I believe that scientific knowledge has fractal properties; that no matter how much we learn; whatever is left, however small it may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start with. That, I think, is the secret of the Universe.
- autobiography I, Asimov: A Memoir (pub. post. 1994)
Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific authors of his time. An unabashed egoist, he gained massive popularity at a young age for his science fiction stories and novels. Unlike his prominent contemporaries in this genre, Asimov doggedly avoided the use of mysticism and sociological presentiment. His work instead concentrated on technology's broad potential for humankind.
Over his long career, Asimov's science fiction earned him three Nebula1 awards, five Hugo2 awards, and a posthumous place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He encouraged the birth of the next generation of science fiction authors by compiling popular story anthologies, by lending his efforts to a monthly science fiction magazine bearing his name, and by co-authoring or editing many books.
As Asimov's name and his trademark bushy-whiskered portrait became powerful marketing forces, he branched smoothly into other literary fields. His bibliography includes non-fiction science and history books, mystery novels, reference compendia on Shakespeare and the Bible, topical essays, books of humour and limericks, children's books (the Lucky Starr series written under the pen name of Paul French), and of course, several autobiographies of exceptional length. Asimov's non-fiction contributions earned him several industry and science awards, two additional Hugos, and 14 honorary doctorate degrees.
His science fiction books - particularly Caves of Steel, Foundation, and I, Robot - have become a popular choice for college courses on 20th Century novels. His science and history books - especially Asimov's Chronology of the World and Asimov's Guide to Earth and Space - likewise continue to see academic use. In retrospect, Asimov has been widely credited with furthering the literary respectability of the science fiction genre as a whole.
Isaak Judah Osimov was born 2 January, 1920 in Petrovichi, near Smolensk, Russia to a middle class Orthodox Jewish family. His family moved to the United States when Asimov was barely three years old – though not for reasons of persecution as it is sometimes assumed – and the family name was changed to Asimov. His younger sister was born the year before the move, and his younger brother was born six years after it. His mother pretended his birthday was several months previous than it was in order to get him into school a year early3.
As a youth, Asimov helped his parents run a small candy store in Brooklyn, New York. Among other items, the store carried a popular selection of horror, mystery, and science fiction pulp magazines. Young Asimov furtively read these before carefully placing them back on the rack for sale, sometimes after writing feverish letters to the editor about the quality of the stories. When he was 18, his first published story appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories.
Asimov's father hoped he would give up his writing hobby and become a doctor, but the prodigal son was horrified by the sight of blood and was quickly rejected by all five New York medical schools. He instead earned the degrees B.Sc and M.Sc in chemistry and a Ph.D in biochemistry from Columbia University; it was with a twist of irony that he would later become a biology professor at Boston University School of Medicine.
Throughout his academic career, he disdained the formal language used in published research papers and therefore contributed none of any great importance. He did, however, write a brief scientific article in The Journal of Chemical Education warning about the tendency for the isotope carbon-14 to generate mutations in the human body. Nuclear bombs were later found to cause birth defects due to the release of this isotope, and tests above ground were banned as a result.
Asimov met his first wife, Gertrude, on a blind date on Valentine's Day, 1942. Shortly after, Asimov moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where he worked as a junior chemist together with fellow science fiction authors Robert Heinlein and L Sprague de Camp. He married Gertrude in September, and she joined him shortly afterwards.
In November 1945, Asimov was called to serve in the US Army and was stationed on the island of Oahu. He should have been involved in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, but was discharged from the Army, whereupon he resumed his studies at Columbia University, gaining his Ph.D. Dr Asimov's first science fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky, was published in 1950, while he was lecturing in biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. His most celebrated books – I, Robot and the 'Foundation' trilogy – were published during this period, before he gave up his teaching duties and became a full-time writer in 1958. At about the same time, Asimov decided that he'd had enough of science fiction, and decided to concentrate on other genres, including mystery, humour, and non-fiction. He kept himself in the view of science fiction readers however, by writing a science column for Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine for over 30 years.
Asimov met Janet Opal Jeppson, the woman who would eventually become his second wife, in 1956. At the time he was suffering from kidney stones, and maintained that he had no recollection whatsoever of the meeting or of the poor impression he made. Three years later, they met again at a mystery writers' banquet and formed a firm friendship. Isaac and Gertrude Asimov were ultimately to separate in 1970 and were divorced in November 1973. A few days later, Asimov married his long-term friend Janet; they had no children.
