Isaac Asimov

See also Science Fiction Authors, Science Fiction Bibliography

“Asimov wrote hard science fiction. Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime.”[2] Fair Use Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

“Isaac Asimov was born as Isaak Judah Ozimov. Born in Russia, Isaac Asimov emigrated with his parents to New York City in 1923, where – apart from two decades in Boston – he spent nearly all the rest of his life. Asimov wrote at a furious pace that made him one of the most prolific authors of his time. He himself counted almost 500 volumes in his oeuvre, though bibliographic research has demonstrated that the number of actually distinct books he produced is much closer to 200 (still a stupendous figure, of course). Unlike most extremely prolific authors, Asimov wrote in a fairly wide variety of fictional and nonfictional genres, but two literary modes account for the great majority of his output and for nearly all of his enduring fame: sf and popular science writing.”

“It was sf in which Asimov began writing and in which he attained his first renown. An avid consumer of pulp sf magazines in the 1930s, Asimov was the kind of fan whose special intensity (and talent) made him determined to become a writer as well as a reader of the genre, and his first professionally published stories appeared in 1939. He soon joined the legendary cohort of writers nurtured by John W. Campbell, the trail-blazing editor who in 1937 had taken over Astounding Science-Fiction with a determination to raise pulp sf from its then abysmal literary and scientific standards. No author became more important to Campbell’s project than Asimov (nor was any more fiercely loyal to Campbell personally). By the end of the 1940s, Asimov’s work for Campbell and other pulp editors had established him as one of the so-called “Big Three” of science fiction (along with Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt, and, as van Vogt’s productivity and popularity waned, then with Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke). Most of Asimov’s best sf books (and many of his best stories) were published in the following decade, the 1950s – his “gold decade,” as he once termed it. By the 1960s he was writing much less sf, largely because science writing and other forms of nonfiction came to occupy most of his energy. Though the radical innovations that sf underwent in the 1960s and 1970s at the hands of writers like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany soon made Asimov’s work in the genre look rather old-fashioned – as he acknowledged more than once – his popularity with fans (like that of Heinlein and Clarke) never faded, and his work remains a major landmark for anyone wishing to appreciate the history of American sf.”

“Asimov’s stature and influence in sf depend mainly on two large achievements: the series of robot stories and novels (1948–57, 1983–85), and the Foundation sequence (first trilogy, in magazine form, 1942–51, as books 1951–53; later volumes 1982–93). Both originate in the stories Asimov published in pulp magazines in the 1940s, though neither attained book form until the 1950s. In his robot fiction Asimov created the most consequential image of artificially fabricated intelligent life since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus (1818), whose attitude toward science he self-consciously set out to refute. In contrast to Shelley’s implicit fear and mistrust of scientific discovery, Asimov’s robot fiction is based on his conviction that scientific and technological progress, while not without hazards, is a fundamentally beneficent force. The famous Three Laws of Robotics (which Asimov credited Campbell with formulating for him) help to assure that robots remain safe and useful to humanity; and, despite mistakes and accidents, Asimov’s robots ultimately turn out to be capable of nothing less than the social salvation of humanity. During the past half century there has hardly been an important representation of robots in prose fiction, film, or television that has failed to evince Asimov’s influence.”

“The most significant single volume of Asimov’s robot fiction is I, Robot (1950), his second book. Working in the rich American genre of the story cycle (as typified by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), and William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942)), Asimov synthesized some of the stories published in the 1940s into a well-shaped book that, while not exactly a conventional novel, possesses an overarching narrative line as well as a variety of individual tales. I, Robot is given a sense of unity by the increasing technical sophistication and social importance of the robots and through the dominant character of Dr Susan Calvin, the founder of the imaginary science of “robopsychology” (i.e., robot psychology). She is Asimov’s most memorable single character and, as he once claimed, probably the first major female character in American sf. In addition to I, Robot, mention should be made of Asimov’s sf detective stories and novels, many of which involve robots, most notably The Naked Sun (1957), which is considered by some to be Asimov’s best novel of the 1950s, and which features the Holmes-and-Watson pairing of the detective Elijah Baley and his robot sidekick R. Daneel Olivaw.”

“The Foundation sequence is perhaps an even more considerable achievement than the robot fiction. The trilogy Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953) was not the first work of sf to represent a galactic civilization, but it set a new standard in this regard; Asimov’s galaxy of many inhabited worlds has probably been even more widely influential than his robots. Its impact can be seen in such huge productions of mass culture as the Star Trek (1966–) and Star Wars (1977–) franchises, but also, for instance, in a work of high Joycean modernism like Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). Tremendously ambitious in its time scale as well as its spatial setting, the Foundation trilogy spans many centuries to tell the saga of the rise and decline of entire planetary societies, with previously dominant worlds becoming marginalized and new ones rising to wealth and power. The structure of the trilogy ingeniously combines, on the one hand, the sort of fictional (and future) history pioneered by Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men (1930) – with its multisecular temporality and its stress on broad social trends – and, on the other hand, a wide range of relatively self-contained narratives along the way (the latter largely adapted from Asimov’s work in the pulps). As the robot fiction prominently features the invented sciences of robotics and robopsychology, the Foundation sequence invents the science of psychohistory (based essentially on a synthesis of the highly simplified American versions of psychoanalysis and historical materialism to be found in the New York intellectual air Asimov breathed during the 1930s and 1940s). Hari Seldon, the founder of psychohistory, is (along with his posthumous adversary, the Mule) the most memorable character in the Foundation saga, but it is really the “Seldon Plan” – Hari’s scheme to shape the course of the galaxy for centuries to come – which is closest to being a protagonist for the series.”

