Thu
Jan 2 2014 9:00am
A Science Fiction Halo Rests Slantedly Over Isaac Asimov’s Amiable Head

Isaac AsimovNo one knows the exact date of Isaac Asimov’s birth...not even the amazing Asimov himself! In Memory Yet Green, citing dodgy birth records, the author writes that his birthday could be as early as October 19th, 1919, but that he celebrates it as January 2nd, 1920.

Who are we to argue with Asimov? By his calculations, today would have been his 94th earth year, so happy birthday, Professor Asimov!  

When you find yourself browsing your local library, dutifully utilizing your excellent knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System, you’ll notice one constant element—books by Isaac Asimov. Aside from the category of Philosophy, you’ll find books authored by Asimov in every single section. From mysteries, to criticism on Shakespeare, to bible studies, and yes, science fiction: Asimov may be one of the most prolific and versatile writers of all time. Asimov himself was quite well aware of his reputation and literary prowess, famously quipping:

“People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”

An American author of Russian birth, Asimov is credited with coining the term “robotics” and popularizing numerous science fictional and scientific concepts. Indeed, Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics serve as a wonderful narrative mirror to human nature and to the various conundrums our social mores can produce. In the short story “Liar!” a randomly telepathic robot is faced with a paradox between preventing humans from coming to harm and telling them the truth. Robots are supposed to protect humans from harm either through direct or indirect action and this law extends, logically, to the emotional harm of hurt feelings. In order to save the feelings of its human friends, the telepathic robot Herbie begins telling comforting lies: You’ll get that job promotion! That person does love you! The mirror of human desires, wrapped up in our own outward inventions, is rendered painfully clear in this story, a truly excellent example of Asimov’s profound and insightful style.  

Asimov was also a champion of the written word and the vital importance of books in our everyday life. Speaking to the American Booksellers Association in 1989, Isaac Asimov asked his audience to imagine a device that “can go anywhere, and is totally portable. Something that can be started and stopped at will along its data stream, allowing the user to access the information in an effective, easy manner.” Asimov then reminded the audience that “we have this device. It’s called the book.” As a humanist, Asimov believed in the transformative power of the written word and the necessity for us to preserve our stories and musings in any way that we can.  

In terms of his impact on science fiction as it relates to pop culture, Asimov is certainly a huge influence on those bringing science fiction into the mainstream, partly because of how proudly he asserted his science fiction credentials. Writing in Is Anyone There? Asimov recalls a time when he worried about a pseudonym being required to quarantine his science fiction identity from the rest of his professional life.

“I was prepared for the Homeric battles, for I was determined to have my name on everything I wrote. In the first place, I like my name; in the second place, I am self-centered, in the third place, I am proud of science fiction and of my place in it and I won’t have it insulted. The Homeric battle, alas, never took place. No editor—not one—ever objected to the science fictional halo that rests slantedly over my amiable head.”

We’re admiring that science fictional halo still. Thanks, Professor Asimov—we wouldn’t be the same without you!

 

This post originally appeared January 2nd 2012 on Tor.com


Ryan Britt is a long-time contributor to Tor.com

9 comments
That Neil Guy
1. That Neil Guy
I miss him. Today, I will reread the postcards he sent me.
erick sibert
2. lollygags
Asimov was some of the first Science Fiction I read and I still enjoy rereading the Foundation and Robot novels. Happy Birthday Mr Asimov.

That Neil Guy - I have to admit I'm a little jealous, enjoy those postcards I imagine they're priceless to you.
That Neil Guy
3. Eugene R.
Dr. Asimov joked about the fortuity of his January 2 birthday. According to the Epilogue of his memoir, I. Asimov, his diary entry for January 2, 1991 recorded his delight at having it mentioned as a celebratory cure for the post-holiday blahs in the comic strip, Garfield. (Picture Garfield in conical party hat and blowing noisemaker at Jon and Odie: "Happy Birthday, Isaac Asimov!") "Probably gave me more exposure than I've ever had before!," he wrote.
That Neil Guy
4. Gerry M. Allen
The Good Doctor, the Kindly Editor and the Gentle Reader dialogs in the Astounding and (later) Asimov's demonstrated the affectionate relationship Dr. A had with his audience. I grew up with both his fiction and non-fiction; Only a Trillion inspired my career as well as introducing me to Thiotimoine. I re-read the robot novels and the Foundation series regularly. Happy Birthday, Issac Asimov!
That Neil Guy
5. Lucius
Not surprizing. My father was born in 1920 at home, as most babies were. He was pretty sure he was born on Oct. 15th, but there was no way to be certain. His parents were imigrants with limited English and getting to the church and city hall to register his birth presented certain obstacles. In post revolutionary, post WWI Russia I imagine similar problems in addition to record keeping being low on the list of priorities.
That Neil Guy
6. Russell H
I remember that shortly after his passing, there was a joke going around that soon we'd see materializing on bookstore shelves a volume titled ASIMOV'S GUIDE TO THE AFTERLIFE.
That Neil Guy
7. jaaron
His non-fiction is getting hard to find. I wish someone would update the science essays and get them back into print! For that matter, I wish the histories and guide to Shakespeare were available too.

Asimov was the single largest influence on my childhood interest in science - and the rest of the Dewey categories. And SF of course.
That Neil Guy
8. Paul Levinson
Of course, as Asimov made marvelously clear in the Foundation trilogy, specific predictions of the future are notoriously unreliable. Here's a postcard he sent to me back in 1979 http://paullevinson.blogspot.com/2008/10/postcard-from-isaac-asimov-to-me-from.html
James Nicoll
9. James Davis Nicoll
It's interesting to run Heinlein and Asimov through ngram:

http://tinyurl.com/k9ewljy

All those non-fiction books certainly helped Asimov's profile. I did a little checking a couple of years back and discovered the local libraries still stock a lot more Asimov books than Heinlein (of course there were more IA books to stock than RAH books).

Asimov being a noted serial harasser at cons clashes somewhat with the whole halo angle.

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