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Isaac Asimov

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Dr. Isaac Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life's work
(Rowena Morrill)

Isaac Asimov (c. January 2, 1920April 6, 1992, IPA: ) was a Russian-born American author and biochemist, a highly successful and exceptionally prolific writer best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov's most famous work is the Foundation Series, which he later combined with two of his other series, the Galactic Empire Series and Robot series. He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of non-fiction. Altogether he wrote or edited over 500 volumes and an estimated 90,000 letters or postcards, and has works in every major category of the Dewey Decimal System except Philosophy. Asimov is by general consensus a master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered to be one of the "Big Three" science-fiction writers during his lifetime.

Asimov was a long-time member of Mensa, albeit reluctantly — he described them as "intellectually combative." The asteroid 5020 Asimov is named in his honor.

Contents

Biography

Asimov was born around January 2, 1920 (his date of birth for official purposes—the precise date is not certain) in Petrovichi shtetl of Smolensk Oblast, RSFSR (now Russia) to Anna Rachel Berman Asimov and Judah Asimov, a Jewish family of millers. They emigrated to the United States when he was three years old. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he taught himself to read at the age of five. His parents owned a candy store and everyone in the family was expected to work in it. He saw science fiction magazines in the store and began reading them. In his mid-teens, he began to write his own stories and soon was selling them to pulp magazines.

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Isaac Asimov in 1965

He graduated from Columbia University in 1939 and took a Ph.D. in chemistry there in 1948. He then joined the faculty of Boston University, with which he remained associated thereafter, but in a non-teaching capacity. The university ceased to pay him a salary in 1958, by which time his income from writing already exceeded his income from his academic duties. Asimov remained on the faculty as an associate professor, being promoted in 1979 to full professor, and his personal papers from 1965 onward are archived at Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library, where they consume 464 boxes on 71 metres of shelf space. In 1985, he became President of the American Humanist Association and remained in that position until his death in 1992; his successor was his friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

He married Gertrude Blugerman on July 26, 1942, with whom he had two children, David (b. 1951) and Robyn (b. 1955). After an extended separation, they were divorced in 1973, and Asimov married Janet O. Jeppson later that year.

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 Isaac's autobiography, It's Been a Good Life, revealed that his death was caused by AIDS; he had contracted HIV from an infected blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery in 1983. The actual cause of death was heart and renal failure as complications of AIDS. Janet Asimov claims that Isaac's doctors encouraged them not to reveal his illness, while the doctors claim it was Janet herself who wanted to keep it secret (see [1] (http://www.locusmag.com/2002/Issue04/Letter.html)).

Intellectual positions

Isaac Asimov was humanist and a rationalist. He did not oppose genuine religious conviction in others but was against superstitious or unfounded beliefs. He was afraid of flying, only doing so twice in his entire life. Asimov was also a claustrophile; that is, he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces.

Asimov was a progressive on most political issues, and a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party. In a television interview in the early 1970s he publicly endorsed George McGovern. He was unhappy at what he saw as an irrationalist tack taken by many progressive political activists from the late 1960s onwards. His defense of civil applications of nuclear power even after the Three Mile Island incident damaged his relations with some on the left. (Ironically, the New York Times has recently noted that "some prominent environmentalists are having second thoughts about nuclear power" ('No Nukes,' No More (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F0061EF634540C748DDDAC0894DD404482)) and reported that "several of the nation's most prominent environmentalists have gone public with the message that nuclear power, long taboo among environmental advocates, should be reconsidered as a remedy for global warming" (quoted in Environmental neo-con job? (http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?itemid=19091)).) He issued many appeals for population control reflecting the perspective first articulated by Paul R. Ehrlich. In the closing years of his life Asimov blamed the deterioration of the quality of life that he perceived in New York 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 science fiction author Frederik Pohl), deals with elements of the environmental crisis such as global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.

Asimov's writing career

Overview

Asimov's career can be divided into several time periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939. This lasted until about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun. Following that, he greatly increased his production of non-fiction, consequently publishing little science fiction. Over the next quarter century, he would write 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 would publish many sequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not originally anticipated.

In his own view, Asimov believed that his most enduring contributions would be the 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, psychohistory and robotics into the English language. The first of these words applies to an entirely fictional technology, while the second is frequently used in a different sense than Asimov employed; however, robotics continues in widespread use with essentially Asimov's original definition.

Science fiction

's holographic image on the cover of . The  is among Asimov's most famous fiction works.
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Hari Seldon's holographic image on the cover of Foundation. The Foundation Series is among Asimov's most famous fiction works.

Asimov began contributing stories to science fiction magazines in 1939, Marooned Off Vesta being his first published story, written when he was 18. Two and a half years later, he published his 32nd short story, "Nightfall" (1941), which is described in Bewildering Stories, issue 8, as one of "the most famous science-fiction stories of all time" [2] (http://www.bewilderingstories.com/issue8/asimov.html). In 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story ever written [3] (http://www.rudysbooks.com/asimovobit.html). In his short anthology Nightfall and Other Stories he 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'".

