Isaac Asimov

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Science fiction writer
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Isaac Asimov
Isaac asimov.jpg
A photograph of Asimov taken by Jay Kay Klein
Pseudonym(s): Paul French, George E. Dale
Born: January 2, 1920[1]
Petrovichi, Russian SFSR
Died: April 6, 1992
New York, New York, USA
Occupation(s): Novelist, short story author, essayist, historian, biochemist, textbook writer, humorist
Genre(s): Science fiction (hard SF), popular science, mystery fiction, essays, literary criticism
Literary movement: Golden Age of Science Fiction
Debut work(s): "Marooned Off Vesta"
Magnum opus: Foundation Trilogy
Influences: Clifford D. Simak, H.G. Wells, Stanley G. Weinbaum

Dr. Isaac Asimov (January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992, (ˈaɪzək ˈæzɪˌmɑv), originally Исаак Озимов but now transcribed into Russian as Айзек Азимов) was a Russian-born American author and professor of biochemistry, a highly successful and exceptionally prolific writer best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.

Asimov wrote or edited more than five hundred books and an estimated nine thousand letters and postcards, and has works in every major category of the Dewey Decimal System except Philosophy.[2] Asimov is widely considered a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered one of the "Big Three" science-fiction writers during his lifetime.[3] Asimov's most famous work is the Foundation Series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series, both of which he later tied into the same fictional universe as the Foundation Series. He penned numerous short stories, among them "Nightfall," which was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America the best of its kind up to 1964. He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of non-fiction. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels, using the pen name Paul French.

Most of Asimov's popularized science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples include his Guide to Science, the three volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery.

Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described the members of that organization as "intellectually combative." He took more joy in being President of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid 5020 Asimov, the magazine Asimov's Science Fiction, and two different Isaac Asimov Awards are named in his honor.

Contents

Biography

Asimov was born sometime between October 4, 1919, and January 2, 1920, in Petrovichi shtetl of Smolensk Oblast, RSFSR (now Mahilyow Province, Republic of Belarus) to Anna Rachel Berman Asimov and Judah Asimov, a Jewish family of millers. His date of birth is uncertain due to differences in the Julian and Jewish calendars and because of a lack of records. Asimov himself always celebrated it on January 2. The family name derives from озимые (ozimiye), a Russian word for a winter grain in which his great-grandfather dealt, to which a patronymic (a middle name composed on the father's first name to which a suffix was added. His family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old. Since his parents always spoke Yiddish and English with him, he never learned Russian. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Asimov taught himself to read at the age of five, and remained fluent in Yiddish as well as English. His parents owned a succession of candy stores, and everyone in the family was expected to work in them. Science fiction pulp magazines were sold in the stores, and he began reading them. Around the age of eleven he began to write his own stories, and by age nineteen he was selling them to the science fiction magazines. John W. Campbell, then editor of Astounding Science Fiction, was a strong formative influence and eventually became a personal friend.

Isaac Asimov in 1965

Asimov attended New York City Public Schools, including Boys' High School, in Brooklyn, New York. From there he went on to Columbia University, from which he graduated in 1939, later returning to earn a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1948. In between, he spent three years during World War II working as a civilian at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Naval Air Experimental Station. After the war ended, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for just under nine months before receiving an honorable discharge. In the course of his brief military career, he rose to the rank of corporal on the basis of his typing skills, and narrowly avoided participating in the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.

After completing his doctorate, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he turned to writing full-time (his writing income had already exceeded his academic salary). As a tenured associate professor, he kept his position and in 1979 the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry. Asimov's personal papers from 1965 on are archived at the university's Mugar Memorial Library, to which he donated them at the request of curator Howard Gottlieb. The collection fills 464 boxes, on seventy-one meters of shelf space.

Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman (1917, Canada–1990, Boston) on July 26, 1942. They had two children, David (b. 1951) and Robyn Joan (b. 1955). After a separation in 1970, he and Gertrude divorced in 1973, and Asimov married Janet O. Jeppson later that year.

Asimov was a claustrophile; he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces. In the first volume of his autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire to own a magazine stand in a New York City Subway station, within which he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble of passing trains while reading.

Asimov was afraid of flying, only doing so twice in his entire life (once in the course of his work at the Naval Air Experimental Station, and once returning home from the army base in Oahu in 1946). He seldom traveled great distances, partly because his aversion to aircraft complicated the logistics of long-distance travel. This phobia influenced several of his fiction works, such as the Wendell Urth mystery stories and the Robot novels featuring Elijah Baley. In his later years, he found he enjoyed traveling on cruise ships, and on several occasions he became part of the cruises' "entertainment," giving science-themed talks on ships such as the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. Asimov was an enormously entertaining, prolific, and sought-after public speaker. His sense of timing was exquisite; he never looked at a clock, but invariably spoke for precisely the time allocated.

