Isaac Asimov American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3157

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...

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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 same year that Doubleday published Asimov’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky. Neither sold well, but Pebble in the Sky did better than I, Robot because the former was a novel. Nevertheless, the publication of the collection was a signal event in attaching Asimov’s name to the robot concept and in enhancing his aura of publication as well as presaging the many collections to come.

Stories about robots had been published before. Even the title was taken from Eando Binder’s “I, Robot” in Amazing Stories for January, 1939. What Asimov brought to the concept was the notion of safeguards. In his 1964 collection The Rest of the Robots, Asimov explained that he had grown tired of the stories about humans creating artificial life that turns against its creators. Nothing, he said, is built without safeguards, from stairs to knives to steam engines, and robots would have safeguards built into them in the form of “the three laws of robotics” that Campbell derived from his stories. First, a robot cannot harm a human being or by inaction allow a human being to come to harm. Second, a robot must obey an order given by a human being unless this comes into conflict with the first law. Third, a robot must protect itself from harm unless that comes into conflict with the first two laws. Several attempts were made to film I, Robot before Will Smith starred in a film of that title in 2004 (which offended Asimov fans by flouting the three laws of robotics).

The first story in the collection, “Robbie,” was published in Frederik Pohl’s Super Science Stories. The rest were published in Astounding Science Fiction. “Robbie” describes human distrust of robots until a family learns that its daughter was saved from death by the instant, unthinking action of her robot servant. “Runaround” deals with the quandary of a robot circling a pool of selenium on Mercury because his law of self-preservation exactly balances, at that distance, his law to obey instructions. “Reason” reveals Asimov’s two robot engineers, Powell and Donovan, putting together a robot intended to handle a beam of energy from the sun to the earth from a satellite. The robot does not believe inferior beings could create him and invents a religion based on the energy converter. The engineers leave him as he is because his religion makes his work even more reliable. In “Catch That Rabbit” Donovan and Powell discover that six sub-robots stress a robot’s positronic abilities.

Susan Calvin, Asimov’s favorite roboticist, tries to cope with a robot accidentally equipped with telepathic ability in “Liar!” and the conflict between obeying orders and telling a truth that will hurt a human. “Little Lost Robot” describes the problem of a too-sensitive first law that would keep scientists from danger, and how the law about obeying orders means that humans must be careful about casual comments (like “Get lost”). “Escape,” which involves computers rather than robots, asks how a computer can be asked to solve a problem that might involve the death of a human being. In “Evidence” the question is raised as to how one can tell robots from humans when the people in question stand on their right not to have their privacy invaded. “The Evitable Conflict” takes up the question of robot superiority suggested in “Evidence” and the ambiguity of what constitutes harm or good for humans as the robots take over the human economy.

The Foundation Trilogy

First published: 1951, 1952, 1953

Type of work: Short-story collections

Inaccurately titled a “trilogy,” the Foundation Trilogy is a collection of eight stories published originally in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1950, and a ninth written especially for the first book publication.

The “trilogy” was published originally as Foundation in 1951, Foundation and Empire in 1952, and Second Foundation in 1953, first by Gnome Press and as individual paperback volumes by Avon and in 1963 by Doubleday as a single volume.

The first story in the book, “The Psychohistorians,” reveals how Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the galactic empire through the use of psychohistory and set up two foundations, the first composed of 100,000 encyclopedists sent to Terminus, ostensibly to write the Encyclopedia Galactica (from which Asimov includes excerpts as epigraphs) but actually to provide the foundation for rebuilding and shorten the period of barbarism from twenty-five thousand years to one thousand.

“Foundation” (called “The Encyclopedists” in the book) and “Bridle and Saddle” (called “The Mayors” in the book) tell the story of the appearance of Hari Seldon in his “time vault” with a prediction about a Seldon crisis at hand. The galactic empire has fallen, and Terminus is threatened by two powerful neighboring systems because Terminus has atomic energy and the others do not. Mayor Hari Seldon works out an ostensible surrender to one of them but thirty years later reveals that the creation of an atomic religion protects Terminus from being taken over. In the two stories that follow, “The Traders” and “The Merchant Princes,” Asimov shows Terminus responding to new challenges and spreading its influences, through trade, throughout nearby systems.

Foundation and Empire is made up of two novellas, The General and The Mule. Both deal with challenges to Terminus as the initial vigor of the Foundation deteriorates into a dependence upon Seldon’s predictions, a kind of psychohistorical determinism that some critics have called debased Marxism. (Asimov denied knowing anything about Marx and said, instead, that his concept of psychohistory was based on the theory of gases.) The general who attempts to take over the empire is thwarted by the historical principle that a weak general is no threat to the Foundation, and the emperor cannot tolerate a strong general lest he seize the throne. “The Mule,” on the other hand, brings up the question of the unpredictable, in this case a mutation in the Mule, which allows him to influence people’s attitudes and behavior. The Mule falters because of his affection for a young woman whom he cannot bear to influence because she liked him for himself.

