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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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Ohlmann
Ohlmann
2 years ago

And, generally speaking, “a product of his age” isn’t an excuse for being a dickhead. Napoleon isn’t any less guilty of the various people he killed and the devastating wars he did because the culture of the time allowed for it.

People can, and should, do the right thing even if it’s widely accepted.

rv97
2 years ago

Shame. Bought a song bearing his last name (only thing related to him), but I’ve never got into his literature. It’s a damn good thing I don’t get into anything these days, because of stuff like this as well as how there’s a trend these days of not being able to keep what one pays for.

TB Tabby
TB Tabby
2 years ago

Just throw it on the pile with the others. Sometimes I worry that there are more beloved figures who were sexual abusers than weren’t.

Ohlmann
Ohlmann
2 years ago

@TB Tabby : power corrupt. One should generally know that if someone is a celebrity or a powerful one, he is *probably* given a free pass for whatever his personal dickheadness is, which in turn mean he is that much more likely to fall into it.

In France an actual pedophile, who bragged and wrote book about being a pedophile, was protected by the establishment as being just an excentric author by that phenomen, and just recently and under a lot of pressure was he cast out.

Most people, even fairly famous one, don’t go *that* far, but it’s alway harder to resist temptation when you know there won’t be retribution. Asimov was only a human, and while we should not accept his behavior, it’s also a sadly predictible one.

Moggie
Moggie
2 years ago

@epronovost, did you somehow miss the fact that Asimov himself said “you get slapped a lot”? He knew that many of his victims disliked his behaviour enough to fight back. So please let’s not pretend that he somehow believed all women enjoyed being groped.

Moggie
Moggie
2 years ago

@Knitting Cat Lady:

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

I’m not sure I’d agree that they were boring. But the characters were paper-thin. Asimov was my introduction to SF, but I moved on once my tastes had developed enough to want better characters, and I’ve never been tempted to return to him.

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.

This I agree with. His “psychohistory” seemed a big dumb idea to me.

Moggie
Moggie
2 years ago

@Vespertine:

At this point I only read women sci fi authors.

Best to avoid Marion Zimmer Bradley, though, since she turned out to be a monster.

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

@Moggie
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books are all feminist works. The Darkover series and The Mists of Avalon are wonderful. But those are her books. Her life was something different.

C.A. Collins
C.A. Collins
2 years ago

@Talonknife:
Correia founded the Sad Puppies, and brought Day in because:

In response to a question about their decision to bring in Vox Day to the Puppies effort:

Correia: Last year, given that my goal was to get these people to demonstrate to the world what they’re like, so I was going though, I was looking at shorter work – I really did like the story… I really did like it… my fanbase, they liked it too… so when I was putting together my slate… I started looking at it, said, okay, I like this story, they hate him, they look under the bed for him before they go to sleep at night, and he’s like the devil to them. But […] in the history of art, scumbags have created art. Okay? Otherwise there’s a lot of, you know, Roman Polanski is going to have to give a lot of Academy Awards back, okay?

And the next year, VD set up the Rabid Puppies, and proved rather better than Correia at getting griefers to spend $40 to vote lockstep, and the Sad Puppies became useful meat shields for VD.
TLDR: Correia wasn’t led astray by bad companions. He was an ass before he hooked up with VD.

Ohlmann
Ohlmann
2 years ago

Being a women don’t immunize against being an asshole. I guess it’s reasonable to think women authors are more likely to be clean, as long as one remember a lot of them have problematic opinions here and there. (or worse.)

Françoise Dolto, a well known psycho-analyst and pediatrist, have been outed to me as saying really problematic stuff on abused women, which saddened me since I liked a bunch of what she did on children development.

Weird (and tired of trumplings) Eddie
Weird (and tired of trumplings) Eddie
2 years ago

@ epronovost:

his behavior isn’t that abherrant by the standard of his time.

Though this has been discussed, I need to weigh in… His BEHAVIOR isn’t what’s “[not] all that abhorrent…”, his BEHAVIOR is despicable by ANY standards of any time. To illustrate, consider an example: Asimov was invited to visit the White House…. He gives the President a hearty handshake, then pinches the First Lady on the butt. I don’t feel the need to expand any more on the example….