Asimov was a frequent fixture at science fiction conventions, where he remained friendly and approachable. As noted above, he patiently answered tens of thousands of questions and other mail with postcards, and was pleased to give autographs. Although he was glad to show his talent, he also rarely seemed to take himself too seriously.

He was of medium height, stocky, with muttonchop whiskers and a distinct Brooklyn-Yiddish accent. His physical dexterity was very poor. He never learned how to swim or ride a bicycle; however, he did learn to drive a car after he moved to Boston. In his humor book Asimov Laughs Again, he describes Boston driving as "anarchy on wheels."

Asimov's wide interests included his participation in his later years in organizations devoted to the operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and in The Wolfe Pack, a group of devotees of the Nero Wolfe mysteries authored by Rex Stout. He was a prominent member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the leading Sherlock Holmes society. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he was president of the American Humanist Association; his successor was his friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut. He was also a close friend of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and earned a screen credit on Star Trek: The Motion Picture for advice he gave during production (generally, confirming to Paramount Pictures that Roddenberry's ideas were legitimate science-fictional extrapolation).

Asimov died on April 6, 1992. He was survived by his second wife, Janet, and his children from his first marriage. Ten years after his death, Janet Asimov's edition of Asimov's autobiography, It's Been a Good Life, revealed that his death was caused by AIDS; he had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion received during a heart bypass operation in December 1983.[4] The specific cause of death was heart and renal failure as complications of HIV infection. Janet Asimov wrote in the epilogue of It's Been a Good Life that Asimov had wanted to "go public," but his doctors convinced him to remain silent, warning that anti-AIDS prejudice would extend to his family members. Asimov's family considered disclosing his condition after he died, but the controversy which erupted when Arthur Ashe announced that he had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion convinced them otherwise. Ten years later, after Asimov's doctors had died, Janet and Robyn agreed that the AIDS story could be made public.[5]

Intellectual positions

Isaac Asimov was a Humanist and a rationalist.[6] He did not oppose religious conviction in others, but he frequently railed against superstitious and pseudoscientific beliefs which tried to pass themselves off as genuine science. During his childhood, his father and mother observed Orthodox Jewish traditions, though not as stringently as they had in Petrovichi, and they did not force these beliefs upon Asimov. Thus he grew up without strong religious influences, coming to believe that the Bible represented Hebrew mythology in the same way that the Iliad recorded Greek mythology. (For a brief while his father worked in the local synagogue to enjoy the familiar surroundings and "shine as a learned scholar" versed in the sacred writings. This experience had little effect upon Isaac beyond teaching him the Hebrew alphabet.) For many years, Asimov called himself an atheist, though he felt the term was somewhat inadequate, describing more what he did not believe than what he did. Later, he found the term "humanist" a useful substitute.

In his last autobiographical book, Asimov wrote, "If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul." The same memoir states his belief that Hell is "the drooling dream of a sadist" crudely affixed to an all-merciful God; if even human governments were willing to curtail cruel and unusual punishments, wondered Asimov, why would punishment in the afterlife not be restricted to a limited term? Asimov rejected the idea that a human belief or action could merit infinite punishment. If an afterlife of just deserts existed, he claimed, the longest and most severe punishment would be reserved for those who "slandered God by inventing Hell." As his Treasury of Humor and Asimov Laughs Again record, he was amply willing to tell jokes involving the Judeo-Christian God, Satan, Garden of Eden, and other religious topics, expressing the viewpoint that a good joke can do more to provoke thought than hours of philosophical discussion.

Asimov became a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party during the New Deal and remained a political liberal ever after. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, and in a television interview in the early 1970s he publicly endorsed George McGovern. He was unhappy at what he saw as an irrationalist track taken by many liberal political activists from the late 1960s onwards. In his autobiography In Joy Still Felt, he recalls meeting the counterculture figure Abbie Hoffman; Asimov's impression was that the 1960s' counterculture heroes had ridden an emotional wave which, in the end, left them stranded in a "no-man's land of the spirit" from which he wondered if they would ever return. (This attitude is echoed by The Wave Speech in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) His defense of civil applications of nuclear power even after the Three Mile Island incident damaged his relations with some of his fellow liberals. In a letter reprinted in Yours, Isaac Asimov, he states that though he would prefer living in "no danger whatsoever" than near a nuclear reactor, he would still prefer a home near a nuclear power plant than in a slum, on Love Canal or near "a Union Carbide plant producing methyl isocyanate" (referring to the Bhopal disaster). He issued many appeals for population control, reflecting a perspective articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich. Asimov considered himself a feminist even before Women's Liberation became a widespread movement; he joked that he wished women to be free "because I hate it when they charge." More seriously, he argued that the issue of women's rights was closely connected to that of population control. Furthermore, he believed that homosexuality must be considered a "moral right" on population grounds, as must all consenting adult sexual activity which does not lead to reproduction (Yours, Isaac Asimov).

