Isaac Asimov (ca. 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 science books for the layperson. He also wrote mysteries (many of which were collected in the Black Widowers books) and fantasy. In fact, he has works in every major category of the Dewey Decimal System except Philosophy. He wrote or edited over 500 volumes and an estimated 90,000 letters or postcards. Asimov was a long-time member of Mensa, albeit reluctantly (he described them as "intellectually combative"). Asteroid "(5020) Asimov" is named in his honor, as is Honda's humanoid prototype robot ASIMO.
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Asimov was born around January 2, 1920 (his date of birth for official purposes -- the precise date is not certain) in Petrovichi, near Smolensk, Russia, to Anna Rachel and Judah Asimov, a Jewish family. They emigrated to the United States when he was three years old. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York. 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 late 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. B.U. 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, in 1979 promoted 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 232 feet of shelf space.)
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, having contracted HIV from an infected blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery in 1983. He was survived by his second wife, Janet, and his children from his first marriage. That AIDS was the cause of his death was only revealed ten years later, in Janet Asimov's biography It's Been a Good Life.
Beliefs and politics
Isaac Asimov was a humanist and a rationalist. He did not oppose genuine religious conviction in others but was against superstitious, 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 United States 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. He issued many appeals for population control reflecting the perspective first articulated by 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.
Asimov's writing career
Asimov's career can be divided into several time periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories starting around 1940. 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.
Asimov began contributing stories to science fiction magazines in 1939; his short story Nightfall (1941) is described in Bewildering Stories, issue 8, 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 a 'classic'."
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. 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).
His 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. Recently I, Robot was used as the basis for a screenplay of the same name, starring Will Smith.
He also wrote a spoof science article, The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline in 1948, which he feared would affect his chances of obtaining his doctorate.
In 1956 Asimov published the short story "The Last Question", his personal favorite and considered by many to be a contender to "Nightfall". It deals with the ability of humankind to cope with and overcome entropy.
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 Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction invited him to create a monthly non-fiction column, ostensibly dedicated to popular science, but with Asimov having complete editorial freedom. The first of these columns appeared in November of 1958, and they followed monthly thereafter until Asimov's terminal illness. These columns, periodically collected into books by his principal publisher, Doubleday and Company, made Asimov's reputation as a "Great Explainer" of science.
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).
Never 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.
Asimov published 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 Janet Asimov (née Jeppson), shortly after his death.
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 ran 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 the robotic presence is stifling humanity's freedom, and that the best course is for the robots to phase themselves out. A non-robot story, 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 Utopia. 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 revisted the series in the 1980s, he made the paternalistic themes even more explicit.
Foundation's Edge introduced the planet Gaia, obviously based on the Gaia hypothesis. Literally every animal, vegetable, and mineral on Gaia participated in a shared consciousness, and worked together for the greater good. In Foundation and Earth, the protagonist must decide whether or not to allow the development of Galaxia, the ultimate in paternalistic societies.
Two of Asimov's last novels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, introduce robots to the Foundation universe. The robots are depicted as covert operatives, acting for the benefit of humanity.
Asimov was criticised for the lack of sex and aliens in his science fiction. As is evident from writings later in his career, he attempted to placate his critics, particularly with regard to sex.
He wrote The Gods Themselves specifically as a response to these criticisms. In it, he writes about both in great detail. Asimov said that of all his writings, he was most proud of the middle section of The Gods Themselves.
Others have criticized 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.
- "Early in my school career, I turned out to be an incorrigible disciplinary problem. I could understand what the teacher was saying as fast as she could say it, I found time hanging heavy, so I would occasionally talk to my neighbor. That was my great crime, I talked."
- "I prefer rationalism to atheism. The question of God and other objects-of-faith are outside reason and play no part in rationalism, thus you don't have to waste your time in either attacking or defending."
- "If I could trace my origins to Judas Maccabaeus or King David, that would not add one inch to my stature. It may well be that many East European Jews are descended from Khazars, I may be one of them. Who knows? And who cares?"
- "In 1936, I first wrote science fiction. It was a long-winded attempt at writing an endless novel...which died. I remember one sentence, "Whole forests stood sere and brown in midsummer.". That was the first Asimovian science-fiction sentence.
- "Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."
- "Night 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."
- "No one can possibly have lived through the Great Depression without being scarred by it. No amount of experience since the depression can convince someone who has lived through it that the world is safe economically."
- "True literacy is becoming an arcane art and the United States is steadily dumbing down."
- "Until I became a published writer, I remained completely ignorant of books on how to write and courses on the subject...they would have spoiled my natural style; made me observe caution; would have hedged me with rules."
- "When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself."
