Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Science Fiction Master Isaac Asimov began his Foundation Trilogy while stationed at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
Awards: Hugo Award, Nebula Award, James T. Grady Award, American Association for the Advancement of Science-Westinghouse Science Writing Award, Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award, Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame
Isaac Asimov, born in Petrovichi, Russia, in 1920, was a prolific science fiction writer. Asimov utilized his degree in chemistry from Columbia University to supplement the science fiction of his works. From 1942 to 1945, Asimov worked in the Philadelphia Naval Yard as a junior chemist for the US Naval Air Experimental Station. While in Philadelphia, he began his Foundation series, which marked him as a major author in the science fiction genre. After 1958, Asimov mostly wrote nonfiction works. He died in 1992 at the age of 72. His works remain popular, demonstrated by the posthumous adaptations of his short story “The Bicentennial Man” into a 1999 film of the same name and of his novel, I, Robot in the 2004 blockbuster.
Isaac Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia (formerly U.S.S.R.), on January 2, 1920. When Asimov was three, his family moved to the New York borough of Brooklyn, where his parents owned and operated a candy store. Asimov attended the New York City public school system at PS 182, but had already taught himself to read at age five, using the street signs in his Brooklyn neighborhood. The family-owned store became central to Asimov’s early life. He dedicated his time away from school to the candy store and attributed his personal characteristics of eating quickly and carefully using his time to this period of early responsibility. The strict punctuality required by his father led to Asimov’s later habit of waking up at six in the morning and writing until ten at night. The one bright spot in Asimov’s work at the candy store was the store’s newspaper rack. This stand contained the latest science fiction magazines. Asimov’s father, however, disapproved of such pulp magazines, considering them to be “mind rotting.” It took years before the young science fiction enthusiast could convince his father to allow him to read these serials.
After skipping a few grades, Asimov graduated high school in the spring of 1935, when he was only 15. He then went to Columbia University where, aside from earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, he completed his first science fiction story. On June 21, 1938, Asimov met John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Asimov showed his recently completed story to Campbell, the most influential science fiction editor of the 1930s and 1940s. Campbell saw promise in Asimov’s work, and their relationship grew to become the most fruitful author-editor collaboration in science fiction. On his relationship with Campbell, Asimov said:
"Well, in a way, I suppose I was the perfect foil for John Campbell… I imagine that a great many other writers found him too rich for their blood—at least to sit there and listen to him hour after hour. But I was fortunate in the sense that he was in some ways a lot like my father. And I had grown up listening to my father pontificate in much the same way that John did, and so I was at home and I listened to probably—I suppose if you took all the time that I sat there listening to John and put it all together, it was easily a week’s worth of just listening to him talk… And I remember everything he said and how he thought and I did my best because I desperately wanted to sell stories to him."
In 1939, Asimov not only graduated from Columbia University, but also published his first short story, titled “Marooned off Vesta.” The story involved the destruction of a spacecraft, the Silver Queen, by an asteroid. The three crew members who survived must try to navigate their small section of the ship to a safe landing at Vesta, a small outpost. The next year, Asimov published a story called “Strange Playfellow,” which marked the beginning of a decade-long series of extremely successful short stories about robots. These nine stories (“Strange Playfellow,” “Reason,” “Liar!” “Runaround,” “Catch the Rabbit,” “Escape,” “Evidence,” “The Little Lost Robot,” and “The Evitable Conflict”) were collected and published as I, Robot in 1950. This collection was the inspiration for the 2004 Will Smith movie of the same name.
This collection of stories, as well as the screen adaptation, addresses problems that arise from Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” These laws, which are the basics of a human moral code, state that a robot may not injure a human or allow a human to be injured, a robot must obey human orders except when they conflict with the directive to not injure a human, and a robot must protect its own existence except when it would conflict with the previous two directives. In dealing with these issues, the stories also confront the relationship between man and technology, a concern that is given increasing weight as the collection progresses. By the end of I, Robot, Asimov has posited robots as morally superior to humans, and thus capable of making up for man’s shortcomings. Of this collection, Asimov said, “Certainly the very first stories that really satisfied me and made me feel good about my writing were my robot stories.”
