To the stars and beyond: A hundred years of Isaac Asimov

Interstellar travel, sentient robots, and supercomputers... on writer Isaac Asimov’s birth centenary, a look back at his legacy
Updated on Jan 04, 2020 07:51 PM IST
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In a completely unscientific survey I conducted for the express purpose of writing this article, I sent a WhatsApp message to many of my (what I hoped were) sci-fi reading friends asking what they thought Asimov’s greatest work (or their favourite Asimov work) was. The answers did not surprise me; there was absolutely no consensus. Everyone who had read Asimov had a different answer. ‘Bicentennial Man and End of Eternity FTW!’ replied one. ‘Some would say the Robot stories, but Foundation is more in-depth,’ answered another. ‘Robot Dreams,’ said a third; ‘his short stories definitely…especially the AI ones,’ pinged a fourth; ‘Nightfall. No questions there!’ said a fifth with complete confidence…and so on.

Of course, there was also one who said ‘who’s Asimov?’ Horrified, I explained that he was an acclaimed writer whose work had been made into several movies. ‘Haven’t you seen I, Robot?’ I asked. ‘Is that the one with Rajinikanth?’ came the tentative reply.

Message received. Asimov isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

But for those of us who revel in the scientific accuracy of fantastic worlds, in the possibility of reimagining the mundane into never-impossible futures, and found ways of thinking about the Big Questions of life through the stories of Multivac and lands where stars were only seen once in a thousand years, Isaac Asimov is a prophet (peace be upon his name).

A Russian immigrant in the USA in the 1930s, a professor of biochemistry, a war veteran, and a writer of popular science books, Isaac Asimov – whose birth centenary it was on 02 January – was also, possibly, the most successful science fiction writer of his generation.

His mind-bending stories of inter-stellar travel, other worlds, strange encounters, and sentient machines have never stopped fascinating readers since he first put finger to typewriter. One of the most prolific of writers, he has authored more than 500 books, edited several volumes, and all of this while also being a professor of biochemistry.

Born in a village called Petrovichi in Smolensk, Russia somewhere between October 1919 and January 1920, Isaac Asimov decided to celebrate his birthday on 02 January. He wrote in In Memory Yet Green, ‘It could not have been later than that... There is, however, no way of finding out. My parents were always uncertain and it really doesn’t matter. I celebrate January 2, 1920, so let it be.’

The Asimovs emigrated to the USA in 1922, and after struggling for three years, managed to save enough money to open a small candy store in New York. It was there that a young Isaac discovered science fiction in the form of magazines lying around in the store and also discovered the incomparable joy of reading and getting lost in the pages of a good book.

Isaac Asimov discovered he was a storyteller in school, and soon – even before he had turned 12 – was already trying his hand at writing them. He also wrote a detailed daily journal, complete with baseball scores, and had a dedicated following as a teller of tales he had read in magazines and books. But before he ever wrote science fiction, as a teenager, he had first tried his hand at fantasy.

In It’s Been a Good Life – a compilation of Asimov’s diary entries, personal communications, and a condensation of his earlier autobiographies – he writes about the first piece of fiction he ever attempted to write on the used typewriter his father had bought him: “(it was a story of) a group of men wandering on some quest through a universe in which there were elves, dwarves, and wizards, and in which magic worked.”

This was in the year 1935. Asimov was 15, and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit wasn’t published till 1937 (The Lord of Rings trilogy, which pretty much set the template for fantasy fiction for the next several decades, would only be published twenty years later between July 1954 and October 1955). “It was as though I had some premonition of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings,” writes Asimov. But for better or worse, it didn’t stick.

By the mid-1930s, Asimov was an avowed sci-fi fan, writing letters to science fiction magazines and even joining fab clubs. And by 1938, as an undergraduate chemistry major at Columbia University, he had written his first complete science fiction story and went to the New York offices of the Astounding Science Fiction magazine to meet the editor and submit it for publication. The Editor – John Campbell, who is credited with having found and nurtured an entire generation of science fiction writers, and went on to become Asimov’s trusted friend and editor for many years to come – rejected the piece, with a cordial letter that explained to the young Asimov why the story didn’t work and how he could get better. It would take nine more rejections before Asimov was finally published in another magazine called Amazing Stories.

For a writer so dedicated to his craft and one who wrote as much as he did, it took Asimov another twenty years to be able to earn enough to live off writing full time. In the meanwhile, he finished his Bachelor of Science degree, spent three years as a civilian chemist in World War II in Philadelphia, returned to New York and earned his doctorate in chemistry, and got a job as professor of biochemistry in Boston.

Till then and after, he wrote some of science fiction’s best loved stories. Stories of 200 year old robots who wanted to be human (The Bicentennial Man); of elections in an age where computers could predict the mood of the nation with a sample size of one (Franchise); of super computers who had all the knowledge of the world, and couldn’t yet answer one important question (The Last Question), and a history of a future in which a great civilisation came to an end (Foundation)…

But he was more than just a teller of made up stories. He was really invested in the science he wrote about, and the great pains he took to keep the science realistic in his stories is matched only by the pleasure he took in the research of it all. The simple evidence of how deeply he cared about the science of his stories is in the number of nonfiction books he wrote. He was as proud of being a science writer as he was of being a science fiction writer. Having written on subjects as varied as nuclear physics and human biology; Asimov the polymath is the poster child of multi-disciplinarity and academia – as at ease in the hard sciences as in sociology and history; as eager to learn and read when he became a full professor as he was as a teenager; and able to write in a clear and concise manner in fiction and science.

