Last reviewed: June 2017
Russian American author of science fiction and nonfiction.
January 2, 1920
Petrovichi, Soviet Union (now in Russia)
April 6, 1992
New York, New York
Although often singled out for the great number and wide variety of his books, to the general reader Isaac Asimov (AZ-eh-mof) is best known and most likely to be remembered for his works in science fiction. He was born in Petrovichi, a shtetl (a small, culturally homogeneous Jewish community) about 250 miles southwest of Moscow. Throughout his life Isaac, the first son of Judah and Anna Rachel (Berman) Asimov, celebrated January 2, 1920, as his birthday, although as a result of lost records and faulty memories the actual date is uncertain. At the urging of relatives in the “golden land” of America, the Asimov family, which had recently added a daughter, left the Soviet Union in 1923 and traveled to the United States, settling in Brooklyn, where another son was born. Judah Asimov did odd jobs, accumulated some money, and in 1926 bought a small candy store, in which he and his wife labored for sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Isaac, who learned from his father to respect hard work and careful study, helped his parents after school.
Asimov became an American citizen when he was eight years old. By that time, he was already recognized as an exceptionally bright student in the Brooklyn public school he attended. Even before he began school, he had become a voracious reader, a practice that led him in the summer of 1929 to experience his first science fiction in Amazing Stories. Because Judah Asimov believed that only bums read the pulps, he initially refused to allow his son to read these magazines in his store’s racks, but when Science Wonder Stories appeared, the word “science” convinced him of the new publication’s value. Soon Isaac was an avid fan. These magazines interested him not only in science and fiction but also in writing, and by the age of eleven he was composing stories of his own. Isaac Asimov
In 1935, when he was fifteen, Asimov graduated from high school and enrolled in Seth Low Junior College, then a part of Columbia University. Following his father’s recommendation, he started as a premedical student majoring in zoology, but he switched his major to chemistry in his sophomore year. While in college he continued to write stories, and his father bought him a typewriter to facilitate the process. In the summer of 1938, he completed a story called “Cosmic Corkscrew,” whose generating idea was helical time travel. Asimov knew that John W. Campbell edited Astounding Science Fiction in New York City, but he was surprised by his father’s suggestion that he take his story to Campbell in person. Campbell graciously talked with Asimov for more than an hour, and although he turned down the story, he encouraged the young writer to keep trying. Twelve rejections later, Asimov made his first sale, “Marooned off Vesta,” to Amazing Stories in October, 1938.
After receiving his B.S. degree in 1939, and after failing to get into medical school, Asimov continued at Columbia University in pursuit of a graduate degree in chemistry. Despite these moves toward a career in chemistry, he thought of himself more and more as a science-fiction writer, particularly after Campbell and other editors began regularly publishing his stories. He wrote his most famous story, “Nightfall,” in 1941 at the suggestion of Campbell, who, building on an idea of Ralph Waldo Emerson, wondered how human beings would react to the stars if they were visible only once every thousand years.
In the summer of 1941, after obtaining his master’s degree, Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman, a union that eventually produced two children, a boy and a girl. During World War II, he worked as a civilian chemist at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia, and starting in 1945, he served in the U.S. Army and achieved the rank of corporal. In 1946, following his discharge, he returned to Columbia, where he studied the rates of biochemical reactions. Having received his Ph.D. in 1948, he began postdoctoral studies on nucleic acids at Columbia, before accepting an invitation in 1949 to teach biochemistry at the Boston University Medical School. He became a tenured professor in 1955.
During his years as an academic, Asimov continued to write science fiction in his spare time. In 1950 he published his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, in which he used the experiences of an old European immigrant from twentieth century Chicago in a future society where Earth is a backward planet in a Galactic Empire to make poignant comments on racial intolerance and militarism. In several other books written in the 1950’s, he introduced many innovative ideas into science fiction. For example, he developed the three basic laws of robotics, which proposed that robots, though they should be self-protective and obedient, have as their chief duty that no human being ever comes to harm. Asimov, who saw these laws as his most likely claim to permanent fame, used them as the basis for more than two dozen short stories and three novels. In one of them, The Caves of Steel, he became the first writer to integrate science fiction with the detective novel, and the characters he introduced, Elijah Baley, a New York detective, and his robot partner, Daneel Olivaw, appeared again in The Naked Sun, in which another murder was solved. Unlike many writers after him, Asimov had a positive attitude toward robots, and he castigated the fear of mechanical intelligence as a “Frankenstein complex.”