In the closing years of his life, Asimov blamed the deterioration of the quality of life that he perceived in New York City on the shrinking tax base caused by middle class flight to the suburbs. His last non-fiction book, Our Angry Earth (1991, co-written with his long-time friend, science fiction author Frederik Pohl), deals with elements of the environmental crisis such as global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.

Writing

Overview

Rowena Morrill depicts Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life's work

Asimov's career can be divided into several time periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939 and novels in 1950. This lasted until about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun. He began publishing nonfiction in 1952, co-authoring a college-level textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. Following the brief orbit of the first man-made satellite Sputnik I by the USSR in 1957, his production of nonfiction, particularly popular science books, greatly increased, with a consequent drop in his science fiction output. Over the next quarter century, he wrote only four science fiction novels. Starting in 1982, the second half of his science fiction career began with the publication of Foundation's Edge. From then until his death, Asimov published several more sequels and prequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not originally anticipated, making a unified series.

Asimov believed that his most enduring contributions would be his "Three Laws of Robotics" and the Foundation Series (see Yours, Isaac Asimov, p. 329). Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction for introducing the words "positronic" (an entirely fictional technology), "psychohistory" (frequently used in a different sense than the imaginary one Asimov employed) and "robotics" into the English language. Asimov coined the term "robotics" without suspecting that it might be an original word; at the time, he believed it was simply the natural analogue of mechanics, hydraulics, and so forth. (The original word robot derives from the Czech word for "forced labor," robotovat, robota and was first employed by the playwright Karel Čapek in R.U.R. [Rossum's Universal Robots].) Unlike his word psychohistory, the word robotics continues in mainstream technical use with Asimov's original definition.

Star Trek: The Next Generation featured androids with "positronic brains," giving Asimov full credit for "inventing" this fictional technology. Ironically (or, given Asimov's sense of humor, perhaps not so ironically), Asimov disliked the word "positron" as the term for the electron's antiparticle. As he explained in the nonfiction work Atom: Journey across the Subatomic Cosmos, the proper suffix is "-on," as in proton and muon, not "-ron," as in electron and neutron, these two terms inheriting their r's from their root words.

Science fiction

Asimov first began reading the science fiction pulp magazines sold in his family's candy store in 1929. He began writing his first science fiction story, "Cosmic Corkscrew," in 1937, but failed to finish it until the spring of 1938, when he was inspired to do so after a visit to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction. He finished "Cosmic Corkscrew" on June 19, and submitted the story in person to Astounding editor John W. Campbell two days later. Campbell rejected "Cosmic Corkscrew," but encouraged Asimov to keep trying, and Asimov did so. Asimov sold his third story, "Marooned Off Vesta," to Amazing Stories magazine in October, and it appeared in the March 1939 issue. He continued writing and sometimes selling stories to the science fiction pulps.

In 1941, he published his 32nd story, "Nightfall," which has been described as one of "the most famous science-fiction stories of all time".[7] In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story ever written.[8] In his short story collection Nightfall and Other Stories, Asimov wrote, "The writing of Nightfall was a watershed in my professional career … I was suddenly taken seriously and the world of science fiction became aware that I existed. As the years passed, in fact, it became evident that I had written a 'classic.'"

"Nightfall" is an archetypical example of "social science fiction," a term coined by Asimov to describe a new trend in the 1940s, led by authors including Asimov and Heinlein, away from gadgets and "space opera" and toward speculation about the human condition.

By 1941, Asimov began selling regularly to Astounding, which was then the field's leading magazine. From 1943 to 1949, all of his published science fiction appeared in Astounding.

In 1942, he published the first of his Foundation stories—later collected in the Foundation Trilogy: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953)—which recount the collapse and rebirth of a vast interstellar empire in a universe of the future. Taken together, they are his most famous works of science fiction, along with the Robot Series. Many years later, he continued the series with Foundation's Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986), and then went back to before the original trilogy with Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1992). The series features his fictional science of Psychohistory, in which the future course of the history of large populations can be predicted.

His positronic robot stories—many of which were collected in I, Robot (1950)—were begun at about the same time. They promulgated a set of rules of ethics for robots (the "Three Laws of Robotics") and intelligent machines that greatly influenced other writers and thinkers in their treatment of the subject.

In 1948, he also wrote a spoof science article, "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline." At the time, Asimov was preparing for his own doctoral dissertation. Fearing a prejudicial reaction from his Ph.D. evaluation board, he asked his editor that it be released under a pseudonym, yet it appeared under his own name. During his oral examination shortly thereafter, Asimov grew concerned at the scrutiny he received. At the end of the examination, one evaluator turned to him, smiling, and said "Mr. Asimov, tell us something about the thermodynamic properties of the compound thiotimoline." After a 20-minute wait, he was summoned back into the Examination Room and congratulated as "Dr. Asimov."

