Isaac Asimov Essay - Asimov, Isaac (Vol. 9)

Asimov, Isaac (Vol. 9)

Asimov, Isaac 1920–

A Russian-born American, Asimov is a remarkably diverse and prolific author. Having written texts on numerous aspects of scientific study, Asimov is especially adept at making scientific writing clear to the layman. He has also written humorous and mythological pieces, but Asimov is most widely known for his first-rate science fiction which includes such classics as I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Asimov's prose, which is perfectly transparent, serves to convince the reader that everything has a meaning, that all mysteries can and will be explained in a rational manner. This is the promise of the scientist, not the artist; and like the scientist, Asimov often reneges on his promise. But even then, the reader is left with a feeling for the high drama that can be generated when a rational mind confronts the ultimate mysteries of time and space. Asimov's most famous series of stories deals with the thousand-year period between the breakup of the First Galactic Empire and the establishment of the Second Empire, a period during which the fate of man is in the hands of two Foundations created by the psychohistorian Hari Seldon. It is no secret that Asimov based his Galactic Empire on the Roman Empire. But … Asimov's Foundation stories are alive with a sense of things-to-come. Writing like this is not as easy as it looks…. [A] generation of s.f. writers tried to mine the vein that Asimov (and Robert Heinlein) opened, and few succeeded. (pp. 32-3)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1975.

Isaac Asimov is best known for his science fiction, but he is protean and has written on everything from the Bible to Shakespeare to detective stories. The man is a writing machine, and "Murder at the ABA" … is his 168th book. As can be deduced from the title, it is a mystery novel. As cannot be deduced, the author himself plays a prominent part in it. Nobody has ever accused Isaac Asimov of being a shrinking violet….

But the writing varies from fast-moving to cutesy as all hell (and never cutesier than when Asimov and his "friend" are exchanging arch footnotes).

One doesn't expect Joyce or Thackeray or Tolstoy in detective diction, but the kind of self-indulgent prose that Asimov uses can sometimes approach smug fatuity. Which is all the more to be regretted, for Asimov is so bright, so encyclopedic, so talented a writer; he should slow down a bit and think instead of spewing words out reflexively. (p. 13)

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1976.

[Beneath] the glib surface of Asimov's considerable output (and despite his own demurrers regarding hidden meanings) lies an elaborate metaphorical structure that combines New England Calvinism with the Old Testament Hebraic tradition of the "Peculiar People" to set forth a highly developed philosophy of mechanistic determinism with a positive ethic to justify it. (p. 88)

It is helpful … to consider nine of Asimov's works and to divide them into three groups. When placed in a certain order—not by the dates of their publication—these works provide a coherent background for the development of Asimov's Galactic Empire. The first group consists of a mock technical paper, "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline,"… and the 1955 novel, The End of Eternity. Both pieces posit the simultaneous existence of past, present, and future, and explore the reversal of cause and effect. The novel shows man's foray into time travel, accounting for his ultimate choice for space instead of time, and, as a social side issue, probes humanity's mass security complex and its relationship to the conservatism of a controlling establishment. The social "message" is presented in terms of Newton's principle of the conservation of matter and the laws of inertia.

The second step in the development of Empire involves the Calvinist period: the advent of the robot and the colonization of new worlds. The fundamental work of this group is the book of nine short stories from the 1940's collected as I, Robot (1950), in which the Puritanical robopsychologist, Susan Calvin, serves as the figure of predestination. The robots are, of course, a people of the Law, in this instance the well-known Three Laws of Robotics. Elaborating on the Calvinist robots are two novels, The Caves of Steel (1953) and The Naked Sun (1956), introducing Elijah Baley as the Prophet and the Law, and Robot Daneel Olivaw as the "law-enslaved" robot from the stars.

The third group consists of the Foundation Trilogy, three novels depicting the fall and rise of the Galactic Empire; they present the sciences of Psychohistory and communication through symbolic logic. More important to this study, however, is the exploration of free will in a context of fixed future and the further dealings with yet another figure of the Peculiar People as servant and scapegoat.

