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Asimov in 1965
|Born||Isaak Yudovich Ozimov
Between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920
Petrovichi, Russian SFSR
|Died||April 6, 1992
New York City, New York, USA
|Occupation||Writer, Professor of biochemistry|
|Education||Columbia University, PhD. Biochemistry, 1948|
|Genres||Science fiction ( hard SF, social SF), mystery|
|Subjects||Popular science, science textbooks, essays, literary criticism|
|Literary movement||Golden Age of Science Fiction|
|Notable work(s)||The Foundation Series
The Robot series
The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science
Planets for Man
|Spouse(s)||Gertrude Blugerman (1942-1973; divorced; 2 children)
Janet Opal Jeppson (1973-1992; his death)
Isaac Asimov ( / / EYE-zək AZ-ə-mov; born Isaak Yudovich Ozimov; Russian: Исаак Юдович Озимов; c. January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992) was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His works have been published in nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification. His only works in the 100s—which covers philosophy and psychology—were forewords for The Humanist Way (1988) and In Pursuit of Truth (1982), a festschrift in honour of philosopher Sir Karl Popper's 80th birthday.
Asimov is widely considered a master of hard science fiction and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he was considered one of the "Big Three" science fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov's most famous work is the Foundation Series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series. The Galactic Empire novels are explicitly set in earlier history of the same fictional universe as the Foundation Series. Later, beginning with Foundation's Edge, he linked this distant future to the Robot and Spacer stories, creating a unified " future history" for his stories much like those pioneered by Robert A. Heinlein and previously produced by Cordwainer Smith and Poul Anderson. He wrote hundreds of short stories, including the social science fiction " Nightfall", which in 1964 was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America the best short science fiction story of all time. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French.
The prolific Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as much nonfiction. Most of his popular science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples include Guide to Science, the three volume set Understanding Physics, Asimov's Chronology of Science and Discovery, as well as works on astronomy, mathematics, the Bible, William Shakespeare's writing and chemistry.
Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs". He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid 5020 Asimov, a crater on the planet Mars, a Brooklyn, New York elementary school, and one Isaac Asimov literary award are named in his honour.
Asimov was born sometime between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920 in Petrovichi in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (near the modern border with Belarus) to Anna Rachel (Berman) Asimov and Judah Asimov, a family of Jewish millers. While his exact date of birth is uncertain, Asimov himself celebrated it on January 2.
The family name derives from озимые (ozimiye), a Russian word for winter grains in which his great-grandfather dealt, to which a patronymic suffix was added. His name in Russian was originally Isaak Ozimov (Russian: Исаак Озимов); but he was later known in Russia as Ayzek Azimov ( Айзек Азимов), a Russian Cyrillic adaptation of the American English pronunciation.
Asimov had two younger siblings; a sister, Marcia (born Manya, June 17, 1922 – April 2, 2011), and a brother, Stanley (July 25, 1929 – August 16, 1995), who was vice-president of New York Newsday.
His family immigrated to the United States when he was three years old. Since his parents always spoke Yiddish and English with him, he never learned Russian. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York City, Asimov taught himself to read at the age of five and remained fluent in Yiddish as well as English. Asimov wrote of his father, "My father, for all his education as an Orthodox Jew, was not Orthodox in his heart", and "he didn't recite the myriad prayers prescribed for every action, and he never made any attempt to teach them to me."
His parents owned a succession of candy stores, and everyone in the family was expected to work in them.
Education and career
Asimov began reading science fiction pulp magazines at a young age. His father, as a matter of principle, forbade reading the pulps, as he considered them to be trash, but Asimov persuaded him that the science fiction magazines had "Science" in the title, so they were educational. Around the age of eleven, he began to write his own stories, and by age nineteen—after he discovered science fiction fandom—he was selling stories to the science fiction magazines. John W. Campbell, then editor of Astounding Science Fiction, had a strong formative influence on Asimov and eventually became a personal friend.