In 1949, book publisher Doubleday's science fiction editor Walter I. Bradbury accepted Asimov's unpublished novel, Grow Old Along With Me for publication, and it appeared under the Doubleday imprint in January 1950, as Pebble in the Sky. Doubleday went on to publish four more original science fiction novels by Asimov in the 1950s, along with the six juvenile Lucky Starr novels under the pseudonym Paul French. Doubleday also published collections of Asimov's short stories, beginning with The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955. The early 1950s also saw Gnome Press publish Asimov's positronic robot stories as I, Robot and his Foundation stories as the three books of the Foundation Trilogy.

When new science fiction magazines, notably Galaxy Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, appeared in the 1950s, Asimov began publishing short stories in them as well. He would later refer to the 1950s as his "golden decade." A number of these stories are included in his The Best of Isaac Asimov anthology, including "The Last Question" (1956), on the ability of humankind to cope with and potentially reverse the process of entropy. It was his personal favorite and considered by many to be equal to "Nightfall."

Popular science

During the late 1950s and 1960s, Asimov shifted gears somewhat, substantially decreasing his fiction output (he published only four adult novels between 1957's The Naked Sun and 1982's Foundation's Edge, two of which were mysteries). At the same time, he greatly increased his non-fiction production, writing mostly on science topics; the launch of Sputnik in 1957 engendered public concern over a "science gap," which Asimov's publishers were eager to fill with as much material as he could write.

Meanwhile, the monthly Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction invited him to continue his regular non-fiction column, begun in the now-folded bimonthly companion magazine Venture Science Fiction, ostensibly dedicated to popular science, but with Asimov having complete editorial freedom. The first of the F&SF columns appeared in November of 1958, and they followed uninterrupted thereafter, with 399 entries, until Asimov's terminal illness prevented his contribution. These columns, periodically collected into books by his principal publisher, Doubleday, helped make Asimov's reputation as a "Great Explainer" of science, and were referred to by him as his only pop-science writing in which he never had to assume complete ignorance of the subjects at hand on the part of his readers. The popularity of his first wide-ranging reference work, The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science, also allowed him to give up most of his academic responsibilities and become essentially a full-time freelance writer.

Asimov wrote several essays on the social contentions of his time, including "Thinking About Thinking" and "Science: Knock Plastic" (1967).

The great variety of information covered in Asimov's writings once prompted Kurt Vonnegut to ask, "How does it feel to know everything?" Asimov replied that he only knew how it felt to have the reputation of omniscience—"Uneasy." (See In Joy Still Felt, chapter 30.) In the introduction to his story collection Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon admitted that he relied upon Asimov's science popularizations (and the Oxford English Dictionary) to provide his knowledge of entropy.

It is a mark of the friendship and respect accorded Asimov by Arthur C. Clarke that the so-called "Asimov-Clarke Treaty of Park Avenue," put together as they shared a cab ride along Park Avenue in New York, stated that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself).[9] Thus the dedication in Clarke's book Report on Planet Three (1972) reads: "In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer."

Other

In addition to his interest in science, Asimov was also greatly interested in history. Starting in the 1960s, he wrote 14 popular history books, most notably The Greeks: A Great Adventure (1965), The Roman Republic (1966), The Roman Empire (1967), The Egyptians (1967) and The Near East: 10,000 Years of History (1968).

He published Asimov's Guide to the Bible in two volumes—covering the Old Testament in 1967 and the New Testament in 1969—and then combined them into one 1,300-page volume in 1981. Replete with maps and tables, the guide goes through the books of the Bible in order, explaining the history of each one and the political influences that affected it, as well as biographical information about the important characters. His interest in literature manifested itself in several annotations of literary works, including Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare (1970), Asimov's Annotated Paradise Lost (1974), and The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (1980).

Never lacking wit and humor, towards the end of his life Asimov published a series of collections of limericks, mostly written by himself, starting with Lecherous Limericks, which appeared in 1975. Limericks: Too Gross, whose title displays Asimov's love of puns, contains 144 limericks by Asimov and an equal number by John Ciardi. He even created a slim volume of Sherlockian limericks (and embarrassed one fan by autographing her copy with an impromptu limerick that rhymed "Nancy" with "romancy"). Asimov's best attempt at Yiddish humor is found in Azazel, The Two Centimeter Demon in which the two characters, both Jewish, discuss over dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, the anecdotes of "George" and his friend Azazel. Asimov's Treasury of Humor is both a working joke book and a treatise propounding his views on humor theory. According to Asimov, the most essential element of humor is an abrupt change in point of view, one that suddenly shifts focus from the important to the trivial, or from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Asimov published two volumes of autobiography: In Memory Yet Green (1979) and In Joy Still Felt (1980). A third autobiography, I. Asimov: A Memoir, was published in April 1994. The epilogue was written by his widow, Janet Asimov, a decade after his death. It's Been a Good Life (2002), edited by Janet, is a condensed version of his three autobiographies. He also published three volumes of retrospectives of his writing, Opus 100 (1969), Opus 200 (1979), and Opus 300 (1984).

