What to Make of Isaac Asimov, Sci-Fi Giant and Dirty Old Man?

Despite Calling Himself a Feminist the Author of the Foundation Stories Was a Serial Harasser

The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (1971) is credited to “Dr. A”… but “the secret is out,” admits a paperback edition, naming the author as Isaac Asimov, “undoubtedly the best writer in America” per the Mensa Bulletin. A response to a then-popular book called The Sensuous Woman, Asimov’s book instructs dirty old men on how to leer (“don’t peep at girls—STARE!”), make suggestive remarks (“What a magnificent dress… or am I merely judging by the contents?”), and fondle.

The sensuous dirty old man has learned the fine art of the touch, that of making it so gentle and innocent that the young lady involved can scarcely believe it is happening and therefore ignores it. This presents an exercise of innocence both on the part of the toucher and touchee that should bring tears of envy to all beholders.

January 2, 2020 marked the centenary of Isaac Asimov’s birth; at least, of the birth date the late author celebrated. (In his native Russia, the date of Asimov’s birth wasn’t precisely recorded.) The anniversary passed with little notice, although Asimov was a towering presence in science fiction and one of the most prolific writers to ever live. A Golden Age grand master and a protegé of Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell, Asimov coined the word “robotics” and wrote the Foundation series.

The Foundation stories beat J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to win a 1966 Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series. Today, Tolkien commands a much more visible pop-culture presence than Asimov, but the Foundation stories are still widely read; bring them up in any group, and one or two people are likely to say they devoured the books.

From the 1960s through his death in 1992, Asimov was an iconic celebrity regarded as an authority on science and science fiction alike. The author of hundreds of books, he could speak lucidly on virtually any subject and made frequent media appearances. Today, though, his image—with its wide smile behind heavy black eyeglass frames, its bushy gray mutton chops, and its ubiquitous bolo tie—is most recognizable from vintage book jackets.

That image is set to gain fresh visibility with the forthcoming release of an Apple TV series based on the Foundation stories (in pre-production, filming of the show was postponed at the end of March because of the coronavirus). The original stories were published in science fiction magazines from 1942 to 1950 and later collected in a trilogy of books, ultimately supplemented with four late-career Foundation novels. They chronicle a visionary scientist’s efforts to relieve chaos and suffering during an interregnum between distant-future galactic empires.

Repeatedly, women told Asimov he was out of line; many more didn’t speak, likely cowed by his celebrity and the double standard.

To read Asimov is to escape into a world where infinite progress seems tantalizingly possible. If you’re inclined to spend a lot of time with Asimov’s work, you’ll come to an appreciation of his many gifts: his wide-ranging intellect, his amiable writing style, his optimistic spirit, and the breadth of his imagination.

You’ll also, however, notice a frequently lascivious attention to his female characters. If you begin to suspect that Asimov looked at actual women that way, you’ll be troubled by interactions that the author himself reveals in his two-volume autobiography: In Memory Yet Green, published in 1979, with In Joy Still Felt following in 1980.

In Memory Yet Green recounts a 1952 incident in which writer Judith Merril seemed to hit on Asimov, inspiring the author, by his own account, to speed away. When writing the book he invited Merril to comment, and Asimov included her response in a footnote. (Italics in the book.)

The fact is that Isaac (who was at that time a spectacularly uxorious and virtuous husband) apparently felt obliged to leer, ogle, pat, and proposition as an act of sociability. When it went, occasionally, beyond purely social enjoyability, there seemed no way to clue him in. […] Asimov was known, in those days, to various women, as “the man with a hundred hands.” On [one] occasion, the third or fourth time his hand patted my rear end, I reached out to clutch his crotch. He never manhandled me in vain again.

The following year, Asimov explained, he began to have extramarital affairs. His first encounter left him “riddled with guilt,” he wrote, but he went on to boast that “once I gathered I was good in bed, I was automatically far more self-assured in every other respect, and I believe this contributed to the mid-1950s as my peak period in science fiction.”

Asimov writes that at his publisher Doubleday, “my small peculiarities were becoming known and allowed for… any woman I overlooked in my all-embracing suavity was liable to be offended.” He explains that “my attitude toward young women amused everyone generally,” and that he came to “suspect that new girls were warned of my feckless lechery in advance so that they wouldn’t run screaming or, worse yet, bop me on the nose.”

About that. “When I am feeling particularly suave during the autographing sessions, which is almost all the time,” he wrote in Joy Still Felt, “I kiss each young woman who wants an autograph and have found, to my delight, that they tend to cooperate enthusiastically in that particular activity.”

As documented by Stephanie Zvan, Asimov was so infamous for this behavior by the early 1960s that the organizer of a Chicago science fiction convention offered to “furnish some suitable posteriors” for a talk about, and demonstration of, “The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching.”

Whatever the author’s conscious ideals may have been, his female characters tended towards restrictive stereotypes.

“I have no doubt I could give a stimulating talk that would stiffen the manly fiber of everyone in the audience,” Asimov responded. However, permission would need to be sought from those being pinched, and “if they say ‘no,’ it will be ‘no.’ Of course, I could be persuaded to do so on very short notice; even after the convention began, if the posteriors in question were of particularly compelling interest.”