What is NOT unusual by the standards of his time is HIM GETTING AWAY WITH IT

@ David Rose:

that his lechery survived alongside his reputation is, actually, a combination remarkable

Again (see above), I don’t agree that his getting away with it is in any way unusual. We have a sexual predator in the white house (formerly known as t”The White House”), and TWO on the supreme court (formerly known as “The Supreme Court”)

@ Kupo:

I’m really sick of this argument.

me, too… and that is NOT a pun…. 🙁

Naglfar
Naglfar
2 years ago

@C.A. Collins
At least the Hugo voters were wise enough to vote against the Sad/Rabid Puppies. And it was amusing when Chuck Tingle bought the domain name.
Vox is still a piece of shit though.

@Weird Eddie

his BEHAVIOR is despicable by ANY standards of any time.

And even if it was once acceptable by societal standards we know that it was wrong, and we need to use the lens of what’s actually right or wrong, not what was considered such at the time.

Again (see above), I don’t agree that his getting away with it is in any way unusual.

I’m not seeing it as unusual either. Sadly, sexual predators getting away with what they did is the norm.

Weird (and tired of trumplings) Eddie
Weird (and tired of trumplings) Eddie
2 years ago

@Vespertine:

At this point I only read women sci fi authors.

… at this point I only read paleoanthropology books

seriously, I don’t think I’ve read a novel in the last 40 years (which is neither here nor there…)

BUT, then I have to deal with events like the author of one of the most personally influential books in the field (The Selfish Gene), diving into the “Elevatorgate” mudpit, then doubling down, then tripling down… ruining his reputation and leaving a level of uncertainty in my mind about everything he’s written….

Ohlmann
Ohlmann
2 years ago

My firm move to “too-far-to-work-to”, so I am in the uncomfortable decision of either changing job or requesting full remote job.

On the other hand, the privileges I have both from my line of work and who I am mean it don’t require much effort to get either, but I sincerely feel for the poor sods who either need a new job right now or need to organize for significantly bigger commute with all that it entail.

Stupid bureaucrats that take needless decision without understanding how cruel they are.

C.A. Collins
C.A. Collins
2 years ago

VD is definitely a shit. The reason most of the SFWA hated him at that time was he used the official SWFA email to call Jensma an “ignorant half-savage” after N. K. Jemisin, during her delivery of the Guest of Honour speech at 2013 Continuum in Australia, stated that 10% of the SFWA membership voted for Beale in his bid for the SFWA presidential position and called him “a self-described misogynist, racist, anti-Semite, and a few other flavors of asshole”.
Correia’s take: Well, here’s the thing, and actually, I know the guy? I don’t think he is [a scumbag], I think what it is is that he a guy who is an internet curmudgeon who likes to pick fights with people, who got in a fight with a racist, and said racist things, in response to somebody who is hurling racist slurs for years. However, one person was from the approved clique and therefore got a pass, and the other guy is, you know, Satan-slash-Hitler, and the end of the world. So I threw him on there because I did [ed: like? knew? unclear] him, I liked the story, oh boy, that was… that caused some controversy…
Yeah, Correia is an asshole on his own. At least the SWFA did better than the RWA’s performance. They ejected the asshole, and kept the diversity.
And Mr. Tingle is an absolute delight.

Katamount
Katamount
2 years ago

Yeah, I never quite got Asimov either. Me, I was always bigger into the works of Phillip K. Dick. Dune is also one of my favourite novels, but ol’ Frank kinda lost me after Children.

But honestly, I stopped doing “heroes” a while ago. My very first band–the one I could call my own as music that I liked that wasn’t something my parents exposed me to–was Oasis. The Gallagher Brothers are monumental pricks. Still buy their solo stuff to this day. Jimmy Page in all likelihood took advantage of underage fans. Still listen to Zeppelin.

I can only imagine what trans Harry Potter fans are going through right now.

The way that we, the powerless public, conceive of public figures in the abstract is a fraught thing at the best of times. It’s tough to hold dead people accountable and if something had a huge impact on your upbringing, it can be difficult to accede to demands to “cancel” that individual or their work. I can’t help but think of Contrapoints’s recent video on “Canceling”. At the risk of opening a can of worms, I think it was quite prescient the way it outlined exactly how the thought processes of social media consensus (and at worst, dogpiles) can come about, for better or worse.

Terrible people can create incredible works. Otherwise incredible people can do a handful of terrible things. Demand proportional accountability where one can and keep moving through life. That’s all I got.

