume something created by a shitty person. It’s important to consider that their shitty views may have leaked into their work and to consume it critically, but the enjoyment of the thing is something that you create, not something the shitty person created.

And then later you can take all the good elements of the shitty person’s work and make something way better than that just to dunk on them. For Lovecraft, Jonathan Sims of The Magnus Archives has done cosmic horror amazingly well, and with themes and a cast of characters that would have Lovecraft spinning in his grave. It’s so gratifying to listen to.

Kat, ambassador of the feminist government in exile
Kat, ambassador of the feminist government in exile
2 years ago

Well, this is a disappointment. As I recall, Asimov — although not my favorite author but one whom I consistently enjoyed — was unusually respectful of his female characters. This kind of respect gave me hope for my own future.

Now it turns out that he was a jerk. Because the bar for male public figures is extraordinarily low, I’m just gonna say it: I’m relieved that he wasn’t a rapist. At least as far as I know.

#Scifiauthorsespeciallyfuturistspleasestopbeingjerksthx

Crip Dyke
Crip Dyke
2 years ago

Surely there are more than enough decent and good people who have written – and are still writing – excellent fiction in the world. I hope their works can rise to at least a fraction of the prominence that Asimov’s have.

Try

Octavia Butler
C.J. Cherryh
Celia S. Friedman (AKA C.S. Friedman)
N.K. Jemisin
Mercedes Lackey
Ann Leckie
Tamora Pierce
John Scalzi

(alphabetical order, not preferential or quality order)

I am actually not very familiar with Friedman, whom I think is one of the good ones, but don’t know enough about to be sure.

I’m pretty darn sure of the rest. (Though, of course, not absolutely, I could always be wrong.)

epronovost
epronovost
2 years ago

Considering Asimov age and the culture in which he grew, his behavior isn’t that abherrant by the standard of his time. The man probably never was raised to empathised with women. In fact he was propably repeatedly thaught that women liked that sort of thing, especially when it’s a popular person doing it. I don’t think that Asimov should be criticised with the same harshness than a man living today.

kupo
kupo
2 years ago

Considering Asimov age and the culture in which he grew, his behavior isn’t that abherrant by the standard of his time.

I’m really sick of this argument.

David Rose
David Rose
2 years ago

@epronovost

I disagree. Even if social norms were different in Asimov’s day, there were undoubtedly countless men who didn’t behave that way. Famous or not, we don’t hear about their interactions with women because their behavior was unremarkable enough to escape comment.

That Asimov was a product of more traditional mores and that his lechery survived alongside his reputation is, actually, a combination remarkable enough to note.

Katherine the Adequate
Katherine the Adequate
2 years ago

Yes, but because of his historically significant, phenooomenal talent, we should excuse his “pecadillo”, i.e. using human beings as sexual devices/slaves, etc., because those humans just aren’t important and don’t have rights when you look at it in context. So sayeth that Monty Python actor whose name I’ve forgotten already. /end sarcasm and time to puke.

Thank you Kupo and David Rose for your excellent rebuttals to tired old excuses, BTW.

Talonknife
Talonknife
2 years ago

I always hate when it turns out an author of something I enjoy is a shitty person. A guy by the name of Larry Correia wrote a book series about a group of paramilitary monster hunters and even though the politics in it were a bit libertarian dipshit-y, I still enjoyed it as a “dumb fun” book. But then then I found out he was involved in Vox Day’s Sad Puppies conspiracy and now I’m not sure if I want to read the rest of the series. I think I’ve mentioned this here before, but this seems like a particularly relevant post to bring it up again.

Dreamer
Dreamer
2 years ago

Octavia Butler is my fav sci-fi writer.

galanx
galanx
2 years ago

Not to mention James Triptree Jr.

Vespertine
Vespertine
2 years ago

I heard that Andy Weir’s (The Martian) close friend Casey went down for pornographic content of underaged people, and at least one of his other close friends has serially done extremely questionable things to drunk/vulnerable women 15+ years his junior.

At this point I only read women sci fi authors.

Kat, ambassador of the feminist government in exile
Kat, ambassador of the feminist government in exile
2 years ago

Considering Asimov age and the culture in which he grew, his behavior isn’t that abherrant by the standard of his time. The man probably never was raised to empathised with women. In fact he was propably repeatedly thaught that women liked that sort of thing, especially when it’s a popular person doing it. I don’t think that Asimov should be criticised with the same harshness than a man living today.

Nonsense. At the very least in the USA in the twentieth century — a place and century with which I am extremely familiar, through my own experience, the experiences of my mother, and books — groping women was never okay. Never. And if it happened — well, that’s why hatpins sometimes had to be deployed as weapons.

“The Hatpin Peril” Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman
To protect themselves from unwanted advances, city women protected themselves with some sharp accessories

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/hatpin-peril-terrorized-men-who-couldnt-handle-20th-century-woman-180951219/

vaiyt
2 years ago

Asimov’s thing for asses is well documented, considering a significant chunk of Foundation’s Edge is spent telling the reader how big and juicy a certain robot woman’s posterior is.

Ohlmann
Ohlmann
2 years ago

Won’t prevent me from reading and appreciating its production, but I wouls sure have prefered him being less of an asshole.

Strong case for “differenciate the author and the novels”, including the fact him failing at basic human etiquette should inform interpretations.

Battering Lamb
Battering Lamb
2 years ago

Octavia Butler
C.J. Cherryh
Celia S. Friedman (AKA C.S. Friedman)
N.K. Jemisin
Mercedes Lackey
Ann Leckie
Tamora Pierce
John Scalzi

Jemisins Broken Earth trilogy was haunting. Butlers stuff is always good, especially the two Parable of… books

In addition to these I’d recommend:
Ursula Le Guinn’s Left Hand of Darkness.

James SA Corey (pseudonym for the duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck): They are also writers on the show The Expanse (which is based on their books) and are very devoted to having the cast be as diverse as it is in their books and not have it be ‘white men in space’.

Edging a lot further towards science fantasy, but I recently read Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir and that was also a lot of fun.

Knitting Cat Lady
Knitting Cat Lady
2 years ago

I never got the appeal of Asimov’s novels. They were just so boring.

And the whole conceit of the Foundation novels of ‘History can be predicted by maths’ made for a somewhat compelling story, but had me grumble ‘that’s not how maths work, also too many variables’ the whole way through. Made it a bit difficult to suspend my disbelieve.

I’ve mostly stopped reading male writers. Cause I got sick of the male gaze.

Naglfar
Naglfar
2 years ago

@Crip Dyke
Thank you for the recommendations. I’ll check those out when I get a chance.

@epronovost

Considering Asimov age and the culture in which he grew, his behavior isn’t that abherrant by the standard of his time. The man probably never was raised to empathised with women. In fact he was propably repeatedly thaught that women liked that sort of thing, especially when it’s a popular person doing it. I don’t think that Asimov should be criticised with the same harshness than a man living today.

In addition to what other commenters have said about how many men didn’t do what he did, I’d like to add that even though Asimov is dead, many of his victims are likely still alive. Imagine how hurtful it is to the people he harmed for someone to say that he shouldn’t be condemned because of the time he lived in. They’re still hurt regardless of the time he grew up in.

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