In 1982 Asimov returned to science fiction with the publication of Foundation's Edge, the first new instalment of his most famous book series in three decades. The book reached number three on the New York Times bestseller list, and remained on the list for 25 weeks in total. The publisher originally lauded the book on its cover as the '...fourth book of the Foundation trilogy'. After pointing out the self-contradiction of the phrase, Asimov suggested it remain unchanged for publicity reasons, however publisher Doubleday opted to call the series The Foundation Saga instead4. Asimov died on 6 April, 1992, of heart and kidney failure, both complications of AIDS, contracted from a blood transfusion given in 1983 during a triple bypass operation. Due to his unbounded prolific nature, no fewer than six books can fairly lay claim to being his last. In typical fashion, these include a final science fiction novel, two anthologies, an essay collection, and an autobiography.
The Thiotimoline Story
As the time approached for Asimov to write up the results of the research for his Ph.D dissertation, he became concerned about his ability to write in the formal style that all academic establishments and learned journals required such work to be presented in. He hit upon the idea of practising by writing a completely spoof research paper in the necessary style, complete with all the usual charts, diagrams and tables. The subject of his 'paper', entitled The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline, was the peculiar properties of a chemical substance called Thiotimoline. The premise of his paper was that Thiotimoline dissolved in water so readily, that it did so a second or so before actually coming into contact with the water. The paper was offered to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction with the proviso that it should be published under a pseudonym, but to Asimov's horror this proviso was not fulfilled. He feared that such an act of apparent tomfoolery would prejudice his Ph.D examination; in the event, it amused his examiners, who did indeed bring up the subject, light-heartedly, at his dissertation presentation.
Asimov and Women
The women were there solely to make the villains more villainous, the heroes more heroic. And in being rescued, they played a purely passive role, their part consisting mostly of screaming. I can't... recall any woman trying to join the fight and help the hero.
As a boy, Asimov had written to pulp magazines several times to complain about the ubiquitous helpless females in its stories. Out of pre-pubescent exasperation, he proclaimed that female characters were clearly useless and should therefore be banned in the future. It took him many years to realize that it was only the characters that were useless, and that the gender as a whole had received ill treatment by an entire generation of genre authors.
Asimov's early stories therefore featured few, if any, women. He attempted in his middle years to add women to his plots, originally by changing nothing about them but their name and physical description, with variable success. At this time, this was written off as a result of Asimov's refusal to indulge in sentimentality, and his tendency to prefer complex plot over characterisation.
To some extent, Asimov's personal life may have exacerbated his impression of the female gender. He attended male-only institutions from the ages of 12 to 19 and did not have his first date until the age of 20; when he did marry, both he and his wife were still virgins. Their marriage was less than ideal; while he genuinely loved his wife, he never felt that she returned the sentiment. Asimov admitted in his later years that he may have married her too quickly due in part to her resemblance, in his mind, to a much-adored movie star, and in part to his family's expectations. Gertrude smoked, which bothered Asimov immensely, and she consistently maintained that he should spend less time on his writing career and more time with his family. The arguments grew in tandem with Asimov's literary success, to the point where he finally developed a very one-sided perspective on his wife.
Asimov's relationship with his second wife Janet was a much more positive influence even before they were married. The attraction between them was apparent almost immediately, though they refused to act upon it for ethical reasons for decades after they met. Janet was unfailingly supportive of Asimov's career. She began by assisting him as a secretary and mail handler, liaising with editors and publicists. As Asimov spent increasing time under Janet's professional stewardship, his perspective on women gradually changed. At the same time, Asimov watched his daughter Robyn grow into a beautiful and intelligent woman who was also quietly supportive of her father's career. Asimov's happy and loving second marriage to Janet cemented the gradual change in his gender perspective.
When he finally returned to science fiction writing in the 1980s, Asimov was able to incorporate rich female characters with much greater success. He did so in part by using Janet and Robyn as early models for his descriptions of women's mental and emotional characteristics.
Religion, Ethnicity, and Belief
There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell or eternal boredom in Heaven.
