Asexuality and Asimov
Most people have heroes, especially when they are teenagers. I was no exception. My heroes, in the main, were scientists; Marie Curie was quite high on the list, and would certainly have been higher if I had been subject to any kind of “girls can’t do science” pressure. Fortunately I was lucky enough to escape that. I went to a girls’ school, a fact I was extremely happy about at the time; I still believe single-sex education is better for some pupils and should be an available option.
But she wasn’t at the top of the list, and the reason for this was that I had never really been able to get much idea of her personality. I liked – and still do like – interesting characters. This was why my ultimate teenage heroes included Magnus Pyke, who, for those who don’t remember him, was a gloriously eccentric and unfailingly enthusiastic populariser of science, particularly the quirkier bits. I had a photo of him on my bedroom wall in the act of eating a fried locust. And the other major hero – certainly the only other one of whom I managed to get a picture – was Isaac Asimov.
Asimov was absolutely the person I wanted to be. Not only did he really know his stuff about science, but he had a wonderful gift for writing about it with real clarity and enthusiasm. At a time when most science writers were rather earnest and poker-faced, he was a terrific breath of fresh air; I had enough enthusiasm myself to carry me through the dullest of books, but it was so nice to find someone who so obviously shared it and didn’t mind letting the world know. I actually first came across him as a science fiction writer, having won a book token as a school prize and decided to try part of his “Nightfall” collection because it looked interesting on a quick flip through. I very much enjoyed his science fiction and ended up reading pretty much everything he wrote in that area, but it was as a science writer that he really caught my imagination.
Now Asimov wrote quite a lot about writing, and in the process of reading that, I found out quite a lot about him as a person. He had a chatty, informal style, so that you could almost believe you were sitting there listening to him speak. And one thing that he wrote about with regard to his science fiction was that he had tremendous difficulty handling romance in his writing. That struck a chord with me, because I had already found the same problem in my own creative writing, and it was a relief to know that it wasn’t just because I was still in my teens. If someone Asimov’s age had it, then it meant it was a genuine problem rather than that I shouldn’t be trying to write stories aimed at a general audience at my age.
I also realised that this was one of the reasons I liked his work, and indeed SF in general (which, at the time, didn’t have a lot of romance in it generally). I don’t hate romance in books. I can even enjoy it if it is really well written, for which read, more or less, written by Jane Austen. It’s just that I find other things so much more interesting, on the whole, and I wouldn’t have been at all keen on the idea of interrupting all the cool science stuff and fascinating alien character development just so two beings could have a smooch. Not that I begrudged them their smooch, but maybe, you know, do it off-screen, as it were? While we get to read about the cool stuff?
Now, of course, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have thought, “Hey, wait a minute. You are a 14-year-old girl and you would rather read about alien psychology and robot detectives than romance. Have you considered the possibility that you might be asexual?” But, of course, I didn’t. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as asexuality. So I blithely went on reading Asimov’s work of assorted varieties and thinking instead, “This chap is great. I really relate to him.”
And then came what I ought to have realised was the kicker. Asimov described how, to his own lasting surprise, he ended up getting married. To his even greater surprise, he and his wife subsequently had a child.
Now, just think about this for a minute. Here you have this man who is not generally shy about talking about his personal life in print. He doesn’t say something like “The doctors had told us we were very unlikely to be able to have children,” or “My wife thought she was too old to have children when we got married,” or anything like that. No. All we get out of Asimov is “My wife told me she was pregnant, and I was absolutely flabbergasted.” And it never occurred to me at the time that there was anything particularly unusual about that reaction. It seemed to me perfectly reasonable that someone could feel generally rather indifferent about getting married, having children or both, but then fall in love and decide that actually they would like to marry that particular person, and then be startled when children came along. Because that was exactly the sort of situation I could imagine myself in.
Of course we can’t ask Asimov directly whether or not he was asexual, because he is sadly no longer with us. Looking back, though, I’m pretty sure he must have been somewhere on the asexual spectrum, and I’m equally sure that was one of the main reasons why I related to him so well.
Rest in peace, Dr Asimov. You taught me more than you will ever know, and I still love robot detectives.