If anyone lived the life of the mind it was Isaac Asimov. From the outside, his life looks quite ordinary. He got up in the morning, went to work—writing for many hours of the day—had dinner with his family or friends, and occasionally spoke at conferences, but rarely far from home. He was not particularly adventurous. He did not like to fly. He did not climb mountains or go on dangerous safaris. He did not work for the CIA or Mossad. Yet his mind took him to strange new worlds and envisioned alternate futures. He created through his science fiction stories and novels a way of looking at the world, the universe, the future of humankind, and technology that still influences us today.
There is no typical Asimov story; his range of topics is as vast as the multiworld intergalactic empire he created in his Foundation series. But a few main themes are dominant in his prodigious body of work. His early claim to fame rested on his robot stories, beginning with “Strange Bedfellows” and its main robotic figure Robbie. Unlike earlier authors of robot stories who imagined the creatures as evil or potential threats to human existence, Asimov saw artificial life forms as potentially positive. Later, Asimov took an idea of his editor, John W. Campbell, and created the Three Laws of Robotics (his term is still used in the real science of robot construction) that “protect” humans from the potential negative consequences of constructing artificial beings: (1) a robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to be injured; (2) a robot must obey the orders of a human being except when such orders would conflict with the First Law; and (3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First and Second Laws. The complications and paradoxes that arise from these laws motivate the action in many of Asimov’s stories (collected in I, Robot and other compilations) and novels, including his blend of science fiction and detective fiction in Caves of Steel (1953ă1954) featuring a human police detective and his android companion. Asimov’s robots are the ancestors of Robby the Robot (in the 1956 film classic, Forbidden Planet) and George Lucas’s lovable ’droids in the Star Wars cycle.
Along with the robots, Asimov’s early stories also introduced his preoccupation with cosmic processes. “Nightfall,” his 1942 story that was years later named as the “best science fiction short story of all time” by the Science Fiction Writers of America, depicts the end of a cosmic cycle in a world whose six suns are sequentially dying as a group of astronomers wait to document the consequential descent into madness and barbarity they have predicted. “The Last Question,” one of Asimov’s personal favorites, is a meditation on entropy. In each of the story’s several sections, humans over a long period of cosmic time query computers (each one becoming smaller and smaller) about the possibility of staving off or reversing the consequences of entropy (the destruction of the cosmos) only to be frustrated by the computers’ inability for lack of sufficient data to answer the question. It is not until all human existence has been snuffed out that in a moment of biblical solemnity the computer mind that remains behind (the sum of all human minds and knowledge) creates order out of chaos. (Despite the biblical echo—“Let there be light!”—Asimov was a professed atheist.)
Asimov’s road to becoming a major icon of science fiction writing began when he came across science fiction pulp magazines working in his parents’ candy stores in Brooklyn. A self-described lonely and isolated child, the eldest son of immigrants from Russia who arrived in New York City when he was three, Isaac showed signs from an early age of great mental ability. He taught himself to read, he claims, by the time he was five, and discovered that he had almost total recall of what he read. Helping out in his parents’ store, he read the magazines, despite his father’s disapproval of the less than intellectual fare. Isaac convinced his father that the science fiction magazines were worthwhile because they were about science. By his teens, Isaac was contributing letters to the editor of his favorite magazine, and he sold his first story at the age of 19. By the time he died, he had written and published several hundred stories and about 50 novels (including juveniles and mysteries), and written or edited nearly 500 volumes—to become the third most published author in history, according to Michael White.
Asimov’s chosen genre of science fiction was relatively new when he began reading the magazines in the late 1920s. Although science fiction writing has a long pedigree that many scholars trace back to ancient myth, medieval romance, Renaissance Utopias, and 19th-century classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, the modern science fiction story of the type published in the magazines Asimov read dates to the early 20th century. The pulp magazine Amazing Stories founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback is credited with being the first magazine devoted entirely to this type of writing, and Gernsback is credited with giving the genre its name (he initially called it scientifiction and later science fiction). Several competitors joined Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in the 1930s, including the one Asimov particularly favored, Astounding Stories, later re-titled as Astounding Science Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell (after Campbell’s tenure, the magazine changed its name again to Analog Science Fact, Science Fiction, or most familiarly Analog). Asimov sent fan letters to the magazine and then met a group of like-minded young men through its pages who founded a fan society (calling themselves The Futurians), many of whom would form the core of writers who defined what many science fiction buffs consider the Golden Age of the genre (Frederic Pohl, Donald Wollheim, Cyril Kornbluth).