Another great achievement, which began in the 1950s, was Asimov’s Foundation series, a group of stories inspired by Edward Gibbon’s eighteenth century work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Although the term “trilogy” is often applied to the original three volumes derived from his original nine stories, it is misleading because Asimov did not plan the stories as three unified novels. This collection won a special Hugo Award for the most outstanding series of all time in 1966. Though the award reflected the exuberant enthusiasm of science-fiction fans, critics also agree that the series was a milestone in the maturation of the genre. The stories deal with such fundamental issues as the success versus the failure of human (and alien) societies, free will versus determinism, and the individual versus history. The Foundation series remains popular decades after its original publication, having sold more than two million copies.
Asimov quit teaching to become a full-time science writer in 1958. From the late 1950s to the middle 1960s, he became known as America’s “great explainer” because of his ability to translate scientific jargon into transparent prose without sacrificing accuracy. His popularizations introduced many lay readers to the mysteries of mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and technology. Although general readers enjoyed these books, scientists and scholars were often critical of them as superficial and unscholarly. Asimov replied that it was sufficient for him to know enough about a field to be able to communicate its basic ideas intelligently and interestingly to novices; he conceded that nothing he wrote could enlighten specialists.
During the decade from 1965 to 1975, Asimov began to write on an even wider variety of subjects than in his science books: popular history, the Bible, William Shakespeare, and mystery stories. In the early 1970’s, his first marriage ended in divorce. He moved from Boston to New York, and on November 30, 1973, he married Janet Opal Jeppson, a psychiatrist and writer. During this troubled period, he began, after a fourteen-year hiatus, to write science fiction again. In 1972, he published The Gods Themselves, which some critics believe is his best novel. Asimov himself called it his favorite, and it garnered for him both a Nebula Award and a Hugo Award. In this story, which hinges on an exchange of energy between two parallel universes, he explores the idea that scientific knowledge can be a form of ignorance when it comes into conflict with true emotion. In 1982, he published Foundation’s Edge, a sequel to the Foundation series. Like the series, this novel investigates the nature of free will and the question of historical determinism, but there are also great differences. For example, in the earlier novels Asimov sees rationality as the only trustworthy human trait, whereas in Foundation’s Edge his characters are mired in complex motivations within motivations, where a failure of imagination can be more important than a computer failure.
In the early 1980s, Asimov continued to write despite serious health problems, and with even greater intensity: It took him nearly twenty years to write his first hundred books, ten years to write his second hundred, five years to write his third, and an even shorter time for his fourth hundred. According to Asimov, the reason for his acceleration of production was his participation in the game of immortality: He wanted to make sure that at least some of his books would live after his death. To this end, Asimov published two more Foundation novels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation, both of which helped to complete the Foundation epic, and published, with Robert Silverberg, the novel Nightfall, which went beyond the ending of the original short story of that title. He eventually died of heart and kidney failure at the age of seventy-two, in April, 1992.
Asimov once defined science fiction as the branch of literature concerned with the impact of science on human beings. The genre arose after the Industrial Revolution because historical events were forcing people to adapt to a rapidly changing society. By allowing readers, through their imagination, to try on possible changes for size, science fiction becomes not an escape from reality but an escape into reality. A theme common to most of Asimov’s writings, both fiction and nonfiction, is the power of reason. He was proud of being a secular humanist, and through his stories and popularizations, he tried to show how reason can help humankind solve such problems as overpopulation, prejudice, and war. In his fiction, a reasoned rather than emotional approach usually provides the solution to conflicts. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, Asimov chose themes with validity in the past, present, and future: the economic, political, and religious forces behind the rise and fall of empires; the effects of technology on society; and the human heart in conflict with its mind. As time dates his scientific writings, his science-fiction corpus looms larger. Indeed, his work in this genre helped it to outgrow its birth in the pulps to become an important part of modern fiction.