Isaac Asimov

I do all my own typing, my own research, answer my own mail. I don't even have a literary agent. This way there are no arguments, no instructions, no misunderstandings. I work every day. Sunday is my best day: no mail, no telephones.” Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov was a prolific American writer, best known for his many science-fiction stories. He coined the word Robotics and defined the Three Laws of Robotics.

Born as Isaak Judovick Ozimov on January 2, 1920, in Petrovitchi near Smolensk, Russia, Isaac Asimov was the oldest child of Judah Ozimov and Anna Rachel Ozimov – née Berman. His parents were millers and the name Ozimov (Озимов in Russian) refers to the Russian winter wheat (озимые - ozimye) his great-grandfather milled and sold. Following a renewed wave of progroms in Russia after World War I, the Ozimov family of four (Isaac had a younger sister Marcia, born in 1922) emigrated to America in 1923. This was just before the United States tightened its immigration laws in 1923 – 1924 with new quotas on the number of immigrants allowed from each country. Isaac was only three years old at the time and because his parents only spoke Yiddish and English to him – he had never learned to speak Russian – he had no language problems adapting to his new homeland. The family settled in Brooklyn, New York, and changed its name to Asimov. The Asimovs were orthodox Jews, but as Asimov commented later: “My father didn’t recite the myriad of prayers prescribed for every action and he never made any attempts to teach them to me”. After five years, in 1928, the Asimovs became naturalized citizens of their new country.

Father Asimov owned and ran a number of candy stores where he also sold newspapers and magazines. His children – his youngest son Stanley was born in 1929 – were expected to help out in his stores, a common practice in those years. This gave Isaac an unlimited and daily supply of reading material. Asimov has credited this to be a major influence on his lifelong fascination with the written word. It also resulted in Asimov being able to read at the early age of five. He soon developed an interest in reading science fiction pulp magazines, but his father forbade him reading such trash. Young Asimov explained that these magazines were educational since they had the word Science in their titles, and he was allowed to continue reading them.

At around age 11 he began to write his first stories and by age 19 he started selling them to the publishers of science fiction magazines.

Education and early career

Asimov received his schooling at public schools in New York. After graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn in 1935 he went to Seth Low Junior College which was part of Columbia University. Initially his major was zoology, but after one semester he changed this to chemistry after he refused to “dissect an alley cat”. In 1939 he received his B.Sc. degree at the Columbia University. This was followed by his MA in chemistry in 1941, and after the war his PH.D. in biochemistry in 1948.

During World War II Asimov worked as civilian at the Philadelphia Navy Yard’s Naval Air Experimental Station from 1942 - 1945. After the war he was drafted in the U.S. Army where he became a corporal. After nine months he received a honourable discharge.

Also during the war he married Gertrude Blugerman in 1942 and the couple settled in Philadelphia where Isaac was employed. After the war they moved to Boston in Massachusetts where their two children were born in 1951 and 1955. They separated in 1970 and were divorced three years later.

After receiving his doctorate in 1948, Asimov joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine where he lectured in biochemistry, becoming an assistant professor in 1951. In the late 1970s he would be appointed professor there although he only gave occasional lectures. As the income from his writings increased, it soon exceeded his academic income and in 1958 Asimov gave up lecturing all together and turned to full-time writing.

Asimov’s first publication was a short story titled Marooned Off Vesta which was published in the Amazing Stories magazine in 1939. In 1941 he published Nightfall, a remarkable science fiction story about a planet where night only occurs every 2049 years. The story became one of the best sci-fi stories ever written and established him as a writer.

Asimov published his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, in 1950. His literary oeuvre consists of nearly 500 books, novellas and short stories. His subjects varied from science fiction to mathematics, biology, religion, astronomy and literary biography.

The Three Laws of Robotics

In 1942 Asimov published a short story, Runaround, in which he formulated his Three Laws of Robotics. In the process he also introduced the new word Robotics. The Three Laws, as they became known, would form a unifying theme throughout his robot-based science fiction stories.

