Notes from the Curator's Office
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:
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
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.
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
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
3. A robot must protect its own existence as
long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second
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.
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
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.
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
I'll end this mini-biography by pointing you to
Asimov's bibliography as found on Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov_complete_bibliography)
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.