- "What 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", 20 September 1973, "Yours, Isaac Asimov", page 329.
In addition, see the complete bibliography.
Juveniles as Paul French
- David Starr, Space Ranger (1952)
- Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953)
- Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (1954)
- Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956)
- Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
- Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958)
Juveniles with Janet Asimov
- Norby, the Mixed-up Robot (1983)
- Norby's Other Secret (1984)
- Norby and the Lost Princess (1985)
- Norby and the Invaders (1985)
- Norby and the Queen's Necklace (1986)
- Norby Finds a Villain (1987)
- Norby Down to Earth (1988)
- Norby and Yobo's Great Adventure (1989)
- Norby and the Oldest Dragon (1990)
- Norby and the Court Jester (1991)
- Pebble in the Sky (1950)
- The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
- Foundation (1951) (first appearance of the Encyclopedia Galactica)
- Foundation and Empire (1952)
- The Currents of Space (1952)
- Second Foundation (1953)
- The Caves of Steel (1954) (first Elijah Bailey SF-crime novel)
- The End of Eternity (1955)
- The Naked Sun (1957) (second Elijah Bailey SF-crime novel)
- Fantastic Voyage (1966) (novelization of the like-named motion picture)
- The Gods Themselves (1972) (in a 12 February 1982 letter identified as his favorite SF novel)
- Foundation's Edge (1982) (his first entry in the best-sellers list, after 262 books and 44 years of writing)
- The Robots of Dawn (1983) (third Elijah Bailey SF-crime novel)
- Robots and Empire (1985) (sequel to the Elijah Bailey trilogy)
- Foundation and Earth (1986)
- (1987) (Asimov's independent sequel to Fantastic Voyage)
- Prelude to Foundation (1988)
- Nemesis (1989)
- Nightfall (1990) (with Robert Silverberg, a novel based on the earlier short story)
- The Ugly Little Boy (1992) (with Robert Silverberg, a novel based on an earlier short story)
- Forward the Foundation (1993)
- The Positronic Man (1993) (with Robert Silverberg, a novel based on Asimov's earlier short story The Bicentennial Man)
Short story collections
- I, Robot (1950)
- The Martian Way and Other Stories (1955)
- Earth Is Room Enough (1957)
- Nine Tomorrows (1959)
- The Rest of the Robots (1964)
- Nightfall and Other Stories (1969)
- The Early Asimov (1972)
- Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (1975)
- The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories (1976)
- The Complete Robot (1982)
- The Winds of Change and Other Stories (1983)
- Robot Dreams (1986)
- Gold (1990)
- Magic (1995)
- The Death Dealers (1958) (later republished as A Whiff of Death)
- Murder at the ABA (1976) (also published as Authorized Murder)
- Asimov's Mysteries (1968)
- Tales of the Black Widowers (1974)
- More Tales of the Black Widowers (1976)
- Casebook of the Black Widowers (1980)
- Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984)
- The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986)
- Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990)
- Return of the Black Widowers (2003) contains stories uncollected at the time of Asimov's death, in addition to contributions by Charles Ardai and Harlan Ellison
- The Chemicals of Life (1954)
- Inside the Atom (1956)
- The World of Carbon (1956?)
- The World of Nitrogen (1958)
- The Clock We Live On (1959)
- Asimov on Numbers (1959)
- Words of Science and the History Behind Them (1959)
- Life and Energy (1962)
- Adding a Dimension (1964)
- The Human Brain (1964)
- The Neutrino (1966)
- Science, Numbers and I (1968)
- The Solar System and Back (1970)
- Our World in Space (1974)
- Views of the Universe (1981)
- The Secret of The Universe (1990)
- Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977)
- The Sun Shines Bright
- The Intelligent Man's Guide to Science
- Isaac Asimov's Guide to Earth and Space (1991)
- The Sun (2003)
- The Earth (2004)
- Jupiter (2004)
- Venus (2004)
- Lecherous Limericks (1975)
- More Lecherous Limericks (1976)
- Still More Lecherous Limericks (1977)
- Asimov's Sherlockian Limericks (1977)
- (1978) (with John Ciardi)
- A Grossery of Limericks (1981) (with John Ciardi)
- Isaac Asimov's Limericks for Children (1984)
- Asimov Laughs Again - More than 700 Favorite Jokes, Limericks and Anecdotes (1992)
- Opus 100 (1969)
- Opus 200 (1979)
- Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts (1979)
- Azazel (1988)
- Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters by Isaac Asimov, edited by Stanley Asimov (Doubleday), was among 1996 Hugo Awards nominations for the best non-fiction book.
- Isaac Asimov's Robot Series
- Isaac Asimov's Galactic Empire Series
- Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series
- science fiction: authors - novels - short stories - television shows