Asimov and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry developed a unique relationship during Star Trek's initial launch in the late 60s. Asimov wrote a critical essay on Star Trek's scientific accuracy for TV Guide magazine. Roddenberry retorted respectfully with a personal letter explaining the limitations of accuracy when writing a weekly series. Asimov corrected himself with a follow-up essay to TV Guide claiming despite its inaccuracies, that Star Trek was a fresh and intellectually challenging science fiction television show. The two remained friends afterward, with Asimov even serving as an adviser on a number of Star Trek projects.

Literary themes

Paternalism

Much of Asimov's fiction dealt with themes of paternalism. His first robot story, "Robbie," concerned a robotic nanny. Lenny deals with the capacity of robopsychologist Susan Calvin to feel maternal love towards a robot whose positronic brain capacities are those of a 3-year-old. As the robots grew more sophisticated, their interventions became more wide-reaching and subtle. In "Evidence," the story revolves around a candidate who successfully runs for office who may be a robot masquerading as a human. In "The Evitable Conflict," the robots run humanity from behind the scenes, acting as nannies to the whole species.

Later, in The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire, a robot develops what he calls the Zeroth Law of Robotics, which states that: "A robot may not injure humanity, nor, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm." He also decides that robotic presence is stifling humanity's freedom, and that the best course of action is for the robots to phase themselves out. A non-robot, time travel novel, The End of Eternity, features a similar conflict and resolution. The significance of the Zeroth Law is that it outweighs and supersedes all other Laws of Robotics: If a robot finds himself in a situation whereby he must murder one or more humans (a direct violation of the First Law of Robotics) in order to protect all of humanity (and preserve the Zeroth Law), then the robot's positronic programming will require him to commit murder for humanity's sake.

In The Foundation Series (which did not originally have robots), a scientist implements a semi-secret plan to create a new galactic empire over the course of 1,000 years. This series has its version of Platonic guardians, called the Second Foundation, to perfect and protect the plan. When Asimov stopped writing the series in the 1950s, the Second Foundation was depicted as benign protectors of humanity. When he revisited the series in the 1980s, he made the paternalistic themes even more explicit.

Foundation's Edge introduced the planet Gaia, based on the Gaia hypothesis that all aspects of the earth, living and non-living, are part of a single system. Every animal, plant, and mineral on Gaia participated in a shared consciousness, forming a single super-mind working together for the greater good. Gaia is one of Asimov's best attempts at exploring the possibility of a collective awareness, and is developed further in Nemesis, in which the planet Erythro, composed primarily of prokaryotic life, has a mind of its own and seeks communion with human beings.

Foundation and Earth introduces robots to the Foundation universe. Two of Asimov's last novels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, explore their behavior in fuller detail. The robots are depicted as covert operatives, acting for the benefit of humanity.

Oppression

Another frequent theme, perhaps the reverse of paternalism, is social oppression. The Currents of Space takes place on a planet where a unique plant fiber is grown; the agricultural workers there are exploited by the aristocrats of a nearby planet. In The Stars, Like Dust, the hero helps a planet that is oppressed by an arrogant interplanetary empire, the Tyranni.

Often the victims of oppression are either Earth people (as opposed to colonists on other planets) or robots. In "The Bicentennial Man," a robot fights prejudice in order to be accepted as a human. In The Caves of Steel, the people of Earth resent the wealthier "Spacers" and in turn treat robots (associated with the Spacers) in ways reminiscent of how whites treated blacks in twentieth century America, such as addressing robots as "boy." Pebble in the Sky shows an analogous situation; the Galactic Empire rules Earth and its people use such terms as "Earthie-squaw," but Earth is a theocratic dictatorship that enforces euthanasia of anyone older than 60. One hero is Bel Arvardan, an upper-class Galactic archaeologist who must overcome his prejudices. The other is Joseph Schwartz, a 62-year-old twentieth century American who had emigrated from Europe, where his people were persecuted. He must decide whether to help a downtrodden society that thinks he should be dead.

Rational thought

Yet another frequent theme in Asimov is rational thought. He invented the science-fiction mystery with the novel The Caves of Steel and the stories in Asimov's Mysteries, educating the reader by introducing early in the story any science or technology involved in the solution. His fiction often centers around scenes that are essentially debates, in which a rational argument is seen to carry the day.