Grace
Grace
2 years ago

epronovost:

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

To be sure, all of us learned things growing up which look awful when viewed by later standards. That said, many people figure out how not to perpetuate some or all of those crappy things.

Worth a read:

http://www.viruscomix.com/page474.html

Grace

Moggie
Moggie
2 years ago

@Katamount, as far as I’m concerned the greatest thing Noel Gallagher ever gave the world was a quote about Liam: “He’s the angriest man you’ll ever meet. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup”. He might as well have retired after that: that’s his immortal legacy.

@C.A. Collins, the current RWA soap opera is amazing. I feel kind of guilty about gawping at it, since I’m not into romance at all, but I’m hoping that certain shitheels get their comeuppance.

@Ohlmann, good luck with work, whichever way you choose. I’m currently counting down the days until I take early retirement. I don’t know whether this will turn out to be the right decision, but I want a few years to myself before the world becomes unbearable to live in. One way or another, I’m convinced that I wouldn’t make it to normal retirement age.

Lumipuna (nee Arctic Ape)
Lumipuna (nee Arctic Ape)
2 years ago

One of the Foundation books was the very first novel I read in English, almost randomly picked from the library to fulfill a language learning assignment at school. It was extremely unmemorable and difficult to understand (I was about 17 and not very well read in English yet). I never felt tempted to try Asimov again later.

I think the first English novel I enjoyed was the Hitchiker trilogy by Douglas Adams, after I’d first enjoyed the Finnish translation. Much later, I heard Adams was also reputedly some sort of a creep with women. Like Asimov, he died just about in time before people started talking about it loudly.

Johanna
Johanna
2 years ago

@vespertine – for various reasons, I went digging for further info on the matter you mentioned and I’m not finding Casey on the sex offender registry so either he was acquitted or did a plea bargain of some kind (assuming it’s not still on the docket awaiting trial – but public records stated a court date of spring of last year. My mobile-phone-based search-fu ran out on me at that point)

If you don’t read authors because their friends do terrible things, doesn’t that rather cut down your options at the library? Granted, it’s another story if an author excuses/defends someone doing terrible things (*side-eyes everyone who stuck up for Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, etc) but the mere fact of acquaintance…?

kupo
kupo
2 years ago

I’m mostly reading women of color at this point.

Viscaria
Viscaria
2 years ago

I really appreciate how this post highlights not only the awful things Asimov did but also the many people that knew and happily allowed him to continue to behave that way.

Who
Who
2 years ago

I also liked Asimov a lot when I was growing up. (Bradbury was the other old writer, whose work I liked a lot)

About Vox Day: If you want to participate in fandom, Naglifar, don’t be afraid of him, at cons he is a nonfactor. (It is unknown if he is even allowed to visit the USA) Rapid puppys (execpt those who where nominated for a Hugo) played also no role at the worldcons, sads some they have moved away since then. (There are cons were friendly to puppys I must say, very rightwing ones) He has semingly left the Fantasywriting to focus on his alt-rightstuff.

About Chuck Tingle the funny think was VD nominated him, and then Chuck started to troll and I had the impresion that Day (“I meaned to do that”) lost all his fun that year. Sorry it was glorious.

And then N. K. Jemisin won the Hugo for the first book of her Broken Earthtrilogie.

We all have stuff that we like from people who are horible. I can ignore that more easy with music than with writing. (MZB I don’t think I can ever read again)

Thanks god I never have read Vox Day (has anyone here?) or Larry Correia. I read Butcher, who was involved in the puppystuff, I am less interested in his next book since then.

C.A. Collins
C.A. Collins
2 years ago

@Moggie: IKR? I binge-watched the RWA’s implosion in real time.
And once again, Mr. Tingle is a delight:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B083FKZ4ZK/

Mrs Morley
Mrs Morley
2 years ago

@epronovost:

I don’t know which you meant: “aberrant” or “abhorrent” behavior.

If the first, well yeah, many people who can do lousy things, do them. So many in fact, that maybe it’s ordinary rather than unusual.

But even if you meant that Asimov’s behavior wouldn’t be considered an aberration, you’re wrong. It was considered an aberration at the time.

He didn’t get by with it because mid 20th century US citizens believed that groping women was a polite interaction. He got by with it because Special People – particularly if they are white men – get away with lousy behavior.

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