Isaac Asimov Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1783

Isaac Asimov was especially known for his ability to explain complicated scientific concepts clearly. Although his reputation as a writer is based primarily on his science fiction, his nonfiction writings are useful reference works on the many subjects he covered. His goal was not only to entertain but also to...

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Isaac Asimov was especially known for his ability to explain complicated scientific concepts clearly. Although his reputation as a writer is based primarily on his science fiction, his nonfiction writings are useful reference works on the many subjects he covered. His goal was not only to entertain but also to inform.

Most of Asimov’s novels are science fiction, and, of these, fourteen novels are tied together at some point with part of the Foundation series. Early in his writing career Asimov established four series of stories: the Empire series, consisting of three novels and collections of short stories; the Foundation series, consisting of seven novels, with more that Asimov outlined to be finished by other authors; the Robot series, consisting of four novels and collections of short stories; and the Lucky Starr series, a collection of six works for children not related to the Foundation series. Asimov borrowed heavily from history, specifically the history of the Roman Empire, to create his plot lines for the Foundation books. Of all his novels, The Gods Themselves, a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, was Asimov’s favorite.

Empire series

The Empire series consists of three novels, Pebble in the Sky, The Stars Like Dust, and The Currents of Space. Later Foundation series books attempt to tie these three into that series. Asimov’s first published novel, Pebble in the Sky, is the best of these. The writing is not Asimov’s most polished, but the hero, Joseph Schwartz, provides an interesting middle-aged counterpoint to Bel Arvardan, a younger man of action coping with a postapocalyptic, radioactive Earth.

Foundation series

The Foundation series began as a trilogy. The first three Foundation books, known for some time as the Foundation trilogy, were written in the 1950’s and took much of their plot lines from the history of the Roman Empire. Because of the length of the trilogy, it is rarely taught in schools, but the first two of the three books, Foundation and Foundation and Empire, are examples of Asimov’s fiction at its best.

The hero of these novels is Hari Seldon, a mathematician who invents the discipline of psychohistory. Using psychohistory, Seldon is able to predict the coming fall of the empire and to help set up the Foundation in order to help humankind move more quickly through the coming “dark ages” that will be caused by the collapse of the empire. Psychohistory is unable to predict individual mutations and events in human history, however, so Seldon’s Foundation is unable to predict the rise of the Mule, a mutant of superior intelligence, to the position of galactic overlord. Asimov’s introduction of the concept of psychohistory, a science that could predict the future course of humankind, has inspired many scholars of history, psychology, sociology, and economics and was significant in the creation of an actual psychohistory major at some colleges and universities.

By the third book, Second Foundation, Asimov was tired of the Foundation story and came up with two alternate endings that he hoped would let him be free of it. In the first, the Mule discovers the secret second Foundation and destroys it, thereby ending Seldon’s plan. Asimov’s editor talked him out of this ending, so he wrote another, in which the Second Foundation triumphs. Seldon’s plan is restored to course and nothing of interest happens again to the human species—thus freeing Asimov from the need to write further Foundation novels. Time and financial incentives eventually overcame Asimov’s boredom with the Foundation trilogy, however, and thirty years later, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, he began filling in the gaps around the original stories with other novels. He went on to produce Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation. None of these has quite the same magic as the first two Foundation novels.

Robot series

The ideas introduced by Asimov in the Robot series are perhaps his most famous. Asimov’s robots are human in form and have “positronic” brains. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the television program Star Trek: The Next Generation and the feature films based on it contributed to public awareness of this concept through the character of the android Data, who, like Asimov’s robots, has a positronic brain. Asimov also invented the three Laws of Robotics, which he tended not to let other people use. His invention of mechanical creatures with built-in ethical systems is used freely, however, and from that standpoint Data is an Asimovian robot. The concept of a tool designed for safety in the form of a robot was new to science-fiction writing when Asimov introduced it, and it stood in sharp contrast to the usual mechanical men of science-fiction pulp magazines, which tended to run amok in dangerous fashion.

Exciting ideas and parts are to be found in each of the four Robot novels, The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire. The Caves of Steel is a good place to start. The character R. Daneel Olivaw is introduced in this novel and appears in six additional novels. The “R.” in his name stands for “robot.” This particular novel is also notable for its blending of two genres, science fiction and mystery. Additionally, the title describes Asimov’s solution to an overcrowded Earth, an incredible complex of multilayered megacities covering the entire planet.

