Isaac Asimov

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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.

Isaac Asimov was unarguably the most prolific author 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 Nebula awards, five Hugo 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 recognition and his sideburned portrait became a powerful marketing forces, he branched gracefully into other literary fields. His bibliography includes non-fiction science and history books, mystery novels, completist reference compendiums on Shakespeare and the Bible, topical essays, books of humour and limericks, children's books, and, of course, several autobiographies of exceptional length. Asimov's non-fiction contributions earned him several industry and science awards, two additional Hugos, and fourteen 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, the series of books for children entitled Asimov's Library of the Universe, 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.


Asimov's First Rule of Cosmology: In the beginning, there was Nothing.

Asimov was born in January of 1920 in Petrovichi, Russia to a middle class 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. Asimov's younger sister was born the year before the move, and his younger brother was born a half dozen years after it. Isaac's mother pretended his birthday was months earlier than it was in order to get him into school a year early.

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 a B.S. and M.S. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University. In an ironic twist, he later became 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 aboveground tests were outlawed as a result.

Asimov met his first wife, Gertrude, on a blind date on Valentine's Day, 1942. Their marriage lasted about thirty years and produced two children, David and Robyn.

Shortly after meeting Gertrude, Asimov moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard. 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.

Asimov was called to serve in the US Army in November. HE was variously stationed in While working to become an established author, Asimov was also briefly a typist, a worker on a rubberized fabric factory, and a researcher of antimalarial compounds.

In 1950, Dr. Asimov's first science fiction novel was published while he was lecturing in biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medecine, and although he finished teaching in 1958 to write full-time, his most celebrated books - "I, Robot" and the Foundation trilogy - were published before this date.

Isaac met the woman who was to become his wife in 1956. Due to suffering from kidney stones, he maintained no recollection of this event or the poor impression he made whatsoever. Three years later, they met again at a mystery writer's banquet and formed a fast friendship.

Starting in 1949, Asimov began a teaching career. In 1958, Asimov finally gave up his teaching duties and became a full-time writer.

Asimov decided in 1958 that he'd run to the end of his rope with science fiction. He decided to concentrate on other genres, including mysteries, humour, and non-fiction. To keep himself in the view of science fiction readers, he penned a science column for Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine for over 30 years. He finally returned to science fiction in full force in the 1980s.

Isaac and Gertrude Asimov separated in 1970. During the interim, Isaac moved in with the woman who was to become his second wife, Janet Opal Jeppson. Asimov's first marriage was officially dissolved on November 17, 1973. He was married Janet on November 30th. He had no children by his second wife.

In 1982, Asimov returned to science fiction with the publication of Foundation's Edge, the first new installment of of his most famous books series in three decades. The book reached #3 on the New York Times bestseller list, and remained on the list for 25 weeks total.

The publisher, Foundation's Edge, 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, Doubleday opted to call the series The Foundation Saga instead. Douglas Adams later proved the success of Asimov's idea with his own ever-growing science fiction 'trilogy.'

Asimov died in 1992 of heart and kidney failure, both complications of AIDS. He contracted the deadly disease from a blood transfusion given in 1998 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.

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 wrote to pulp magazines several times to complain about the ubiquitous helpless females in its stories. Out of pre-puberty 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.

It may not have helped that Asimov attended male-only institutions from age 12 through 19. He had his first date at age 20. And when he was married, both he and his wife were virgins.

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. Asimov's first 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 smokes, which bothered Isaac immedensely. And she consistently maintained that Isaac 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 to 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 on 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, mail handler, and liason 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 as his daughter Robyn grew 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 charictaristics.

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."

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. However, 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 also called himself a humanist, someone who believes that humankind is capable of and responsible for solving its own problems. He was president to the American Humanist Association for a decade before his death. Because of his fear of flying, he participated more through writing articles and fund-raising letters than through attending functions or tending to the bureaucracy of the organization.

Asimov learned to read Yiddish and some Hebrew thanks to a stint of a few months in Hebrew school taken when his father served as a secretary for the local synagogue. However, Asimov's parents never made an effort to teach him about their religion.

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 positited that his unique name gave his early career a positive boost by distinguishing him from the ever growing field of science fiction authors. Ironically, Asimov's failed to cover all ten categories in the librarian's Dewey Decimal System because he somehow missed philosopy. He wrote several historical books on religion.

Some Irrational Quirks

Despite his extreme rationalism, Asimov suffered from a fear of flying his entire life. His book tours and other obligations were met through train or car travel. And in his latter life, he enjoyed a number of intercontinental sea cruises with his second wife.

He also 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 rationalization was that the speeches were his own, while the song wasn'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.

The completist is advised to visit Asimov Online, a fan-run web site affiliated with the newsgroup alt.books.isaac-asimov. The Frequently Asked Questions page links to a number of bibliolographies of various stripes. The closest thing to an official bibliography is in the back of I, Asimov, the author's last autobiography. Unfortunately, that list omits all works published after the author's death.

No entry on Asimov would be complete, however, without brief overview of his most influential works. These tend to be resoundingly fictional in nature. His non-fiction books usefully relate information found elsewhere in particularly succinct and entertaining ways. But it was within his non-fiction that Asimov was able to explore his ideals through creative invention. This, ultimately, is where he has left his greatest mark on on the imagination of the masses - and, potentially, on its future.

