Asimov was a Russian-born American Jewish 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 was part
of one of his two major series, the Galactic Empire Series, later
merged with his other famous story arc, the Robot series.
He also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as a great amount of
non-fiction. Asimov wrote or edited more than 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 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
of Asimov's popularized science books explain scientific concepts
in a historical way, going back as far as possible to a time when
the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often gives
nationalities, birth dates and death dates for the scientists
he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for
technical terms. Examples of this style include his Guide to Science,
the three-volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov's Chronology
of Science and Discovery.
was a long-time member of Mensa, albeit reluctantly; he described
them as "intellectually combative". He took more joy
in being president of the American Humanist Association. The asteroid
5020 Asimov, the magazine Asimov's Science Fiction and two different
Isaac Asimov Awards are all named in his honor.
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 spoke Yiddish and English with their son, he never learned
Russian. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he taught himself to
read at the age of five, and remained fluent in Yiddish as well
as English. His parents owned a small general store and everyone
in the family was expected to work in it. He saw science fiction
magazines in the store and began reading them. Around the age
of eleven, he began to write his own stories and few years later
he was selling them to pulp magazines.
He graduated from Columbia University in 1939 and earned a Ph.D.
in chemistry there in 1948. In between, he spent three years during
World War II working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Naval Air
Experimental Station. After the war ended, he was drafted into
the U.S. Army, serving for just under nine months before receiving
an honorable discharge. In the course of his brief military career,
he rose to Corporal on the basis of his typing skills and narrowly
avoided participating in the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini
completing his doctorate, he joined the faculty of Boston University,
with which he remained associated thereafter. From 1958 this was
in a non-teaching capacity, as he became a full-time writer (his
writing income already exceeded his academic salary). Being tenured
meant that he retained the title of associate professor, and in
1979 the university honored his writing by promoting him to full
professor. His personal papers from 1965 onward are archived at
their Mugar Memorial Library, where they fill 464 boxes on 71
metres of shelf space.
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, Jr. He was a close
friend of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
married Gertrude Blugerman (1917–1990) on July 26, 1942,
and they had two children, David (b. 1951) and Robyn Joan (b.
1955). After an extended separation, they were divorced in 1973,
and Asimov married Janet O. Jeppson later that year. Gertrude,
born in Canada, died in Boston in 1990.
was a claustrophile; that is, he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces.
In his first volume of autobiography, he recalls a childhood desire
to own a magazine stand in a New York City Subway station, within
which he imagined he could enclose himself and listen to the rumble
of passing trains.
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). He
seldom traveled great distances, partly because his aversion to
aircraft made the logistics of long-distance travel complicated;
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
like the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.
physical dexterity was very poor. He never learned how to swim
or ride a bicycle, although he did learn to drive a car and found
he enjoyed it. He did not learn to operate a car until after he
moved to Boston, Massachusetts; in his jokebook Asimov Laughs
Again, he describes Boston driving as "anarchy on wheels".
wide interests included his participation in his later years in
organizations devoted to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan
and the Nero Wolfe mysteries of Rex Stout. He was a prominent
member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the leading Sherlock Holmes
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 Asimov'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 specific cause of death was
heart and renal failure as complications of AIDS.
Asimov writes in the epilogue of It's Been a Good Life that Asimov
had wanted to "go public", but his doctors convinced
him to remain silent, warning that anti-AIDS prejudice would extend
to his family members. Asimov's family considered disclosing his
AIDS infection after he died, but the controversy which erupted
when Arthur Ashe announced that he had contracted AIDS convinced
them otherwise. Ten years later, after Asimov's doctors had died,
Janet and Robyn agreed that the AIDS story could be made public.
Isaac Asimov was a Humanist and a rationalist. He did not oppose
genuine religious conviction in others but vocally opposed superstitious
or unfounded beliefs. During his childhood, his father and mother
observed the Orthodox Jewish tradition, but did not force this
belief upon Asimov, and so he grew up without strong religious
influences, coming to believe that the Bible represented Hebrew
mythology in the same way that the Iliad recorded Greek mythology.
