The author of nearly five hundred books, Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is esteemed as one of the finest writers of science fiction and scientific fact in the twentieth century.
Asimov was born on January 2, 1920, to middle-class Jewish parents in Petrovichi, Russia, then part of the Smolensk district in the Soviet Union. His family immigrated to the United States in 1923, settling in Brooklyn, New York, where they owned and operated a candy store. In 1934, while attending Boys High School of Brooklyn, Asimov published his first story, "Little Brothers," in the school newspaper. A year later he entered Seth Low Junior College, an undergraduate college of Columbia University. He transferred to the main campus in 1936, where he switched his major from biology to chemistry. During the next two years Asimov's interest in history grew and he read numerous books on the subject. He also read science fiction magazines and wrote stories. His first professionally published story, "Marooned off Vesta," appeared in Amazing Stories in 1939. Asimov graduated from Columbia University with a B.S. in chemistry in 1939. He later earned an M.A. and Ph.D. After serving in World War II, Asimov became an instructor at Boston University School of medicine. Asimov died in 1992.
Asimov received his greatest popular and critical acclaim for The Foundation Trilogy: Three Classics of Science Fiction and his robot series. Comprised of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, The Foundation Trilogy describes the "future history" of a vast galactic empire. His books about robots—most notably I, Robot; The Caves of Steel; and The Naked Sun—did much to legitimize science fiction by augmenting the genre's traditional material with the narrative structures of such established genres as mystery and detective stories, while displaying a thematic concern for technological progress and its implications for humanity. Many critics, scientists, and educators, however, believe Asimov's greatest talent was for popularizing or, as he called it, "translating" science for the lay reader. His many books on atomic theory, chemistry, astronomy, and physics have been recognized for their extraordinary clarity, and Asimov has been praised for his ability to synthesize complex data into readable, unthreatening prose. When asked about his prodigious output in such a wide range of fields, Asimov responded self-deprecatingly by saying he never had a thought that he didn't put down on paper. An editorial in The Washington Post concluded that he redefined the rule "as to how many things a person is allowed to be an expert on" and that his "extraordinary capabilities aside, [his] breadth of interest deserves more admiration than it gets."
Isaac Asimov is "the world's most prolific science writer," according to David N. Samuelson in Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers, who "has written some of the best-known science fiction ever published." Considered one of the three greatest writers of science fiction in the 1940s (along with Robert Heinlein and A. E. Van Vogt), Asimov has remained a potent force in the genre. Stories such as "Nightfall" and "The Bicentennial Man," and novels such as The Gods Themselves and Foundation's Edge have received numerous honors and are recognized as among the best science fiction ever written. As one of the world's leading writers on science, explaining everything from nuclear fusion to the theory of numbers, Asimov has illuminated for many the mysteries of science and technology. He is a skilled raconteur as well, who enlivens his writing with incidents from his own life. "In his autobiographical writings and comments," states James Gunn in Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, "Asimov continually invites the reader to share his triumphs, to laugh at his blunders and lack of sophistication, and to wonder, with him, at the rise to prominence of a bright Jewish boy brought to this country from Russia at the age of three and raised in a collection of Brooklyn candy stores."
Asimov's interest in science fiction began when he first noticed several of the early science fiction magazines for sale on the newsstand of his family's candy store. Although as a boy he read and enjoyed numerous volumes of nonfiction as well as many of the literary "classics," Asimov recalls in In Memory Yet Green, his first volume of autobiography, he still longed to explore the intriguing magazines with the glossy covers. But his father refused, maintaining that fiction magazines were "junk! … Not fit to read. The only people who read magazines like that are bums." And bums represented "the dregs of society, apprentice gangsters."
But in August of 1929, a new magazine appeared on the scene called Science Wonder Stories. Asimov knew that as long as science fiction magazines had titles like Amazing Stories, he would have little chance of convincing his father of their worth. However, the new periodical had the word "science" in its title, and he says, "I had read enough about science to know that it was a mentally nourishing and spiritually wholesome study. What's more, I knew that my father thought so from our occasional talks about my school-work." When confronted with this argument, the elder Asimov consented. Soon Isaac began collecting even those periodicals that didn't have "science" in the title. He notes: "I planned to maintain with all the strength at my disposal the legal position that permission for one such magazine implied permission for all the others, regardless of title. No fight was needed, however; my harassed father conceded everything." Asimov rapidly developed into an avid fan.
Asimov first tried writing stories when he was eleven years old. He had for some time been reading stories and then retelling them to his schoolmates, and started a book like some of the popular boys' series volumes of the 1920s: "The Rover Boys," "The Bobbsey Twins," and "Pee Wee Wilson." Asimov's story was called The Greenville Chums at College, patterned after The Darewell Chums at College, and it grew to eight chapters before he abandoned it. Asimov, in In Memory Yet Green, describes the flaw in his initial literary venture: "I was trying to imitate the series books without knowing anything but what I read there. Their characters were small-town boys, so mine were, for I imagined Greenville to be a town in upstate New York. Their characters went to college, so mine did. Unfortunately, a junior-high-school youngster living in a shabby neighborhood in Brooklyn knows very little about small-town life and even less about college. Even I, myself, was forced eventually to recognize the fact that I didn't know what I was talking about."
Despite initial discouragements, Asimov continued to write. His first published piece appeared in his high school's literary semiannual and was accepted, he says, because it was the only funny piece anyone wrote, and the editors needed something funny. In the summer of 1934, Asimov had a letter published in Astounding Stories in which he commented on several stories that had appeared in the magazine. His continuing activities as a fan brought him to the decision to attempt a science fiction piece of his own; in 1937, at the age of seventeen, he began a story entitled "Cosmic Corkscrew." The procedure Asimov used to formulate the plot was, he says, "typical of my science fiction. I usually thought of some scientific gimmick and built a story about that."
