Notes from the Curator's Office

Revisiting the Big Three: Isaac Asimov

(6/07) Someone once said, "The Golden Age of science-fiction was when you were thirteen." For many people my age or older, at thirteen, if they were reading science-fiction that meant that they were likely consuming the works of Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. The impact of these three writers on the genre in the 20th century has been so significant that they've become known as science fiction's BIG THREE.

Not that there weren't other fine science fiction authors working during the forties to the eighties when the big three were most productive. Ray Bradbury, Poul Anderson, Harelen Ellison and many others contributed greatly to the body of SF literature during this period. It's hard, however, to deny that the big three seem to have an influence on the genre far beyond many of their colleagues. For example, these three authors together earned an astounding 18 Hugo Awards: Clarke won four, Heinlein bagged six, and Asimov had eight including two specially commissioned awards for Best All-Time Science Fiction Series and an award for his series of science articles.

Just recently I was rereading some of the Big Three's work and I think it is worth reviewing what they did. At first I was going to handle this in one long piece, but to do justice to each of these authors really requires separate articles. So this month I'm going to start with my favorite of the big three: Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov:

With most people, a biography starts with where and when they were born. In Asimov's case, we only have one of these two pieces of information for sure: the city of Petrovichi, in what is now the Republic of Belarus. Asimov's birth date was a a mystery even to himself, but we know it falls somewhere between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920. We also know that at age three he had immigrated with his family to the United States and was growing up in Brooklyn, New York. By the age of five young Isaac had taught himself to read and amused himself by reading pulp science fiction magazines that were sold at his family's candy stores.

He attended public school, then Columbia University. During WWII he served as a civilian at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. After the war he was drafted into the army for less than a year. When discharged he returned to Columbia where he got his Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 1948.

Asimov began writing science fiction stories at age 11 and by 19 was selling them to magazines like Astounding Science Fiction. The editor at Astounding was John Campbell who, over the years, became an advisor and mentor to Asimov as well as a personal friend. Though Asimov was on the staff at Boston University for much of his life, after 1958 he gave up teaching when his income from writing exceeded his salary as an instructor.

It was in the 40's and 50's that Asimov wrote many of his most popular science fiction short stories. In 1941 Nightfall, perhaps his finest short work, was published. Asimov often stated that this was a turning point in his career, noting that people began to sit up and take notice of his work. Several groups have voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story ever written and for my money I think it is the best short story period. The piece - which is about what happens to a society on a planet with multiple suns, when once in 10,000 years all the suns set at the same time - is a classic example of what Asimov termed "social science fiction." Basically this means that a writer is using the genre to comment upon social problems and situations. The Big Three differed from many previous SF authors because they used their stories to speculate upon the human condition rather than just telling adventure/romance tales (like Buck Rogers) which were in large part just an update of pulp fiction westerns.

Positronic Robots

Some of Asimov's short stories involving robots from this period were compiled into a book published in 1950 called I, Robot. The book basically recounts the history of his mythical U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men Corporation. The stories usually surround a particular robot or series of robots that are giving their creators problems. Susan Calvin, the icy robopycholgist who seems to like robots better than humans, appears in many of the stories. Alfred Lanning, the aging curmudgeonly director/lead mathematician of the corporation also was featured. Other popular characters included Powell and Donvan, two field engineers who traveled the solar system debugging troublesome new models of mechanical men. To make the short stories work in novel form, Asimov wrote a frame around them based upon the idea of a writer interviewing Susan Calvin as she relates her memories of life at US Robots at the end of her career.

The 2005 film, I, Robot, starring Will Smith, really didn't have much to do with Asimov's original work. The script had actually been entitled Hardwired and had no connection with the Asimov series. The producers were able to get a hold of the rights to the Asimov book, however, and had the script rewritten to include some of his characters (Calvin and Lanning in particular) and concepts. This was a shrewd move that probably increased the appeal of the picture, but there little of the master's original plots included. (Note: For a movie that better represents Asimov's robotic ideas, check out Bicentennial Man with Robin Williams.)

One concept that did make it into the movie was the Three Laws of Robotics. In Asimov's literary world, people fear robots (they have what he dubbed the Frankenstein complex - fear of a creation that kills its creator) so the robot engineers designed into the automatons to obey certain unbreakable rules:

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 orders given to 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.