(For a brief while his father, Judah Asimov, worked in the local
synagogue to enjoy the familiar surroundings and "shine as
a learned scholar" versed in the sacred writings. This experience
had little effect upon his son Isaac beyond teaching him the Hebrew
alphabet.) For many years, Asimov called himself an atheist, though
he felt the term was somewhat inadequate, describing more about
what he did not believe than about what he did. Later, he found
the term "humanist" a useful substitute.
his last autobiographical book, 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?
rejected the idea that a human belief or action could merit infinite
punishment. If an afterlife of just desserts existed, he claimed,
the longest and most severe punishment would be reserved for those
who "slandered God by inventing Hell". As his Treasury
of Humor and Asimov Laughs Again record, he was amply willing
to tell jokes involving the Judeo-Christian God, Satan, the Garden
of Eden and other religious topics, expressing the viewpoint that
a good joke can do more to provoke thought than hours of philosophical
was a progressive on most political issues, and a staunch supporter
of the Democratic Party. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam
War in the 1960s, and in a television interview in the early 1970s
he publicly endorsed George McGovern. He was unhappy at what he
saw as an irrationalist track taken by many progressive political
activists from the late 1960s onwards. In his autobiography In
Joy Still Felt, he recalls 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. (This attitude is echoed
by a famous passage in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas.)
defense of civil applications of nuclear power even after the
Three Mile Island incident damaged his relations with some of
his fellow liberals. In a letter reprinted in Yours, Isaac Asimov,
he states that though 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). He issued many appeals for
population control reflecting the perspective articulated by people
from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich.
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 which does not lead
to reproduction (Yours, Isaac Asimov).
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 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.
Rowena Morrill depicts Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life's
workAsimov's career can be divided into several time 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
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 several sequels and prequels
to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not
his own view, 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
(frequently used in a different sense than the imaginary one Asimov
employed) 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 mechanics, hydraulics and so forth. (The original word robot
derives from the Czech word for "forced labor", robota,
and was first employed by the playwright Karel Capek.) Unlike
his other two coinages, the word robotics continues in mainstream
and 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.
Asimov began contributing stories to science fiction magazines
in 1939, "Marooned Off Vesta" being his first published
story, written when he was 18. Two and a half years later, he
published his 32nd short story, "Nightfall" (1941),
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 anthology 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
is an archetypical example of social science fiction, a term coined
by Asimov to describe a new trend in the 1940's, led by authors
including Asimov and Heinlein, away from gadgets and space opera
and toward speculation about the human condition.
The Foundation Series is among Asimov's most famous fiction works.In
1942 he began 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, 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
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. One such short story, "The
Bicentennial Man", was made into a movie starring Robin Williams.
recent film I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was based on the Hardwired
script by Jeff Vintar with Asimov's ideas incorporated later after
acquiring the rights to the I, Robot title. It is not related
to the I, Robot script by Harlan Ellison, who collaborated with
Asimov himself to create a version that captured the spirit of
the original. Asimov is quoted as saying that Ellison's screenplay
would lead to "the first really adult, complex, worthwhile
science fiction movie ever made". The screenplay was published
in book form in 1994, after hopes of seeing it in film form were
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, and David Brin.
These appear to have been done with the blessing, and often at
the request of, Asimov's widow Janet Asimov.
1948 he also wrote a spoof science article, "The Endochronic
Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline". At the time, Asimov
was preparing for his own doctoral dissertation. Fearing a prejudicial
reaction from his Ph.D. evaluation board, he 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 "Mr.
Asimov, tell us something about the thermodynamic properties of
the compound thiotimoline". After a twenty-minute wait, he
was summoned back into the Examination Room and congratulated
as "Dr. Asimov."
continued writing short stories for science fiction magazines
in the 1950s, which he referred to as his golden decade. A number
of these are included in his Best of anthology, including "The
Last Question" (1956), on the ability of humankind to cope
with and reverse entropy. It was his personal favorite and considered
by many to be a contender 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 things endears any story to any writer.”
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, the 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 imposters 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 in consequence, McCartney rejected the story. The treatment
now exists only in Boston University's archives.
in 1977, he 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 stablemates Ellery
Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's
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.
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
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).
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.