Asimov wrote other works concurrently with his robot stories. In 1941, he published “Nightfall,” a short story that has been frequently anthologized and that New York Times writer Theodore Sturgeon called “surely one of the most memorable of all s.f. concepts.” The story’s premise arose out of a conversation Asimov had with Campbell, in which Campbell asked, “What do you think would happen, Asimov, if men were to see the stars for the first time in a thousand years?” It was Campbell’s belief that the experience would drive men mad. Asimov tackled the idea in “Nightfall” by creating a planet called Lagash that only saw the stars once every 2,049 years during a lunar eclipse. This bi-millennial nightfall actually led to the repeated destruction of Lagash’s civilization when all its inhabitants, unfamiliar with darkness, went crazy. In the same year that “Nightfall” was published, Asimov earned his master’s degree in chemistry from Columbia University.
The next year, Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman, with whom he would later have two children, and moved into a small house in Philadelphia located at 4715 Walnut Street. From 1942 through 1945, he worked as a chemist at the US Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. It was during this period in Philadelphia that Asimov began working on one of the most influential science fiction series of all time. Beginning in 1942 and continuing through 1951, Asimov wrote five novelettes and four novellas that are now known as the Foundation Trilogy. Of the trilogy, Charles Elkins of DePauw University wrote, “Among SF series, surely none has enjoyed such spectacular popularity as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories.”
The trilogy, which is set in a galactic empire with more than twenty-five million worlds, has been used as a backdrop by many subsequent science fiction writers and won the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award for the best all-time series in 1966. Although critics have pointed out the shortcomings in Asimov’s trilogy, including Charles Elkins who asserted that “The characters are undifferentiated and one-dimensional. Stylistically, the novels are disasters, and Asimov’s ear for dialogue is simply atrocious.” For his part, Asimov believed the trilogy was the “very foundation of his success as a writer.” Other critics agreed with Asimov’s assessment, including John Markoff of the New York Times who wrote that the “endless stream of stories about space adventures” was “far more compelling than anything television could offer,” and Donald M. Hassler, writing for Science Fiction Studies, who believed that the Foundation trilogy “is not only the fiction that Asimov is best known for but also, perhaps, best exemplifies his inclinations towards…the human and towards storytelling.”
The trilogy, which consists of Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953), is actually comprised of the component novellas and novelettes that Asimov published serially in Astounding Science Fiction over an eight-year period. Thus the Foundation trilogy was not meant to be published as a unified text, a fact that many critics often overlook in their rush to point out plot inconsistencies. Stephen H. Goldman, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, argues that rather than focus on the flaws that necessarily resulted from serial publication, audiences should instead admire the trilogy’s presentation of a “view of sheer galactic magnitude and multiplicity unsurpassed by any science-fiction work yet produced.” Contemporary Authors Online seems to concur, noting the trilogy’s lasting popularity and its achievement of a “special standing among science-fiction enthusiasts.”
Foundation consists of five novelettes. The first, entitled “The Psychohistorians,” details the creation of the First Foundation on a planet called Terminus. In this story, Gaal Dornick is trained in an Asimov-created branch of mathematics called “psychohistory,” which is the “mathematical science for predicting mass behavior.” Using psychohistory, Dornick has foreseen the end of the current Empire, which will be followed by thirty thousand years of anarchy. Dornick believes this period of lawlessness can be shortened to a thousand years by setting up two foundations, one of physical scientists and one of psychologists, at opposite ends of the galaxy. Thus the Empire’s government sends Dornick and a team of physical scientists to Terminus to set up a foundation, intent on preserving knowledge for future generations. The remaining novelettes in the trilogy’s opening chapter follow the foundation on Terminus and how it resists outside threats from other worlds. Notable within the first volume of the trilogy are Asimov’s depictions of the sheer size of the world he created. As Goldman notes, “whether Asimov is describing the physical aspects of one of the more than twenty-five million worlds or the social, political, or economic systems of that world, he successfully convinces the reader of the utter vastness of the universe.”
Foundation and Empire is comprised of two novelettes that depict greater threats to the First Foundation. These threats consist of a general who is bent on creating a new Empire himself and, a hundred years later, a mutant called “the Mule” who has conquered the remains of the old Empire and is looking to take over Terminus. The character of the Mule presents an interesting challenge to psychohistory because he is a genetic accident that science could not foresee or predict.