One final story remains to bring all the others into focus and to reveal the function of the chosen ones and the ultimate Cause of which all that preceded are the effects. This, of course, is the soul-tingling little gem entitled "The Last Question" (1956). (p. 89)

Asimov's early satire, "Endochronic Thiotimoline," is of basic importance to a full appreciation of the galactic series. A deadly take-off on every heavy-handed technical report ever written, it describes a newly discovered chemical that dissolves before the water is added—but only if the water is, in fact, going to be added…. Ostensibly, the point of the satire is to be found in the stupidity of the report writer…. Satire aside, however, "Thiotimoline" postulates the coexistence of past and future with the present. Going further we might infer a future that causes certain events to occur in the present so that they may in turn bring about that already existing future. That this tidbit of technical wit was written with the issue of determinism in mind is demonstrated by … mock endnotes [that concern determinism]….

In light of Asimov's penchant for word play, it is not difficult to see the "Endochronic" portion of the title giving rise to "The End of Time" while the sulphurous "Thiotimoline" becomes a "Time line" into the future—an elevator-like corridor through time powered by the sun gone nova in the far "upwhen." This is the central device in the novel, End of Eternity, in which an elite group called the "Eternals"—men recruited from various periods—effect "Reality Changes" in order to provide "the greatest good to the greatest number" of mankind. (p. 90)

Asimov in this novel has great fun with his temporal paradoxes and with putting his slightly doltish young hero through loop-the-loops, but after peeling away the melodrama a number of developments remain. Time is shown as subject to physical stresses and strains requiring immense outputs of energy to manipulate. On this high voltage line, connected at one terminal to the very end of solar time, the voltage is repeatedly stepped up with each reality transformation until at last the entire structure is shorted out and "self-destructed." Meanwhile, the meddlesome Eternals, provided with excessive power like a priestly caste or a dictatorial government, abuse and corrupt that power and are also shorted out. The paradox is that of men traveling through time for the purpose of maintaining the status quo and avoiding progress. Such self-contradiction is unstable and anti-survival in the context of Asimov's physico-temporal structure. The Platonic mode of the single reality, manipulable at the convenience of an esoteric elite, produces an involuted structure that can only turn in upon itself and devour its own tail. With the destruction of time travel, and its reactionary philosophy, comes the mode of multiple realities that makes the Galactic Empire possible. Certain ground rules emerge to support the workings of Asimov's brand of determinism: time is simultaneous as is space, but time travel and space travel are mutually exclusive; time is subject to physical laws and to physical manipulation through expenditure of energy; and the fixed future causes present events that ensure its own existence. (p. 91)

In the robot series, the physical base metaphor is that of computer science: the self-limiting structure of robot and man and their binary conditioning—or programming—that provides a yea-nay choice range and an illusion of free will. The ethical metaphor is that New England Calvinism with which Asimov appears to be well acquainted. The Positronic Robot illustrates some of the fundamental problems of Original Sin and/or Natural Depravity, the Doctrine of the Elect (or the Chosen People), Predestination and Responsibility, and the Puritan work ethic. (p. 92)

The structure of [I, Robot] is quite ingenious, for the story method parallels the development of the robot. For example, in the first story, "Robbie," the robot is introduced as a mute but sentient slave with overtones of beast of burden. In keeping with this primitive condition the story form is that of a familiar child's folk tale, with the plot frankly derived from the beloved yarn about the loyal dog, Old Nell (or perhaps Old Shep) or the beloved black slave, Big Jim (or Big Somebody-or-other). By way of this well-known plot we become comfortable with the robot, recognizing him as an old and benign acquaintance from our childhood. We fear no evil, for the Positronic Robot is as innocent as a prelapsarian Adam, even after he is unjustly banished, Ishmael style, by a hysterical woman.

As the robot becomes more complex, so too does the form of his story. To reveal the entrance of sin into the robot nature, Asimov brings into play the elements of the Greek tragedy, synthesizing Original Sin with the Tragic Flaw in "Little Lost Robot." His tragic hero carries the noble Greek name of Nestor (Robot NS-2) and is neither wholly good, since he is purposely created with a weakened First Law, nor wholly bad, since he is the unfallen innocent…. As one thing leads to another, Nestor falls into the sin of Hubris, and as an inevitable result he brings destruction upon himself.

