Isaac Asimov Essay - Critical Essays

Isaac Asimov American Literature Analysis

Asimov’s science fiction, like his science popularizations, was based on a cool rationality and a transparent style. When complimented by a scholar about a poetic passage near the end of his story “Nightfall,” he insisted the passage was John Campell’s editorial addition. Asimov’s ability to describe complicated issues in understandable prose and appropriate analogies, carried over from his science-fiction writing, made his science articles and books successful, from The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science (1960) to Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1964) and Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery (1989). He also exhibited the playfulness of Lecherous Limericks (1975) and The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (1971) and began weaving personal references into introductions and headnotes with his editing of The Hugo Winners.

The breadth of his subjects was remarkable. He wrote mystery novels and stories as well as science fiction, edited more than a hundred anthologies, and published nonfiction books about general science, mathematics, astronomy, earth sciences, chemistry and biochemistry, physics, biology, history, the Bible, literature (including William Shakespeare), and humor and satire. He also wrote two massive volumes of autobiography as a way of celebrating the publication of his two hundredth book: In Memory Yet Green (1979) and In Joy Still Felt (1980). Some years later he put together a memoir, I. Asimov (1994).

Asimov’s science fiction was shaped by his love for the genre’s magazines, his admiration for Campbell, and his financial need. The amount he received for his stories was small at first (a penny a word at the beginning, two cents a word a bit later), paying for little more than his tuition. He also wrote, however, for the love of the genre, his satisfaction at his relationship with Campbell, and the admiration of editors and readers. His ability to get published regularly—forty-eight stories between 1939 and 1950 (with a gap during the War) meant that he published an average of almost five stories a year—he attributed in part to his chancing on two series ideas: the robot stories and the Foundation stories. He wrote an article about it for his fellow science-fiction writers: “There’s Nothing Like a Good Foundation.” During this period he published eleven robot stories and eight Foundation stories. He also reported income for those ten years of $7,821.75, a little more than $710 a year.

Asimov’s science-fiction writing career significantly changed after he sold his first novel, Pebble in the Sky (1950), to Doubleday. Although he would continue to write stories, his focus would change to novels. Another major shift occurred when he began writing for Horace Gold after the creation of Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950. Although he would continue to publish in Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, he did some of his best work for Galaxy, particularly The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957), which later were released in a single volume as The Robot Novels (1957). They were among the first successful blends of detective story and science fiction. In his Galaxy novels Asimov presented more rounded characters influenced by family, environment, and emotion.

Asimov’s earlier work, and much of his fiction throughout his career, was played on a bare stage by characters who reasoned and behaved rationally. His villains generally were as rational as his heroes. He said in an interview, “It’s not even a triumph of rationality over irrationality or over emotion, at least not in my favorite stories. It’s generally a conflict between rationalities and the superior winning. If it were a western, where everything depends upon the draw of the gun, it would be very unsatisfactory if the hero shot down a person who didn’t know how to shoot.” Nevertheless, his two favorite stories, “The Ugly Little Boy” and “The Bicentennial Man,” favored sentiment over rationality.


First published: 1941 (collected in Nightfall, and Other Stories, 1969)

Type of work: Short story

A group of scientists gather to experience the fall of night, which, because the planet has six suns, occurs only every 2,049 years.

Asimov had been publishing stories for two years before he got his first story featured on the cover of Astounding Science Fiction. “Nightfall” was recognized almost immediately as a classic and represented a validation of the author’s place in science fiction. When the first volume of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame was published, “Nightfall” got more votes than any other story. Asimov looked back ruefully on the plaudits, because he felt he wrote better stories later. Nevertheless, when he incorporated himself, he chose the name of “Nightfall, Inc.”

The story was suggested by Campbell, who quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement in Nature (1836): “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the City of God.” And he asked Asimov what he thought would happen. “I don’t know,” Asimov said. “I think they would go mad,” Campbell said. “I want you to write a story about that.”

Asimov made the story’s daytime period 2,049 years (roughly comparable to the time between the height of the Roman Empire and the present, or between Greek democracy and Sir Isaac Newton). He invented (less plausibly) a planet, Lagash, with six suns so that one was never out of the sky, except in predictable situations in which all the suns but one were on the opposite side of the planet, and the remaining one was eclipsed by a moon.

The story takes place, like a one-act play, in the observatory set up to record the fall of night and the appearance of the stars. Most of what happens is related in the form of questions by a reporter, answered by the director of the university and a psychologist. The only action is when a cultist attempts to destroy the astronomical cameras set up to record the event. The cult has accumulated mythological writings and religious interpretations of the rise and fall of previous civilizations every two millennia and believes the stars are sacred and that they would be profaned, if not destroyed, by being filmed. At the end, a mob from the nearby city gathers to storm the university, night falls, the stars appear, and everyone goes mad.

The story works in spite of the lack of action and character development. The situation is totally unlike human experience, and yet the responses, like the history of scientific discovery, seem all too human. The attempt to understand the unknown by rational processes and its opposite, the emotional reaction to the mysterious, reside at the heart of the science-fiction enterprise. The built-in ironies contrast Lagashian accomplishment and expectations against those of humans on Earth. Additionally, the twenty-one-year-old Asimov was already skilled at presenting scientific concepts in understandable language and images and in a kind of Socratic dialogue.

I, Robot

First published: 1950

Type of work: Short-story collection

Asimov started his consideration of robots and their interaction with humans in these eight stories written and first published between 1940 and 1950.

I, Robot was published by a specialty publisher, Gnome Press, in 1950, the...

(The entire section is 3157 words.)