Second Foundation also is made up of two novellas, Search by the Mule and Search by the Foundation. In the first of these, the Mule’s search for the Second Foundation, ostensibly located at “Star’s End,” leads him in false directions until he finally is trapped, and adjusted, by a Second Foundation psychologist. In Search by the Foundation, the First Foundation searches for the Second and seems to find it, only to have adjustments at the end make the First Foundation’s victory illusory.

Critically, the books should be approached as individual stories growing out of a single set of premises: the fall of the galactic empire and psychohistory, which is the ability to foresee broad historical trends. After the first two stories, Asimov had no overall plan but built each new story on the open-endedness of the previous, like a set of Tinkertoys. Eventually he felt that the effort to review previous situations for the reader became too great, and he gave up writing more stories in this universe until he returned in 1982 to write Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth (1985), and then Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993) as prequels dealing with Hari Seldon’s arrival on Trantor and experiences leading up to “The Psychohistorians.”

Much of the historic relevance of the Foundation stories derived from the fall of the Roman Empire. Asimov recounted how he was going on the subway to visit Campbell and did not have an idea to discuss. He had a volume of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan in front of him open to a picture of the fairy queen in Iolanthe kneeling in front of Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards. Asimov’s mind wandered to soldiers, to a military society, to feudalism, to the breakup of the Roman Empire. When he got to Campbell’s office he was ready to discuss the fall of the galactic empire. To this he added not only psychohistory but a set of philosophic principles that play themselves out in the stories: that power lies behind the throne and that one generation’s solution becomes the problem for the next generation. Thus the stories offer a series of smart assistants working behind the scenes to invent solutions to problems as they arrive and a series of solutions whose power lasts far behind their effectiveness.

The Gods Themselves

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

Two universes with different values for the strong nuclear reaction begin exchanging elements, to the benefit of each, until disaster looms in the human universe.

Samples of plutonium-186 begin appearing in a scientific laboratory in place of tungsten. Plutonium-186 can exist only in a universe in which the nuclear reaction is much weaker. The element is a source of energy in the human universe, as is the tungsten in the alien universe.

The novel consists of three novellas. The first, Against Stupidity, is a story of professional jealousy and scientific persistence in getting plutonium-186 accepted and used. The second novella, The Gods Themselves, takes place in the alien universe, where mating consists of the merging of three different nebulous creatures. One of them is uneasy about the transfer of material and the prospective mating and sends warnings to the human universe. This is the most engrossing of the three. The third novella, Contend in Vain, describes life on the moon and the effort to stop catastrophe to the human universe by constructing “cosmeg pumps” on the moon and using part of the energy to counteract the changes in field intensity that threaten to explode the sun and perhaps even the galactic arm.

“The Bicentennial Man”

First published: 1976

Type of work: Short story

A robot develops creativity and ability to learn and eventually wants to become a “man,” even if it means his death.

By an accidental arrangement of positronic brain pathways, robot NDR (“Andrew”) is artistic and can learn. His owners, the Martin family, treat him well, selling his art but depositing half the proceeds into his account and getting him every upgrade. Finally Andrew buys his freedom, wears clothes, writes a robot history, obtains legal rights for robots, replaces his body parts with organic ones, and becomes a robobiologist. Finally, his request to be declared a man is turned down because of his immortality. He then arranges for the potential of his immortal body to be slowly drained, and on his two hundredth anniversary the world president signs the act declaring the dying Andrew “a Bicentennial Man.” “The Bicentennial Man” was filmed in 1999, with Robin Williams as Andrew.

The Robots of Dawn

First published: 1983

Type of work: Novel

Elijah Bailey is called to solve another crime, the “death” of a robot, on the planet Aurora.

The long-postponed sequel to The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn is another locked-room mystery that detective Lije Bailey is called to the Spacer planet Aurora to solve. He is reunited with Gladia Delmarre, with whom he had a frustrated relationship in The Naked Sun. The novel devotes some time to discussing why destroying a robot is murder and sifting through a series of suspects until Bailey finally discovers that another robot (Giscard) caused the brain-death to shield the robot’s creator, and that he himself is present to further the cause of space exploration. In the process, Asimov hints at the beginnings of psychohistory.

The Robots of Dawn was the beginning of Asmov’s efforts to combine his robot stories and his Foundation stories into a single unified future history. Because there are no robots in the Foundation stories, this novel was the first stage in rationalizing their disappearance (or going undercover). The final stage was depicted in the sequel, Robots and Empire. The Robots of Dawn, more than twice as long as its two predecessors put together, was a best seller.

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