Asimov attended New York City public schools, including Boys High School in Brooklyn. Graduating at 15, he went on to Seth Low Junior College, a branch of Columbia University in Brooklyn designed to absorb some of the Jewish and Italian-American students who applied to Columbia College, then the institution's primary undergraduate school for men with quotas on the number of admissions from those ethnic groups. Originally a zoology major, Asimov changed his subject to chemistry after his first semester as he disapproved of "dissecting an alley cat". After Seth Low Junior College closed in 1938, Asimov finished his BS degree at University Extension (later the Columbia University School of General Studies) in 1939. When he failed to secure admission to medical school, he applied to the graduate program in chemistry at Columbia; initially rejected and then only accepted on a probationary basis, Asimov completed his MA in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1948. In between, he spent three years during World War II working as a civilian at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Naval Air Experimental Station. After the war ended, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for almost nine months before receiving an honorable discharge. In the course of his brief military career, he rose to the rank of corporal on the basis of his typing skills, and narrowly avoided participating in the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
After completing his doctorate, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine, with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958, this was in a non-teaching capacity, as he turned to writing full-time (his writing income had already exceeded his academic salary). Being tenured, he retained the title of associate professor, and in 1979 the university honored his writing by promoting him to full professor of biochemistry. Asimov's personal papers from 1965 onward are archived at the university's Mugar Memorial Library, to which he donated them at the request of curator Howard Gottlieb. The collection fills 464 boxes, or seventy-one meters of shelf space.
Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman (1917, Canada–1990, Boston) on July 26, 1942. They had two children, David (b. 1951) and Robyn Joan (b. 1955). In 1970 they separated and Asimov moved back to New York, this time to Manhattan, where he lived for the rest of his life. He immediately began seeing Janet O. Jeppson, and married her two weeks after his divorce from Gertrude in 1973.
Asimov was a claustrophile: he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces. In the third volume of his autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire to own a magazine stand in a New York City Subway station, within which he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble of passing trains while reading.
Asimov was afraid of flying, only doing so twice in his entire life (once in the course of his work at the Naval Air Experimental Station, and once returning home from the army base in Oahu in 1946) Consequently, he seldom traveled great distances. This phobia influenced several of his fiction works, such as the Wendell Urth mystery stories and the Robot novels featuring Elijah Baley. In his later years, he found he enjoyed traveling on cruise ships, and on several occasions he became part of the cruises' "entertainment", giving science-themed talks on ships such as the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
Asimov was an able public speaker and was a frequent fixture at science fiction conventions, where he was friendly and approachable. He patiently answered tens of thousands of questions and other mail with postcards, and was pleased to give autographs. He was of medium height, stocky, with mutton chop whiskers and a distinct New York accent. His physical dexterity was very poor. He never learned to swim or ride a bicycle; however, he did learn to drive a car after he moved to Boston. In his humor book Asimov Laughs Again, he describes Boston driving as "anarchy on wheels".
Asimov's wide interests included his participation in his later years in organizations devoted to the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and in The Wolfe Pack, a group of devotees of the Nero Wolfe mysteries written by Rex Stout. Many of his short stories mention or quote Gilbert and Sullivan. He was a prominent member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the leading Sherlock Holmes society having been admitted after writing an essay arguing that Professor Moriarty's work "The Dynamics of An Asteroid" involved the wilful destruction of an ancient civilized planet. (This was alluded to in the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows when Holmes ( Robert Downey Jr.) asks Moriarty ( Jared Harris) to autograph this work, after which Moriarty asks after the health of "the Good Doctor"; a double-entendre meaning both Dr. Watson and Isaac Asimov, whose nickname it was.) He was also a member of the all-male literary banqueting club the Trap Door Spiders, which served as the basis of his fictional group of mystery solvers the Black Widowers.
In 1984, the American Humanist Association (AHA) named him the Humanist of the Year. He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.From 1985 until his death in 1992, he served as president of the AHA, an honorary appointment; his successor was his friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut. He was also a close friend of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and earned a screen credit on Star Trek: The Motion Picture for advice he gave during production (generally, confirming to Paramount Pictures that Roddenberry's ideas were legitimate science-fictional extrapolation).
Asimov was a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now known as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). The organization lists him as a fellow.