By 1969, Asimov himself reported, he was being described by longtime friend Frederick Pohl as someone who “turned into a dirty old man at the age of fifteen.” Asimov, by his own account, was “perfectly willing to embrace the title; I even use it on myself without qualms.” He wasn’t kidding. Two years later, he published The Sensuous Dirty Old Man.

I have seen many a dirty old man with an arm that began at the lady’s waist, shifted by such slow and gentle degrees as to pass eventually through the warmth of the armpit to the budding softness of the maidenly bosom, without that shift ever being noticed by the young lady. At least, she gave no signs of noticing.

For “the man with a hundred hands,” this “satire” was rather on-the-nose. “Laugh yourself to death,” raved the Detroit Free Press.

Pohl’s wife, Asimov learned after her death, “thought I was a ‘creep’ and wouldn’t have me in the apartment.” She wasn’t the only one who spoke up. When Asimov brought his usual “suave” self to a meeting of the National Association of Non-Parents (N.O.N.) in 1975, the New York Times reported on what the author described in his autobiography as an “imbroglio.” In the Times account,

One of the most heated parts of the convention came during a public discussion of whether N.O.N. should take a stand on feminism. It was prompted by the disgruntlement of several N.O.N. members who thought that Isaac Asimov, the author, had introduced Ellen Peck, author of The Baby Trap and a N.O.N. officer, in a “sexist” way at the convention’s general session. He described Miss Peck, who was wearing a clingy beige knit pants suit with her long blond hair in a Brigitte Bardot style, as “a sexual tornado.”

In his autobiography, Asimov added a detail the Times failed to mention: a dirty limerick he shared “to loosen up the early-morning audience.”

By the time he published his autobiography, Asimov was divorced from his first wife Gertrude and married to the writer Janet Jeppson. Even the first time he met Jeppson in 1956, Asimov later admitted, he cracked a blue joke. As Jeppson proffered a book for Asimov to sign, he asked about her field. When she said she was a psychiatrist, he responded, “Good. Let’s get on the couch together.” Reader, she married him.

Asimov enjoyed substantive, mutually rewarding relationships with peers like Jeppson, Judy-Lynn del Rey, and Jennifer Brehl, a Doubleday staffer in the 1980s when she impressed Asimov with her insights. Brehl eventually became Asimov’s editor and “like a second daughter” to the author, in the words of his biographer Michael White. Given these relationships, how could Asimov embrace “dirty old man” as a personal brand?

The answer is tied up in personal and social history. As a self-conscious, sexually inexperienced young man, Asimov learned that his lightning wit was a social lubricant. From early on, he sprinkled titillating quips into his banter, using his physical ungainliness to frame his lascivious persona as a colossal joke.

This was never a safe prospect, though. Even before he’d achieved celebrity, his manner could be offensive, especially when his quips were precisely aimed. His autobiography contains accounts of women who’d tweak his insecurity about his own body, only to find pointed and uncomplimentary jabs shot back at them. A woman who mocked the author’s growing belly but shrieked at a response criticizing her chest, wrote Asimov, “could hand it out but apparently didn’t like to get it back.”

Asimov’s willingness to go there—in both verbal and physical terms—continued as his fame grew. He experienced mutual interest often enough to reinforce his behavior, but he failed to respect the line between reciprocal flirtation and harassment.

Repeatedly, women told Asimov he was out of line; many more didn’t speak, likely cowed by his celebrity and the double standard. White cites a friend’s wife reacting angrily to having her bottom forcefully pinched by the author, who apparently made it a habit.

“God, Asimov,” she snapped. “Why do you always do that? It is extremely painful and besides, don’t you realize, it’s very degrading.”

In one of the most public spectacles involving Asimov’s “usual suave self,” he appalled his wife and teenage daughter by propositioning a female guest on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970. By the following year, Asimov had moved out, divorce negotiations were underway, and he was back on Cavett wearing a bra on his face to promote The Sensuous Dirty Old Man.

Gender issues aren’t the only reason Asimov’s books have proved resistant to successful adaptation: although his plots were clever and his ideas were big, he wasn’t a particularly visual writer.

Chronicling even more harassment, Alec Nevala-Lee convincingly argues in Public Books that Asimov’s behavior was enabled by other men, and some women, who helped him officially play it off with books like The Sensuous Dirty Old Man. “In general,” writes Nevala-Lee, “Asimov chose targets who were unlikely to protest directly, such as fans and secretaries, and spared women whom he saw as professionally useful.”

On the page, Asimov considered himself a feminist, decrying “male chauvinism” and arguing that women should be given wider professional opportunities. He was proud of his fictional robopsychologist Susan Calvin—but the cost that character paid for her extraordinary abilities was to have her physical unattractiveness constantly remarked upon.

“Susan Calvin was a plain spinster,” Asimov wrote in his memoir I. Asimov, “a highly intelligent ‘robopsychologist’ who fought it out in a man’s world without fear or favor and who invariably won. These were ‘women’s lib’ stories twenty years before their time, and I got very little credit for that.”