In 1942 he began 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 work 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 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 (see Three Laws of Robotics) and intelligent machines that greatly influenced other writers and thinkers in their treatment of the subject. One such short story, The Bicentennial Man, was made into a movie starring Robin Williams.

The recent film I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was based on the Hardwired script by Jeff Vintar with Asimov's ideas incorporated later after acquiring the rights to the I, Robot title. It is not related to the I, Robot script by Harlan Ellison, who collaborated with Asimov himself to create a version that captured the spirit of the original. Asimov is quoted as saying that Ellison's screenplay would lead to "the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made". The screenplay was published in book form in 1994, after hopes of seeing it in film form were becoming slim. See: I, Robot, [4] (http://www.moviepoopshoot.com/bottom/56.html)

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 twenty-minute wait, he was summoned back into the Examination Room and congratulated as "Dr. Asimov."

He continued writing short stories for science fiction magazines in the 1950s, which he referred to as his golden decade. A number of these are included in his Best of anthology, including "The Last Question" (1956), on the ability of humankind to cope with and reverse entropy. It was his personal favorite and considered by many to be a contender to "Nightfall". Asimov wrote of it in 1973,

Why is it my favorite? For one thing I got the idea all at once and didn't have to fiddle with it; and I wrote it in white-heat and scarcely had to change a word. This sort of things endears any story to any writer.
Then, too, it has had the strangest effect on my readers. Frequently someone writes to ask me if I can give them the name of a story, which they think I may have written, and tell them where to find it. They don't remember the title but when they describe the story it is invariably "The Last Question". This has reached the point where I recently received a long-distance phone call from a desperate man who began, "Dr. Asimov, there's a story I think you wrote, whose title I can't remember—" at which point I interrupted to tell him it was "The Last Question" and when I described the plot it proved to be indeed the story he was after. I left him convinced I could read minds at a distance of a thousand miles.

Beginning in 1977, he lent his name to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (now Asimov's Science Fiction) and penned an editorial for each issue. There was also a short-lived Asimov's SF Adventure Magazine and a companion Asimov's Science Fiction Anthology reprint series, published as magazines (in the same manner as stablemates Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's "anthologies").

Popular science

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Isaac Asimov (courtesy of Jay Kay Klein)

During the late 1950s and 1960s, Asimov shifted gears somewhat, and substantially decreased 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 took its toll. 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.

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 1300-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.

Asimov also wrote several essays on the social contentions of his day, 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.

Other

Never entirely 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. 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 shortly after his death. It's Been a Good Life (2002), edited by Janet, is a condensed version of his three autobiographies.

Literary themes

Much of Asimov's fiction dealt with themes of paternalism. His first robot story, "Robbie", concerned a robotic nanny. As the robots grew more sophisticated, their interventions became more wide-reaching and subtle. In "Evidence", a robot masquerading as a human successfully runs for elective office. In "The Evitable Conflict", the robots ran humanity from behind the scenes, acting as nannies to the whole species.

Later, in 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 novel, The End of Eternity, features a similar conflict and resolution.

In The Foundation Series (which did not originally have robots), a scientist implements a semi-secret plan to create a perfect society over the course of 1000 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, obviously based on the Gaia hypothesis. Every animal, plant, and mineral on Gaia participated in a shared consciousness, forming a single super-mind working together for the greater good. In Foundation and Earth, the protagonist must decide whether or not to allow the development of Galaxia, a larger version of Gaia, encompassing the entire galaxy.

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.

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 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, 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 sixty. One hero is Bel Arvardan, an upper-class Galactic archeologist 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 is quite possibly Jewish), and is accidentally transported forward in time to Arvardan's period. He must decide whether to help a downtrodden society that thinks he should be dead.

Yet another frequent theme in Asimov is rational thought. He invented the science-fiction mystery with The Caves of Steel and the stories in Asimov's Mysteries, usually playing fair with the reader by introducing early in the story any science or technology involved in the solution. Later, he produced non-SF mysteries, including the novel Murder at the ABA (1976) and the "Black Widowers" short stories, in which he followed the same rule. In his fiction, important scenes are often essentially debates, with the more rational, humane—or persuasive—side winning.

Criticisms

One of the most common impressions of Asimov's fiction work is that his writing style is extremely unornamental. In 1980, SF scholar James Gunn 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.

This description applies well to a large proportion of Asimov's fiction, including that written after 1980. Gunn observes that there are places where Asimov's style rises to the demands of the situation; he cites the climax of "Liar!" as an example. One should not overlook the sharply drawn characters which occur at key junctures of his storylines: in addition to Susan Calvin in "Liar!" and "Evidence", we find Arkady Darell in Second Foundation, Elijah Baley in The Caves of Steel and Hari Seldon in the Foundation prequels. (In Forward the Foundation, Seldon becomes a partial mirror of Asimov himself.)