Illness and death
Asimov suffered a heart attack in 1977, and had triple bypass surgery in December 1983. When he died in New York City on April 6, 1992, his brother Stanley reported heart and kidney failure as the cause of death. 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 Asimov's autobiography, It's Been a Good Life, revealed that the myocardial and renal complications were the result of an infection by HIV, which he had contracted from a blood transfusion received during his bypass operation. Janet Asimov wrote in the epilogue of It's Been a Good Life that Asimov's doctors advised him against going public, warning that the anti-AIDS prejudice would likely extend to his family members. Asimov's family considered disclosing his condition just after his death, but the controversy that erupted the same year when Arthur Ashe announced his own HIV infection (also contracted from a blood transfusion during heart surgery) convinced them otherwise. Ten years later, after most of Asimov's doctors had died, Janet and Robyn Asimov agreed that the HIV story should be made public.
|Laws of robotics|
Three Laws of Robotics
by Mark Tilden
Asimov's career can be divided into several periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939 and novels in 1950. This lasted until about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun. He began publishing nonfiction in 1952, co-authoring a college-level textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. Following the brief orbit of the first man-made satellite Sputnik I by the USSR in 1957, his production of nonfiction, particularly popular science books, greatly increased, with a consequent drop in his science fiction output. Over the next quarter century, he wrote 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 published several more sequels and prequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not originally anticipated, making a unified series. There are, however, many inconsistencies in this unification, especially in his earlier stories.
Asimov believed that his most enduring contributions would be his "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 (an entirely fictional technology), psychohistory (which is also used for a different study on historical motivations) and robotics into the English language. Asimov coined the term robotics without suspecting that it might be an original word; at the time, he believed it was simply the natural analogue of words such as mechanics and hydraulics, but for robots. Unlike his word psychohistory, the word robotics continues in mainstream technical use with Asimov's original definition. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured androids with " positronic brains" giving Asimov full credit for "inventing" this fictional technology. His fictional writings for space and time are similar to the writings of Brian W Aldiss, Poul Anderson and Gregory Benford.
Asimov first began reading the science fiction pulp magazines sold in his family's confectionery store in 1929. He came into contact with science fiction fandom in the mid-1930s, particularly the circle that became the Futurians. He began writing his first science fiction story, "Cosmic Corkscrew", in 1937, but failed to finish it until June 1938, when he was inspired to do so after a visit to the offices of Astounding Science Fiction. He finished "Cosmic Corkscrew" on June 19, and submitted the story in person to Astounding editor John W. Campbell two days later. Campbell rejected "Cosmic Corkscrew", but encouraged Asimov to keep trying, and Asimov did so. Asimov sold his third story, " Marooned Off Vesta", to Amazing Stories magazine in October, and it appeared in the March 1939 issue. He continued to write and sometimes sell stories to the science fiction pulps.
In 1941, he published his 32nd story, " Nightfall", which has been described as one of "the most famous science-fiction stories of all time". In 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story ever written. In his short story collection 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'."
"Nightfall" is an archetypal example of social science fiction, a term coined by Asimov to describe a new trend in the 1940s, led by authors including Asimov and Heinlein, away from gadgets and space opera and toward speculation about the human condition.
By 1941 Asimov had begun selling regularly to Astounding, which was then the field's leading magazine. From 1943 to 1949, all of his published science fiction appeared in Astounding.
In 1942 he published the first of 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, due to pressure by fans on Asimov to write another, 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 positronic 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. Asimov notes in one of his biographical pieces that he was largely inspired by the almost relentless tendency of robots up to that time to fall consistently into a Frankenstein plot in which they destroyed their creator.
The robot series has led to film adaptations. With Asimov's collaboration, in about 1977 Harlan Ellison wrote a screenplay of I, Robot that Asimov hoped would lead to "the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction film ever made". The screenplay has never been filmed and was eventually published in book form in 1994. The 2004 movie I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was based on an unrelated script by Jeff Vintar titled Hardwired, with Asimov's ideas incorporated later after the rights to Asimov's title were acquired. (Ironically, the title was not original to Asimov but had previously been used for a story by Eando Binder.) Also, one of Asimov's robot short stories, " The Bicentennial Man", was expanded into a novel The Positronic Man by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, and this was adapted into the 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams.