An atheist all his life, Asimov was a member of the humanist movement, and believed that human beings are responsible for the progressive advancement of society, and must step up and alleviate the ills of society themselves, instead of depending on supernatural forces. He even went so far as to sign the Humanist Manifesto in 1970. His two volume Asimov’s Guide to the Bible is also written from a strictly humanist point of view.

It is a vision reflected in his stories, in his hopes for possible futures. In 1984 – 35 years after George Orwell’s grim book of that name was published – Asimov was asked by the Toronto Star to predict what the world might look like 35 years from then (in 2019), and he managed to get quite a bit right. Even though we haven’t come to a point where we can “live under the faint semblance of a world government by co-operation” and we haven’t shifted polluting industries “in a wholesale manner” to space; he did foresee the human race’s increasing reliance on computers and predicted that “mobile computerised objects” would “penetrate the home”. He also predicted that there would have to be a “vast change in the nature of education” because we’d have to learn to live in an increasingly “high tech” world.

Asimov, above all, was an optimist – someone who was sure that the inherent good in enough members of the human race would outrun the evil forces and keep humans going for millennia to come. Oh the robots we would build! And the galaxies we would colonise! What adventures we would have! It is a world view that recognises the challenges of war and natural disasters and discrimination; but it is filled with hope – for a better future, a fantastic future, a kinder future.

Isaac Asimov was possibly the most successful science fiction writer of his time. (Getty Images)
Isaac Asimov was possibly the most successful science fiction writer of his time. (Getty Images)

Little Known Facts About Isaac Asimov
1. When Isaac Asimov was about two years old, 17 children in his village, including Isaac, contracted double pneumonia – a disease in which both lungs become inflamed, making it near impossible to breathe. All but Isaac died. He credits his survival to his mother, who after the doctor had given up on him, held baby Isaac ‘in her arms without ever letting go’ until he was better.

2. Though he wrote extensively about interstellar travel, Asimov was afraid of flying, and almost never took flights.

3. Asimov was fond of music and thought of Tchaikovsky as ‘music that makes me feel happy’ and Beethoven as ‘music that makes me feel awed’.

4. He wrote more than science and science fiction! Asimov’s Guide To The Bible was written in two volumes in 1968 and 1969. And in 1970, he wrote Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare. He organised the plays not as tragedies, comedies, and histories (as is usually done) but by region – Greek, Roman, Italian, English. Other than writing his autobiographies, Asimov’s Guide To Shakespeare was according to him ‘the most pleasant work I’ve ever done’.

5. Paul McCartney, in 1974, asked Asimov if he would write a screenplay for a science fictional movie musical about a band whose members were being impersonated by aliens. Asimov wrote it, but it was never made (speculation is that it had been rejected because Asimov neglected to use the scraps of dialogue that McCartney had suggested).

6. Apart from his own (what he called ‘legitimate’) PhD, Asimov was awarded 14 honorary doctorates in his lifetime.

7. When Asimov had a triple bypass surgery in 1983, he contracted HIV from a bad blood transfusion. In 1990, Asimov and his wife Janet Jeppson Asimov found out about it but they did not go public with this information on the advice of his doctors. It was not revealed even when he died in 1992 of heart and kidney failure caused by AIDS. The truth came to light in 2002, when Janet revealed it in the epilogue to It’s Been A Good Life.

8. In September 1983, Asimov met Indira Gandhi, when she was in New York City to attend the UN General Assembly. ‘She was a gracious and intelligent woman,’ he wrote about the meeting.

9. A fan of Sherlock Holmes, Asimov was a member of the official fan club – The Baker Street Irregulars; and even wrote a song (to be sung to the tune of Danny Boy) in praise of the detective for an annual dinner of the club. The first few lines were: ‘Oh, Sherlock Holmes, the Baker Street Irregulars/ Are Gathered here to honour you today,/ For in their hearts you glitter like a thousand stars,/And like the stars, you’ll never fade away’.

The Laws Of Robotics
One of Asimov’s most memorable contributions to the world are his Three Laws of Robotics. While scientists and others have written their own laws since, Asimov’s were the first, most popular, and remain at the heart of all other laws of robotics. They have also formed the bedrock of much of sci-fi involving robots. Many writers have written stories, simply assuming the laws as fact.
The Laws as Asimov wrote them:
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 the orders given 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 laws.

Asimov credits his friend and publisher John Campbell with having come up with them.

It was at a meeting between Asimov and Campbell where Campbell was actually rejecting one of Asimov’s stories that the idea for the laws emerged. Asimov was pitching a story about a robot that had become capable of reading minds due to a minor mistake on the assembly line.

And as they talked of the complications that robot telepathy might present, Campbell said, “Look, Asimov, in working this out, you have to realize that there are three rules that robots have to follow. In the first place, they can’t do any harm to human beings; in the second place, they have to obey orders without doing harm; in the third, they have to protect themselves, without doing harm or proving disobedient. Well ...”

The Writer’s Personal Favourites
In 1968, Asimov’s story Nightfall was voted the best science fiction short story ever written, by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and many think that honour still holds.

But what were Asimov’s favourites from among his own work?

Helpfully, he has answered the question himself. His own three favourite short stories were,
in descending order:

(1) The Last Question

(2) The Bicentennial Man

(3) The Ugly Little Boy


    Vidya Subramanian was part of Hindustan Times’ nationwide network of correspondents that brings news, analysis and information to its readers. She no longer works with the Hindustan Times.

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