Awards

  • 1957 Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Award, for Building Blocks of the Universe
  • 1960 Howard W. Blakeslee Award from the American Heart Association for The Living River
  • 1962 Boston University's Publication Merit Award
  • 1963 special Hugo Award for "adding science to science fiction" for essays published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
  • 1965 James T. Grady Award of the American Chemical Society
  • 1966 Best All-time Novel Series Hugo Award for the Foundation series
  • 1967 Westinghouse Science Writing Award
  • 1973 Hugo Award
  • 1973 Nebula Award for Best Novel for The Gods Themselves
  • 1977 Hugo Award
  • 1977 Nebula Award for Best Novelette for The Bicentennial Man
  • In 1981 an asteroid, 5020 Asimov, was named in his honor
  • 1987 Nebula Grandmaster award, a lifetime achievement award
  • 1983 Hugo Award for Best Novel for Foundation's Edge
  • 1992 Hugo Award for Best Novelette for Gold
  • 1995 Hugo Award for Best Nonfiction for I. Asimov: A Memoir
  • 1996—A 1946 Retro-Hugo for Best Novel of 1945 was given at the 1996 WorldCon to The Mule, the 7th Foundation story published in Astounding Science Fiction
  • 14 honorary doctorate degrees from various universities
  • 1997 posthumous induction into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame

Criticisms

One of the most common criticisms of Asimov's fiction work is that his "stories" are merely thinly veiled arguments, devoid of compelling characters or action. In 1980, science fiction scholar James Gunn, professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas wrote of I, Robot that:

Except for two stories—"Liar!" and "Evidence"—they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent…. The robot stories—and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.

Gunn observes that there are some notable exceptions in which Asimov's style rises to the demands of the situation; he cites the climax of "Liar!" as an example. Sharply-drawn characters occur at key junctures of his storylines: Susan Calvin in "Liar!" and "Evidence," Arkady Darell in Second Foundation, Elijah Baley in The Caves of Steel and Hari Seldon in the Foundation prequels.

Asimov adapted this criticism into one of his own works. In the Hugo Award-winning novella, "Gold," Asimov describes an author who has one of his books (The Gods Themselves) adapted into a "compu-drama," essentially photo-realistic computer animation. The director criticizes the fictionalized Asimov ("Gregory Laborian") for having an extremely non-visual style, making it difficult to adapt his work. The author explains that he relies on ideas and dialogue rather than description to get his points across.

Other criticism includes a lack of strong female characters in his early work, and a failure of his work to "age" well. Some details of Asimov's imaginary future technology as he described in the 1940s and 1950s are outdated. He described powerful robots and computers from the distant future as still using punch cards or punched tape and engineers using slide rules.

It is part of an overall charge of not enough social complexity. In his autobiographical writings he acknowledges this, and responds by pointing to inexperience. In the August 25, 1985, edition, the Washington Post's "Book World" section reports addresses some of these issues in Robots and Empire as follows:

In 1940, Asimov's humans were stripped-down masculine portraits of Americans from 1940, and they still are. His robots were tin cans with speedlines like an old Studebaker, and still are; the Robot tales depended on an increasingly unworkable distinction between movable and unmovable artificial intelligences, and still do. In the Asimov universe, because it was conceived a long time ago, and because its author abhors confusion, there are no computers whose impact is worth noting, no social complexities, no genetic engineering, aliens, arcologies, multiverses, clones, sin or sex; his heroes (in this case R. Daneel Olivaw, whom we first met as the robot protagonist of The Caves of Steel and its sequels) feel no pressure of information, raw or cooked, as the simplest of us do today; they suffer no deformation from the winds of the Asimov future, because it is so deeply and strikingly orderly.

There are some exceptions, as in The Naked Sun (1957), which address social issues as a core part of its central setting and motivation, depicts genetic engineering in the guise of eugenics as a fundamental part of that society. Totally artificial birth, although not specifically cloning, is the aim of the leaders of the society, and the entire story is used to make the point that too much order is ultimately a stagnant dead end to be avoided.

Another criticism is that some of his stories also have occasional internal contradictions; names and dates given in The Foundation Series do not always agree with one another. Some such errors are no doubt deliberate, his characters make mistakes since in Asimov stories characters are seldom fully informed about their own situations. Other contradictions resulted from the many years elapsed between the time Asimov began the Foundation series and when he resumed work on it; occasionally, advances in scientific knowledge forced him to revise his own fictional history.

Other than books by Gunn and Patrouch, there is a relative dearth of "literary" criticism on Asimov (particularly when compared to the sheer volume of his output). Cowart and Wymer's Dictionary of Literary Biography (1981) gives a possible reason:

His words do not easily lend themselves to traditional literary criticism because he has the habit of centering his fiction on plot and clearly stating to his reader, in rather direct terms, what is happening in his stories and why it is happening. In fact, most of the dialogue in an Asimov story, and particularly in the Foundation trilogy, is devoted to such exposition. Stories that clearly state what they mean in unambiguous language are the most difficult for a scholar to deal with because there is little to be interpreted.