Besides movies, his Foundation and Robot stories have inspired other derivative works of science fiction literature, many by well-known and established authors such as Roger MacBride Allen, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford and David Brin. These appear to have been done with the blessing, and often at the request of, Asimov's widow Janet Asimov.
In 1948 he also wrote a spoof chemistry article, " The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline". At the time, Asimov was preparing his own doctoral dissertation, and for the oral examination to follow that. Fearing a prejudicial reaction from his graduate school evaluation board at Columbia University, Asimov 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 "What can you tell us, Mr. Asimov, about the thermodynamic properties of the compound known as thiotimoline". The hysterically laughing Asimov was led out of the room then. After a 5-minute or so wait, he was summoned back into the Examination Room and congratulated as "Dr. Asimov".
In 1949, the book publisher Doubleday's science fiction editor Walter I. Bradbury accepted Asimov's unpublished novelette "Grow Old Along With Me" (40,000 words) for publication, but requested that it be extended to a full novel of 70,000 words. The book appeared under the Doubleday imprint in January 1950 with the title of Pebble in the Sky. The Doubleday company went on to publish five more original science fiction novels by Asimov in the 1950s, along with the six juvenile Lucky Starr novels, the latter under the pseudonym of "Paul French". Doubleday also published collections of Asimov's short stories, beginning with The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955. The early 1950s also saw the Gnome Press company publishing one collection of Asimov's positronic robot stories as I, Robot and his Foundation stories and novelettes as the three books of the Foundation Trilogy. More positronic robot stories were republished in book form as The Rest of the Robots.
When new science fiction magazines, notably Galaxy magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, appeared in the 1950s, Asimov began publishing short stories in them as well. He would later refer to the 1950s as his "golden decade". A number of these stories are included in his Best of anthology, including " The Last Question" (1956), on the ability of humankind to cope with and potentially reverse the process of entropy. It was his personal favorite and considered by many to be equal 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 thing 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.
In December 1974, former Beatle Paul McCartney approached Asimov and asked him if he could write the screenplay for a science-fiction movie musical. McCartney had a vague idea for the plot and a small scrap of dialogue; he wished to make a film about a rock band whose members discover they are being impersonated by a group of extraterrestrials. The band and their impostors would likely be played by McCartney's group Wings, then at the height of their career. Intrigued by the idea, although he was not generally a fan of rock music, Asimov quickly produced a "treatment" or brief outline of the story. He adhered to McCartney's overall idea, producing a story he felt to be moving and dramatic. However, he did not make use of McCartney's brief scrap of dialogue, and probably as a consequence, McCartney rejected the story. The treatment now exists only in the Boston University archives.
Beginning in 1977, Asimov 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 the stablemates Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's "anthologies").
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 nonfiction 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 nonfiction column, begun in the now-folded bimonthly companion magazine Venture Science Fiction Magazine, ostensibly dedicated to popular science, but with Asimov having complete editorial freedom. The first of the F&SF columns appeared in November 1958, and they followed uninterrupted thereafter, with 399 entries, until Asimov's terminal illness. 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.
Asimov wrote several essays on the social contentions of his time, 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.
Asimov also contributed science article entries to several encyclopaedias, including Groliers, The Encyclopaedia Americana, The Encyclopædia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopaedia Yearbook.
The feelings of friendship and respect between Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were demonstrated by the so-called "Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue", put together as they shared a cab ride in New York. This stated that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second-best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second-best for himself). Thus the dedication in Clarke's book Report on Planet Three (1972) reads: "In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer."
Asimov coined the term " robotics" in his 1941 story Liar!, though he later remarked that he believed then that he was merely using an existing word, as he stated in Gold ("The Robot Chronicles"), though while acknowledging the Oxford Dictionary reference, he incorrectly states that the word was first printed about one third of the way down the first column of page 100, Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942 printing of his short story " Runaround" .