As a result, all of Asimov's robots are, if sometimes misguided, for the most part amiable. The stories often include logic problems turning around an unexpected consequence of one of the laws. I can easily recommend all the stories in I, Robot, but my favorites are Reason where Powell and Donavon find themselves stuck with a robot who becomes the leader of a robotic religious cult and Little Lost Robot, where Calvin manages to outsmart a disobedient mechanical man using the three laws.

In 1964 a second set of robot stories were grouped together under the title The Rest of the Robots. It is a simple collection of short stories with no frame, but it also features my favorite Asimov robot story: Victory Unintentional. In Victory Unintentional, three robots set off to make contact with the warlike residents of Jupiter with unexpected results. Another good one from this collection is AL-76 Goes Astray, the story of a robot which was destined for the moon but gets loose in the hills of West Virginia.

Caves of Steel

In the late 50's Asimov brought his early period of science fiction writing to a close with The Naked Sun. The Naked Sun was a sequel to 1954's The Caves of Steel which featured a human-robot detective team (It is said to be the first Science Fiction/Mystery ever published). The Caves of Steel is the first book I ever encountered that pictured the human race as living in the future in squalid, steaming, overpopulated mega-cities where there is no night or day and the sky cannot be seen. This image has now become sort of a classic anti-utopian vision of the world influencing the visuals of such movies as Blade Runner, Logans Run and even Star Wars. Surprisingly Asimov was a clasutrophile (he enjoyed small, enclosed spaces) and apparently did not regard this environment as a terribly unpleasant lifestyle.

Through most the 60's and 70's, Asimov did little fiction and wrote mostly science fact. This included a well-regarded series of articles that appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. These were collected into books by his publisher and helped Asimov gain the reputation as the "Great Explainer" of science. He enjoyed that role as a science writer so much it led to the so called, "Asimov-Clarke Treaty of Park Avenue." During a shared cab ride with another Big Three member - Arthur C. Clarke - he agreed to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while in return Clarke would say that Asimov was the best science writer in the world.

Foundation Series

Asimov started doing more science fiction again in the 1980's by adding two more sequels to the series he'd started with The Caves of Steel. He also extended his series of Foundation novels. This series, which he'd started back in 1951, involves a scientist in the distant future who uses psychohistory (a fictional science which is a combination of history, sociology and statistics) to create a galactic empire over the course of a millennium. In the end, Asimov connected many of these series together, creating a fictional future history for the human race for the next few thousand years.

On April 6, 1992, Asimov died at the age of 72. He was a victim of AIDs, having become infected through a blood transfusion during a heart bypass operation almost a decade earlier. The body of work he left was vast and I've only touched on a portion of it in this article. In addition to his science and science fiction work, he wrote books of humor, history and poetry. He said once, while accounting for his prolific scribing habits, "Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers."

Probably what impresses me most about Asimov is his reported sense of humor and humility. Even after his phenomenal success he had time to travel to science fiction conventions and hobnob with his fans. With his mutton-chop sideburns he was a memorable figure. In later years he enjoyed traveling on cruise ships (he had a fear of flying) and on occasion gave science-themed lectures as part of the ship's entertainment. His speeches were extremely interesting and he became a sought-after public speaker. He was, by all reports, a very approachable person and happy to sign autographs. This, unfortunately, is not the case with every successful SF writer.

When Asimov himself was asked how he would be remembered he replied, "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,"

Appreciation of his work isn't universal and Asimov had his critics. Most complained that there was very little character development in his work, and minimal description. Perhaps the biggest problem with it today is that, in our age of computers and the Internet, his future worlds seem somewhat dated. Still, if you can get past that, I think they are well worth reading and rereading.

I'll end this mini-biography by pointing you to Asimov's bibliography as found on Wikipedia. ( Asimov wrote, or edited, a staggering 500 books during his lifetime. It is estimated he also composed 9,000 letters and postcards, many of which went to his adoring fans. In addition to leaving us books and essays, he created a few words too: positronic, to describe his robots' brains (this was a completely fictional term, but has been often picked up and used by other science fiction writers) and the word robotics, the science of robots.

Did he like writing? Perhaps at one level he didn't have a choice. He once said, "I write for the same reason I breathe - because if I didn't, I would die."

Links to Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke

Copyright Lee Krystek 2007. All Rights Reserved.


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