Isaac Asimov in Britain, June 1974

Isaac Asimov First Visit to Britain

50 years ago today I was lucky enough to see Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction authors of the 20th century, on his first visit to Britain. I wrote about this previously on my Astounding Science Fiction website, where you can see a detailed itinerary of Asimov’s trip. Most of his time was spent in London, but I saw him during his visit to Birmingham on Thursday 13 June 1974 (note that, by coincidence, today is also a Thursday).

At the time I was 16 years old, and had been reading SF (including numerous books by Asimov) for around three years. This was largely thanks to my mother, who had been a fan since before I was born. Around 6 months before Asimov’s visit, we’d discovered that Birmingham had a specialist SF bookshop called Andromeda, and that was where we found out about Asimov’s upcoming visit. It actually happened on a school day, but as I had an exam in the morning of the 13th (Chemistry O-level) it meant I had the afternoon free. Equally fortunately, my mother was able to get the day off work.

We actually went into Birmingham twice that day (we lived a 30-minute drive away): first, with one of my school friends in tow, to a book-signing session, and then (just my mother and me) to an evening lecture. The tickets for the latter are shown above, together with four copies of the souvenir booklet (two from the book signing and two from the lecture).

Needless to say, our book-signing of choice was the one at Andromeda, but prior to that we peeked in at an earlier signing session at a much larger general bookshop called Hudsons, which is where we caught our first glimpse of the great man. But it was in Andromeda a bit later that we actually queued up for autographs. Of the three of us, my mother went first, and when Asimov looked up and saw a respectable middle-aged woman – in contrast to all the scruffy young males that made up the bulk of SF fandom in those days – he did a double-take and then said “Oh, hello dear”. That not only made Mom’s day, but I think it was pretty much the high point of her life!

We actually got two autographs each, one in the souvenir booklet and one in a freshly purchased paperback book. My mother bought a new copy of The Caves of Steel, which I think was her favourite Asimov novel, while I got volume 3 of The Early Asimov, which had only just come out at the time. The latter includes the spoof article “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”, which I discussed in detail in my book Fake Physics, where (just to show off) I included an image of the book open at Asimov’s signature. To show off a bit more, I’ll put the same picture at the bottom of this post.

The evening lecture took place at the Holiday Inn, and was organized and introduced by Dr Jack Cohen – a minor SF/pop-sci celebrity in his own right (looking at his Wikipedia article just now, I see that it says “he was one of the small group of British Mensans who persuaded science fiction author Isaac Asimov to visit the United Kingdom in June 1974”). Unlike Asimov, who I only ever saw that one time, I did see Jack Cohen on several subsequent occasions, most recently talking about his book What Does a Martian Look Like? at an event in London a few years before his death.

As for Asimov’s lecture, I retain several vivid memories of it, some of them distinctly trivial. I was struck by his strong New York accent, which wasn’t something I’d really come across before at that point (it was to become much more familiar a few months later, when the BBC began showing Kojak). I remember him saying that when he woke up after his first night in London and saw a Union Jack flying outside, he though “Aha, that must be the British Embassy”, before he realized where he was. He also complained that, although the hotel supplied plenty of towels, they didn’t provide a facecloth (which he referred to as a “washcloth”). Amazing what ridiculous things your brain chooses to remember after 50 years!

On more serious subjects, I remember him talking about environmental issues and non-renewable resources. This was the first time I ever heard the word “syllogism”, the example he gave being “Premise 1 – the Earth is finite. Premise 2 – we extract resources from the Earth. Conclusion – resources are finite”. He also described in some detail how, when Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a story about a nuclear fission weapon in 1944, its editor John Campbell received a national-security visit from the FBI (an incident I also recounted in my book Rockets and Ray Guns: The Sci-Fi Science of the Cold War). One thing that sticks in my mind is how at one point in this narrative Asimov wanted to say “confirmed”, but struggled for several seconds trying to recall the word. It’s gratifying to know that even the greatest writers are occasionally stumped for words!

Issac Asimov signed book