author and biochemist, a highly successful and prolific writer of science
fiction and of science books for the layperson. He published about 500
Asimov was born
in Petrovichi, Russia. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was
three years old and settled in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was graduating from
Columbia University in 1939 and taking a Ph.D. there in 1948. He then
joined the faculty of Boston University, with which he remained associated
Asimov began contributing stories to science-fiction magazines in 1939
and in 1950 published his first book, Pebble in the Sky and his first
science book, a biochemistry text written with two colleagues, in 1953.
Asimov turned to
writing full time in 1958. He authored some 500 books for young and
adult readers, extending beyond science and science fiction to include
mystery stories, humor, history, and several volumes on the Bible and
His trilogy of
novels, known as The Foundation Trilogy (1951-53) , Foundation, Foundation
and Empire, and Second Foundation (1951-53), which recounts the collapse
and rebirth of a vast interstellar empire in the universe of the future,
is his most famous work of science fiction. In the short-story collection
I, Robot (1950), he developed a set of ethics for robots and intelligent
machines that greatly influenced other writers' treatment of the subject.
Among his best-known science fiction works are the sequel of The Foundation
Trilogy, Foundation's Edge (1982), wrote 30 years later; The Naked Sun
(1957); The Gods Themselves (1972). Among his major science books are
the Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1964; rev.
1982) and Asimov's New Guide to Science (1984), a recent revision of
his widely acclaimed Intelligent Man's Guide to Science (1960). Later
works include Foundation and Earth (1986); Prelude to Foundation (1988);
and Forward the Foundation (1992). A two-volume autobiography, In Memory
Yet Green, appeared in 1979
January 2, 1920
– April 6, 1992, was a Russian-born American author and biochemist,
a highly successful and exceptionally prolific writer best known for
his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov's
most famous work is the Foundation Series, which he later combined with
two of his other series, the Galactic Empire Series and Robot series.
He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of non-fiction.
Asimov wrote or edited over 500 volumes and an estimated 90,000 letters
or postcards, and he has works in every major category of the Dewey
Decimal System except Philosophy. Asimov was by general consensus a
master of the science-fiction genre and, along with Robert A. Heinlein
and Arthur C. Clarke, was considered to be one of the "Big Three"
science-fiction writers during his lifetime.
Asimov was born
around January 2, 1920 (his date of birth for official purposes—the
precise date is not certain) in Petrovichi shtetl of Smolensk Oblast,
RSFSR (now Russia) to Anna Rachel Berman Asimov and Judah Asimov, a
Jewish family of millers. They emigrated to the United States when he
was three years old; since the parents always tried to speak English
with little Isaac, he actually never learned Russian. Growing up in
Brooklyn, New York, he taught himself to read at the age of five. His
parents owned a candy store and everyone in the family was expected
to work in it. He saw science fiction magazines in the store and began
reading them. In his mid-teens, he began to write his own stories and
soon was selling them to pulp magazines.
He graduated from
Columbia University in 1939 and took a Ph.D. in chemistry there in 1948.
He then joined the faculty of Boston University, with which he remained
associated thereafter, but in a non-teaching capacity. The university
ceased to pay him a salary in 1958, by which time his income from writing
already exceeded his income from his academic duties. Asimov remained
on the faculty as an associate professor, being promoted in 1979 to
full professor, and his personal papers from 1965 onward are archived
at Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library, where they consume 464
boxes on 71 meters of shelf space. In 1985, he became President of the
American Humanist Association and remained in that position until his
death in 1992; his successor was his friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut,
He married Gertrude
Blugerman on July 26, 1942, with whom he had two children, David (b.
1951) and Robyn (b. 1955). After an extended separation, they were divorced
in 1973, and Asimov married Janet O. Jeppson later that year.
Asimov died on
April 6, 1992. 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 Isaac's autobiography, It's Been a Good Life, revealed that his death
was caused by AIDS; he had contracted HIV from an infected blood transfusion
during heart bypass surgery in 1983. The actual cause of death was heart
and renal failure as complications of AIDS. Janet Asimov claims that
Isaac's doctors encouraged them not to reveal his illness, while the
doctors claim it was Janet herself who wanted to keep it secret (see
Isaac Asimov was
humanist and a rationalist. He did not oppose genuine religious conviction
in others but was against superstitious or unfounded beliefs. He was
afraid of flying, only doing so twice in his entire life. Asimov was
also a claustrophile; that is, he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces.
