IT'S BEEN A GOOD LIFE
by Isaac Asimov & Janet Jeppson Asimov
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
After three volumes and 2122 pages of autobiography (plus, of course, autobiographical notes which appeared in various essays and collections), a reader could be forgiven for wondering if the world really needs yet another volume of Isaac Asimov's autobiography. What more could be said? With the exception of one starling revelation about Asimov's death, It's Been a Good Life is made up of excerpts from the three previous volumes, only one of which, I. Asimov, is still in print. What It's Been a Good Life provides is a concise autobiography for those who are interested in Asimov's life and writing, but aren't willing to spend the time or money to acquire out of print, and long, books.
The first two volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt were published in 1979 and 1980. They cover, in exhaustive detail the facts of Asimov's life from his birth in Petrovichi, Russia to the time of the writing. They fail, naturally, to cover the period in which he returned to writing science fiction and made the decision to weave his Robot, Galactic Empire, and Foundation novels into a single tapestry. The later volume, I. Asimov, covers his entire life, having been finished only two years before his death, but is more a collection of short memoirs and opinions rather than an actual autobiographical narrative. In It's Been a Good Life, Janet Jeppson Asimov, Asimov's widow, has combined the three books to form a complete narrative of Asimov's life from beginning to end. The result is a highly readable, chatty discussion of Asimov's life and works.
The integration of various bits of Asimov's autobiography from different places means that the reader gets to see a more complete version of Asimov's life than has previously appeared. Beginning with a brief passage about his parents' identity, the book quickly comes to Asimov's own birth and immigration to the United States. Asimov's childhood is treated only briefly, mostly focusing on his early interest in science fiction and some information of the formation of Asimov's religious beliefs (or lack thereof). It's Been a Good Life fails to provide a complete picture of the juvenile Asimov, although for those interested, the previous books are available. This is a theme which is repeated throughout the book. For most readers, the selections which appear in It's Been a Good Life will provide more than enough information. For those readers whose appetites are only whetted by this book, the others are frequently available in used books stores or at Abebooks.
New information about Asimov, as well as Janet Asimov's own recollections and reflections on her husband's death, are contained in an epilogue which reveals that Asimov's death was not a result of the "heart and kidney failure" (Locus, May 1992), but something else. What makes this epilogue even more interesting is Janet's comments about how difficult it was for Asimov to finish writing Forward the Foundation because of how much he identified with Hari Seldon. Further accounts of Asimov by Janet would be most welcome to his fans.
It's Been a Good Life also includes a complete bibliography of Asimov's books and a reprinting of Asimov's favorite short story, The Last Question. The latter would have been strengthened by a short note explaining why Asimov this story was his favorite. Even in the main text when Asimov discussed the story as his favorite, he didn't explain the reasons for his belief, besides saying that he "had become involved in something special." (p.132). Providing the reasons for this belief, which Janet surely knew even if Asimov had not left any writing about it behind, would have provided further insight into Asimov's psyche.
Science fiction has always been a field which appreciates and studies its past. This further examination of Asimov's life continues in that tradition while it helps introduce Asimov to a new generation which did not have the opportunity to meet Asimov at conventions or read his earlier autobiographies. Written in his typical transparent and chatty style, the book gives the feel of a conversation with this author who has been dead for a decade.
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