The final third of the trilogy focuses on the search for the psychologist-led Foundation, which both the Mule and the First Foundation view as a threat. The Mule is concerned about the Second Foundation as a rival for power, while the First Foundation is concerned that the second is tampering with individuals’ minds, a process they call “adjusting.” By the conclusion of the trilogy, the First Foundation believes it has defeated the Second Foundation, but Asimov leaves his own attitudes about the event much more open. By ending the story in this way, Asimov causes readers to reflect on the possibilities of free will in a future where everything can be determined.
In the midst of writing the Foundation trilogy, Asimov earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University. In addition to his extensive formal education, Asimov also had a thorough self-education. He was well-read across a variety of subjects, lending him an openness of mind and breadth of knowledge that few other scholars could match. In 1949, Asimov accepted an offer to teach biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. Of this job, Asimov admitted, “I didn’t feel impelled to tell them that I’d never had any biochemistry. By 1951, I was writing a textbook on biochemistry, and I finally realized the only thing I really wanted to be was a writer.” Asimov was made an associate professor in 1955, but stopped teaching three years later, choosing instead to write fulltime.
Although Asimov admitted to being tired of writing within the Foundation’s galaxy by the end of its serialized run, his next two stand-alone novels utilized the trilogy’s universe. Pebble in the Sky (1950) and The Stars Like Dust (1951) were both set within the trilogy’s world. Pebble in the Sky tackles the subject of racism by creating a future Earth, believed unfit for habitation by any intelligent individual, shunned by the rest of the Empire. The humans of other worlds hold a prejudice against Earth-dwellers because they “simply do not like the Earth.” Although all humans originated on Earth, the novel takes place so far in the future that this concept has been lost. The Earth-dwellers are, therefore, the subject of discrimination by humans who do not realize their common humanity. In retaliation, the humans from Earth develop a virus that will kill humans living on other worlds, delivering the message that prejudice will only beget further prejudice. The Stars Like Dust takes place in the Empire before the First Foundation was created and deals with issues of inter-planetary imperialism.
In 1954, Asimov tried a new combination by pairing science fiction and mystery in The Caves of Steel. The novel was the result of a suggestion by Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction, to have a murder solved by a human-robot detective duo. This novel is set in a future where all inhabitants of Earth live underground and are considered outcasts by the rest of the galaxy. When a famous robot is murdered on Earth, the other planets demand an Earth-dwelling detective be put on the case, as a way to embarrass the shunned planet. Elijah Baley, a New York detective, is given the case and assigned to work with an Outer-world partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot. Working together, employing Baley’s intuition and Olivaw’s objectivity, the pair is able to successfully solve the case. The Caves of Steel continues to showcase Asimov’s talent for world creation. According to Goldman, “[Asimov’s] descriptions are every bit as effective as those in the Foundation series, and they convince the reader that he is indeed seeing a world that has undergone great change and adapted to that change.” Asimov revisited the pairing of Baley and Olivaw in The Naked Sun (1957) and “Mirror Image” (1972).
Asimov’s most productive period writing in the science fiction genre was in the 1950s. After 1957, he began to write mostly nonfiction works, capitalizing on his self-proclaimed ability to “read a dozen dull books and make one interesting book out of them.” Asimov’s nonfiction topics often centered on extrasolar phenomena and other astrological concepts, which he covered in Adding a Dimension (1964), The Solar System and Back (1970), and Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1977). Asimov was also the editorial director of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, writing the editorials for each issue. Asimov’s work in nonfiction has chiefly been admired for the way in which he could explain difficult concepts to the average individual. In a New York Times review, Theodore Sturgeon called Asimov “the most perfect and the most inclusive interface between hard science…and the layman, for he has a genius for bringing the obscure into the light.” This gift for explanation, according to Goldman, made Asimov “phenomenally successful as a writer of science books for the general public.” Asimov claimed, “I’m on fire to explain, and happiest when it’s something reasonably intricate which I can make clear step by step. It’s the easiest way I can clarify things in my own mind.” His significant talents were honored with the James T. Grady Award by the American Chemical Society in 1965 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Westinghouse Science Writing Award in 1967. Asimov was not content to only write about science, however. He continued to diversify by writing about history (The Shaping of England ), Shakespeare (Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare ), the Bible (Asimov’s Guide to the Bible ), and mythology (Mythology and the Universe ).
