Isaac Asimov Essay - Asimov, Isaac (Vol. 3)

Asimov, Isaac (Vol. 3)

Asimov, Isaac 1920–

One of America's most ambitious and prolific writers, Asimov has written books on anatomy and physiology, astronomy, the Bible, biology, chemistry, etymology, geography, Greek mythology, history, humor, mathematics, and physics. He is also the author of the "Foundation" novels, now considered seminal to modern science fiction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The title story of Asimov's collection, The Martian Way, is surely one of the best science fiction novellas ever published. The story's taking-off point is simple: If no miracle fuels or propulsion systems come along, but Mars is to be colonized anyway, then it will have to be done with step rockets. A-B-C. All right, then what happens to the discarded steps—hundreds of thousands of tons of salvageable steel? Asimov's answer: [They] drift on out across the Martian orbit, until Scavengers in tiny two-man ships come out to get them.

The drama of "The Martian Way" is in those ships. Asimov, writing compactly and with enviable control, makes every phase of them intensely believable—the irritation that grows in the cramped quarters, the squabbling "Scavenger widows" at home, the monotony of waiting, the excitement—like hooking God's biggest fish—of a fat strike.

A lesser writer, fumbling for something to say, would have made these men little tin heroes, tight-lipped and glint-eyed, with shoulders from here to there. Asimov's characters are good-natured, human, unextraordinary, wonderful joes.

And a lesser writer, dealing with the long voyage to Saturn which turns this story from a vignette into an epic, would have marked time with mutinies, sprung seams, mold in the hydroponics tanks and Lord knows what all else. Asimov, instead, has rediscovered the mystic euphoria and beauty of space travel. Of those who have written about this imaginary journey, how many others have even tried to make Saturn glow in the reader's eyes like the monstrous jewel it is?

When you read this story, if you haven't already, you'll realize how much there is of heroics in run-of-the-mill science fiction, and how little true heroism. Asimov will make you feel the distances, the cold, the vastness, the courage of tiny human figures against that immense backdrop.

Damon Knight, "Asimov and Empire," in his In Search of Wonder: Critical Essays on Science Fiction (reprinted by courtesy of Advent: Publishers, Inc.), Advent, 2nd edition, 1967, pp. 90-4.

There's no doubt that Isaac Asimov is the finest popular science writer working today, and in my opinion Ike is the finest who has ever written; prolific, encyclopedic, witty, with a gift for colorful and illuminating examples and explanations. What makes him unique is the fact that he's a bona fide scientist—associate professor of biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine—and scientists are often rotten writers…. But our scientist professor, Asimov, is not only a great popular science author but an eminent science fiction author as well. He comes close to the ideal of the Renaissance Man.

Alfred Bester, in Publisher's Weekly (reprinted from April 17, 1972, issue of Publisher's Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), April 17, 1972, pp. 18-19.

Asimov has achieved a unique status, for not only is he admired and, by many, loved for his work in s.f. and for his engrossing regular science column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but he is equally respected by professionals in some 20-odd scientific disciplines. He has become the most perfect and the most inclusive interface between hard science (including math) and the layman, for he has a genius for bringing the obscure into the light. His writing career began in the so-called "Golden Age" of s.f., under the aegis of the late John W. Campbell Jr. …

"The Early Asimov" contains all his science fictions from 1940, when he was a teen-age college student, through 1948; and they are fascinating to read. They are chronologically arranged, and the rubrics carry a wealth of anecdote, so that the development of this towering young mind becomes as engrossing as the stories themselves. Asimov came slowly to the fullness of the characterizations that marks his later fiction, but rapidly indeed to his knack of reordering facts and to his clear logic, even where logic led him to the wildest speculation.

Theodore Sturgeon, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 28, 1973, p. 10.

Isaac Asimov is generally considered the father of modern science fiction, yet while others have invented supermen, supergods and superbeasts, he has remained basically a conservative author. While they have prophesised he has speculated and as a practising scientist has moved with caution, examining what is possible rather than what is fanciful. Yet still his Foundation trilogy is praised as being the corner-stone of that most fanciful craft, as being the point where it grew up. And if growing up means shedding one's belief in the utterly impossible, of losing innocence, then yes, he helped science fiction grow up.

One reason for Asimov's success lies in the fact that his characters are solid; he gives them a deeper history and knows more about them than he allows himself to divulge. If I speak of him as being a conservative writer, as being 'safe', then it is not to complain: sometimes, particularly in his short stories, he gets near the craftsmanship of such mainstream giants as Somerset Maugham. His science fiction mystery stories are brilliant, could never have been solved by Holmes nor bettered by Doyle. His stories about robots are innovatory, and have laid waste once and for all the idea of robots as being tin-lizzies. His Three Laws Of Robotics are considered so seriously by some American scientists that they might one day be lifted from the realm of fantasy and actually be applied….

The most important of Asimov's achievements has been in the Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) to inaugurate the convention of Mankind as already being on and controlling other planets. Before the Foundation books men were still (with a few important exceptions) journeying towards the stars. At the opening of the Foundation trilogy they have ruled the Galaxy for so long they are losing their hold, and Galactic civilisation is crumbling.

Being a conservative writer Asimov decided that what would happen when men were in control of the Universe would be much the same as when they were in charge of a single planet: their main preoccupations would still be political intrigue, commercial opportunism, back scratching, revolution and murder. Nor did new planets for Asimov necessarily mean a new kind of man. I the Foundation books some individual freaks, set apart from mankind, were allowed, but imagination was kept in check and man remained man, prone to all his usual disasters.

Since that trilogy in the early fifties and the Robot stories that appeared in book form shortly after, many newer writers have grown in confidence sufficiently to challenge Asimov's conception of the future, but none of his position as Master.

Brian Patten, "Asimov's Laws," in Books and Bookmen, July, 1973, p. 104.

Asimov is a highly circumstantial writer, sharing with Heinlein and with Norman L. Knight the ability to visualize his imagined world in great detail, so that it seems lived-in and perfectly believable. He does not, however, share Heinlein's lightness of touch; instead, he more closely resembles the elder Knight (no relation to Damon Knight) in writing everything with considerable weight and solidity, turning each sentence into a proposition, a sort of lawyer's prose which is clear without at any time becoming pellucid.

This kind of style is perfectly suited to a story which is primarily reflective in character, such as Asimov's recent robot yarns. It is also just what is required for a story in which history is the hero and the fate of empires is under debate.

William Atheling, Jr., in his The Issue at Hand (reprinted by courtesy of Advent: Publishers, Inc.), Advent, 2nd edition, 1973, p. 28.