Isaac Asimov: His Life and Work
Profiled by Galen Strickland
The exact date of his birth is questionable. His Wikipedia page says it was sometime between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920, but also says circa 1/2/20 in another section. That is the day he later celebrated it, and it has lately been unofficially designated National Science Fiction Day. His parents emigrated to the U. S. in 1923 and Isaac became a citizen five years later. His father owned a succession of candy stores in Brooklyn which also featured some magazines, and it was there the precociously intelligent young boy encountered the multitude of SF and adventure pulps which flourished during this period. Although not active in fandom himself he was for a time associated with a group of hopeful writers known as the Futurians, whose membership included James Blish, Damon Knight, Frederik Pohl, and Donald A. Wollheim, among others.
He majored in chemistry at Columbia University, obtaining an undergraduate degree at the age of nineteen and a Masters just two years later. Following research work for the Navy at the Philadelphia Air Experimental Station during World War 2 - alongside fellow SF authors Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague De Camp - as well as two years Army service after the war, he received his PhD in 1948. In 1949 he became an associate professor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. He retired from that position in 1958 in order to devote himself to a full-time writing career, although he did retain the title itself. He would later be honored with a full professorship in recognition of his efforts in the advancement of the understanding of science.
Asimov is arguably the most influential genre writer ever, especially considering the vast body of his work devoted to areas of interest outside of SF. Of the more than 400 books in his bibliography (or over 500, depending on your critieria and whose list you use), fully two-thirds of them are non-fiction on subjects as wide-ranging as chemistry, astronomy, physics and other scientific disciplines, all the way to commentaries on Shakespeare and the Bible. The quintessential Renaissance Man, he must be considered one of, if not the most intelligent exponent of SF, and all of his work, both his fiction and his non-fiction, bears witness to a logical and methodical scientific mind.
His first published fiction - "Marooned off Vespa" - appeared in Amazing Stories in 1939, although he had had several other stories rejected during the previous two years. It was not until he came under the influence of Astounding editor John W. Campbell that his work began to receive considerable attention. Just two years later he had produced the beginnings of what would prove to be sequences with which he would be most associated throughout the remainder of his life, and beyond. "Strange Playfellow" (later retitled "Robbie"), printed in Super Science Stories in 1940, was the first of an ongoing series of Robot stories. The remainder of the stories that would later be collected as I, Robot (1950) had been originally published in Astounding from 1941-50. Many other short stories and novels would follow, devoted to different aspects of the robotic influence on humanity's future. 1942 saw the publication of the first of the Foundation stories, later compiled into the Foundation Trilogy - Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation - another series which is still yet being expanded by other established authors. In 1966 this trilogy would receive a special Hugo award as the all-time best SF series. Also, in 1941, Asimov wrote (and rewrote under the careful supervision of Campbell) the short story "Nightfall," quite possibly the most famous and influential SF story ever.
Check out these related pages concerning these books.
Harlan Ellison's screenplay for I, Robot
The Foundation Trilogy
The Robot/Foundation Chronology
Originally there was not a connection between the Robot and Foundation stories. Most of the Robot stories were set in Earth's near future, with the Foundation Trilogy chronicling events tens of thousands of years into the future toward the end of the first great Galactic Empire and set on various other planets across the galaxy. Asimov also produced three other novels - Pebble in the Sky (1950), The Stars Like Dust (1951), and The Currents of Space (1952) - set somewhat earlier in the Galactic Empire sequence before the establishment of the Foundation. Later in his career, he wrote other Robot stories and novels, along with sequels and prequels to the Foundation Trilogy, in an attempt to amalgamate them both into one overarching story sequence. At first thought this would have seemed to be a difficult task, considering the lack of robots in the Foundation stories. Asimov accomplished it by establishing that the Galactic Empire was the result of the robots strict interpretation of the Laws of Robotics as a mandate for them to insure the perpetual survival of humanity throughout the cosmos.
