For those who might have missed Part 1: I was finally let in on SF Signal’s little secret: they have a time machine and they allowed me to use it to travel back to those times in the history of science fiction that I thought interesting to report on. I ended up traveling to 4 different times. In part 1, I traveled back to the summer of 1939 to attend the first World Science Fiction Convention and, posing as a reporter, I managed to get in a brief conversation with John W. Campbell, practically blowing my cover in the process. Now let me tell you about my second trip…
This one took a little more careful planning and I was particularly nervous because I was going to pay a visit to my all-time favorite writer–and one who I never met when he was alive–Isaac Asimov. And here I have to admit that I cheated a bit. To make this work required two trips. First, I made a quick trip back to September 30, 1957 and nervously made a phone call to Dr. Asimov at Boston University. I got him on the line and that Brooklyn accent that I’ve heard on tape so many times suddenly sounded so real. I told him that I was a reporter, gave him my name and asked him if I could interview him the following week, on Monday perhaps. He agreed and the time was set for his lunch hour, on Monday, November 7, 1957.
Well, he might have to wait a week for the interview, but with a time machine at hand, I did not. I simple adjusted the machine a week forward, giving myself enough time to find his office on the BU campus and before I knew it, I was shaking hands with the man whose science fiction I adored, and who taught me more science than I learned in all of my schooling.
“You’re lucky you called ahead,” he said to me as we sat down. “After the Soviets put up Sputnik on Friday, my phone has been ringing off the hook.”
I wanted to tell him right then that luck had nothing to do with it. He of all people would understand. But I couldn’t and I didn’t. Instead I said, “What do you make of this–what with the Russians–that is to say, the Soviets–putting up a spacecraft before us?”
“I think it is a wakeup call,” Asimov said. “We clearly need better education in mathematics and the sciences. This just goes to show what happens when you fall behind and why these subjects are so important.”
“But as a science fiction writer, there must be some kind of excitement for you in seeing mankind make its first attempts at leaving the planet.”
“It is exciting, sure. But science fiction alone doesn’t get us into space. It is, perhaps, a catalyst for drawing out an interest in science in younger people, and that is a good thing.”
“You’ve been writing a lot of science fiction lately. Indeed, science fiction seems to be an a great boom. Do you have a personal favorite that you’ve written?”
Asimov considered for a moment and then said, “I think I’m known for my Robot stories and my Foundation stories, both of which have appeared in book form. And ‘Nightfall’, which appeared more than 15 years ago has become quite popular. But I’d have to say that my own personal favorite at this point is a story I wrote that appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly a few years back called “The Last Question.”
“You mentioned your Robot stories: do you think we’ll ever have robots like you describe? Thinking robots?”
Asimov smiled, “It depends on what you consider to be a robot and what you consider to be thinking. We have robots now. Sputnik is nothing more than a robot put into space. If space turns out to be a difficult and costly environment for mankind to live and work then most of the work will have to be done by robots.”
“Setting nations aside for a moment, do you think robots will beat men to other planets?”
“Absolutely,” Asimov said without hesitating. “They will be our scouts, collecting information that we can use to go there ourselves.” He glanced at his watch and I realized that time was growing short. But I still had a few questions.
“You still write robot stories but you haven’t written a Foundation story in many years. Do you think you’ll ever continue that series?”
“I wrote all of the Foundation stories between 1942 and 1950 and by the time I finished the last one, I was burnt out. Did you read those stories?”
“Many, many times,”: I said, “They are among my favorites and I wish there would be more. You could have a bestseller on your hands with those yarns.”
Asimov laughed. “A science fiction best-seller. Now who sounds like the science fiction writer?” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. I think that series is complete as it is.”
I tried to keep my mouth shut but the words just came out: “I, for one, would love to know what Hari Seldon was like as a young man. That might make an interesting story.”
Asimov considered, “Maybe.” He shrugged it off. “The truth is that my interest in writing science fiction is waning even as my interest in writing about science is increasing. If I could help educate people in science through my writing then I’d feel like I was doing a decent public service.”
“You’re probably right, Doctor Asimov. And just so you know, whether it was science fiction or science–or any other subject you might write about, you’ve got one fan here who would read it. Thanks so much to agreeing to this interview. Sorry it came at such an inconvenient time.”
“It was my pleasure, Mr. Rubin.”
That was thirty minutes that I won’t forget for a long, long time.