– I, Asimov
Although brought up by practising Orthodox Jews, his parents did not force Judaism upon him. Asimov had no belief in the afterlife, in reincarnation, in the supernatural, or in a supreme deity or deities. He considered himself an atheist who valued reason and the scientific method above all, but he never held others' religious beliefs against them. The only time he became openly disdainful was when any form of intolerance was justified by religious doctrine. Asimov later called himself a humanist – someone who believes that humankind is capable of, and responsible for, solving its own problems. He was president of the American Humanist Association for a decade before his death. Despite his extreme rationalism, Asimov suffered from fear of flying (Aerophobia) his entire life, because of which, he participated more by writing articles and fund-raising letters than through attending functions or tending to the bureaucracy of the organization. As an amusing aside, after Asimov died, fellow AHA member Kurt Vonnegut began Asimov's eulogy with: 'Isaac is in Heaven now', which brought the house down.
Asimov learned to read Yiddish and some Hebrew thanks to a few months spent in Hebrew school, taken when his father served as a secretary for the local synagogue. Asimov nevertheless clearly valued his Jewish heritage; he refused to accept a pseudonym at a time when genre authors were expected to hide behind patriarchal, Eurocentric names. Some magazines were therefore hesitant to publish his stories; if he had been more flexible with the magazine editors, Asimov might have achieved success even more quickly. He later posited that his unique name gave his early career a positive boost by distinguishing him from the ever-growing field of science fiction authors. He also wrote several historical books on religion. Despite the wide range of his writings, Asimov just failed to figure in all ten categories in the library Dewey Decimal System – he somehow missed philosophy.
Some Irrational Quirks
Asimov's fear of flying has already been mentioned. This meant his book tours and other obligations had to be met through train or car travel, but in his later life he enjoyed a number of intercontinental sea cruises with his second wife. He was also a claustrophile, enjoying confined spaces and liked to work in windowless rooms.
He experienced awful stage fright while singing bits of Gilbert & Sullivan, which he did occasionally for the Gilbert & Sullivan Society – Asimov eventually wrote a reference compendium on the subject similar to his reference book on Shakespeare. Yet he never experienced stage fright during any of his hundreds of extemporaneous public speeches. His rationale was that the speeches were his own, while the songs weren't.
Asimov's Major Works
A detailed bibliography is far beyond the scope of this Entry. The length of the book list alone would be intimidating to many readers. And for those dedicated enough to read such a list, questions arise about which of Asimov's co-authored, edited, and compiled books to include. Asimov Online is a fan-run website which includes links to a number of bibliographies. The closest thing to an official bibliography is on the back of I, Asimov, but unfortunately that list omits all works published after the author's death.
However, some mention must be made of his most influential works – all fictional. His non-fiction books relate information found elsewhere in particularly succinct and entertaining ways. But it was within his fiction that Asimov was able to explore his ideals through creative invention. This, ultimately, is where he has left his greatest mark on the imagination of the masses - and, potentially, on its future.
In an important break from science fiction tradition, Asimov's robot stories tried to combat the Frankenstein complex most contemporary authors had about machines. He introduced a key idea – the three Laws of Robotics – which made it impossible for his robots to harm human beings. In brief, Asimov believed that intelligent robots would be safe if they were programmed with complex ethics in addition to basic commands and algorithms.
Oddly enough, Asimov had difficulty getting his first book about robots published. His contracted publisher was only the first to turn down what later became known as I, Robot. The series of short stories was finally published by Gnome Press, a small publisher that later received an option to the first three novels in Asimov's 'Foundation' series. Doubleday finally consented to publish Asimov's novel when Gnome Press failed to pay Asimov any royalties despite an excellent rate of sale. Nearly all of the books published by Gnome Press, including offerings from Robert Heinlein and L Sprague de Camp, have since been recognized as science fiction classics. The authors were rarely or never paid.
I, Robot later evolved into 'The Complete Robot' by the addition of the 1986 collection of short stories, Robot Dreams. The other novels in the robot series are The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, both written in the 1950s, and two other novels from the 1980s: The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire. These additional novels feature the character Elijah Baley, a human detective, and his robotic counterpart, R Daneel Olivaw. In The Caves of Steel Asimov lovingly creates underground cities, clearly derived from his irrational love for tightly enclosed spaces.
Asimov could not claim to have invented the word robot. This goes to the Czech writer Karel Capek with his 1920s play 'R.U.R.: Rossums Universal Robots', robota being a Czech word for a manual labourer. However, he was the first person to popularise its use and did create the word robotics, referring to the ongoing study of robots and their improvement. He also coined the term positronic, which attempts to describe the theoretical engineering marvel that would make robot brains possible.