“In the 1980s Asimov began writing new novels that extended the Foundation sequence and that also returned to his concern with robots. Though popular with his many avid fans, these later volumes seem unlikely to enhance Asimov’s reputation in the long run. But the original three volumes may well constitute the most important trilogy in all of sf, a genre in which trilogies have flourished.”

“At least two other works of Asimov’s sf deserve to be mentioned even in this brief survey. One is The End of Eternity (1955). Somewhat atypical among Asimov’s fiction, and perhaps therefore under-discussed, it is independent of both the Foundation and the robot material, and it displays relatively little of either the humor or the didacticism so prominent (and popular) in Asimov’s work generally. But it is one of the author’s most tightly constructed fictions, and its austere, haunting quality has an appeal of its own; a significant minority of Asimov’s readers have long considered it his best work. Concerned with the Eternals, a caste of technicians who roam through the centuries, monitoring and adjusting the causal relationships that stretch across time, The End of Eternity is one of the more ingenious novels about time travel and its paradoxes since H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) placed the subject permanently on sf’s agenda.”

“The Gods Themselves (1972) was Asimov’s first new sf novel since The Naked Sun (not counting the minor Fantastic Voyage (1966), a film novelization), and it responded memorably to many of the changes that had taken place in sf and in American society during the intervening years. For the first time Asimov represents sexual experience – between humans and also among an alien race that is divided into three sexes (who have sexual “intercourse” by merging their amorphous bodies). The novel also deals with issues of energy supply and of possible environmental catastrophe in ways that seem even more pertinent today than when it first appeared. Evidence that Asimov was capable, in at least this instance, of being influenced by younger writers like Le Guin and Delany, The Gods Themselves is almost certainly his most artfully constructed work of fiction. He once identified it as his own favorite.”

“Some discussion is in order of Asimov’s work as a science writer: not only because it forms the bulk of his output, nor only because sf and science writing are related genres whose combination in individual careers forms an important motif in the history of sf, from Wells, through Asimov and Clarke, to Gregory Benford today, but also because Asimov’s work in popular science helps to illuminate his sf. As a science writer – as the greatest explainer of his age (in Carl Sagan’s admiring description) – Asimov served as an advocate not only for science itself but for the whole Weltanschauung of liberal rationalism. When we turn from his (mostly later) science writing back to his (mostly earlier) sf, it becomes quite clear that this same advocacy animates the fiction too. Though Asimov is well aware that people may wrongheadedly resist the beneficence of liberal reason – The Gods Themselves takes its title from Schiller’s maxim “The gods themselves struggle in vain against stupidity” – he is supremely confident, in nonfiction and fiction alike, that there are few problems liberal reason is incapable of solving if only it is allowed to do so. For Asimov, there are many puzzles but no ultimate mysteries and few real villains, many difficulties but no irreconcilable differences of material interest.”

“Thus, for instance, Asimov’s demolition, in his robot fiction, of what he called the “Frankenstein complex” reaches its culmination in the vision of a world ruled benignly by intelligent machines driven purely by rationality and beyond any conceivable partisanship. In the Foundation trilogy, Hari Seldon’s elaborate scheme saves humanity from centuries of ignorance and misery; the implication seems clear that we should submit to the rational social planning of those who know best. Admittedly, a minority of readers have felt that the Mule, who nearly succeeds in overthrowing the Seldon Plan, is the secret hero of the trilogy; but, if so, the secret remains hidden from the author and from the “official” ideology of the text. With perfect liberal balance and reasonableness, however, The End of Eternity warns that even rational social planning can be taken too far. Asimov’s extraordinarily pure commitment to liberal reason has always been a minority stance, and has been emulated by few writers after him in any genre. But the distinctiveness and imaginative power with which he embodied this viewpoint in works of sf remains unsurpassed.” Fair Use Source: B002KAAKJE

“Born in Russia but for most of his life resident in America, Isaac Asimov has had an enormous impact on the genre as a whole. His depiction of ROBOTS paved the way for many later works, although it is generally accepted that the Czech author Karel Capek was responsible for adding the word ‘robot’ to the English language.”