Asimov’s first attempts at writing stories did not presage the spectacular prolificacy of his career. His efforts in high school creative writing class, he recalls in his memoir, were ridiculed by the teacher “using an opprobrious barnyard epithet.” Asimov felt his childhood brilliance faded somewhat in the more competitive setting of high school, and, by his own estimation, his abrasive personality alienated his teachers. Graduating at the age of 15, he was initially rejected by Columbia College ostensibly because he was too young (Asimov suspected they had already reached their quota of Jews) but accepted on a scholarship to a junior college Columbia ran in Brooklyn; when the program closed after his first year, he was transferred to the BS program at Columbia—a less prestigious academic path than matriculation in Columbia College. Graduating at the age of 19, Asimov applied to medical schools but was rejected (much to his relief, he says; he hated the sight of blood and did not like biology much). His first submissions to Astounding were rejected, but editor Campbell spotted something in Asimov’s work and encouraged him. The rejected stories were published elsewhere and eventually Campbell began to accept his work. By 1942, he had published 30 stories. Just as his stories began receiving their first acceptances, he talked himself into a probationary admission to Columbia’s graduate program in chemistry and began his studies.
Upon the United States’ entry into World War II, Asimov, with a recently completed MA, was recruited to join an experimental laboratory run by the Navy in Philadelphia. His coworkers included Robert A. Heinlein, also making a name for himself as a science fiction master, and L. Sprague de Camp, another writer whose stories define the Golden Age. (Asimov credits Heinlein with recruiting him; Fred Pohl thinks John Campbell was responsible for putting the three writers into the program.) After the war (and a brief stint as a draftee in the army), Asimov returned to Columbia and completed a PhD in chemistry. He had also married Gertrude Blugerman, whom he had met on a blind date in 1941. (The marriage lasted 30 years and produced two children, but for many years, according to Asimov, the marriage was not a happy one; the couple divorced in 1973 and Asimov married Janet Jeppson, an analyst and writer.) While his reputation as a science fiction wunderkind was growing, Asimov was not so successful finding work. A faculty member at Boston University’s medical school who was a science fiction fan and had become a frequent correspondent with Asimov encouraged him to apply for a faculty position. He joined the faculty as a lecturer in biochemistry (he did not tell his interviewers he had never studied biochemistry) and discovered that while he did not have the inclination or aptitude for scientific research of the kind that medical schools valued, he was a natural lecturer and soon gained a reputation for his entertaining style. He also wrote and published essays on pedagogy and collaborated on a biochemistry textbook, which whetted his appetite for science writing.
Asimov’s academic career came to an end, in effect, after a decade; his failure to publish mainstream research and his insubordinate attitude made him persona non grata to the medical school administration who relieved him of his teaching duties. They failed, however, to strip him of his tenure, and in a quirk of academic life, he remained nominally a member of the faculty and was even promoted to full professor. By this time, however, Asimov had achieved fame in the burgeoning field of science fiction writing with the publication of his first novels as well as his continued production of short stories in the magazines, and he was making more money from his writing than he was as a professor.
By the end of the 1950s, he was considered to be high in the pantheon of writers of the genre, sharing the pinnacle with Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Ironically, however, at this point in his life, and at the point when science fiction began to emerge from its pulp ghetto into mainstream popular culture (thanks to several successful films and TV series), his productivity as a science fiction writer virtually ceased and he turned his energies to producing popular science texts and a series of “Asimov’s Guides” to a range of subjects from the Bible to history to Shakespeare (he also wrote conventional murder mystery novels, such as Murder at the A.B.A.). Experts in many of the diverse fields he wrote about quibbled with his facts and interpretations, but many readers found his books accessible and informative. He returned to science fiction writing in the 1970s, at the same time as he ended his long marriage and started a new one, and he produced some of his most important fictions, which were honored by numerous awards (including simultaneous Hugo and Nebula awards—the former the judgment of fans; the latter the judgment of his peers). Although some critics faulted Asimov for sticking to outmoded formulas and for his clumsy style, and he himself felt somewhat out of place among the New Wave of science fiction authors who came of age in the 1960s with their more literary approaches, his fiction continued to entrance his fans and he continued to make new ones. His assertive personality (his “charming Asimovian immodesties,” as James Gunn puts it) pleased his fans and discomfited his opponents; his muttonchop sideburns and string tie became iconic. Asimov’s last years were marred by illness. As a result of heart surgery in the early 1980s in which he was given a transfusion of infected blood, he developed HIV and eventually succumbed to kidney and heart failure. He continued to write up to the end—but not at the pace he had once half-jokingly indicated to an interviewer. When asked what he would do if he knew he had only six months to live, Asimov replied, “Type faster!”
—Martin Green and Rivka Widerman
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