Isaac Asimov

Biography by I.E. Lester


Science fiction as a genre has at its heart scientific change, be it first contact or continuing contact with alien species, alternate timelines, or new inventions, and the effect these changes have on people as individuals or societies as a whole.

It's a by-product of the scientific revolution that occurred in the late Middle Ages when science began making rapid advancement, and technology became something that could be observed progressing during a single lifetime. And if a one person can see that change is possible on a grand scale he or she can imagine further such developments that could occur in future times.

In 1516 English statesman Sir Thomas More wrote a novel, "Utopia," that we would now view as science fiction (even though it would more than four centuries before the term was invented). Over the centuries other such novels would be published.

German astronomer Johannes Kepler's "Somnium" (1634) featured a voyage to the Moon, as did the "Man in the Moon" by Francis Godwin (1638), and French soldier Cyrano de Bergerac's "The Other World" in (1657).

Alien races are given their first outing in Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" (1726). A lost world features in "Les Voyages et Aventures de Jacques Masse" (1710) and a hollow Earth in "La Vie, Les Aventures et Le Voyage de Groenland du Reverend Pere Cordelier Pierre de  Mesange," both by French writer Simon Tyssot de Patot. But these were very much in isolation and didn't start a trend for this style of writing.

Mary Shelley's masterpiece "Frankenstein" (1818) and the many novels of both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells also failed to start a revolution. And, despite the fact that the vast majority of recognizable science fiction novels of the Nineteenth Century and earlier were published in England or France, it would not be either of these countries that would prove responsible for the genre's explosion.

This honor belongs firmly to the United States. Science fiction as a distinct form of fiction has its origins in the pulp magazines of 1920s and 1930s America.

Hugo Gernsback began it all when in 1926 he founded a new magazine, "Amazing Stories," devoted entirely to stories he called Scientifiction, an abbreviation of Scientific and Fiction. For his magazine Gernsback actively encouraged writers to produce stories based on firm scientific principles that could actual serve to educate its readers as well as just entertain.

This would be the first of many titles that would be launched during the next two decades and, although many of these would prove short-lived, they are responsible for the written genre as it exists today. This would prove a remarkable piece of timing for a boy living in New York City.

Issac Asimov was born in Petrovichi, near the city of Smolensk in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, part of the Soviet Union. His exact date of birth is unknown due to a lack of records and differences between the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars but is known to be between October 1919 and January 1920. He chose to celebrate January 2nd as his birthday. He had a sister (Marcia, b. 1922) and a younger brother (Stanley, b. 1929).

His parents, Judah Asimov and Anna Berman were orthodox Jews. They chose to emigrate to the United States in 1923, settling in Brooklyn, New York City where the family would run a series of candy stores during the depression years of the 1930s.

This environment would give Asimov exposure to the pulp magazines sold in his parents' store. His father forbade him reading trashy literature but relented, after persuasion, when the pulp magazines related to science - the young Asimov reasoning that the stories contained enough actual science and scientific speculation for them to have an educational benefit.

Asimov was a gifted child. He taught himself to read before he was five years old, was placed on a rapid advancement course at school, and he graduated high school in 1935 at the age of fifteen. He attended Columbia University, receiving a B.S. in Chemistry in 1939 while still just nineteen years of age, and a M.Sc. in 1941.

His Ph.D. studies were interrupted by World War II. He worked from 1942 to 1945 as a chemist at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, before being drafted into the US Army. He was transferred to the Hawaiian island of Oahu and was intended to be one of the men participating in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946 (he avoided it narrowly as his discharge papers came through in time).

He returned to his studies at Columbia receiving his Ph.D. in 1948 before taking a teaching and research post at the Boston University Medical School. His teaching career lasted until 1958, when a series of clashes with the authorities at the school, together with his growing income from writing, saw him become a full time writer.

He would retain his title of Associate Professor or Biochemistry as part of his severance(1).

Asimov met Gertrude Blugerman on a blind date on Valentine's Day 1942. They married in July of the same year. They had two children, David (b.1950) and Robyn (b. 1955), named after a robot, Robbie, in one of his early stories. Their marriage was not a happy one and they would separate in 1970, divorcing three years later in 1973. He married Janet Jeppson on November 10th 1973.

As a teenager Asimov decided he wanted to do more than just read the stories in the pulp magazines. He wanted to write them too. He submitted his first story, "Cosmic Corkscrew," to "Astounding Stories," the magazine he considered the best of the pulps, in 1938. Its editor, John W. Campbell, rejected it, but obviously saw something of promise in the young man and encouraged him, offering him considerable advice.

He sold the third story he wrote, "Marooned off Vesta," to "Amazing Stories" and it featured in the March 1939 issue. It did not cause much of a stir upon release, going mostly unnoticed and contributing little to the
development of the genre.

