Remembering Isaac Asimov

By Nur Hussein, staff writer

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov with his majestic mutton chops.

Isaac Asimov was the first science fiction author I ever read. His stories were a huge part of my childhood, and enthralled little me like nobody else could; he wrote of space empires and robots, and it wasn’t just pulp adventure.  All the stories were deeply laced with big ideas. I couldn’t put the books down, and they transported me to distant worlds and far-off times.

Asimov was born in Russia in 1920, though he doesn’t quite know the exact date but he celebrates it on January 2nd. His birth name was Isaak Yudovich Ozimov, which was transliterated to Isaac Asimov, though the ‘s’ in Asimov should have been a ‘z.’ He even wrote a short story titled Spell My Name With An S based on this little fact, about a character who changes a single letter of his name from an ‘z’ to a ‘s,’ thus triggering a series of global events.

Asimov’s family immigrated to the United States when he was three, and was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at the age of eight. His fascination for science fiction began reading pulp magazines in his family’s store at an early age, and by the time he reached his teens he was already writing stories of his own. The first time he tried submitting a story was in June 1938 to the editor of sci-fi magazine Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell. Campbell rejected the story, but encouraged the young Asimov to keep writing. Asimov’s first published story was called Marooned Off Vesta, which appeared in the March 1939 issue of another science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories. Thus began a prolific sci-fi writing career.

Asimov attended college at a branch of Columbia University in the field of chemistry. After failing to get into medical school, he received a graduate degree in Columbia where he eventually got a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He joined the Boston University School of Medicine as a professor, and he remained tenured there. Asimov’s papers from 1965 onwards are archived at the university’s Mugar Memorial Library. Imagine my delight at discovering this when I attended Boston University!

Book cover art depicting Hari Seldon, mathematician hero of the Foundation.

Book cover art depicting Hari Seldon, mathematician hero of the Foundation.

Not counting individual essays and short stories, Asimov wrote over 500 books and manuscripts in his lifetime. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction, with the bulk of his non-fiction being popular science. For his science fiction, he is known for his robot stories, where Asimov posits his now-famous Three Laws of Robotics. The word “robotics” itself is something he coined for his stories, and one of Asimov’s legacies is that it is an actual field of study now.

His other famous sci-fi epic is the Foundation series, where he describes a rise of a galactic government called the Foundation, which is founded on the principles of the invented science of psychohistory: a branch of mathematics that can predict future outcomes of a sufficiently large population. Foundation was inspired by Asimov’s readings of  Edward Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which he playfully discloses in a poem with the line, “a little bit of cribbin’ from the works of Edward Gibbon.” Later, Asimov retconned the Foundation stories to be in the same continuity as his Galactic Empire and robot books, and many of his novels form a loose continuity in an Asimov-verse.

Asimov’s writing style is one focused on clarity and ideas. Thus, occasionally character development and descriptive settings take a back seat to the conceptual aspect of the story. While literary critics might frown on such non-ornamental writing, it made his writing accessible, and thus also the ideas contained therein.

Asimov’s stories have inspired countless authors, filmmakers and scholars. Paul Krugman was inspired by psychohistory to enter the field of economics, and eventually won the Nobel Prize in the field. Asimov’s books have been made into feature films, most notably The Bicentennial Man starring the late Robin Williams (there was also the rather atrocious “adaptation” of I, Robot with Will Smith but I’m not counting that). The idea of a Galactic Empire, with its capital being a planet covered entirely by a city, was used by George Lucas in his Star Wars films. The idea first appeared in Asimov’s books.

Asimov died in 1992, from complications arising from an HIV infection from a blood transfusion during surgery that he underwent in 1983. He is sorely missed by fans of science fiction, and remains one of the legends of the genre. However, he left behind a huge treasure trove of written works in his lifetime, and no matter how many times you’ve read or re-read his works, you can always go back to Asimov’s writings and find a familiar voice, always with something interesting to say.

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About Nur Hussein

Nur is a tinkerer of programmable things, an apprentice in an ancient order of technomages. He enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, comic books, and Lego in his spare time. His favourite authors are Asimov and Tolkien. He also loves Celtic and American folk music. You can follow him on twitter: @nurhussein

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