In 1972, Asimov briefly returned to writing science fiction with the publication of The Gods Themselves, which also won a Hugo from the World Science Fiction Society and a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Asimov came up with the idea for the story after attending a science fiction convention where a speech was given about chemical isotopes, employing the imaginary “plutonium-186” as an example. Asimov thus decided to create a story centering on this isotope. In the first part of The Gods Themselves, a store of plutonium-186 is found. Since the isotope could not possibly exist in that universe, scientist Frederick Hallem concludes that it must come from a parallel universe that is ordered by different laws that allow plutonium-186’s existence.
By discovering the link between his universe and the parallel one, Hallem is able to invent an Electron Pump that can power his world with unlimited amounts of energy. Peter Lamont, a young scientist, realizes that continued use of the Electron Pump will likely set off nuclear reactions in the suns of both universes, but neither Hallem nor his government will listen to his warnings. The second section of The Gods Themselves takes place in the alternate universe, and the final section reveals the discovery of a third universe that provides the necessary equilibrium needed to keep the Electron Pump running safely. About this novel, Asimov’s first in fifteen years, Sturgeon wrote, “Asimov does not completely succeed…but all the same, he has created an extraordinary alien species.”
In 1976, Asimov added another impressive science fiction short story to his resume, titled “The Bicentennial Man.” This story revisited the issues Asimov had raised in his earlier robot stories and won both a Hugo and a Nebula Award. Once again, Asimov dealt with the relationship between man and his finest creation, the robot. The story is presented through Andrew, a robot who wants to break down the barriers between robots and humans. His human owners encourage his evolution towards humanity, despite all the outsiders who try to stand in his way. By the end of the story, Andrew undergoes an operation that will make him mortal, and is thus declared human. Andrew justifies his choice by saying “I have chosen between the death of my body and the death of my aspirations and desires.” Asimov’s story was used as the source material for the film adaptation Bicentennial Man (1999), starring Robin Williams as Andrew.
Despite suffering a heart attack in 1977, Asimov kept up his strenuous writing pace. He returned to the Foundation’s universe in 1982 with the sequel Foundation’s Edge, his first best-seller. Gerald Jonas, in a New York Times review, wrote that “[Asimov] writes much better than he did 33 years ago." Foundation and Earth (1986) and Prelude to Foundation (1988) linked the Foundation universe with his robot stories. In 1986, he was awarded the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award.
Asimov was a truly prolific writer, publishing over 500 works. Mervyn Rothstein, in Asimov’s obituary, explains the sheer volume of work the writer produced:
"His first 100 books took him 237 months, or almost 20 years, until October 1969, to write. His second 100, a milestone he reached in March 1979, took 113 months, or about 9 1/2 years.
Asimov was able to accomplish this feat, in part, by rewriting everything only once. He admitted that this habit was “not out of conceit…I have lots of stuff I’m committed to write and if I linger lovingly I won’t be able to write at all.” He worked every day, revealing that, “Sunday is my best day: no mail, no telephones. Writing is my only interest. Even speaking is an interruption.”
Despite his profession that writing was his only passion, Asimov was an opera enthusiast and a member of a Sherlock Holmes society. From 1985 to 1992, he was the president of the American Humanist Society.
Isaac Asimov died on April 6, 1992, at the age of 72 in the New York University Hospital. At the time, his brother Stanley said that Asimov had died of heart and kidney failure. His biography, It’s Been a Good Life, revealed a decade later that he had died of AIDS, having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in 1983. Before death, Asimov contemplated the loss of conscious thought, then concluded, “I don’t have to worry about that, because there isn’t an idea I’ve ever had that I haven’t put down on paper.” Asimov was survived by his children, David and Robyn, and his second wife, Janet. In 1997, he was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
I, Robot. New York: Gnome Press, 1950.
Pebble in the Sky. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1950.
Foundation. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1951.
Foundation and Empire. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1952.
Second Foundation. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1953.
The Caves of Steel. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1954.
Nightfall and Other Stories. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1969.
The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories. New York: Doubleday, 1976.
Foundation’s Edge. New York: Doubleday, 1982.
Adding a Dimension: Seventeen Essays on the History of Science. New York: Doubleday, 1964.
The Solar System and Back. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Asimov, Isaac. I, Asimov: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
Asimov, Isaac. In Joy Still Felt: the Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954-1978. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980.
Asimov, Isaac. In Memory Yet Green: the Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954. New York: Doubleday, 1979.