First a word about the versions of this story. The 1941 short story "Nightfall" has been acclaimed one of the greatest science fiction tales—if not the greatest science fiction.... more
How strange it is that the most affecting characters Asimov ever created were robots. Perhaps it's the same phenomenon we find in film and television dramas in which synthetic.... more
In the 1980s Asimov reread the Foundation stories he had written in the 1940s and had compiled as a trilogy of books in the 1950s, and he was appalled. The stories had no action.... more
Best of the bad old golden greats
Isaac Asimov may be the worst great writer I can think of.
His prose is workmanlike at best, his characters are emotional ciphers, his dialogue is functional, his plots are more like giant puzzles than any credible unfolding of events involving real people, and style-wise he blithely breaks every rule of Fine Writing.
He doesn't care. And know what? Neither do I.
With millions of other readers, I get involved in his mysteries-in-space narratives. I get excited along with his thin but engaging characters in the intellectual challenges he poses. I enjoy racing through his good-natured novels and stories almost as much as I suspect he enjoyed writing them—you can practically hear him chortling over his plot twists and big ideas as he types them. When you read Asimov, you're reading a fellow geek, a non-artsy type who has succeeded in pulling off the wonderful trick of producing something that resembles a literary work. Correction. Something that is a literary work. Better than, in some cases.
For his writing exemplifies one great literary quality of style that many a would-be "literary" writer could benefit from: clarity. At an early point in his career he decided he wanted—more than anything—readers to understand what he wrote. And so he wrote as clearly as possible for more than fifty years.
I also enjoy Asimov's equally clear and prolific nonfiction writing, and sometimes it feels as though there's not much difference. In his time he was the great popularizer of science, second only to Carl Sagan (though certainly first in volume). Not to mention, almost every other field of human endeavour he covered in his popular fashion: history, humour, literature, sex, ecology....
But in the science fiction genre, Asimov is a giant, probably the giant.
Some might qualify this by saying he's the best of the hard-science writers from SF's Golden Age—rational, technical types who wrote plainly with scientific accuracy, compared to the more artistic, imaginative writers who emerged since the 1960s. But this patronizing characterization ignores the fact that Asimov's classic early stories and the best of his novels are not only standard reading in the field but continue to sell in great quantities and to generate film and television treatments. His ideas are still vital, while untold numbers of new-wave writers have come and gone.
Asimov never wrote for the Star Trek TV shows or movies, but it is hard to imagine that series of series existing without his humanistic approach to science fiction having blazed the way. As a small recognition of this debt, Star Trek's character of Data is modelled on the robots of Asimov's fiction, including having a "positronic" brain—a scientific-sounding term he made up.
Golden boy of the pulps
Asimov was an early and fast learner. Born in Russia, emigrating to the United States when he was three, he grew up in Brooklyn and started writing at age eleven. His first story was published at nineteen. He soon became a star writer for the legendary John W. Campbell, editor of the science fiction pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. His best early story was the acclaimed "Nightfall" (1941), written when he was barely out of his teens, about panic on a world of six suns when a rare conjunction of bodies threatens to bring the first night the people have ever seen.
Asimov trained as a chemist at Columbia University and became a teacher and professor, but the commercial success of his writing led him to become a full-time author. He ended up publishing over 460 books of science fiction, detective mysteries, science popularization, literary criticism, Biblical analysis, humour and on many other topics—plus hundreds of columns and articles.
Some of his most intriguing works of fiction concerned "robotics", another term he invented. With Campbell he devised the Laws of Robotics to guide the behaviour of his fictional androids. His first collection of nine robot stories, I, Robot (1950), explored the interaction of humans and their creations through a series of puzzles arising from anomalous robot behaviour. They've been (very) loosely adapted into a motion picture starring Will Smith.
The impact of these clever stories on both science fiction and science fact was enormous and they were followed by more collections such as The Rest of the Robots (1964), as well as longer works involving synthetic life. The Caves of Steel (1954) is the first novel pairing the human detective Elijah Bailey with robot R. Daneel Olivaw, in this case to solve a murder on a crowded world, and it may be Asimov's most psychologically interesting work. The Naked Sun (1957) brings the duo back with a mystery on a world of wide open spaces. The Robots of Dawn (1983) and Robots and Empire (1985) are later entries in the series, uniting Asimov's robots with the universe he created in his other great series, the Foundation books (more on those later). "The Bicentennial Man" (1976) extends the development of robots over 200 years and was the basis of the so-so Robin Williams movie Bicentennial Man in 1999.
The most comprehensive collections of Asimov's short robot stories can, as of this writing, be found in The Complete Robot (1982), Robot Dreams (1986) and Robot Visions (1990).
Laying the foundations
As mentioned, Asimov's other main fictional stream was the Foundation series. These millennia-spanning stories and novels start with a collapsing galactic empire and an attempt to preserve knowledge during the coming dark ages by establishing a society of leading scientists and scholars at the edge of the galaxy. When this new civilization is threatened, it goes looking for help from a second foundation that posthumous messages from the foundation's founder reveal may also exist. It's a cosmic mystery with each book in the original trilogy—Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953)—reaching a new solution. The series was voted science fiction's greatest of all time.
Decades later Asimov continued the Foundation books with sequels Foundation's Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986), which ultimately connected the series with Asimov's robot novels, as well as with his popular Galactic Empire series of novels—sort of a unified field theory of fiction. Finally he rounded out the Foundation series with the prequels Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993), the latter posthumously published.
Other notable SF writing includes the the novella The Martian Way (1952), offering an interplanetary solution to the problem of water depletion; the novel The End of Eternity (1955), a complicated time-travel story that some critics consider his best; and the silly, but entertaining, Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which scientists are shrunk to microscopic size to journey through a man's body—the basis for the movie and a short-lived TV show of the same name. (A new film adaptation has been in development for some years now.)
However, Asimov more or less retired from serious science fiction from the late 1950s to the early 1970s to concentrate on factual works popularizing science. The Gods Themselves (1972) was his triumphant return to the fiction field, an imaginative and scientifically profound work that won the Nebula Award for its depiction of life in parallel universes with very different physical laws. After this he continued extending his robot and Foundation series, as well as knocking off other odd projects.
His last published collection was Gold (1995), consisting of mainly very short stories, which are self-referential and often no more than jokes, along with articles about the Asimov approach to science fiction, mostly taken from his introductions to the monthly Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Asimov evaluates his own work quite frankly and self-deprecatingly in both the fiction and non-fiction parts of the anthology. A character in the title story, for example, is a science fiction author (transparently Asimov) who convinces a director of computerized Shakespearean theatre to adapt one of his SF novels for a stage production, not because he considers his own words the equivalent of the Bard's, but because they are so much inferior. In two other stories, science fiction writers similar to Isaac Asimov (one named "Abram Ivanov") find themselves supplanted by technological devices that can produce better literature.
Yet, even in these works of his latter years, Asimov appears quite good-humoured about his shortcomings as a Great Writer. He's happy to be the acknowledged master of the talky story of cardboard characters, clever plotting, hard science and startling ideas.
This summary barely touches on the highlights of Isaac Asimov's career. You'll find dozens more science fiction and mystery works published by Asimov over the years, along with his massive non-fiction output, including everything from collections of naughty limericks to his exhaustive analyses of Shakespeare's works and the Bible, no less.
If you are not enamoured with the man's no-nonsense, but often light-hearted writing style, with his twisting but rational plots, or with his scientific ideas, you can stick with the original Foundation trilogy and the early robot stories. But if, like many readers, you become an Asimov fan, you'll have an seemingly endless variety of material to feed your interest.