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Isaac Asimov was ”the world’s most prolific science writer,” according to David N. Samuelson in Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, and he ”has written some of the best-known science fiction ever published.” Writing over five hundred books of science fiction and fact over five decades, Asimov remained throughout his life a potent force in the genre. Stories such as ”Nightfall” and ”The Bicentennial Man,” and novels such as The Gods Themselves and Foundation, which cover scientific topics as diverse as nuclear fusion to the theory of numbers, have received numerous honors and are recognized as among the best science fiction ever written.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Interest in Popular Culture and Science
Isaac Asimov was born in 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. As a child, Asimov read both nonfiction and literary classics, but he was most intrigued by the glossy adventure story magazines sold on the racks in his parents’ store. By the age of eleven, Asimov was already writing stories that mixed the popular magazines’ plot formulas with characters and settings that featured outer space and robots.
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 Columbia University, where he studied biology and chemistry—two fields that, despite his extensive writings about the future of scientific discovery, would not feature prominently in his fiction. Asimov himself has noted that while thorough knowledge of the sciences is necessary to create durable science fiction, extensive technical knowledge of a particular branch of science may hinder a writer’s ability to make the imaginative—and often unscientific— leaps often necessary when crafting compelling futuristic worlds. During the next two years, Asimov’s interest in history grew, and he read numerous books on the subject. Many of these—particularly Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Pall of the Roman Empire—would inform his creation of the ”future history” settings of the Foundation trilogy. During his college years, Asimov also read science fiction magazines and wrote stories. His first professionally published story, ”Marooned off Vesta,” appeared in Astound ing Stories in 1939.
Spearheading the Genre
The publication of ”Marooned off Vesta” began Isaac Asimov’s long and substantial relationship with editor 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. Because Campbell was also one of the best-known science fiction writers of the 1930s and Astounding one of the most prestigious publications in its field at the time, Asimov was quickly catapulted to fame within the science fiction genre. Campbell guided Asimov through his formative beginnings as a science fiction writer and would continue to be his mentor throughout his career, introducing him to other prominent writers within the genre.
Prolific Experiences and Writings
While continuing to write stories for Campbell, Asimov graduated from Columbia University with a B.S. in chemistry in 1939, and later earned an M.A. and Ph.D., and worked as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine. Between 1942 and 1945, he worked as a civilian chemist at the U.S. Air Experimental Station, where he enhanced his knowledge of new technologies in the fields of aero space engineering and robotics. In 1945-1946, he served in the United States Army during World War II. Many critics have traced Asimov’s preoccupation with the dangers of high-tech weapons to his reaction to the U.S. military’s dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the war.
After returning from military service, Asimov dedicated himself to full-time writing, becoming one of the most prolific writers of all time. He became the leader of the ”humanist” movement (which championed practical, rational, yet peaceful politics) and became an outspoken opponent of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. that began after the conclusion of World War II. He is perhaps best remembered for his novels I, Robot, The Gods Themselves, and the ”future-history” stories of the Foundation series. Yet he also produced multiple works of nonfiction and juvenile literature. Toward the end of his career, Asimov was concerned with a variety of subjects that went far beyond the scientific, and wrote on such diverse topics as the Bible, mythology, William Shakespeare, ecology, and American history. In addition, Asimov wrote several volumes of autobiography before his death in 1992.
Works in Literary Context
Isaac Asimov has been credited with the introduction of several innovative concepts into the science fiction genre, including the formulation of the ”Three Laws of Robotics.” According to Asimov, the successful integration of robots into society would require the following 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 used these precepts as the basis for dozens of fictional works, and he felt that he was ”probably more famous for them than for anything else I have written.” The three laws gained general acceptance among readers and among other science-fiction writers; Asimov, in his autobiography, wrote 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.
The novels of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series were written as ”future histories,” or stories 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. In his autobiographies, Asimov stated that his concept for the future history formula arose out of his love of reading histories of past civilizations and empires. Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953) 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.
Throughout his long career, Asimov was known for his innovation in mixing science fiction with other popular genres, thus widening the appeal of the often marginalized literary subset. 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.
Works in Critical Context
Many critics, scientists, and educators believe Asimov’s greatest talent was for popularizing or, as he called it, ”translating” science for the lay reader. His many fiction and nonfiction 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. 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.”
In I, Robot—a collection of nine short stories linked by key characters and themes—Asimov describes a future society in which human beings and nearly sentient robots coexist. Critics consider it a pivotal work in the development of realistic science fiction literature, mainly for its elaboration of Asimov’s ”Three Laws of Robotics” as a viable ethical and moral code. I, Robot is also significant for its espousal of the benefits of technology—a rather rare position in the history of science fiction and fantastic literature, which traditionally viewed technology and science as threats to human existence.
The critical reception of I, Robot has been generally favorable. Most commentators applaud Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, arguing that they give the stories a sense of realism and moral depth. Others note his ability to tell an engaging story and his facility for combining elements of the mystery and detective genres with the conventions of science fiction. Although many critics fault Asimov’s predictable characterizations and “naive” sentimentality, most credit his realistic, ethical portrayal of futuristic society in I, Robot as revolutionary in the science fiction genre, changing the way fantastic literature could be conceived and written.
- Boerst, William J. Isaac Asimov: Writer of the Future. Greensboro, N.C.: Morgan Reynolds, 1998.
- Carter, Paul A. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.
- Knight, Damon. The Futurians. New York: John Day, 1977.
- Miller, Marjorie. Isaac Asimov: A Checklist. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1972.
- Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Isaac Asimov. New York: Taplinger, 1977.
- Patrouch, Joseph F. The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1974.
- Samuelson, David N. Twentieth-Century Science-Fiction Writers, 2nd edition. Detroit, Mich.: St. James Press, 1986.
- Slusser, George E. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of His Science Fiction. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1979.
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