Asimov also coined the term " spome" in a paper entitled, "There's No Place Like Spome" in Atmosphere in Space Cabins and Closed Environments, originally presented as a paper to the American Chemical Society on September 13, 1965. It refers to any system closed with respect to matter and open with respect to energy capable of sustaining human life indefinitely.
In addition to his interest in science, Asimov was also greatly interested in history. Starting in the 1960s, he wrote 14 popular history books, most notably The Greeks: A Great Adventure (1965), The Roman Republic (1966), The Roman Empire (1967), The Egyptians (1967) and The Near East: 10,000 Years of History (1968).
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 1,300-page volume in 1981. Complete 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. His interest in literature manifested itself in several annotations of literary works, including Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare (1970), Asimov's Annotated Paradise Lost (1974), and The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (1980).
Asimov was also a noted mystery author and a frequent contributor to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He began by writing science fiction mysteries such as his Wendell Urth stories but soon moved on to writing "pure" mysteries. He only published two full-length mystery novels but he wrote a fair number of stories about the Black Widowers, a group of men who met monthly for dinner, conversation, and a puzzle. He got the idea for the Widowers from his own association in a stag group called the Trap Door Spiders and all of the main characters (with the exception of the waiter, Henry, whom he admitted resembled Wodehouse's Jeeves) were modeled after his closest friends.
Toward 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. He even created a slim volume of Sherlockian limericks (and embarrassed one fan by autographing her copy with an impromptu limerick that rhymed "Nancy" with "romancy"). Asimov featured Yiddish humor in Azazel, The Two Centimeter Demon. The two main characters, both Jewish, talk over dinner, or lunch, or breakfast, about anecdotes of "George" and his friend Azazel. 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.
Particularly in his later years, Asimov to some extent cultivated an image of himself as an amiable lecher. In 1971, as a response to the popularity of sexual guidebooks such as The Sensuous Woman (by "J") and The Sensuous Man (by "M"), Asimov published The Sensuous Dirty Old Man under the byline "Dr. 'A'" (although his full name was printed on the paperback edition, first published 1972).
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 a decade after his death. It's Been a Good Life (2002), edited by Janet, is a condensed version of his three autobiographies. He also published three volumes of retrospectives of his writing, Opus 100 (1969), Opus 200 (1979), and Opus 300 (1984).
In 1987, the Asimovs co-wrote How to Enjoy Writing: A Book of Aid and Comfort. In it they offer advice on how to maintain a positive attitude and stay productive when dealing with discouragement, distractions, rejection and thick-headed editors. The book includes many quotations, essays, anecdotes and husband-wife dialogues about the ups and downs of being an author.
Asimov and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry developed a unique relationship during Star Trek's initial launch in the late 1960s. Asimov wrote a critical essay on Star Trek's scientific accuracy for TV Guide magazine. Roddenberry retorted respectfully with a personal letter explaining the limitations of accuracy when writing a weekly series. Asimov corrected himself with a follow-up essay to TV Guide claiming despite its inaccuracies, that Star Trek was a fresh and intellectually challenging science fiction television show. The two remained friends to the point where Asimov even served as an advisor on a number of Star Trek projects.
In 1973, Asimov published a proposal for calendar reform, called the World Season Calendar. It divides the year into four seasons (named A–D) of 13 weeks (91 days) each. This allows days to be named, e.g., "D-73" instead of December 1. An extra Year Day is added for a total of 365 days.
Awards and recognition
Asimov won more than a dozen annual awards for particular works of science ficion and a half dozen lifetime awards. He also received 14 honorary doctorate degrees from universities.
- 1957 – Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Award, for Building Blocks of the Universe
- 1960 – Howard W. Blakeslee Award from the American Heart Association for The Living River
- 1962 – Boston University's Publication Merit Award
- 1963 – special Hugo Award for "adding science to science fiction" for essays published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
- 1963 – Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
- 1964 – The Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" (1941) the all-time best science fiction short story
- 1965 – James T. Grady Award of the American Chemical Society (now called the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry)
- 1966 – Best All-time Novel Series Hugo Award for the Foundation series
- 1967 – Westinghouse Science Writing Award
- 1972 – Nebula Award for Best Novel for The Gods Themselves
- 1973 – Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Gods Themselves
- 1973 – Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel for The Gods Themselves
- 1977 – Hugo Award for Best Novelette for The Bicentennial Man
- 1977 – Nebula Award for Best Novelette for The Bicentennial Man
- 1981 – An asteroid, 5020 Asimov, was named in his honour
- 1983 – Hugo Award for Best Novel for Foundation's Edge
- 1983 – Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel for Foundation's Edge
- 1986 – The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 8th SFWA Grand Master (presented 1987).