Asimov continued to write all the time he was studying at University, with most of his stories being published in several of the pulps, although none of them achieved greatness. This changed in 1941 when he received his first cover for his story "Nightfall" in the September 1941 issue of "Astounding Science Fiction."

Astounding editor Campbell had showed Asimov a quotation by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which Emerson says that if mankind only saw the stars once in a thousand years how they would marvel at them. Campbell was convinced this was not the case and asked Asimov to write such a story. The resulting tale of madness when the light goes out, and the associated violence directed at the scientists who had merely discovered the bad news has since been recognized as one of the greatest science fiction short stories of all time and has topped many polls amongst SF readers.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Asimov would go from strength to strength writing dozens of highly respected science fiction short stories including "The Ugly Little Boy," "Profession," "The Last Question," "The Martian Way," and "Buy Jupiter."

In 1950 his output expanded to include original novels, the first of which was "Pebble in the Sky," expanded from a 40,000 word novella called "Grow Old with Me" that Asimov had written for the magazine "Startling Stories" only to see it rejected. It tells the story of Joseph Schwartz, a retired twentieth century tailor who is accidentally transported into the far future to discover that the Earth is a low-status, partly radioactive backwater in a
Galactic Empire.

On this future Earth, due to the lack of resources, its population undergoes euthanasia at age sixty - a problem for Schwartz as he is sixty-two upon arrival.

Asimov wrote two further novels during the 1950s set against the backdrop of this Galactic Empire, "The Stars, Like Dust" (1951) and "The Currents of Space" (1952). He also wrote a standalone novel, "The End of Eternity," in 1955.

He also wrote a series of juvenile science fiction novels under the pseudonym Paul French, starting with "David Starr, Space Ranger" in 1952 and featuring five further novels all set within the solar system over the next six years.

But it would be his Robot stories and Foundation series that would establish Asimov as one of the all-time greats of science fiction.

Asimov's ninth published story, "Robbie," appeared under the title "Strange Playfellow" in the September 1940 issue of "Super Science Stories," its title having been changed by editor Frederik Pohl. It featured a robot with a positronic brain.

Although not explicitly stated in the story, Robbie would be the first robot controlled by his famous "Three Laws of Robotics." As intelligent, beneficial robots these went against most robots seen in science fiction, prior robots having been mostly Frankenstein-like monster who turned on their creators.

He would write many other short stories featuring his moral robots, most appearing in "Astounding Stories," many featuring US Robotics and robot psychologist Susan Calvin. The 2004 sci-fi movie "I, Robot" starring Will Smith was based, albeit loosely, on these early stories.

Novels "The Caves of Steel" (1954) and "The Naked Sun" (1957) would expand the concept, featuring a human cop partnered with the positronically-brained robot R. Daneel Olivaw investigating murders. A third novel, "The Bounds of Infinity," was never completed.

The Foundation series also began as a series of short stories, all of which featured in "Astounding Science Fiction." As with "Nightfall," the idea for Foundation was developed along with John W. Campbell. Asimov invented the idea for a future history based on Edward Gibbon's "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".

The first story "Foundation" appeared in the May 1942 issue of "Astounding Science Fiction." Campbell encouraged Asimov to continue the story as a series of short stories and over the next seven years Asimov wrote seven further Foundations stories, growing in length and ending with the two novellas, "Now You See It" and "And Now You Don't."

The eight stories, together with a new introductory story, "The Psychohistorians," were compiled into three novels, "Foundation" (1951), "Foundation and Empire" (1952), and "Second Foundation" (1953).

The 1950s through also saw Asimov expanding into non-fiction. In 1952 "Biochemistry and Human Metabolism" was published. It was not a big success and he did not overly enjoy the process of writing by committee, but it did signify the start of a change in direction for Asimov's writing. He found he enjoyed writing non-fiction far more than he did writing fiction, and also that it made up for his, by his own standards, failure as a serious scientist.

He gradually published more and more non-fiction, initially concerning chemistry but expanding to include physics, astronomy, biology, general science, mathematics, history, literary criticism and annotation, humor, and religion.

From the late 1950s until the early 1980s Asimov output contained relatively little science fiction although the stories he did write were well received. He won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1973 for his novel "The Gods Themselves" (1972). His novelette "The Bicentennial Man"(10) also won both awards.

He did maintain a regular contact with the science fiction community. From November 1958 every issue of the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" (until Asimov's death) would feature an Asimov essay. Initially covering science topics, the breadth of subjects covered grew. The series ran for 399 consecutive issues. Essays of his would also appear periodically in "Astounding" and other science fiction magazines.

He also began editing anthologies, both alone and in collaboration (most notably with Martin H. Greenberg). To the majority of these anthologies Asimov would provide an introduction, and often would also write
commentaries on each of the stories.