From here, Asimov moves into the Medieval mode with "Reason," a monkish tale of robot priesthood. Here the robot abandons his creator, Man, to worship the giant transmitter which he is programmed to attend…. Despite his defiance of his creators, Robot QT, nicknamed "Cutie," fulfills his function as he has been programmed to do, and is thereby confirmed in his priesthood. What began as heresy emerges as the True Faith, even though it is based on a factually "wrong" but logically "right" premise…. While the social import bears on religious tolerance, the philosophical burden carries on with the ethical development of the predestined robot—this time one of the Elect for whom Grace is truly irresistible, since it is programmed in from the very beginning by Dr. Calvin.

The story form becomes ever more modern, complex, and sophisticated as the robots grow more numerous and more highly educated; but throughout the book, the figure of Susan (Hebrew for "Lily," symbol of purity) Calvin, narrator of these memoirs, serves as the metaphor for predestination. (pp. 92-3)

In the New England tradition of Hawthorne, Melville, and others, Asimov dwells on the dilemma of predestination with responsibility. The robot purposely modified for some specific function is a morally flawed robot. Any malfunction resulting from such modification is not the "fault" of the robot, but he must be destroyed nonetheless. Thus, though predestined to fall, the robot is held responsible for his acts.

Even as the robot serves on the one hand as the predestined individual, the robots as a group represent yet another type of the Elect, the Chosen People. A race apart, they are created for service and they run the gamut from dumb servomechanism, or slave, to the ultimate public servant—president of the World Council. During this progress, however, humans begin to regard robots as a physical and an economic threat. In a Diaspora the robots are eventually driven from frightened, ultra-conservative Earth and dispersed with the adventurous "Spacers" into the new world of outer space. (pp. 93-4)

The question propounded by the [robot] novels might be stated in these terms: if a robot (or a man) is indeed "programmed" (whether mechanically or genetically) with an ethical absolute, and that ethic is intact, how can the creature commit a wrong-doing? In both novels, a murder is committed, and a robot, with the Three Laws intact, is the "guilty" party, though the ultimate guilt may be laid at the door of a human who has manipulated the robot. Despite this, the robot goes "insane" with guilt. Why? Here again the Puritan (and Jewish) guilt complex comes into play. Having set up a rigid robotic ethic, Asimov proceeds to demonstrate the manifold ways of getting around it. The result is a multi-faceted view of guilt, blame, and social and individual responsibility. (pp. 94-5)

[In The Naked Sun] the typical detective story is presented, but beneath [its] superficial plot, through both the action and the metaphor, the reader must question just who IS the robot—Daneel or Elijah? Which of the two is more mechanical, more predestined, more human? In short, Asimov poses the age-old question, what is Man? (p. 95)

The principles of computer programming serve as basic metaphor in the robot series, and although in human terms the expression is "conditioning," Asimov makes it quite clear that the processes are fundamentally the same. (pp. 97-8)

Although Dr. Calvin provides Asimov with a convenient and appropriate metaphor for determinism, the fundamental approach can best be seen as a combination of Old Testament Law with the laws of physics, a term which in its broadest sense includes biochemistry and perhaps psychology. In treating man as a predestined computer deep-programmed with an externally imposed ethic, Asimov anticipated the discovery of the genetic code. To call "external" an ethical code imprinted on the genes themselves may appear contradictory; but the analogue is to a computer which carries its "ethical code" in its very structure. Though such structure is internal to the computer, it is externally imposed. (p. 100)

In dealing with Asimov's Calvinist Robots, much of the structure of his technological theology must be passed over. His treatment of space man as Adam or Ishmael is common enough in science fiction, along with his anticipation of the eventual disembodied mind as a version of the ancient conflict between body and spirit. He is unique, however, in his handling of the "chosen people" theme. In each set of novels, a special group serves as custodians of the Law, in which capacity they function as scapegoats, saviors, or servant-master-keepers to the race of man. The Positronic Robots are excellent examples of this function.