The Foundation series posits that the history of a complex society can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy by complex mathematical equations, for which Asimov invented the term psychohistory. While this is the scientific premise behind the series, the historical premise is closely attuned to Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Harry Seldon, a character created to mimic Asimov's own personality, creates a secret organization of historians and mathematicians with the goal of preserving important scientific and cultural documents, and shortening an impending Dark Age. If it seems like a simple enough goal, things get considerably more complicated once mankind's galactic society breaks down and becomes increasingly hostile. Holographic recordings of Seldon's now-posthumous instructions play after most critical events, but their pertinence and accuracy are frequently questionable. The original Foundation trilogy comprised Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.
The Great Triumvirate: Robots, Empire, and Foundation
In the 1980s, Asimov conceived a plan to unify his greatest works. He wrote another series of Foundation novels that drew the plotlines from his Robot novels in line with his previous Foundation novels.
The years between the two series were spanned by yet another novel series – the Empire series – written in the early 1950s. These comprise The Currents of Space, The Stars, Like Dust, and Pebble in the Sky. The Empire series posits a future where humankind has reached out into the galaxy and where the Earth has been made radioactive.
The books that finally put the pieces together are Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, Foundation's Edge, and Foundation and Earth.
The Second Foundation
The Foundation series helped to launch the careers of three notable science fiction authors of the succeeding generation. Janet Asimov sanctioned these novels, which were published in the late 1990s: Foundation's Fear by Gregory Benford, Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear, and Foundation's Triumph by David Brin.
I don't feel self-pity because I won't be around to see any of the possible futures. Like Hari Seldon, I can look at my work all around me and I'm comforted. I know that I've studied about, imagined, and written down many possible futures - it's as if I've been there.
While Asimov typically crafted his characters to match his story rather than the other way around, he nevertheless left behind a number of fictional figures who remain bright in the imagination of his readers.
There is no doubt that in the Foundation series Hari Seldon is Asimov's alter ego. Asimov compared himself to Seldon many times. Unsurprisingly, Seldon is a genius; his goal is nothing less than to save the human race, and he creates a hybrid of science, mathematics and history to accomplish his goal. Seldon appears in most of the Foundation books as a voice from the past, one that may or may not appear when the descendants of his followers most need his advice. Seldon's actual life and death is accounted in Forward the Foundation. It was one of the last books Asimov wrote, and one of the most emotionally trying. Janet Asimov wrote that in killing Seldon, Asimov had laid himself to rest.
In the 'Robot' series, Calvin is a robot psychologist, an expert who frequently gets involved in Asimov's robot stories and novels when a robot behaves in an unexplained, usually harmful fashion. She is capable of identifying particular robots based on their programming to date. And she believes that robots never violate the three Laws of Robotics, no matter how much it might seem to a human that they have done so. Susan Calvin appeared in Asimov's writing before he met his second wife, Janet, who was herself a psychologist. The most popular theory is that early Calvin stories simply substituted a woman for the sake of gender equality, while later stories may have used Janet as a model.
Elijah Baley and R Daneel Olivaw
Elijah Baley is a plainclothes New York police detective who is asked at the beginning of Caves of Steel to solve the apparent murder of a Spacer – a colonist who has disavowed his Earth origins – by a robot. Baley has a palpable bias against robots and a love for enclosed spaces, which works well for him in the underground cities of the future.
He is partnered with R Daneel Olivaw, an aloof Spacer detective who eventually admits that the R in his name stands for robot. The two are paired together again in Naked Sun when another apparent murder by a robot occurs on a Spacer planet. In addition to solving the crime, Baley must confront his fear of open spaces on a planet where the distantly spaced residents only communicate by video link or robot. Olivaw long outlives his human partner. He gains telepathic abilities, helps to formulate the so-called Zeroth Law of Robotics, and eventually guides a confederation of five worlds populated by robots that have all but forgotten their origins on Earth. Hari Seldon is actually the result of some genetic experiments Olivaw undertook when a space-bound renaissance of humans began to decline prematurely.
The Black Widowers
Asimov belonged to a club called The Trap Door Spiders that treated a different guest to dinner and lively conversation once a month. The club was open to male members only, entirely because everyone involved wished to avoid rubbing elbows with the usually nosey wife of Doc Clark, a member who was a rocket scientist and amateur fiction writer. Asimov created a series of mystery books featuring characters loosely based on the club's members. The character Geoffrey Avalon, for example, is Asimov's mystery double for L Sprague de Camp; Emmanuel Rubin is the foil for Lester del Rey. Henry is the only character who is entirely fictional. Asimov did not include himself amongst the widowers, but he did write himself in as the guest Mortimer Stellar in one story, When No Man Pursueth.
