Isaac Asimov (c. January 2, 1920- April 6, 1992, 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 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 his lifetime.
Most 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 Asimov's Chronology Of Science and Discovery.
Asimov 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 Atoll.
After 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.
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, Jr. He was a close friend of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
He 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.
Asimov 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.
Asimov 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.
His 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".
Asimov's 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 society.
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 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. Janet 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 family did not for the most part observe any religion, and so Asimov 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.
In 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? Asimov rejected the idea that a human belief or action could merit infinite punishment. If an afterlife of just deserts 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 discussion.
Asimov 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 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" (see Bhopal disaster). He issued many appeals for population control reflecting the perspective articulated by people from Thomas Malthus through Paul R. Ehrlich. Asimov 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).
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 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.
Asimov'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 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 originally anticipated.
In his own view, Asimov believed that his most enduring contributions would be his "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, "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'".
"Nightfall" 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.
In 1942 he began his Foundation stories-later collected in the Forward the Foundation (1992). The series features his fictional science of Psychohistory in which the future course of the history of large populations can be predicted.
His robot stories-many of which were collected in The Bicentennial Man", was made into a movie starring Robin Williams.
The 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 becoming slim.
Besides 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.
In 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."
He 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.
Then, 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.
Beginning 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 "anthologies").
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 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 "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 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 writer."
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 Roman Empire (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 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.
Particularly 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 cover.
Asimov published two volumes of autobiography, taking their titles from Wordsworth: It's Been a Good Life (2002), edited by Janet, is a condensed version of his three autobiographies.