“Asimov first made his mark during the GOLDEN AGE of science fiction, and his best work has become synonymous with that period. It was in the pages of JOHN W. CAMPBELL’s ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION magazine that many of the episodes that make up Asimov’s most famous trilogy of novels first appeared.”

“The Foundation trilogy, comprising Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), is an intelligent story of the collapse of a vast interstellar empire and the subsequent preservation and eventual rebirth of civilization through the work of a lone genius.”

“Hari Seldon, Asimov’s hero, has developed a predictive science based on psychology and entitled ‘psychohistory’; with it he predicts the Roman Empire-style fall of the Galactic Empire and takes steps to lessen the impact by creating two ‘Foundations’, one based on the physical sciences, one on ‘psychohistory’. These ‘Foundations’ work to preserve human knowledge and understanding, and during the course of the trilogy come under threat from various unknown elements such as the ‘Mule’, a mutant warlord.”

“The Foundation saga is SPACE OPERA on a grand scale, thought-provoking and exciting, even if it does fall a little short in its literary craftsmanship.”

“Asimov is perhaps equally well remembered for his excellent series of Robot stories, which span much of his career and, full-length novels excepted, are collected in The Complete Robot (1982). They are masterful explorations of ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE – logical stories that examine the relationships that may evolve between humans and intelligent machines. In them, Asimov proposed the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’, a set of programmed instructions that would provide the robots with logical directives to which they must comply. They are: (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

“Most of Asimov’s Robot stories revolve around various interpretations of these laws, and the consequences of conflicts between them. His two novels of this period, The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957) follow similar patterns, and feature a human private eye and his robot assistant.”

“After a hiatus of many years, in which Asimov wrote nothing but non-fiction, he returned to science fiction with a number of novels that, surprisingly, tied together his Foundation and Robot series into one vast sequence. Perhaps a little long-winded, but at the same time of interest to fans of the original series, the newer novels (in internal chronological sequence) are The Robots of Dawn (1983), Robots and Empire (1985), Forward the Foundation (1993), Prelude to Foundation (1988), Foundation’s Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). Within this framework fit the earlier series mentioned above.”

“A later addition to the sequence is the Second Foundation Trilogy, which begins with Foundation’s Fear (1997) by GREGORY BENFORD, and continues with Foundation and Chaos (1998) by GREG BEAR and Foundation’s Triumph (1999) by DAVID BRIN. Although consistent, none of these sequels live up to the sheer scale of the original work.”

“Outside of this epic FUTURE HISTORY, Asimov’s best single novel is, possibly, The End of Eternity (1955). It is concerned with TIME TRAVEL and complex paradoxes, and follows the progress of Andrew Harlan, a recruit of the organization Eternity, who must go backward and forward through time to enforce changes on human history. The plot thickens when Harlan falls in love with an agent from another organization that wishes to see the end of Eternity so that human history can be saved from stagnation. Again, like Asimov’s earlier Foundation trilogy, the book contains some excellent ideas, but is not as well crafted as many of his Robot stories.”

“Asimov remains one of the best-known authors of American SF and although his work never really progressed much beyond the conceptual limits of the Golden Age it remains much loved, as does its author’s memory.”

“A monthly publication, ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, began publishing during his lifetime. Although it was named after him, Asimov only ever wrote brief editorials for it, leaving much of the actual commissioning editorial work to others.” Fair Use Source: B00OGUX14W

See also:

Artificial Intelligence; CRIME; FUTURE HISTORY; GOLDEN AGE; HARD SF; PLANETS; Robot; SPACE OPERA; SPACE TRAVEL; TIME

Greg Bear, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Donna J. Haraway, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, L. Ron Hubbard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, C.L. Moore, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ, Olaf Stapledon, Neal Stephenson, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree Jr, H.G. Wells, and Gene Wolfe

Recommended Further Reading

  • The Future History sequence by Robert Heinlein
  • The Technic History sequence by POUL ANDERSON
  • The Xeelee sequence by STEPHEN BAXTER
  • The Greg Mandel Trilogy by PETER F. HAMILTON
  • Tik-Tok (1983) by John Sladek

Bibliography

  • Freedman, C. (ed.) (2005) Conversations with Isaac Asimov, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
  • Gunn, J. (1982) Isaac Asimov: the foundations of science fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Olander, J. and Greenberg, M.H. (eds.) (1977) Isaac Asimov, New York: Taplinger.
  • Patrouch, J. (1974) The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov, Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

The Writings of Isaac Asimov

Fair Use Source: B002KAAKJE

Three Laws of Robotics

See also Androids in SciFi, AI Glossary, AI Bibliography. The Singularity

“The Three Laws of Robotics (often shortened to The Three Laws or known as Asimov’s Laws) are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround” (included in the 1950 collection I, Robot), although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws, quoted as being from the “Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.”, are:

  • First Law – A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.[1]
  • Zeroth Law – A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

“The Three Laws, and the zeroth, have pervaded science fiction and are referred to in many books, films, and other media. They have impacted thought on ethics of artificial intelligence as well.”