Isaac Asimov: The Good Doctor
The Invincible Spud
“He should have read an Asimov book. Then he’d have slept through the crash,” Isaac Asimov wrote on a magazine clipping relating that an airplane passenger had been reading a novel by Arthur C. Clarke when the plane crashed (Asimov, “Letters” 13). This statement ironically undervalues the amazing writing of a prolific author who earned the SFWA Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in 1987 (von Ruff). From 1920 to 1992, Isaac Asimov lived a glorious life as a biochemist, a professor, an editor, and, most importantly, a writer, producing around five hundred books, both fiction and nonfiction, covering a wide variety of genres and subjects.
Best known for writing science fiction novels and short stories, Asimov emerged during the Golden Age and passed through the decades afterward, creating famous works such as “Nightfall,” the Foundation series, and The Gods Themselves that passed the test of time and remain classics today. Isaac Asimov’s remarkable life, chronicled in In Memory Yet Green (1979) and In Joy Still Felt (1980), two volumes of one of several autobiographies, lasted seventy-two years.
Born in Petrovichi, Russia, to Juda Asimov and Anna Rachel Berman Asimov around 2 January 1920, Asimov entered the United States on 3 February 1923 and stayed in Brooklyn, working in family candy stores. Attending graduate school at Columbia University, Asimov aimed for a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in chemistry but, interrupted by World War II, had to work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and serve in the United States Army for more than four years before resuming study and earning a doctorate in 1948. Asimov became an instructor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine in May 1949, an assistant professor in December 1951, an associate professor with tenure in July 1955, and finally a full-time writer in April 1958.
On 26 July 1942, Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman. They had two children, David and Robyn, before separating in September 1970 and divorcing three years afterward. On 30 November 1973, Asimov and Janet Jeppson espoused each other, a marriage that lasted until Asimov’s death, due to the accidental contraction of AIDS during a 1983 surgery, in New York City on 6 April 1992 (Allen 28; "Past").
An astounding writing career lasting several decades began with a personal rejection. On 21 June 1938, Asimov took a story entitled "Cosmic Corkscrew" by subway to the offices of Street & Smith Publications, the publisher of Astounding Science-Fiction, and met with the editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., who rejected it (Allen 23; Williamson, 96). Other stories soon followed, however. After several other attempts at Astounding, Asimov finally found publication with "Marooned off Vesta," a story about the rescue of a crew stranded on the remains of a spaceship, in the March 1939 issue of Amazing Stories (Allen 23).
Joining a fan group called the Futurians, Asimov met editor Frederik Pohl, who discussed Asimov’s rejections and later printed a number of stories in Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories (Clute and Edwards 56; Asimov, "Letters" 12). These stories led to the publication of some of the most famous science-fiction stories of all time: the positronic robot stories, the Foundation stories, and “Nightfall.”
The positronic robot stories concerned the interactions between society and robots having brains based on antimatter particles called positrons. At a meeting on 23 December 1940, Asimov and Campbell formulated the famous Three Laws of Robotics (Allen 23-24):
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law (Asimov, “Bicentennial,” 229).
These three laws laid the foundation for the positronic robot stories, the first of which, “Robbie,” appeared under the title “Strange Playfellow” in the September 1940 issue of Super-Science Stories. Other robot stories followed, including “Liar!” (Astounding, May 1941), which marked the first appearance of the recurring character Dr. Susan Calvin, a robot psychologist, and contained the first explicit statement of the First Law; and “Runaround” (Astounding, March 1942), the first story to state all three laws. Several early robot stories reappeared in the 1950 collection I, Robot.
Written during the same period, Asimov’s Foundation series, about the fall of a galactic empire and the prediction of the future by means of a fictional science called psychohistory, consisted of eight stories published in Astounding that later formed, along with a new prologue, the Foundation ;trilogy of novels: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). The original stories, “Foundation” (May 1942), “Bridle and Saddle” (June 1942), “The Big and the Little” (August 1944), “The Wedge” (October 1944), “Dead Hand” (April 1945), “The Mule” (November-December 1945), “Now You See It” (January 1948), and “And Now You Don’t” (November 1949-January 1950), won a Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series in 1966 (Allen 23-27; von Ruff).