- 1992 – Hugo Award for Best Novelette for Gold
- 1995 – Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book for I. Asimov: A Memoir
- 1996 – A 1946 Retro-Hugo for Best Novel of 1945 was given at the 1996 WorldCon to " The Mule", the 7th Foundation story, published in Astounding Science Fiction
- 1997 – The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Asimov in its second class of two deceased and two living persons, along with H. G. Wells and following editors Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell.
- 2009 – A crater on the planet Mars, Asimov, was named in his honour
- 2010 – In the US Congress bill about the designation of the National Robotics Week as an annual event, a tribute to Isaac Asimov is as follows:
- "Whereas the second week in April each year is designated as`National Robotics Week', recognizing the accomplishments of Isaac Asimov, who immigrated to America, taught science, wrote science books for children and adults, first used the term robotics, developed the Three Laws of Robotics, and died in April, 1992: Now, therefore, be it resolved..."
One of the most common impressions of Asimov's fiction work is that his writing style is extremely unornamented. In 1980, science fiction scholar James Gunn, professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas wrote of I, Robot:
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 colour 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.
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. Sharply drawn characters occur at key junctures of his storylines: Susan Calvin in "Liar!" and "Evidence", Arkady Darell in Second Foundation, Elijah Baley in The Caves of Steel and Hari Seldon in the Foundation prequels. Asimov addresses this criticism at the beginning of his book Nemesis:
I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.
Some details of Asimov's imaginary future technology as he described in the 1940s and 1950s have not aged well. For example, he described powerful robots and computers from the distant future using punched cards or punched tape and engineers using slide rules. In one dramatic scene in Foundation and Empire, a character gets the news by buying a paper at a vending machine. Of course, this charge could be leveled at virtually any writer of science fiction and has little critical impact.
In addition, his stories have occasional internal contradictions, for example, names and dates given in the Foundation Series do not always agree with one another. Sometimes such errors may be plausible within the story as mistakes the characters make, because often characters in Asimov stories are not fully informed about their own situations. Other contradictions resulted from the many years elapsed between the time Asimov began the Foundation series and when he resumed working on it; occasionally, advances in scientific knowledge forced him to revise his own fictional history.
Other than 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.
In fairness, Gunn's and Patrouch's respective studies of Asimov both take the stand that a clear, direct prose style is still a style. Gunn's 1982 book goes into considerable depth commenting upon each of Asimov's novels published to that date. He does not praise all of Asimov's fiction (nor does Patrouch), but he does call some passages in The Caves of Steel "reminiscent of Proust." When discussing how that novel depicts night falling over futuristic New York City, Gunn says that Asimov's prose "need not be ashamed anywhere in literary society".
Although he prided himself on his unornamented prose style (for which he credited Clifford D. Simak as an early influence), Asimov 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 affects 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. (John Campbell advised Asimov to begin his stories as late in the plot as possible. This advice helped Asimov create " Reason", one of the early Robot stories. See In Memory Yet Green for details of that time period.) Patrouch found that the interwoven and nested flashbacks of The Currents of Space did serious harm to that novel, to such an extent that only a "dyed-in-the- kyrt Asimov fan" could enjoy it. 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.
- Alien life
Asimov was also criticized for the general absence of sexuality and of extraterrestrial life 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 science fiction stories because the alien characters were portrayed as superior to the humans. The nature of the rejection led him to believe that Campbell may have based his bias towards humans in stories on a real-world racial bias. Unwilling to write only weak alien races, and concerned that a confrontation would jeopardize his and Campbell's friendship, he decided he would not write about aliens at all. Nevertheless, in response to these criticisms he wrote The Gods Themselves, which contains aliens and alien sex. The book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972, and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1973. Asimov said that of all his writings, he was most proud of the middle section of The Gods Themselves, the part that deals with those themes.
