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Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (c. January 2, 1920April 6, 1992) was a Russian-born United States 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 lay person.

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"). The asteroid 5020 Asimov is named in his honour, as is Honda's humanoid prototype robot ASIMO.



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 taught himself to read at the age of 5. 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. The university 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 (71 metres) 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 he died of heart and renal failure as a complication of AIDS was not revealed until 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 or 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 in 1939. 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.

Science fiction

Asimov began contributing stories to science fiction magazines in 1939, Marooned Off Vesta being his first published story, written when he was 18. Two and a half years later, he published his 32nd short story, Nightfall (1941), which is described in Bewildering Stories, issue 8, as one of "the most famous science-fiction stories of all time" [1] . In 1968 the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Nightfall the best science fiction short story ever written [2] . 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, along with the Robot Series. 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.

The recent film I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was based on the Hardwired script by Jeff Vintar with Asimov's ideas incorporate later after acquiring the rights to the I, Robot title by the 20th Century Fox. It is not related to the I, Robot script by Harlan Ellison, who collaborated with Asimov himself to create a version which 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." See: I, Robot, [3]

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.

Having spent much of the 1940s on the Foundation series and I, Robot, he returned to writing short stories for science fiction magazines in the 1950s, which he refers to as his golden decade. A number of these are included in his Best of anthology, including The Last Question (1956), 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.

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 Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Adventure Magazine.

Popular science

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, 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. His 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.

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.

Literary themes

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 caretakers 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 robotic presence is stifling humanity's freedom, and that the best course of action 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 perfect society over the course of 1000 years. 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, plant, and mineral on Gaia participated in a shared consciousness, forming a single super-mind, and working together for the greater good. In Foundation and Earth, the protagonist must decide whether or not to allow the development of Galaxia, a larger version of Gaia, encompassing the entire galaxy.

Foundation and Earth introduces robots to the Foundation universe. Two of Asimov's last novels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, explore their behavior in fuller detail. 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. Asimov once explained that his reluctance to write about aliens came from an incident early in his career when one of his early science fiction stories was rejected because the alien characters were portrayed as superior to the humans. He decided that, rather than write weak alien characters, he would not write about aliens at all. Nevertheless, in response to these criticisms he wrote The Gods Themselves, which contains aliens, sex, and alien sex. Asimov said that of all his writings, he was most proud of the middle section of The Gods Themselves.

Others have criticised 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.


  • "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."
  • "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", September 20, 1973, Yours, Isaac Asimov, page 329.

Additional quotations are available in the Isaac Asimov article at Wikiquote.

Selected bibliography

In addition, see the complete bibliography.

Science fiction


The Foundation Series
The Galactic Empire Series

(Note: the Galactic Empire series takes place in the same continuity as the Foundation series, but so much earlier in their history, that they are usually considered distinct series.)

Robot series

(Note: Robots and Empire loosely merged Robot series into the Galactic Empire universe.)

Fantastic Voyage
Novels not part of a series

(While primarily independent, some of these novels have very minor connections to the Foundation series.)


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)
with Janet Asimov (Norby series)
  • 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)

Short story collections

Also see List of short stories by Isaac Asimov



  • The Death Dealers (1958) (later republished as A Whiff of Death)
  • Murder at the ABA (1976) (also published as Authorized Murder)

Short story collections (Black Widowers and others)

  • 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


Popular science


  • The Greeks
  • The Roman Republic
  • The Roman Empire
  • The Near East
  • The Dark Ages
  • The Shaping of England
  • Constantinople
  • The Land of Canaan
  • The Shaping of France
  • The Shaping of North America
  • The Shaping of the United States
  • Our Federal Union (1974)
  • Asimov's History of the World


  • Treasury of Humor (1971? 1979?) (Not just a jokebook; also a treatise on humor theory.)
  • 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)


  • In Memory Yet Green (1979)
  • In Joy Still Felt (1980)
  • , April 1994
  • , edited by Stanley Asimov (Doubleday), was among 1996 Hugo Awards nominations for the best non-fiction book.



Related topics

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about Isaac Asimov
  • Asimov Online
    • Complete list of works
    • FAQ
  • The Asimov Vault (Photos, sound recordings, biography and links)
  • Internet Science Fiction Database page for Isaac Asimov
  • Internet Movie Database page for Isaac Asimov
  • Jenkins' Spoiler-Laden Guide to Isaac Asimov (reviews and ratings)
  • Religion in Asimov's Writings: An essay by Michael Brummond
  • (Forum on Asimov, his works and everything else)
  • Discussion group for Asimov at The Internet Book Database of Fiction
  • Book listing for Asimov by {Work in Progress}
  • Foundation RPG

Last updated: 02-08-2005 12:44:53
Last updated: 02-18-2005 14:11:21