However, as both Gunn and Patrouch's respective studies of Asimov make clear, a direct prose style is still a style and represents a particular kind of narrative strategy. Gunn calls some passages in The Caves of Steel "reminiscent of Proust."

Although he prided himself on his unornamented prose style (for which he credited Clifford Simak as an early influence), Asimov also enjoyed giving his longer stories a more complicated narrative structure, often by arranging chapters in non-chronological ways. The first third of The Gods Themselves begins with Chapter 6, then backtracks to fill in earlier material.[10] Patrouch found that the interwoven and nested flashbacks of The Currents of Space did serious harm to that novel, to such an extent that only a "dyed-in-the-'kyrt' Asimov fan" could enjoy it. Asimov's tendency to contort his timelines is perhaps most apparent in his later novel Nemesis, in which one group of characters live in the "present" and another group starts in the "past," beginning fifteen years earlier and gradually moving toward the time period of the first group.

One more innovative approach compares Asimov's narrative structures with the scientific concepts of fractals and chaos. Palumbo finds that though the traditional interests of literature (such as symbolism and characterization) are often somewhat lacking, or even absent, the purposeful complexities of the narrative build unusual symmetric and recursive structures to be perceived by the mind's eye. This volume contains some of the most scholarly and in-depth criticism of Asimov to date. [11]

John Jenkins, who has reviewed the vast majority of Asimov's written output, once observed,

It has been pointed out that most science fiction writers since the 1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberately avoiding anything like his style.[12]

Selected bibliography

Asimov aspired to write 500 books but did not quite reach that total; he wrote more than 463 titles. If all titles, charts, and edited collections are counted, there are currently 509 items in his complete bibliography. Asimov could have written an Opus 400, which would have been a celebration of his 400th title; the bibliography lists only up to his commemorative Opus 300. He wrote books in every category of the Dewey Decimal Classification except Philosophy.

Science fiction

"Greater Foundation" series

The Robot series was originally separate from the Foundation series. The Galactic Empire novels were originally published as independent stories. Later in life, Asimov synthesized them into a single coherent 'history' that appeared in the extension of the Foundation series.

The Robot series:

  • The Caves of Steel (1954), ISBN 0-553-29340-0 (first Elijah Baley SF-crime novel)
  • The Naked Sun (1957), ISBN 0-553-29339-7 (second Elijah Baley SF-crime novel)
  • The Robots of Dawn (1983), ISBN 0-553-29949-2 (third Elijah Baley SF-crime novel)
  • Robots and Empire (1985) (sequel to the Elijah Baley trilogy)
  • The Positronic Man (1993) (with Robert Silverberg, a novel based on Asimov's earlier short story "The Bicentennial Man")

Galactic Empire series:

  • Pebble in the Sky (1950)
  • The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  • The Currents of Space (1952)

Original Foundation trilogy:

Extended Foundation series:

Novels not part of a series

  • The End of Eternity (1955)
  • Fantastic Voyage (1966) (a novelization of the movie featuring a team of American scientists traveling within a human body)
  • The Gods Themselves (1972)
  • Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain (1987) (not a sequel to Fantastic Voyage, but a similar, independent story)
  • Nemesis (1989)
  • Nightfall (1990) (with Robert Silverberg, a novel based on the earlier short story)
  • The Ugly Little Boy (1992) (with Robert Silverberg, a novel based on the earlier short story; it appeared in the UK under the title Child of Time)

(While primarily independent, some of these novels have very minor connections to the Foundation series.)

Short story collections

See also List of short stories by Isaac Asimov

  • I, Robot (1950), ISBN 0-553-29438-5
  • The Martian Way and Other Stories (1955)
  • Earth Is Room Enough (1957)
  • Nine Tomorrows (1959)
  • The Rest of the Robots (1964)
  • Through a Glass, Clearly (1967)
  • Asimov's Mysteries (1968)
  • Nightfall and Other Stories (1969)
  • The Early Asimov (1972)
  • The Best of Isaac Asimov (1973)
  • Tales of the Black Widowers (1974)
  • Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (1975)
  • The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories (1976)
  • More Tales of the Black Widowers (1976)
  • The Casebook of the Black Widowers (1980)
  • Banquets of the Black Widowers (1980)
  • The Union Club Mysteries (1980)
  • The Complete Robot (1982)
  • The Winds of Change and Other Stories (1983)
  • The Alternate Asimovs (1986)
  • The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  • Robot Dreams (1986)
  • Azazel (1988)
  • Gold (1990)
  • Robot Visions (1990) ISBN 0-451-45064-7
  • Magic (1995)

Mysteries

Novels

  • The Death Dealers (1958) (later republished as A Whiff of Death)
  • Murder at the ABA (1976) (also published as Authorized Murder)