In the Hugo Award-winning novella Gold, Asimov describes an author clearly based on himself who has one of his books ( The Gods Themselves) adapted into a "compu-drama", essentially photo-realistic computer animation. The director criticizes the fictionalized Asimov ("Gregory Laborian") for having an extremely nonvisual style making it difficult to adapt his work, and the author explains that he relies on ideas and dialogue rather than description to get his points across.
- Gender and social issues
Others have criticized him for a lack of strong female characters in his early work. In his autobiographical writings, such as Gold ("Women and Science Fiction"), 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 August 25, 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.
The Naked Sun (1957) deals with social issues as a core part of its central setting and motivation, depicts genetic engineering in the guise of eugenics as a fundamental part of that society, presents the reader with inverted arcologies where a single person is the focal point of the artificial environment as well as a hero who hails from a "normal" arcology on Earth. Meanwhile, totally artificial birth, although not specifically cloning, is the aim of the leaders of the society, sexual want is the major driving force of the main female character (albeit veiled in 1950s sensibilities), and the entire story is used to make the point that too much order is ultimately a stagnant dead end to be avoided.
Isaac Asimov was an atheist, a humanist, and a rationalist. He did not oppose religious conviction in others, but he frequently railed against superstitious and pseudoscientific beliefs that tried to pass themselves off as genuine science. During his childhood, his father and mother observed Orthodox Jewish traditions, though not as stringently as they had in Petrovichi; they did not, however, force their beliefs upon young Isaac. Thus he grew up without strong religious influences, coming to believe that the Torah represented Hebrew mythology in the same way that the Iliad recorded Greek mythology. As his books Treasury of Humor and Asimov Laughs Again record, Asimov was willing to tell jokes involving God, Satan, the Garden of Eden, Jerusalem, and other religious topics, expressing the viewpoint that a good joke can do more to provoke thought than hours of philosophical discussion.
For a brief while, his father worked in the local synagogue to enjoy the familiar surroundings and, as Isaac put it, "shine as a learned scholar" versed in the sacred writings. This scholarship was a seed for his later authorship and publication of Asimov's Guide to the Bible, an analysis of the historic foundations for both Old and New Testaments. For many years, Asimov called himself an atheist; however, he considered the term somewhat inadequate, as it described what he did not believe rather than what he did. Eventually, he described himself as a "humanist" and considered that term more practical. He did however continue to identify himself as a non-observant Jew as stated in his introduction to Jack Dann's anthology of Jewish science fiction, Wandering Stars: "I attend no services and follow no ritual and have never undergone that curious puberty rite, the bar mitzvah. It doesn't matter. I am Jewish."
When asked in an interview in 1982 if he was an atheist, Asmimov replied,"I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I'm a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time."
In his last volume of autobiography, Asimov wrote, "If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul." The same memoir states his belief that Hell is "the drooling dream of a sadist" crudely affixed to an all-merciful God; if even human governments were willing to curtail cruel and unusual punishments, wondered Asimov, why would punishment in the afterlife not be restricted to a limited term? Asimov rejected the idea that a human belief or action could merit infinite punishment. If an afterlife existed, he claimed, the longest and most severe punishment would be reserved for those who "slandered God by inventing Hell".
Asimov became a staunch supporter of the Democratic Party during the New Deal, and thereafter remained a political liberal. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and in a television interview during the early 1970s he publicly endorsed George McGovern. He was unhappy about what he considered an "irrationalist" viewpoint taken by many radical political activists from the late 1960s and onwards. In his second volume of autobiography, In Joy Still Felt, Asimov recalled meeting the counterculture figure Abbie Hoffman; Asimov's impression was that the 1960s' counterculture heroes had ridden an emotional wave which, in the end, left them stranded in a "no-man's land of the spirit" from which he wondered if they would ever return.