Another part of the Robot series is Asimov’s short-story collection I, Robot. This work lent its title and character names to a motion picture released in 2004. The 1999 film Bicentennial Man is also based on Asimov’s Robot series.

Lucky Starr series

Because he was intentionally writing the Lucky Starr juvenile novels for a hoped-for television series and was afraid that they would affect his reputation as a serious science-fiction writer, Asimov originally published them under the pseudonym Paul French. In these novels, David Starr and his friend Bigman Jones travel around the solar system in a spaceship. Asimov adapted the stereotypes of the Western genre to create the books’ plots, but he used his amazing ability to explain science to create plot devices and solutions based on science.

The Gods Themselves

The Gods Themselves is one of Asimov’s best novels and one of the few unrelated to any others. To single it out as a stand-alone work, however, would be to imply that the books of his series are dependent upon one another, which is not true. The Gods Themselves is one of the few Asimov novels dealing with aliens.

The Gods Themselves (the title is taken from a quote by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”) is actually a series of three interrelated stories treating stupidity and responses to it. Humans exchange energy with aliens in a parallel universe with the Inter-Universe Electron Pump. When one human realizes the pump will eventually cause the sun to explode, he works to warn others, but nobody listens. Meanwhile, in the parallel universe, one of the “para-men” also attempts to shut down the pump. Although neither succeeds, owing to stupidity on the part of his peers, the problem eventually is solved by others in one of the parallel universes, and the human universe is saved.

Mysteries

Another fiction genre in which Asimov enjoyed writing was the mystery. He published ten mystery short-story collections and the novel Murder at the ABA: A Puzzle in Four Days and Sixty Scenes. This novel is a roman à clef, as the main character is Asimov’s friend and fellow science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison, as portrayed by the character Darius Just (pronounced dar-I-us, to rhyme with bias). Asimov appears in the novel, and it includes footnoted comments by both Asimov and Darius Just. The action takes place at the hotel where the American Booksellers Association’s annual convention is being held. During the convention, Darius Just’s protégé, Giles Devore, is found dead in the bathtub of his hotel room. The police treat the death as an accident, but certain factors about the state of the hotel room make Darius suspect that it is murder.

Darius sets out to prove that it is indeed murder, and along the way he has a couple of sexual interludes, one with a friend from the book-publishing world and another with an attractive hotel liaison. Several of the key conversations leading up to the death of Giles Devore occur during meals eaten at social events during the convention. In order to prove that Giles has been murdered, Darius interviews everyone who has worked with Giles during the twenty-four hours preceding his death. He discovers during this process that Giles indulged in an unusual sexual practice in addition to his compulsive behavior regarding pens and clothing.

Asimov’s mysteries, like his other fiction work, tend to focus on the cleverness of situations or on science rather than on any deep individual characterization. The Black Widowers collections of short stories, such as Tales of the Black Widowers (1974) and Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984), like Murder at the ABA, follow the roman à clef style; they are based on the monthly meetings during which Asimov and his friends would have dinner and discuss science, writing, history, and world events.

Novelettes

As a publishing ploy, it was arranged that science-fiction novelist Robert Silverberg would expand three of Asimov’s best and most famous novelettes—Nightfall, The Bicentennial Man (which became The Positronic Man), and The Ugly Little Boy—into full novels. Although Silverberg is an excellent and literary writer, his style and Asimov’s do not blend particularly well. Given the opportunity, readers would be well served by reading the original award-winning works. The original version of Nightfall, in particular, has won worldwide acclaim and is the most mentioned and remembered of Asimov’s novelettes. Its premise concerns what happens to the psyches of a people who live in a world that experiences total darkness only once every two thousand years.

The original novelette Nightfall has twice been the basis for motion pictures; the first film adaptation, titled Nightfall, was released in 1988 (retitled Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall for a video release in 2000), and the second, which retained the underlying science concept of Asimov’s work, was released in 2000 as Pitch Black. Nightfall tells the story of a world in a solar system with six suns. Because the suns never set, it has been daylight on the planet for more than two thousand years. The work presents a sociological exploration of the reactions of the inhabitants of this world when a total eclipse of the suns occurs and they are thrown into darkness for the first time in one hundred generations.

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