Asimov was a progressive
on most political issues, and a staunch supporter of the Democratic
Party. In a television interview in the early 1970s he publicly endorsed
George McGovern. He was unhappy at what he saw as an irrationalist tack
taken by many progressive political activists from the late 1960s onwards.
His defense of civil applications of nuclear power even after the Three
Mile Island incident damaged his relations with some on the left. (Ironically,
the New York Times has recently noted that "some prominent environmentalists
are having second thoughts about nuclear power" ('No Nukes,' No
More) and reported that "several of the nation's most prominent
environmentalists have gone public with the message that nuclear power,
long taboo among environmental advocates, should be reconsidered as
a remedy for global warming" (quoted in Environmental neo-con job?).)
He issued many appeals for population control reflecting the perspective
articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich. In
the closing years of his life, Asimov blamed the deterioration of the
quality of life that he perceived in New York on the shrinking tax base
caused by middle class flight to the suburbs. His last non-fiction book,
Our Angry Earth (1991, co-written with science fiction author Frederik
Pohl), deals with elements of the environmental crisis such as global
warming and the destruction of the ozone layer.
can be divided into several time periods. His early career, dominated
by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939. This lasted until
about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun. Following
that, he greatly increased his production of non-fiction, consequently
publishing little science fiction. Over the next quarter century, he
would write 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 would publish
many sequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he
had not originally anticipated.
In his own view, Asimov believed that his most enduring contributions
would be the Three Laws of Robotics and the Foundation Series (see Yours,
, p. 329). Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science
fiction for introducing the words positronic, psychohistory and robotics
into the English language. The first of these words applies to an entirely
fictional technology, while the second is frequently used in a different
sense than Asimov employed; however, robotics continues in widespread
use with essentially Asimov's original definition.
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 non-fiction 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 non-fiction column, begun in the now-folded bimonthly companion
magazine Venture Science Fiction, ostensibly dedicated to popular science,
but with Asimov having complete editorial freedom. The first of the
F&SF columns appeared in November of 1958, and they followed uninterrupted
thereafter, with 399 entries, until Asimov's terminal illness took its
toll. 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.
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 1300-page volume in 1981. Replete 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.
Asimov also wrote
several essays on the social contentions of his day, 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.
lacking wit and humor, towards 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. 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.
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'", but with his full name prominently
displayed on the cover.
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 shortly
after his death. It's Been a Good Life (2002), edited by Janet, is a
condensed version of his three autobiographies.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
Much of Asimov's
fiction dealt with themes of paternalism. His first robot story, "Robbie",
concerned a robotic nanny. As the robots grew more sophisticated, their
interventions became more wide-reaching and subtle. In "Evidence",
a robot masquerading as a human successfully runs for elective office.
In "The Evitable Conflict", the robots run humanity from behind
the scenes, acting as nannies to the whole species.
Later, in Robots
and Empire, a robot develops what he calls the Zeroth Law of Robotics,
which states that "A robot may not injure humanity, nor, through
inaction, allow humanity to come to harm". He also decides that
robotic presence is stifling humanity's freedom, and that the best course
of action is for the robots to phase themselves out. A non-robot novel,
The End of Eternity, features a similar conflict and resolution.
In The Foundation
Series (which did not originally have robots), a scientist implements
a semi-secret plan to create a perfect society over the course of 1000
years. This series has its version of Platonic guardians, called the
Second Foundation, to perfect and protect the plan. When Asimov stopped
writing the series in the 1950s, the Second Foundation was depicted
as benign protectors of humanity. When he revisited the series in the
1980s, he made the paternalistic themes even more explicit.
introduced the planet Gaia, obviously based on the Gaia hypothesis.
Every animal, plant, and mineral on Gaia participated in a shared consciousness,
forming a single super-mind working together for the greater good. In
Foundation and Earth, the protagonist must decide whether or not to
allow the development of Galaxia, a larger version of Gaia, encompassing
the entire galaxy.