He vehemently opposed Richard Nixon, considering him "a crook and a liar". He followed the unfolding events of Watergate day-to-day, and was pleased when the president was forced to resign. He was dismayed over the pardon extended to Nixon by his successor: "I was not impressed by the argument that it has spared the nation an ordeal. To my way of thinking, the ordeal was necessary to make certain it would never happen again."
Though Jewish by birth, Asimov appeared to hold an equivocal attitude towards Israel. In his first autobiography, he indicates his support for the safety of Israel, though remaining careful to insist he is by no means a Zionist." However in his third autobiography, he clarifies his position by stating his opposition to the creation of a Jewish state, on the grounds that he is opposed to the concept of nation states in general, and supports the notion of a single humanity. He especially worries that Israel has been created among hostile neighbours, and that Jews have merely created for themselves another "Jewish ghetto". Asimov variously worries about the safety of Israel whilst denouncing its treatment of Palestinians.
Asimov considered himself a feminist even before Women's Liberation became a widespread movement; he joked that he wished women to be free "because I hate it when they charge". More seriously, he argued that the issue of women's rights was closely connected to that of population control. Furthermore, he believed that homosexuality must be considered a "moral right" on population grounds, as must all consenting adult sexual activity that does not lead to reproduction. He issued many appeals for population control, reflecting a perspective articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.
Asimov's defense of civil applications of nuclear power even after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant incident damaged his relations with some of his fellow liberals. In a letter reprinted in Yours, Isaac Asimov, he states that although he would prefer living in "no danger whatsoever" than near a nuclear reactor, he would still prefer a home near a nuclear power plant than in a slum on Love Canal or near "a Union Carbide plant producing methyl isocyanate" (referring to the Bhopal disaster).
In the closing years of his life, Asimov blamed the deterioration of the quality of life that he perceived in New York City on the shrinking tax base caused by the middle-class flight to the suburbs. His last nonfiction book, Our Angry Earth (1991, co-written with his long-time friend science fiction author Frederik Pohl), deals with elements of the environmental crisis such as global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.
Asimov stated, both in his autobiography and in several essays, that he enjoyed the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. He paid tribute to The Lord of the Rings in a "Black Widowers" story. (In his letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, who had previously interviewed him for Daily Telegraph Magazine, Tolkien said that he enjoyed the science fiction of Isaac Asimov.)
He admired a number of his contemporaries, in particular fellow science-fiction author and science writer Arthur C. Clarke, with whom he entered into the lighthearted "Treaty of Park Avenue," which stipulated that Clarke was free to refer to himself as the best science fiction writer in the world (Asimov being second-best), provided he admitted that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (Clarke being second-best). He freely acknowledged a number of his fellow writers as superior to himself in talent, saying of Harlan Ellison, "He is (in my opinion) one of the best writers in the world, far more skilled at the art than I am."
Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics, has stated that it was Asimov's concept of psychohistory that inspired him to become an economist.
John Jenkins, who has reviewed the vast majority of Asimov's written output, once observed:
It has been pointed out that most science fiction writers since the 1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberately avoiding anything like his style.
Television and film appearances
- To Tell The Truth, CBS, approximately 1968, playing the "real" Isaac Asimov. Only one panel member guessed correctly, on the grounds that Asimov wore glasses and somebody writing so many books would have to wear glasses.
- The Nature of Things 1969
- " ABC News" coverage of Apollo 11, 1969, with Fred Pohl, interviewed by Rod Serling
- " David Frost" interview program, August 1969. Frost asked Asimov if he had ever tried to find God and, after some initial evasion, Asimov answered, "God is much more intelligent than I—let him try to find me."
- The Dick Cavett Show 1970
- Target... Earth? 1980
- NBC TV, 1982 "Speaking Freely" interviewed by Edwin Newman 1982
- ARTS Network talk show hosted by Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin, approximately 1982. Other guests included Harlan Ellison and James Gunn. Asimov noted, during this interview, that science fiction wasn't necessarily predictive – pointing out that while writers did stories about going to the moon, and stories about television, not one wrote a story where men went to the moon while people at home watched on television.
- Oltre New York 1986
- Voyage to the Outer Planets and Beyond 1986
- Bill Moyers interview 1988
- Stranieri in America 1988