In the 1970s he started a series of mystery stories set during meetings of a dining club called The Black Widowers in which guests would detail a mystery during a question and answer session for the members to attempt to solve. They never did, the solution always being provided by the waiter Henry. The first story in this series, "The Acquisitive Chuckle," appeared in the January 1972 issue of the "Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine," and by the time of his death Asimov had written more than sixty such tales.

He also wrote more than thirty stories featuring another club, the Union Club, as well as other mysteries. During the 1970s and 1980s it was these and other mystery stories that would form the bulk of his short fiction, considerably outnumbering his science fiction.

The 1980s saw another new departure for Asimov's writing with the publication of the story "Getting Even" in the August 1980 issue of "Gallery." The story featured the lead character gaining revenge on a wealthy man by having a tiny, two-centimeter tall demon remove the flecks of paint from the man's collection of paintings that made up the signatures of the artists, rendering them worthless.

Despite Gallery's insistence that this tale be a standalone, Asimov wanted to write more featuring the demon, Azazel. So he rewrote his second tale, "One Night of Song," and it was published in the April 1982 issue of the "Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction." He would produce more than two dozen Azazel stories.

In the 1980s Asimov returned as a science fiction novelist producing a number of books based on his Robot and Foundation series, eventually linking the two together into a single future history.

The first of these novels, "Foundation's Edge," appeared in 1982 and won Asimov another Hugo. "Foundation and Earth" (1986), "Prelude to Foundation" (1988), and "Forward the Foundation" (1993) completed the series.

The third robot novel, "The Robots of Dawn," was released in 1983, the fourth, and first without human detective Elijah Baley, followed in 1985.

He would also write a sequel to "Fantastic Voyage," his novelization of the 1966 movie, "Fantastic Voyage 2: Destination Brain," in 1987 and standalone novel "Nemesis" (1989). The 1980s also saw a series of children's science fiction books featuring Norby the Robot released and co-authored with his wife Janet, beginning with 1983's "Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot" all of which featured his three Laws of Robotics.

He won a further two Hugo Awards. In 1992 his story "Gold" took the prize for best novelette, and in 1995 his memoirs "I, Asimov" won for best non-fiction.

In the mid-1970s Asimov was contacted by Joel Davis of Davis Publications. Davis wanted a to launch a science fiction magazine. As the two mystery fiction magazines he already published, "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" and "Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine" featured the name of a well known mystery figure in the magazine's title, Davis decided he wanted his science fiction magazine to do likewise and selected Asimov to be the figurehead.

Despite his initial misgivings and protestations Asimov was won over and the spring 1977 saw a new science fiction magazine released, "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine." Asimov insisted he would never serve as editor, acting only as Editorial Director. George H. Scithers was its first editor, followed Kathleen Moloney (1982), Shawna McCarthy (1983-1985), and Gardner Dozois (1986-2004). The current editor is Sheila Williams.

In his later years Asimov suffered from ill health beginning with a heart attack in 1977. He would undergo a triple bypass operation in 1983, which, although successful, would ultimately prove responsible for his death. The blood transfusion he received during the operation infected him with the HIV virus. He died of kidney and heart failure caused by AIDS.

At the time of his death this infection was kept secret, his death being announced as due to kidney failure. He was persuaded to this silence against his initial wishes. His doctors cited the controversy following an
announcement by American tennis player Arthur Ashe who had also contracted the disease from a blood transfusion. They argued that the anti-AIDS sentiment of the time would be transferred to members of his family.

The full truth of Asimov's death would not be made public until 2002 when the hysteria surrounding the disease had calmed down.

Although born a Jew, Asimov was an atheist and considered himself a Humanist. He was named as Humanist of the Year in 1984 by the American Humanist Association and served as its president from 1985 until his death, when he was succeeded by fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1997. In 1981 an asteroid, "5020 Asimov," was named after him and in 2009 a crater on the planet Mars was also named in his honor.

Footnotes:
1 He was promoted to full Professor in 1977.
2 "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).
3 Asimov hated the change and made sure every subsequent publication of the story in anthologies and the collection "I, Robot" listed it under his original title.
4 The Oxford English Dictionary cites Asimov's 1941 story "Liar!" as the first recorded use of the word robotics.
5 Asimov always credited John W. Campbell with helping to develop the Three Laws of Robotics. Campbell countered stating they were always implicit in the stories.
6 "Astounding," January 1948
7 "Astounding," November, December 1949 and January 1950
8 A collaboration with Burnham Walker and William Boyd, two of Asimov's colleagues at the University of Boston Medical School.
9 In the second volume of his autobiography "In Joy Still Felt" (1980),
Asimov describes himself as a "merely adequate" researcher, but one of the best science writers in the world.
10 A motion picture was made from this story in 1999 starring Robin Williams, Sam Neill, Embeth Davidtz, and Oliver Platt.
11 Asimov admitted his wife did the vast majority of the work on these books, as his role was more to polish the books once completed.