In addition to these story sequences, Asimov also produced an abundance of short stories, as well as two separate series of juvenile novels. The first of these, originally published under the pseudonym Paul French, began with David Starr, Space Ranger (1952), who was later referred to as "Lucky Starr" in the other five books of the series. In the second part of his fiction career Asimov collaborated with his wife Janet on another children's series, this time concerning the adventures of a robot named Norby. It is possible that Asimov just provided story ideas for this series with the writing actually done by his wife, who had previously written other books and stories - much of them in a juvenile vein - under her maiden name, J. O. Jeppson.
In 1958, Asimov essentially brought the first phase of his fiction career to a close, and instead began to devote his energies toward the production of a seemingly never-ending series of non-fiction works. These included a monthly science column for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which ran for an unbroken string of 399 issues until shortly before his death in 1992. A 400th entry, completed by his wife, was subsequently printed a few months later. He was awarded a special Hugo for this column in 1963, for "adding science to science fiction." As mentioned earlier, he also published hundreds of scholarly books in various scientific fields, leading the general public to assume, perhaps rightly, that he was the ultimate authority on everything.
He returned to fiction in 1972 with the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel The Gods Themselves. Many SF critics and readers, myself included, consider this to be his best novel, and there are several factors which distinguish it from almost all of his other work. First, it is a singleton; i.e. not connected to any of his other story sequences. At that time he had produced only one other such in his career, the earlier The End of Eternity (1955), a complex time-travel tale. Second, it is one of only a handful of his stories that featured an alien culture. Since the majority of his seminal work had been produced for John Campbell's Astounding, and since Campbell refused to allow the depiction of aliens who could be construed to be superior to humans, Asimov generally avoided the use of them in the majority of his work.
It would be another ten years before his next novel, Foundation's Edge (1982), which sequeled the earlier Foundation Trilogy. The following year brought another, Foundation and Earth, as well as The Robots of Dawn, which began the sequence to bridge the gap between the earlier Robot novels - The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957) - and his series of early '50s Empire novels mentioned previously. Along with Asimov's own work that continued this process, up to the posthumously published Forward the Foundation (1993), a "Second Foundation Trilogy" was subsequently authorized by his widow Janet. This new series is comprised of Foundation's Fear (1997) by Gregory Benford, Foundation and Chaos (1998) by Greg Bear, and Foundation's Triumph(1999) by David Brin. I have not read these later books myself, but the original Foundation Trilogy, as well as Asimov's earlier Robot sequence will stand forever at the pinnacle of SF achievements. Asimov, in response to readers' requests, subsequently offered a Recommended Reading Guide to this expanded series of works.
In addition to the two previously mentioned special Hugo awards and the one bestowed on The Gods Themselves, Asimov was also honored by SF readers on three other occasions. He won for best novel again in 1983 for Foundation's Edge and for the novellettes "The Bicentennial Man" (1977) and "Gold" (1992). He received Nebulas from the SFWA only twice, for The Gods Themselves and "The Bicentennial Man." He was however awarded a Grand Master Nebula in 1987 for work throughout his entire career. This may seem a paltry few awards for a man who is consistently on both readers and critics' lists as one of the most revered and influential figures in the genre. It is also puzzling why at least two less-deserving authors (in my opinion) would be named Grand Masters before him. Perhaps this situation may have been different if he had chosen to devote more of his efforts on other fictional worlds rather than the long string of non-fiction writings.
The most frequent criticism of Asimov has been that his complicated and methodical plots were rendered in rather stilted prose. While this may be true to some extent, I think Asimov himself would agree that his work was more about plot than style, and his plots were predominately focused on problem-solving and conceptual breakthroughs. Thus he was less concerned about characterizations and more on fostering the reasoning capacities of his audience. He certainly must be seen as a champion of rationality and logic as the key to man's solving the dilemmas of the real world.
"For 50 years it was [Asimov's] tone of address that all other voices of sf obeyed,
or shifted from...It may indeed be said that he lacked poetry; but for five decades
his was the voice to which sf came down in the end. His was the default voice of sf."
[John Clute, in the The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]
The Asimov Home Page
kaedrin.com - a guide to his various series
Asimov Bilbliography at fantasticfiction.com
Would you like to contribute an article on your favorite SF, Fantasy or Horror author or book?
Just email me.
We would appreciate your support for this site with your purchases from
Amazon.com and ReAnimusPress.