In addition, Asimov’s well-known novelette “Nightfall,” about the response of an alien society on a planet with six suns to the first appearance of stars in thousands of years, published in the September 1941 issue of Astounding, started as an idea conceived by Campbell from a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (Allen 25; Clute and Edwards 56): “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!” (Asimov, "Nightfall" 145) Considered the best science-fiction story of all time by a poll conducted by the Science Fiction Writers of America, "Nightfall" was expanded into a novel version, written in collaboration with Robert Silverberg, under the same title in 1990 (Clute and Edwards 56).
Other important stories include “The Last Question,” which appeared in the November 1956 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly; “The Ugly Little Boy,” published in the September 1958 issue of Galaxy under the title “Lastborn”; and “The Bicentennial Man,” winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, originally printed in the anthology Stellar #2 (Allen 29; von Ruff).
Asimov’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky, which takes place prior to the events in the Foundation series, appeared in 1950, followed by other novels in the same universe, The Stars, Like Dust (1951) and The Currents of Space (1952). Asimov returned to the universe of the positronic robots with The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957).
Other major novels include The End of Eternity (1955), a complex time-travel story; Fantastic Voyage (1965), based on the movie screenplay of the same title; and The Gods Themselves (1972), a novel consisting of three parts with titles alluding to a line from Friedrich Schiller’s play Joan of Arc, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain?" that concerned the discovery of the existence of plutonium-186, an element that can only exist in an alternate universe, the aliens inhabiting that universe, and humanity’s resolution of the conflict, respectively (Allen 30-31; Asimov, Gods 7; Gunn 55-57).
In 1977, Davis Publications created a new science-fiction magazine and, to parallel the titles of their publications Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, named it after Asimov. Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, the first new science-fiction magazine in the United States to last more than ten years, launched its first issue in Spring 1977, with George H. Scithers as editor and Gardner Dozois as associate editor, starting a tradition of publishing high-quality science fiction that continues today (Asimov, "Editorial" 6-8; Asimov, "Letters" 9-10; Clute and Edwards 58).
Asimov’s writing first appeared during a period of science fiction known as the Golden Age. From the late 1930s to the mid-1940s, the Golden Age, centered around science fiction published in pulp magazines, brought new ideas and new people to the field of science fiction and began the general concept of science fiction that still remains today (Nicholls 506). John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science-Fiction beginning October 1937, started “that astonishing 1938-1943 period when one editor and one magazine and one small group of newly arrived writers established the foundations of modern science fiction” (Silverberg, "Last" 4) by demanding readable tales of the near future that featured believable characters and involved realistic science, addressing contemporary issues by extrapolating from futuristic possibilities (Silverberg, "Last" 4; Nicholls 506; Schmidt 5).
Campbell drew the majority of important writers from the field, effectively distinguishing Astounding from the competition. Significant Golden Age writers included Lester del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Eric Frank Russell, Clifford D. Simak, Theodore Sturgeon, Jack Williamson, and most notably, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, and A.E. van Vogt (Silverberg, “Last” 5-6; Nicholls 506). Campbell effectively controlled the field by giving authors ideas and letting them provide their own input, shaping science fiction in the process (Silverberg, "Center" 5-6). Both "Nightfall" and the positronic robot stories written by Asimov relied on Campbell’s central ideas.
Although the Golden Age transformed the field by introducing major new writers and reshaping the work of older authors, the arrival of World War II removed many important writers from the scene and permanently affected the state of science fiction. Campbell continued as editor of Astounding, which later became Analog, but was no longer influential after the war. Writers left Astounding for other magazines that would accept stories that the politically conservative Campbell rejected because of their subject matter (Williamson 96-98):
As the years went on [...] Campbell’s hatred of scientific dogma hardened into a strange dogmatism of his own making, and increasingly he embraced quirky and downright bizarre ideas, until toward the end he was advocating perpetual-motion machines and quack cancer cures (Silverberg, "Center" 6).
The works of the Golden Age grew less accessible over the ages, as “The soaring ideas of Golden Age sf were all too often clad in an impoverished pulp vocabulary aimed at the lowest common denominator of a mass market” (Nicholls 506). As time passed, the readership grew older, and science fiction appealed less to teenagers and more to adults (Silverberg, "Audience" 4-6).
Nevertheless, Golden Age science fiction still evokes nostalgia with its old-fashioned futures for those who still read it, and new writers continue to follow in the footsteps of older writers, continuing the legacy of Campbell (Silverberg, "Glimpses" 4-8; Silverberg, "Wheel" 5-7). In particular, Asimov’s work has influenced later writers such as Orson Scott Card, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, who drew inspiration from the Foundation trilogy (Card xi-xiii; von Ruff).