Multivac, which featured in many short stories, is a huge supercomputer with the capability of adjusting and repairing its own components. It is variously reported as using probability to predict crimes before they occur, providing strategy for a war against aliens, explaining by request why jokes are funny to people, and saving humanity after a nuclear apocalypse. Multivac is also sinister in nature, eventually developing an awareness of Man's dependency upon it and the emotions to take advantage of the situation.
Asimov later theorised that as mankind populated other planets, each might contain its own Multivac. Then Multivacs could be replaced by an army of personal robots called Microvacs. These in turn would eventually be replaced by the Galactic AC5, a supercomputer for which each person would have a two-inch square AC-contact unit. This line of computers, each creating its own successor, would culminate at last in a Cosmic AC - a computer located entirely in hyperspace whose size and construction could not be comprehended by anyone but itself.
In the 1980s Asimov wrote a series of humorous stories about Azazel, a tiny demon who is always being asked to help people and who always complies. Unfortunately, Azazel's actions usually seem to have unintended consequences. Asimov purposely wrote these successful and endearing stories in the style of PG Wodehouse. They were finally collected into a novel named after the trademark character, a book notable in part because it is the only pure fantasy novel Asimov ever published.
Asimov on Writing
Barbara Walters: What would you do if you found you had only six months to live?
Asimov: Type faster.
Asimov gave a great deal of advice to writers. He suggested that short titles were always better than long ones, for instance. He argued that it was always good for one's career to keep in the public eye, and argued that it was wise to ignore critics and adore your publishers and editors. Shortly into his career, Asimov became annoyed at his editors after he had revised a single short story half a dozen times. He afterwards refused to revise anything more than twice. He was more sympathetic with editorial and title changes made without his input however, on the grounds that he could always reverse them when he published the story in his own anthology.
Asimov's work ethic was to write from nine to five each day, seven days a week; he genuinely enjoyed writing. In one anecdote from 1971, Asimov's new wife's family mistakenly assumed that he needed complete privacy to finish one of his books. He spent Christmas Day creating a textbook index on 3x5 cards before finally being roused to eat dinner and open presents, and this became his happiest holiday memory. By his own reckoning, he averaged 13 books a year as a full-time writer. Most place the exact number of books at over 500, but there is considerable debate since he also co-authored and edited many books.
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine – retitled Asimov's Science Fiction in 1992 – was launched in spring of 1977, and at the time of writing (2008) was still being published. Early issues included a picture of Asimov on the cover, which segued to a mug shot placed within the 'O' of Asimov that was finally dropped. Asimov was Editorial Director until his death in 1992; he wrote an editorial column, answered the letters in the letter column, and contributed his own stories. The magazine started out as a quarterly publication, went bi-monthly the following year, and finally monthly the year after.
Television and Movies
The Caves of Steel
On television, BBC2 did a production of The Caves of Steel in 1964, with a script by Terry Nation – the man also responsible for the cult series Blake's 7, and creator of the Daleks in Doctor Who. In this production the part of Elijah Baley was played by the late Peter Cushing. Unfortunately, the master tapes of the programme have been erased.
Asimov was commissioned to write the 'book-of-the-film' to accompany the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage, taking Harry Kleiner's screenplay. It did not have (for him) a satisfactory outcome:
I do not like Fantastic Voyage and it is one of the few books with my name on it that I wouldn't dream of rereading. This is not because I got so little money for something that proved a runaway, long-time best-seller... The point about the book is that it is not mine.
Asimov's short story of this name, expanded into the novel The Positronic Man, co-written with Robert Silverberg, was adapted in 1999 into a movie starring Robin Williams. In the film Williams manages to convey very well the trouble robot Andrew has trying to be more human. Unfortunately the film makers shoe-horned in a romantic interest for Williams and his leading lady (Embeth Davidtz). At the start of the movie much is made of the three Laws of Robotics, but they soon seem to be ignored.
The credits to the 2004 film, starring Will Smith, do acknowledge that it was... suggested by Isaac Asimov's book, which is all to the good as the film and book have little more than a title in common.