The Foundation trilogy takes a giant leap into the future and introduces the concept of Psychohistory. The Galactic Empire, grown corrupt and top-heavy after the manner of ancient Rome, is on the point of collapse. Hari Seldon puts into effect a long-range plan designed to reduce the inevitable "dark ages" from a probable thirty thousand years to a mere two thousand years. The Seldon Plan postulates a three-terminal social structure…. The Seldon Plan sets up a current of events generated by the statistical actions of the huge mass of humanity that populates the Galaxy. At certain crisis points along this forecalculated future, the Foundations function to switch the current of history along variant lines of probability, to rectify any unforeseen deviation from the Plan, and to amplify those social, religious, and economic factors that would speed up the return to full Galactic power. Of the three terminal points involved, only the Second Foundation has full knowledge of the positions and activities of the other two, and thus it serves as a translator of sorts, receiving information from both, and transmitting that information to each on a modified level. The primary function of the entire unit is eventually to switch all humanity from the physical to the mental sciences—from semi-communication to communication both complete and simultaneous.

The technically-inclined reader might detect in this plot summary the structure and function of a vacuum tube or transistor. It is this mode of plot structure that separates science fiction from non-technical literature; in fact, it is his exceptional skill in the use of such a mode that sets Asimov apart in his own field and provides a coherence and integrity above and beyond the concept of the Aristotelian Unities. Such dramatizing of the forces at play in the world of sub-atomic technology fulfills the ideal of the megamacrocosm in the ultraminimicrocosm.

The Foundation group deals overtly with the problem of Free Will in a deterministic universe, and although the series seems to allow for the random decisions of individuals, along with such variables as "The Mule," it still develops that Hari Seldon's statistically-based plan for "predestination" holds firm, if only because of the inertia of enormous population mass. Whereas the robot stories reveal individual man as mechanism, the Foundation group shows society as mechanism, not only by the manipulations of the Seldon Plan but by the very structure of the three-terminal "transistor" that is the Foundation trilogy itself.

Then, too, in this series Asimov again presents another version of the Law and the Prophets, and the Chosen People. Despite his use of a considerable amount of Christ imagery, we must note that no single person ever becomes a sacrificial scapegoat. Instead, a special and peculiar group fills this function and we again encounter the Galactic Jew in the ubiquitous members of the First and Second Foundation. As in the case of the Asimovian Robots, the Foundationers are selected and "programmed" to serve humanity, and again, "He who would be the master, begins as servant to all." The First Foundation people, never fully knowledgeable as to their function but ever aware of their calling, serve as the scapegoat race, while those of the Second Foundation remain ever in hiding, ready to rescue their companion group or humanity in general. Thus, in Asimov's two great series, a "peculiar people" become the holders of the Law.

Asimov's teleology, the end of his eternity, is presented in his powerful short story, "The Last Question," the robot story to end all robot stories. Man builds a computer, AC, and over a billion year span of evolution of both man and machine, man repeatedly asks the overwhelming question, "Can entropy be reversed?" The Computer always replies, "Insufficient data for meaningful answer." At last, man, freed from the limitation of physical body and spread throughout the dying universe, sees that the end is at hand. Man programs himself into the Universal AC, and finally, it alone exists in all space. In an unknowable span of time, equipped with all knowledge, AC computes the answer to the question and takes steps to demonstrate the solution:

The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.


And there was light—

Here the Robot participates in and brings to culmination all the factors of the Endochronic Time-line, Psychohistory, and robotic Calvinism in the ultimate cycle. It is this Cause toward which all accumulated effects aim: the overcoming of entropy to bring about a new heaven and a new earth through the agency of the deus ex machina, a messiah who is anointed with oil. The completed structure implies that the Creator, who is the First Cause, is also the ultimate Effect, the divine Robot in which the Law reposes. In that sense, man has always manufactured his gods, tended them, anointed them, and then idealized them, and all the while has abused them and blamed them. Technology today is merely another of many servant-gods.

Asimov, as a match-maker who weds Moses to Calvin, Einstein officiating, has, in the New England tradition, postulated a massive philosophy based on fixed fate. And all the while, he has created merry, positive, and highly readable books and stories. Like the other great science fiction writers, he is subtly "programing" a new generation with the great basic ethic of the First Law: Humanity first. (pp. 101-03)

Maxine Moore, "Asimov, Calvin, and Moses," in Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, edited by Thomas D. Clareson (copyright © 1976 by The Popular Press), Popular Press, 1976, pp. 88-103.