As a result of the remarkable and prolific output of a major presence in the science-fiction field, critics have both praised and criticized Asimov’s work. Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr., regards “Nightfall” as fitting Asimov’s definition of science fiction, since it creates an alternate world for its own purpose, rather than social fiction, which introduces a similar society to criticize the modern world, but recognizes its similarity and relevance to our society (Bloom 6). L. David Allen claims that the characters in the story are unavoidably flat but that the sharp characterization reflects the spectrum of human response to an abnormal situation. The setting and background appear believable, and the conflict between science and mythology enhances the impact of the story and its suspenseful rising action, which leads to a strong climax: "There is a kind of poetry in the story" (Allen 25).
The Gods Themselves, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards in1973, falls subject to criticism as well. James Gunn praises the style in the first and second parts, atypical of most of Asimov’s work, but disapproves of the slow pace, the lack of scientific credibility, the dissatisfying resolution, and the unnecessary withholding of information from the reader. The strengths of the third part of the novel, however, include the vivid description of lunar society and the well-developed characters (von Ruff; Gunn 69-75).
Isaac Asimov’s legacy continues today, as readers still peruse the classic Golden Age tales, such as the Foundation trilogy, as well as newer works that continue the series: Foundation’s Edge (1982), Foundation and Earth (1986), Prelude to the Foundation (1988), and Forward the Foundation (1993) (von Ruff). Even after decades, the eloquent writing of Golden Age authors like Asimov shines brilliantly. After an amazing lifetime, Isaac Asimov died in 1992, leaving the great cosmic narrative incomplete but enabling newer writers, who find their start in publications such as Asimov’s Science Fiction, to continue, develop, and expand that all-compassing story, a tale that continues to grow as each individual writer contributes a significant portion as the years pass and science fiction lives on.Works Cited
Allen, L. David, “Isaac Asimov.” Science Fiction Writers. 2nd ed. Ed. Richard Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1999. 23-31.
Asimov, Isaac, “The Bicentennial Man,” 1976. The Hugo Winners, Vol. 4. Ed. Isaac Asimov. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985, pp. 229-264.
—— "Editorial." Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Spr. 1977: 6-8.
—— The Gods Themselves. 1972. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Crest, 1973.
—— “Letters from Isaac Asimov.” Ed. Stanley Asimov. Asimov’s Science Fiction Apr. 1996: 9-17.
—— “Nightfall,” 1941. Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Ed. Robert Silverberg. New York: Avon, 1971, pp. 145-182.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Science Fiction Writers of the Golden Age. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.
Card, Orson Scott, “Introduction.” 1991. Ender’s Game. New York: Tor, 1994, pp. xi-xxvi.
Clute, John, and Malcolm J. Edwards, “Asimov, Isaac.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2nd ed. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995, pp. 55-58.
Gunn, James, “The Stuff Itself.” Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 13 Apr. 1981, pp. 48-77.
Nicholls, Peter. “Golden Age of SF.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2nd ed. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St. Martin’s, 1995. p. 506.
“Past Passings.” Locus Online 13 Mar 2002; 12 May 2002.
Schmidt, Stanley. “About Science Fiction.” Analog Science Fiction and Fact June 2001, pp. 4-6.
Silverberg, Robert. “Reflections: The Audience Grows Older.” Asimov’s Science Fiction Oct.1995, pp. 4-8.
—— “Reflections: The Center Does Not Hold.” Asimov’s Science Fiction June 2001, pp. 4-7.
—— “Reflections: Glimpses of the Future.” Asimov’s Science Fiction Mar 1997, pp. 4-8.
—— "Reflections: Last of the Golden Age Warriors." Asimov’s Science Fiction May 2001: 4-7.
—— "Reflections: The Wheel Keeps Turning." Asimov’s Science Fiction Aug. 1999: 4-7.
von Ruff, Al. "Isaac Asimov - Bibliography Summary." Internet Speculative Fiction DataBase 3 May 2002. 15 May 2002 <http://www.sfsite.com/isfdb-bin/exact_author.cgi?Isaac_Asimov>.
Williamson, Jack. "Recollections of Analog." Analog Science Fiction and Fact Jan. 2000: 94-98.