Asimov, Isaac (Vol. 19)
Asimov, Isaac 1920–
A Russian-born American, Asimov is a professor of biochemistry and a remarkably versatile and prolific writer. The author of numerous science texts, Asimov is especially adept at popularizing scientific writing. He has also written children's books and humorous and mythological pieces, but 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, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)
Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr.
"Asimovian." I have used the adjective myself, and I have seen it used by others. What others mean by it I cannot say. But I would like to suggest in some detail what I have found the term to mean….
On matters of style: The typical Asimov sentence is short and clear. His sentences tend to gain length not by the accumulation of dependent clauses, but by the addition of simple sentences: not "The boy who hit the ball ran around the bases," but "The boy hit the ball, and then he ran around the bases." His verbs tend to be colorless, non-meaning-bearing linking verbs, and the meanings of the sentences tend to be carried by their nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. He does not like to use figurative language, so he almost never uses images, metaphors, similes…. Typically, one does not notice Asimov's language, unless one is aware how difficult it is to write this clearly. Lovers of language will say that he is no stylist; lovers of communication will admire and envy him. I think Asimov's language represents in a quintessential way the language science fiction writers aspired to during the Golden Age, the Campbell years of the forties. (p. 255)
The narrative point of view [in Asimov's fiction] is almost always third-person limited, with that person being the central character of the story. Even when he is working with a large cast of characters in a novel, say, and must move about among them, each scene tends to be narrated...
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Raymond J. Wilson
The solution to one of Asimov's most important questions, the role of the individual in history, lies in one of his most basic principles, the mystery-story structure. Can man control his fate, or is he part of a hurtling chain reaction in which individual initiatives are predestined or inconsequential? Isaac Asimov deals with this question specifically, yet we find a curious difficulty in determining his precise view. We can, however, clarify the question by examining Asimov in the context of Leo Tolstoy's theory of history….
Both Leo Tolstoy and Isaac Asimov portray the significance of human decisions and actions on a broad canvas. Immediate results are not the important factor, but whether such decisions can make a difference in the eventual outcome. Tolstoy extends his scope spatially. Asimov, availing himself of the unique feature of science fiction, extends his scope temporally as well as spatially…. Like Asimov's Hari Seldon in Foundation, Tolstoy uses [a] mathematical analogy for thinking about the consequences of man's individual actions in War and Peace…. The mathematical analogy implies that individual men are as little free to deviate from the "laws of history" as individual particles are from the laws of motion.
The Foundation Series' individual stories, with a few troublesome exceptions, come down thematically on the side of Tolstoy-like predestination. In "The Encyclopedists," set...
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What makes Isaac run? What drives this Brooklyn-reared son of Russian-Jewish immigrants to work so assiduously at his typewriter … that he has turned out 199 books in 29 years, thereby earning himself a reputation as one of the leading science-fiction writers and the pre-eminent science popularizer of our day?
Readers who seek the answer to this question will not be disappointed by ["In Memory Yet Green,"] the first volume of Asimov's projected two-volume autobiography. Indeed, he gives the game away early on. Compulsive writers, he makes clear, are made, not born…. (p. 13)
Asimov goes on to detail his writing career…. (He is, as one might guess, an inveterate diarist.) He writes candidly of his relationship with Joan W. Campbell Jr., the editor of "Astounding," whose knack for nurturing young talent was responsible for what has come to be known as the Golden Age of science fiction. He also writes about his first wife, Gertrude, about his friendships in and out of science fiction and about his discovery that he was not a genius (or even particularly adept) in such academic disciplines as mathematics. In all such matters, Asimov never strays very far from the facts. Although he can describe quantum mechanics and resonance theory in a few clear paragraphs, the "soft" sciences, such as psychology, have little appeal for him. (pp. 13, 32)
For any readers unfamiliar with the Asimov oeuvre,...
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Science-fiction readers devoted to the work of Isaac Asimov, that elder statesman of the field, will enjoy [In Memory Yet Green]…. Those familiar only with his popularizations of science or those who don't know his work at all will probably not like the book and may even wonder what moved him to write it.
Autobiography is as close to impossible as art can be and two sorts of falsification are common: the bare recital of facts, in which the shape of a life gets lost, and the imposition of a novelistic "theme" from the outside….
Asimov has chosen the bare-facts route; after his childhood memories (which are charming) the book becomes a fairly dry list of professional facts and a considerable number of personal ones which ought to be more interesting than they are (Asimov is surprisingly candid about a good many things) but which remain uninterpreted and hence unconnected. Either the author does not want to make the effort to treat this vast mass of material as something that demands interpreting or else he modestly regards this work as merely a mine of information for some future second-stage biographer.