Earth introduces robots to the Foundation universe. Two of Asimov's
last novels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, explore
their behavior in fuller detail. The robots are depicted as covert operatives,
acting for the benefit of humanity.
theme, perhaps the reverse of paternalism, is social oppression. The
Currents of Space takes place on a planet where a unique plant fiber
is grown; the agricultural workers there are exploited by the aristocrats
of a nearby planet. In The Stars, Like Dust, the hero helps a planet
that is oppressed by an arrogant interplanetary empire, the Tyranni.
Often the victims
of oppression are either Earth people (as opposed to colonists on other
planets) or robots. In "The Bicentennial Man", a robot fights
prejudice to be accepted as a human. In The Caves of Steel, the people
of Earth resent the wealthier "Spacers" and in turn treat
robots (associated with the Spacers) in ways reminiscent of how whites
treated blacks, such as addressing robots as "boy". Pebble
in the Sky shows an analogous situation: the Galactic Empire rules Earth
and its people use such terms as "Earthie-squaw", but Earth
is a theocratic dictatorship that enforces euthanasia of anyone older
than sixty. One hero is Bel Arvardan, an upper-class Galactic archeologist
who must overcome his prejudices. The other is Joseph Schwartz, a 62-year-old
twentieth-century American who had emigrated from Europe, where his
people were persecuted (he is quite possibly Jewish), and is accidentally
transported forward in time to Arvardan's period. He must decide whether
to help a downtrodden society that thinks he should be dead.
Yet another frequent
theme in Asimov is rational thought. He invented the science-fiction
mystery with the novel The Caves of Steel and the stories in Asimov's
Mysteries, usually playing fair with the reader by introducing early
in the story any science or technology involved in the solution. Later,
he produced non-SF mysteries, including the novel Murder at the ABA
(1976) and the "Black Widowers" short stories, in which he
followed the same rule. In his fiction, important scenes are often essentially
debates, with the more rational, humane—or persuasive—side
One of the most
common impressions of Asimov's fiction work is that his writing style
is extremely unornamental. In 1980, SF scholar James Gunn wrote of I,
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 color 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.
applies well to a large proportion of Asimov's fiction, including that
written after 1980. 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. One should not overlook the sharply
drawn characters which occur at key junctures of his storylines: in
addition to Susan Calvin in "Liar!" and "Evidence",
we find Arkady Darell in Second Foundation, Elijah Baley in The Caves
of Steel and Hari Seldon in the Foundation prequels. (In Forward the
Foundation, Seldon becomes a partial mirror of Asimov himself.)
Asimov was also
criticised for the lack of sex and aliens 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 early science fiction stories because the alien
characters were portrayed as superior to the humans. He decided that,
rather than write weak alien characters, he would not write about aliens
at all. Nevertheless, in response to these criticisms he wrote The Gods
Themselves, which contains aliens, sex, and alien sex. Asimov said that
of all his writings, he was most proud of the middle section of The
Others have criticised
him for a lack of strong female characters in his early work. In his
autobiographical writings, 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 25 August 1985 Washington
Post's "Book World" section reports of Robots and Empire as
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
Other than the 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.
Although he prided
himself on an unornamented prose style, he 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 impacts
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 .
(In fairness, one should note that John Campbell advised Asimov to begin
his stories as late in the plot as possible. This tidbit of advice helped
Asimov create "Reason," one of the early Robot stories. See
In Memory Yet Green for details of that time period.) 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
John Jenkins, who
has reviewed the vast majority of Asimov's written output, once observed
laconically, It has been pointed out that most sf writers since the
1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his
or deliberately avoiding anything like his style.
• Best Known
As: Prolific writer of popular science and science fiction
born in the former Soviet Union, but grew up in Brooklyn, New York.
He taught biochemistry at Boston University until he retired in 1958
to become a full-time writer. Asimov had been publishing short stories
since the late 1930s, and in 1952 published his first novel. The author
of the classic I, Robot series and The Foundation Trilogy, Asimov wrote
more than 400 books and won every major science fiction award. He also
wrote popular books and essays on science and technology, earning him
the nickname "The Great Explainer."
According to the
FAQ, the author died of "heart and kidney failure, which were complications
of the HIV infection he contracted from a transfusion of tainted blood
during his December 1983 triple-bypass operation." HIV was not
revealed as the cause of his death until 2002, when his widow Janet
published the memoir It's Been a Good Life.