Asimov was also criticised for the lack of sex and aliens in his science fiction. Asimov once explained that his reluctance to write about aliens came from an incident early in his career when Astounding's editor John Campbell rejected one of his early science fiction stories because the alien characters were portrayed as superior to the humans. He decided that, rather than write weak alien characters, he would not write about aliens at all. Nevertheless, in response to these criticisms he wrote The Gods Themselves, which contains aliens, sex, and alien sex. Asimov said that of all his writings, he was most proud of the middle section of The Gods Themselves.

Others have criticised him for a lack of strong female characters in his early work. In his autobiographical writings, he acknowledges this, and responds by pointing to inexperience. His later novels, written with more female characters but in essentially the same prose style as his early SF stories, brought this matter to a wider audience. For example, the 25 August 1985 Washington Post's "Book World" section reports of 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.

A considerable portion of such criticism boils down to the charge that Asimov's works are not cyberpunk.

Other than the 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.

Although he prided himself on an unornamented prose style, he also enjoyed giving his longer stories complicated narrative structures, often by arranging chapters in non-chronological ways. Some readers have been put off by this, complaining that the nonlinearity is not worth the trouble and adversely impacts the clarity of the story. For example, the first third of The Gods Themselves begins with Chapter 6, then backtracks to fill in earlier material [5] (http://homepage.mac.com/jhjenkins/Asimov/Books/Book121.html). (In fairness, one should note that John Campbell advised Asimov to begin his stories as late in the plot as possible. This tidbit of advice helped Asimov create "Reason," one of the early Robot stories. See In Memory Yet Green for details of that time period.) 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.

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

It has been pointed out that most sf writers since the 1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberately avoiding anything like his style. [6] (http://homepage.mac.com/jhjenkins/Asimov/NonAsimov/White.html)

Quotes

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  • "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."
  • "Early in my school career, I turned out to be an incorrigible disciplinary problem. I could understand what the teacher was saying as fast as she could say it, I found time hanging heavy, so I would occasionally talk to my neighbor. That was my great crime, I talked."
  • "I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don't have to waste your time in either attacking or defending."
  • "If I could trace my origins to Judas Maccabaeus or King David, that would not add one inch to my stature. It may well be that many East European Jews are descended from Khazars, I may be one of them. Who knows? And who cares?"
  • "In 1936, I first wrote science fiction. It was a long-winded attempt at writing an endless novel...which died. I remember one sentence, 'Whole forests stood sere and brown in midsummer.'. That was the first Asimovian science-fiction sentence."
  • "Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."
  • "Night was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an inhibition to crime."
  • "No one can possibly have lived through the Great Depression without being scarred by it. No amount of experience since the Depression can convince someone who has lived through it that the world is safe economically."
  • "True literacy is becoming an arcane art and the United States is steadily dumbing down."
  • "Until I became a published writer, I remained completely ignorant of books on how to write and courses on the subject...they would have spoiled my natural style; made me observe caution; would have hedged me with rules."
  • "When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself."
  • "What I will be remembered for are the Foundation Trilogy and the Three Laws of Robotics. What I want to be remembered for is no one book, or no dozen books. Any single thing I have written can be paralleled or even surpassed by something someone else has done. However, my total corpus for quantity, quality and variety can be duplicated by no one else. That is what I want to be remembered for", September 20, 1973, Yours, Isaac Asimov, page 329.

Selected bibliography

In addition, see the complete bibliography. Asimov aspired to write 500 books but did not quite reach that total; he wrote over 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.

Science fiction

"Greater Foundation" series

Novels not part of a series

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

Short story collections

Also see List of short stories by Isaac Asimov

Mysteries

Novels

Short story collections (Black Widowers and others)

Nonfiction

Popular science

Annotations

Guides

Other

Readings and references

Print media

  • Asimov, Isaac. In Memory Yet Green (1979).
In Joy Still Felt (1980).
I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994).
Yours, Isaac Asimov (1996), edited by Stanley Asimov. ISBN 0-3854-7624-8.
It's Been a Good Life (2002), edited by Janet Asimov. ISBN 1-5739-2968-9.
  • Fiedler, Jean and Jim Mele. Isaac Asimov (1982). ISBN 0-8044-2203-6.
  • Goldman, Stephen H., "Isaac Asimov", in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8, Cowart and Wymer eds., (Gale Research, 1981), pp. 15-29.
  • Gunn, James. "On Variations on a Robot", IASFM, July 1980, pp. 56-81. Reprinted in the 1982 book.
Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction (1982). ISBN 0-19-503060-5.
The Science of Science-Fiction Writing (2000). ISBN 1-5788-6011-3.

Online

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