It is a mark of the friendship and respect accorded Asimov by
Arthur C. Clarke that the so-called "Asimov-Clarke Treaty
of Park Avenue", put together as they shared a cab ride along
Park Avenue in New York, 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
In addition to his interest in science, Asimov was also greatly
interested in history. Starting in the 1960s, he wrote fourteen
popular history books, most notably The Greeks: A Great Adventure
(1965), The Roman Republic (1966) and The Roman Empire (1967).
entirely 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. 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').
best attempt at Yiddish humor is found in Azazel, The Two Centimeter
Demon where the two characters, both Jewish, talk over dinner,
or lunch, or breakfast, the 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
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'", but with his full name prominently displayed on the
published two volumes of autobiography, taking their titles from
Wordsworth: 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.
Much of Asimov's fiction dealt with themes of paternalism. His
first robot story, "Robbie", concerned a robotic nanny.
Just as well, Lenny deals with the capacity of robopsychologist
Susan Calvin to feel maternal love towards a robot whose positronic
brain capacities are those of a 3-year-old. 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.
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. The significance of the Zeroth
Law is that it outweighs and supersedes all other Laws of Robotics:
if a robot finds himself in a situation whereby he must murder
one or more humans (a direct violation of the First Law of Robotics)
in order to protect all of humanity (and preserve the Zeroth Law),
then the robot's positronic programming will require him to commit
murder for humanity's sake.
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.
Edge 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. Gaia is one of
Asimov's best attempts at exploring the possibility of a collective
awareness, and is compounded further in Nemesis, in which the
planet Erythro composed primarily of prokaryotic life has a mind
of its own and seeks communion with human beings.
and 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.
frequent 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.
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.
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.
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, Robot that:
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
This description 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. Sharply-drawn characters 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.)”
criticisms are to some extent the flip side of Asimov's aforementioned
rationalism: his books, like his characters, tend to be cerebral
and more interested in ideas and puzzles than in character and
feeling. His idea of "psychohistory," where the individual
quirks of human beings could be averaged out at the statistical
level of an entire galaxy's population, is perhaps revealing in
that regard. What helps keep Asimov's fiction readable is the
charm of the author, which is conveyed to his characters.
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
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
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.
considerable portion of such criticism boils down to the charge
that Asimov's works are simply dated. In fact, some details of
Asimov's imaginary future technology as he described more than
fifty years ago have not aged well. He has, for example, described
powerful robots and computers from the distant future as still
using punch cards or punch tape and engineers using slide rules.
His stories also have occasional internal contradictions: names
and dates given in The Foundation Series do not always agree with
one another, for example. Some such errors may plausibly be due
to mistakes the characters make, since characters in Asimov stories
are seldom 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 work on it; occasionally,
advances in scientific knowledge forced him to retcon his own
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:
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.
fairness, Gunn 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 (and 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".
he prided himself on his unornamented prose style (for which he
credited Clifford 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 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.
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
2002, Donald Palumbo, an English professor at East Carolina University
published Chaos Theory, Asimov’s Foundations and Robots,
and Herbert’s Dune: The Fractal Aesthetic of Epic Science
Fiction. This includes a review of Asimov's narrative structures
that compares them with the scientific concepts of fractals and
chaos. Palumbo finds that a fascination with the Foundation and
Robot metaseries remains, and he determines that the purposeful
complexities of the narrative build unusual symmetric and recursive
structures to be perceived by the mind's eye. This volume contains
some of the most scholarly and in-depth criticism of Asimov to
Jenkins, who has reviewed the vast majority of Asimov's written
output, once observed:
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. 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
non-visual 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. Ironically, the story mimics
the same style the author in it uses to describe his work, and
one can see it as Asimov's reply to his critics.”
"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't
brood. I'd type a little faster."
to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."
was a wonderful time in Brooklyn in the 1930s. Air conditioning
was unknown except in movie houses, and so was television. There
was nothing to keep one in the house. Furthermore, few people
owned automobiles, so there was nothing to carry one away. That
left the streets and the stoops. The very fullness served as an
inhibition to crime."
I will be remembered for are the Foundation Trilogy and the Three
Laws of Robotics. What I want to be remembered for is no one book,
or no dozen books. Any single thing I have written can be paralleled
or even surpassed by something someone else has done. However,
my total corpus for quantity, quality and variety can be duplicated
by no one else. That is what I want to be remembered for."
"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Salvor
Hardin, a character in Foundation.
most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds
new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' (I've found it!), but 'That's
most hopelessly stupid man is he who is not aware that he is wise"
First Speaker, a character in Second Foundation (novel).