Short story collections

  • Asimov's Mysteries

Black Widowers and others

  • Tales of the Black Widowers (1974)
  • More Tales of the Black Widowers (1976)
  • The Key Word and Other Mysteries (1977)
  • Casebook of the Black Widowers (1980)
  • The Union Club Mysteries (1983)
  • Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984)
  • The Disappearing Man and Other Mysteries (1985)
  • The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  • Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990)
  • Return of the Black Widowers (2003) contains stories uncollected at the time of Asimov's death, in addition to contributions by Charles Ardai and Harlan Ellison

Nonfiction

Popular science

Collections of columns from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

  1. Fact and Fancy (1962)
  2. View from a Height (1963)
  3. Adding a Dimension (1964)
  4. Of Time, Space, & Other Things (1965)
  5. From Earth to Heaven (1966)
  6. Science, Numbers and I (1968)
  7. The Solar System and Back (1970)
  8. The Stars in Their Course (1971)
  9. Left Hand of the Electron (1972)
  10. The Tragedy of the Moon (1973)
  11. Of Matters Great & Small (1975)
  12. The Planet that Wasn't (1976)
  13. Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977)
  14. Road to Infinity (1979)
  15. The Sun Shines Bright (1981)
  16. Counting the Eons (1983)
  17. X Stands for Unknown (1984)
  18. The Subatomic Monster (1985)
  19. Far as Human Eye Could See (1987)
  20. The Relativity of Wrong (1988)
  21. Out of Everywhere (1990)
  22. The Secret of The Universe (1990)
  23. Quasars,Pulsars and Black Holes (1992)

Others

  • The Chemicals of Life (1954)
  • Inside the Atom (1956)
  • Only A Trillion (1957)
  • The World of Carbon (1958)
  • The World of Nitrogen (1958)
  • Words of Science and the History Behind Them (1959)
  • The Clock We Live On (1959)
  • Asimov on Numbers (1959)
  • Life and Energy (1962)
  • The Human Brain (1964)
  • The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science (1965)
    • The title varied with each of the four editions, the last being Asimov's New Guide to Science (1984)
  • The Universe: From Flat Earth to Quasar (1966)
  • The Neutrino (1966)
  • Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor (1971)
  • Our World in Space (1974)
  • The Collapsing Universe (1977) ISBN 0-671-81738-8
  • Extraterrestrial Civilizations (1979)
  • Views of the Universe (1981)
  • Exploring the Earth and the Cosmos (1982)
  • Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery (1989, second edition extends to 1993)
  • Asimov's Chronology of the World (1991)
  • Isaac Asimov's Guide to Earth and Space (1991)
  • The Sun (2003, revised by Richard Hantula)
  • Jupiter (2004, revised by Richard Hantula)
  • The Earth (2004, revised by Richard Hantula)
  • Venus (2004, revised by Richard Hantula)

Annotations

  • Asimov's Annotated "Don Juan"
  • Asimov's Annotated "Paradise Lost"
  • Asimov's Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan
  • The Annotated "Gulliver's Travels"

Guides

Autobiography

  • In Memory Yet Green, (1979, Doubleday)
  • In Joy Still Felt, (1980, Doubleday)
  • I. Asimov: A Memoir, (1994, Doubleday)

Other

  • Opus 100 (1969)
  • The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (1971)
  • Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1972)
  • Opus 200 (1979)
  • Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts (1979)
  • The Roving Mind (1983) (collection of essays). New edition published by Prometheus Books, 1997, ISBN 1-57392-181-5.

Notes

  1. Isaac Asimov, In Memory Yet Green
  2. Isaac Asimov Homepage, Asimov FAQ: Did you know that Asimov is the only author to have published books in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System? Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  3. Carl Freedman, Critical Theory and Science Fiction (Wesleyan University Press, 2000).
  4. Isaac Asimov Homepage, Asimov FAQ. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  5. Locus Magazine, Letter From Janet Asimov. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  6. Isaac Asimov, "The Way of Reason," in In Pursuit of Truth: Essays on the Philosophy of Karl Popper on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday,, ed. Paul Levinson, Humanities Press, 1982, pp. ix-x.
  7. Bewildering Stories, The Good Doctor. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  8. Rudy's Books, Isaac Asimov's Obituary. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  9. Faqs.org, Isaac Asimov FAQ, Part 1.Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  10. John H. Jenkins, Review of The Gods Themselves. Retrieved October 5, 2007.
  11. Donald Palumbo, Chaos Theory, Asimov's Foundations and Robots, and Herbert’s Dune: The Fractal Aesthetic of Epic Science Fiction.
  12. John H. Jenkins, Review of Asimov: The Unauthorized Life. Retrieved October 5, 2007.

References

External Links

All links retrieved November 15, 2012.

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