Where time has provided the interpretation, Asimov accepts it, and, in his account of his childhood, the young Isaac emerges as a distinct and delightful personality—as sunny, playful, and sensible as Asimov's own persona as a writer of nonfiction…. There is much fascinating material...
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Steven R. Carter
Before the nineteen-fifties, many critics considered the science fiction mystery novel an improbability—if not an impossibility…. [It was assumed] that both detective fiction and science fiction are frivolous literary forms and that both are too limited in scope and techniques to permit fusion between them….
[But, an examination of the two genres] would have noted the intellectual openness of both genres and emphasized that the spirit behind both is that of inquiry, of the willingness to use reason to explore all possibilities. It would have pointed out, moreover, the ways in which writers of both genres have striven to get beyond the conditioning of their societies and to overcome mind sets. (p. 109)
Given the openness and liberating attitudes of both detective fiction and science fiction, one would have been justified in predicting their fusion—and Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester and Stanislaw Lem have amply confirmed any such prediction. (p. 110)
Before attempting to blend classic detective fiction with science fiction, Asimov established a set of ground rules. He noted that ordinary mystery writers created puzzles which offered the reader a fair chance to anticipate the solution and argued that science fiction mystery writers must do the same….
Asimov has stressed the puzzle as much as any classic detective fiction writer, but he has also placed a high value on atmosphere...
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Isaac Asimov is a polymath of awesome proportions. He is one of the most prolific writers of our time. His name is synonymous with all that is best in science fiction. He is a hilariously funny speaker, as I have had cause to find out first hand. In short, Mr. Asimov is a man to be reckoned with.
So how is it possible that his autobiography ["In Joy Still Felt"] is so boring? First of all, it's very long…. It reads like a very thorough bibliography, with snippets of personal life thrown in for color…. Most segments describe the book he is working on, the lecture he is about to give, or a little anecdote about his children…. Now this may be valuable information for a Ph.D. student, but it's sparse fodder indeed for connoisseurs of the genre.
Occasionally, its terse, non-committal style reminded me of the quirky laconicalness of Bertrand Russell's autobiography, but Russell's was shorter, funnier and avoided being simply a shopping list of his publications and lectures. I suppose the answer is that Mr. Asimov's life is mostly publications and lectures—a fine life, but not the stuff of literature.
Caroline Seebohm, "Nonfiction in Brief: 'In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov 1954–1978'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1980, p. 16.
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In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of [Isaac Asimov's] autobiography, was mostly about his discovery of science fiction, his love affair with it, his first attempts at writing it, and his eventual success. The second volume, In Joy Still Felt,… is devoted to the way in which his efforts were directed from science fiction … to nonfiction. More precisely it describes how he became a publishing phenomenon and a financial success, how his marriage of 28 years ended in divorce, how he returned to New York, found a second wife, suffered through a thyroid cancer operation, a heart attack and his second wife's mastectomy, and enjoyed the fruits of his labors.
What is important to the sf reader, however, is Asimov's intimate relationship with the science-fiction world. Asimov writes simply, engagingly and with great frankness about all aspects of his life…. But one of the book's great attractions is the way it chronicles the development of science fiction from the time it was just getting started in the magazines almost up to the present, all through the experience of a man who was involved with most of sf, first as reader, then as fan, writer, book author and, finally, institution.
James Gunn, "Science Fiction," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), May 25, 1980, p. 8.∗
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Much of [In Joy Still Felt] is fascinating. In addition to chronicling his personal and professional lives, Asimov offers intelligent perceptions of such varied topics as aging and mortality, politics and politicians, and fan clubs as sub-cultures. His several anti-Nixon diatribes are particularly biting and he claims his pro-feminist ideas ante-date the Women's Liberation movement by several years. Especially touching are the emotions he displays toward his daughter.
But Asimov is most enlightening when he deals with writing. He explores, in part, his writing, his methods and techniques, his ability to work on two, three, or more projects simultaneously. Quite convincingly, he defends his generalist approach to writing and attacks parochialism. His relationships with editors offer additional insights into Asimov the writer and Asimov the man.
I have some criticisms. Often, just when he begins to expound on a topic of import or interest, Asimov drops it, lapsing into a vacuous moment or two. Particularly unnerving is his constant obsession, at least until he reaches 1962, with revealing how much money he earned annually. Also, despite the appendix listing his published works, he is compelled to tell what books were published each year. This, it is supposed, can be written off as what Asimov calls "cheerful self-appreciation."
Asimov is a man of extremes, leaving little or no middle ground. He...
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