One of Asimov’s most important early robot stories, “Liar!” (1941), turns on precisely the fact of Calvin’s embarrassment after she dares aspire to be sexually appealing, wearing makeup to her job at US Robot & Mechanical Men, Inc. When Calvin realizes that a well-intentioned robot has lied to her about a coworker’s mutual attraction, “the inexpertly applied rouge made a pair of nasty red splotches upon her chalk-white face.”

Whatever the author’s conscious ideals may have been, his female characters tended towards restrictive stereotypes. Those characters range from Artemisia oth Hinriad, a comely royal who just can’t resist the man-of-action hero of The Stars, Like Dust (1951), to Bayta Darell, a sensible newlywed whose feminine compassion underlies a pivotal plot development in the original Foundation stories.

That was, of course, consistent with how many female characters were treated in genre fiction of the era: readers won’t be surprised to find a submissive space princess in a Truman-era science fiction novel. There’s another level of queasiness, though, in the way Asimov’s attention tends to run all up and down his fictional women’s figures.

The author’s acclaimed early work was published at a time when sensuality in science fiction was strictly limited.

Nor is that attention always on characters like Artemisia, a stereotypically gorgeous young woman ready to be painted for the cover of a pulp. When Bayta Darell meets her father-in-law Fran in a 1945 Foundation story, the older man turns to Bayta with an “appreciative stare.” She recites her age, height, and weight to save him the effort of guessing, but Fran corrects her and says she actually weighs 120, not 110.

He laughed loudly at her flush. Then he said to the company in general, “You can always tell a woman’s weight by her upper arm—with due experience, of course. Do you want a drink, Bay?”

The female character with the most complex journey in Asimov’s future history is Gladia Delmarre, a stunning Solarian who proves well-matched with Earthman Lije Baley in a quartet of robot novels. After the books dismiss Baley’s wife Jezebel (an ironic moniker), Gladia and Lije have a restrained flirtation that finally blossoms into star-crossed love.

Asimov’s 1980s, though, were also the decade that gave us Bliss: a curvaceous earth mother who appears in two Foundation novels. She plays supple lover to the aged Janov Pelorat, nag to the breathtakingly rude Golan Trevize (“She’s bottom-heavy!” he snorts), and instantly attached mother to an orphan child with dangerous powers.

The author’s acclaimed early work was published at a time when sensuality in science fiction was strictly limited. After focusing largely on nonfiction throughout the 1960s and 70s, Asimov returned prolifically to fiction in the 80s, a more open era. He became more frank, but seemed incapable of writing about sexuality in a warm, human manner. (A rare Asimov novel from the 70s, The Gods Themselves, centered on the somewhat abstract sexual practices of a non-humanoid alien race.)

A typical late-career passage comes in Foundation and Earth (1986) when a starship lands on a secluded world and Trevize appraises the topless woman who appears to greet the visitors.

She was not much more than 1.5 meters in height, and her breasts, though shapely, were small. Yet she did not seem unripe. The nipples were large and the areolae dark, though that might be the result of her brownish skin color.

The forthcoming Foundation show, with David Goyer as showrunner, seems to be remixing the stories’ sexual politics: at least three women have been cast as characters who are male in the books. Robyn Asimov, the author’s daughter from his first marriage, is an executive producer.

Gender issues aren’t the only reason Asimov’s books have proved resistant to successful adaptation: although his plots were clever and his ideas were big, he wasn’t a particularly visual writer. The best-known screen adaptations are the mawkish Bicentennial Man (1999), starring Robin Williams as a robot who wants to be human, and I, Robot (2004) with Will Smith.

The I, Robot movie says it’s “suggested by Isaac Asimov’s book,” and even that cautious credit may be putting it a bit strongly. Asimov was suspicious of Hollywood, but not in his wildest nightmares could he have imagined Susan Calvin blowing robots away with a machine gun. Nor would one ever use the word “plain” to describe Bridget Moynahan, the actor and model cast as Calvin.

“To loyal fans of science fiction and Isaac Asimov,” wrote the author’s daughter Robyn in SF Gate upon the movie’s release, “the only thing more disconcerting than robots attacking humans—a violation of the author’s First Law of Robotics—is that the camera filming I, Robot focused clearly on a buff Will Smith in the shower but not on the statuesque Bridget Moynahan, as Asimov would have preferred.”

In the film Smith plays Del, a cop assigned to investigate a suspicious death at US Robotics. In an early scene, he steps into an elevator with Moynahan, who says she’s been instructed “to assist you in any way possible.”

Taking a beat and turning appreciatively to face his host, Del smiles. “Real-ly?” he says. “Okay.” Smith leaves it at that. Asimov, in all likelihood, would not have.

Jay Gabler
Jay Gabler
Jay Gabler is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis. He is a digital producer at Minnesota Public Radio's The Current, and is a co-founder of The Tangential, as well as being theater critic at City Pages. He’s co-written, or co-edited Sexts from the Sea (2016), Bright Lights, Twin Cities (2014), Future Cities (2013), Sociology for Dummies (2010), and Reconstructing the University (2006).





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