Asimov's Robots

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 robots could be relatively 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 operation that later received first dibs on 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 became The Complete Robot, with the addition of the 1986 story Robot Dreams. The other novels in the robot series are The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, written in the 1950s, and two other novels from the 1980s, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire.

The additional novels feature Elijah Baley, a human detective, and his robotic counterpart, Daneel Olivaw.

Caves of Steel deserves a special mention here, as it is the novel most likely to be seen in the classroom. Asimov had an irrational love for tightly enclosed spaces. It was because of this that he lovingly created the underground cities in the novel. BBC

Asimov could not claim to have invented the word Robot. TThis was done by the Czech writer Karel Capek in the 1920s play R.U.R., Robota being a Czech word for a manual labourer. However, he was the first person to popularise its use and did create the term "robotics," referring to the ongoing study of robots and their improvement. He also coined the term "positronic," a term that attempts to describe the theoretical engineering marvel that would make robot brains possible.

None of the novels is to be confused with I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay, written by Harlan Ellison and published in 1994. The screenplay was written for John Mantley, the producer of the TV series Gunsmoke. The movie was never made, despite Asimov's hearty approval of the finished script.


The Foundation series posits that the history of a complex society can be predicted within a certain degree of accuracy by complex mathematical forumulae. Asimov termed this invention 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 until the end of an impending dark age. If it seems like a simply enough goal, things get considerably more complicated once mankind's galactic society breaks down and becomes increasingly hostile.

Recordings of Seldon's now-posthumous instructions play after most major events, but their pertinence and accuracy are frequently questionable. The orinal Foundation trilogy includes 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 was spanned by yet another novel series, the Empire series, that was written in the early 1950s. This included The Currents of Space, The Stars, Like Dust, and Pebble in the Sky. The Empire series posits a future where humankind has stretched 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 in the succeeding generation. Janet Asimov sanctioned the novels, which were published in the late 1990s. The trilogy includes Foundation's Fear by Gregory Benford, Foundation and Chaos by Greg Bear, and Foundation's Triumph by David Brin.

Notable Characters

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 posssible 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 that remain bright in the imagination of his readers.

Hari Seldon

There is no doubt that Hari Seldon is Asimov's alter ego in the Foundation series. Asimov compared himself to Seldon many times and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, Seldon is a genius. His goal is nothing less than to save the human race, and he creates a hybrid of science, math, and history to accomplish his goal.

Seldon appears 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 lain himself to rest.

Susan Calvin

Calvin is a robot psychologist, an expert who frequently gets involved in Asimov's robot stories and novels when a robot behaves in anunexplained, 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 latter stories may have used Janet as a model.

Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw

Elijah Bailey 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. Bailey 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's 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, Bailey 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 conferederation 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 undertakes when a space-bound renaissance of humans begins to decline prematurely.

The Black Widowers

Asimov belonged to an 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 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. And 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 one story, "When No Man Pursueth."


MULTIVAC is a supercomputer featured in many short stories that is miles in size. It has the capability of adjusting and repairing its own components. MULTIVAC 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 theorized 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 AC, 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 as a Cosmic AC - a computer located entirely in hyperspace whose size and construction could not be comprehended by anyone but itself.


Asimov's wrote 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 always seem to have unintended consequences. Asimov purposefully wrote these successful and endearing stories in the style of P.G. Wodehouse. They were finally collected a novel named after the trademarked character, a book notable in part because it is the only pure fantasy novel Asimov ever published.

Asimov on Writing

IBarbara Walters: What would you do if you found he had only six months to live?

Asimov: Type faster.

Asimov gave out a gread 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 yourself in the public eye. And he 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 revising a single short story a half 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.

The 'Asimovian Law of Composition' referenced in some blurbs for the author calls for writing from nine to five, seven days a week. The author genuinely enjoyed writing. In one anecdoe 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.

Asimov once wrote that he once had a dream that he'd woken up in heaven. The thing he would asked about was a typewriter. He realized after the dream that his career had allowed him to live in his own version of a heaven on earth for over half a century.

By his own accounting, he averaged thirteen books a year as a fulltime 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. He wrote books in every category of the Dewey Decimal system except philosophy.

And Other Things

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 moeny for something that proved a runaway, long-time best-seller... The point about the book is that it is not mine.

The Magazine

Of great fame also was Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, retitled Asimov's Science Fiction in 1992. The magazine was launched in spring of 1977 and is still published today. 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 of the magazine until his death in 1992. He wrote an editorial column for the magazine, answered the letters in the letter column, and contributed his own stories. The magazine started out as a quarterly publication, but went bi-monthly the next year, and finally monthly the year after.

Television and Movies

Fantastic Voyage

BBC 2 did a production of The Caves of Steel in 1964. The script was by Terry Nation, who invented "Blake's 7" and the Daleks in Dr. Who. Elijah Baley was played by the late Peter Cushing. Unfortunately, the master tapes of the program were erased.

Also, The Bicentennial Man movie starring Robin Williams. In the movie, Williams manages to convey the trouble Andrew has trying to be more human very well.Unfortunately this film makers have shoe-horned in a romantic interest for Andrew (Williams) and his leading lady. Also annoying is their treatment of the three laws of robotics. They made a big play of them at the start but then seemed to ignore them.

Asimov not on Next Generation, discussion of Data?

I, Robot movie?

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