Isaac Asimov Asimov, Isaac (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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 solely from the point of view of one of its participants, rather than from the point of view of an omniscient outside observer. Asimov lets us see fictional events the way we see life: through the experience and observations of only one person.

Generally, the central character of a story is named and put into action in the first sentence. That is, the subject in the first sentence we read will be the central character's proper name, and its verb will let us see that person doing something…. His central characters are usually white middle-class males on the sunny side of forty, because the market he writes for is composed largely of such people.

The problems these people have to solve generally involve the making of decisions rather than the performing of actions. At least, even in a basically action-adventure story, decision-making is shown to take precedence over doing things. Very often this decision-making is done by two or more people in conference. This tends to change the story from the personal to the political. It also has the advantage of externalizing the decision-making process and thereby giving the reader something to watch and listen to. Interior monologues are not as available to us in everyday life as conversations. This emphasis on conversation and decision-making, instead of on activity for its own sake, gives Asimov's fiction a certain cerebral quality, which is one of its most distinctive traits.

The stories usually begin very soon after a problem has arisen. The initial situation and the problem are passed along to the central character—and, in the process, to the reader—by someone who thoroughly understands both. Asimov is excellent at the dramatic form of exposition. It is another form of conversation, and he knows how to move stories through conversation. He sometimes uses the flashback for exposition, but he is less consistently good at this method. He tends either to allow the time sequence to become a bit muddled (e.g., The Currents of Space) or to become redundant by using both dramatic exposition and the flash back to pass along the same material (e.g., "The Key").

The conflicts in an Asimovian story usually involve difficulties in the way of accumulating data, in interpreting that data, and in deciding what to do as a result of the data and its interpretation. A calm, reasoned approach, rather than a hastily-arrived-at emotional one, provides the solutions to the stories. The resolutions generally mark a return to the status quo. In this sense, he is a conservative writer. The most important Asimovian theme is the importance of science (data-collecting) and reason (data-evaluating and decision-making).

Asimov's stories are set in the immediate and far future, and on Earth and distant planets circling other suns. He seldom sets stories in the past, on alternate worlds, in other dimensions, or in countries other than the United States or future extensions of the United States. His backgrounds are meticulously worked out and scientifically accurate. One leaves an Asimov story with the feeling of having lived for a while somewhere else. This ability of his to provide his settings with that "lived in" quality is another of Asimov's most distinctive features.

Unfortunately, his characters do not share as much as they should in the convincingness of his settings. One does not leave an Asimov story convinced that he has lived for a little while with real people. The characters tend to do and think what they must for the sake of the story rather than for their own sake. In his fiction at least, his interest in people is theoretical not personal, general not particular. Asimov's fiction reflects an interest in the physical, chemical, biological, and astronomical phenomena that life makes available for study, not in the experience of living...

(The entire section is 2183 words.)

Raymond J. Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 just fifty years after Seldon's death, a local mayor named Salvor Hardin finds that he can do nothing to avert the defeat of the Foundation, which is saved by circumstances beyond any individual's plan…. "The Mayors" parallels "The Encyclopedists," where a historical process saves the Foundation regardless of individual decisions. Later stories make this even clearer. Enemies call off their wars with the Foundation because of dependence on secular trade which grew up in response to historical pressures and in defiance of hidebound traditionalist policy in the Foundation's government—once again showing the dominance of broad historical movements over individual attempts to institute policy. (pp. 101-02)

The enormous military superiority of the Empire seems bound to destroy the Foundation; yet it does not because inevitable historical processes overwhelm individual acts.

Neither the most brilliant generals nor the most powerful emperors can save the Galactic Empire from disintegration. And it apparently does not matter whether the Foundation's leadership is brilliant, insipid, or even treasonous. (p. 102)

Troublesome exceptions prevent this from being a settled matter, however. One exception arises from the fact that the Foundation exists, supposedly, because Hari Seldon foresaw thirty thousand years of savagery and planted the two Foundations to reduce the interregnum to a single thousand years. Seldon's life itself appears to illustrate human actions changing history.

The second half of Asimov's Foundation and Empire introduces another possible exception. Here a character named the Mule...

(The entire section is 1281 words.)

Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Joanna Russ

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Steven R. Carter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Caroline Seebohm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

James Gunn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

Ron Marinucci

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 290 words.)