By the time he finished the story on June 19, 1938, Astounding Stories had become Astounding Science Fiction. Its editor was John W. Campbell, who was to influence the work of some of the most prominent authors of modern science fiction, including Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, and Theodore Sturgeon. Since Campbell was also one of the best-known science fiction writers of the thirties and Astounding one of the most prestigious publications in its field at the time, Asimov was shocked by his father's suggestion that he submit "Cosmic Corkscrew" to the editor in person. But mailing the story would have cost twelve cents while subway fare, round trip, was only ten cents. In the interest of economy, therefore, he agreed to make the trip to the magazine's office, fully expecting to leave the manuscript with a secretary.
Campbell, however, had invited many young writers to discuss their work with him, and when Asimov arrived he was shown into the editor's office. Campbell talked for over an hour and agreed to read the story; two days later Asimov received the manuscript back in the mail. It had been rejected, but Campbell offered extensive suggestions for improvement and encouraged the young man to keep trying. This began a pattern that was to continue for several years with Campbell guiding Asimov through his formative beginnings as a science fiction writer.
Asimov's association with the field of science fiction has been a long and distinguished one. He is credited with the introduction of several innovative concepts into the genre, including the formulation of the "Three Laws of Robotics." Asimov maintains that the idea for the laws was given to him by Campbell; Campbell, on the other hand, said that he had merely picked them out of Asimov's early robot stories. In any case, it was Asimov who first formally stated the three laws: "1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws." Asimov says that he used these precepts as the basis for "over two dozen short stories and three novels … about robots," and he feels that he is "probably more famous for them than for anything else I have written, and they are quoted even outside the science-fiction world. The very word 'robotics' was coined by me." The three laws gained general acceptance among readers and among other science fiction writers; Asimov, in his autobiography, writes that they "revolutionized" science fiction and that "no writer could write a stupid robot story if he used the Three Laws. The story might be bad on other counts, but it wouldn't be stupid." The laws became so popular, and seemed so logical, that many people believed real robots would eventually be designed according to Asimov's basic principles.
Also notable among Asimov's science fiction works is the "Foundation" series. This group of short stories, published in magazines in the forties and then collected into a trilogy in the early fifties, was inspired by Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was written as a "future history," a story being told in a society of the distant future which relates events of that society's history. The concept was not invented by Asimov, but there can be little doubt that he became a master of the technique. Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation have achieved special standing among science fiction enthusiasts. In 1966, the World Science Fiction Convention honored them with a special Hugo Award as the best all-time science fiction series. Even many years after the original publication, Asimov's future history series remains popular—in the 1980s, forty years after he began the series, Asimov added a new volume, Foundation's Edge, and eventually linked the Foundation stories with his robot novels in The Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire, Foundation and Earth, and Prelude to Foundation.
Asimov's first fiction written specifically for a younger audience were his "Lucky Starr" novels. In 1951, at the suggestion of his Doubleday editor, he began working on a series of science-fiction stories that could easily be adapted for television. "Television was here; that was clear," he writes in In Memory Yet Green. "Why not take advantage of it, then? Radio had its successful long-running series, 'The Lone Ranger,' so why not a 'Space Ranger' modelled very closely upon that?" David Starr: Space Ranger, published under the pseudonym Paul French, introduced David 'Lucky' Starr, agent of the interplanetary law enforcement agency the Council of Science. Accompanying Lucky on his adventures is his sidekick, John Bigman Jones, a short, tough man born and raised on the great agricultural farms of Mars. Together the two of them confront and outwit space pirates, poisoners, mad scientists, and interstellar spies—humans from the Sirian star system, who have become the Earth's worst enemies.
Although the "Lucky Starr" series ran to six volumes, the television deal that Asimov and his editor envisioned never materialized. "None of us dreamed that for some reason… television series would very rarely last more than two or three years," Asimov writes. "We also didn't know that a juvenile television series to be called 'Rocky Jones: Space Ranger' was already in the works." Another problem the series faced was in the scientific background of the stories. "Unfortunately," state Jean Fiedler and Jim Mele in Isaac Asimov, "Asimov had the bad luck to be writing these stories on the threshold of an unprecedented exploration of our solar system's planets, an exploration which has immensely increased our astronomical knowledge. Many of his scientific premises, sound in 1952, were later found to be inaccurate." In recent editions of the books, Asimov has included forewords explaining the situation to new readers.
Asimov's first nonfiction book was a medical text entitled Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, begun in 1950 and written in collaboration with William Boyd and Burnham Walker, two of his colleagues at the Boston University School of Medicine. He had recognized his ability as an explainer early in life, and he enjoyed clarifying scientific principles for his family and friends. He also discovered that he was a most able and entertaining lecturer who delighted in his work as a teacher. He told New York Times interviewer Israel Shenker that his talent lies in the fact that he "can read a dozen dull books and make one interesting book out of them." The result was that Asimov was phenomenally successful as a writer of science books for the general public. Before his death in 1992, Asimov commented, "I'm on fire to explain, and happiest when it's something reasonably intricate which I can make clear step by step. It's the easiest way I can clarify things in my own mind."
Further Reading on Isaac Asimov
Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1992.
New York Times, April 7, 1992.
Washington Post, April 7, 1992.
Asimov, Isaac, The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories, Doubleday, 1976.
Asimov, Isaac, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, Doubleday, 1979.
Asimov, Isaac, In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1979, Doubleday, 1980.
Clareson, Thomas D., editor, Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, Popular Press, 1976.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973; Volume 3, 1975; Volume 9, 1978; Volume 19, 1981; Volume 26, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 8: Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, Gale, 1981.