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...
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- Critical Essays