The Three Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Many of Asimov’s stories involving robots focus on how robots behave and apply these rules in the different situations they find themselves in.

In Asimov’s positronic robots the Three Laws have been hardwired in their brains to ensure they comply with these laws and to ensure they do not turn against their creators. His 1992 novel, The Positronic Man, co-written with Robert Silverberg and based on Asimov’s earlier novel The Bicentennial Man, describes a robot, Andrew, which starts to display human characteristics, such as emotion, creativity and self-awareness. When Andrew starts replacing his body parts with organic components, and decays his own positronic brain – a process that takes 200 years, hence the title of the original novel – Andrew is declared a human being.

Asimov’s Laws have been elaborated on by many authors, including Asimov himself, to highlight how robots would interact with humans and with each other. In some of Asimov’s later writings, where robots were responsible for governing whole planets and civilizations, he added a fourth law, which he named the Zeroth Law, as it preceded the other three:

   0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

The Three Laws, with or without the zeroth law, have become much used themes in many books and films, especially when robots start malfunctioning and not adhering anymore to these laws.

Asimov’s Empire trilogy, published in the early 1950s and containing three of his earliest novels, is set in the same future as his Foundation series and describes the Galactic Empire, with its capital Trantor,where humans have settled across Milky Way planets.

I, Robot

In 1950 Asimov released a collection of short stories under the name I, Robot, in which he narrated the relationship between humans and robotic creatures. Although the 2004 20th Century Fox film of the same name was based on the screenplay by Jeff Vintar, the end credits state explicitly that the storyline was “suggested by” Asimov’s I, Robot collection of stories. With Will Smith (see below) in the role of the Chicago police detective Dale Spooner, the story describes how Spooner discovers that some robots have started to disobey the Three Laws and plan a revolution against humanity. In the end, all ends well as the leading star manages to destroy the robot’s faulty positronic brain.

Asimov's death

In 1977 Asimov suffered a heart attack, which was followed by a triple bypass in 1983. When he passed away in New York City on April 6, 1992, the family announced that he had died of heart and kidney failure. It was only ten years later that his second wife, Janet, which he had married in 1973, revealed in her edition of Asimov’s autobiography It’s Been a Good Life that his complications had their origin in his infection by HIV. He had contracted the HIV infection from a blood transfusion during his triple bypass operation in 1983. Although Asimov wanted to disclose his positive status, his doctors advised against this because of the prejudice against HIV and AIDS. When Asimov died, the family wanted to disclose the real reason, but when Arthur Ashe in that same year announced himself being positive – also received via a blood transfusion during heart surgery – controversy erupted to such an extent that the family decided not to reveal Asimov’s real cause of death. Ten years later they decided that going public was the right thing to do.

To all my gentle readers who have treated me with love for over 30 years, I must say farewell. It has always been my ambition to die in harness with my head face down on a keyboard and my nose caught between two of the keys, but that's not the way it worked out. I have had a long and happy life and I have no complaints about the ending, thereof, and so farewell -- farewell.” Isaac Asimov shortly before his death.

One of the 2012 Republic of Guinee stamps commemorating Asimov’s death twenty years earlier.
On the left is robot ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), made by Honda in 2000.

Asimov honoured

Asimov has received numerous awards, some of them posthumously:

  • 1957 – Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Award, for Building Blocks of the Universe
  • 1962 – Boston University’s Publication Merit Award
  • 1963 – Special Hugo Award for "adding science to science fiction" for essays published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
  • 1963 – Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1964 – The Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Nightfall" (1941) the all-time best science fiction short story
  • 1965 – James T. Grady Award of the American Chemical Society
  • 1966 – Best All-time Novel Series Hugo Award for the Foundation series
  • 1967 – Westinghouse Science Writing Award
  • 1977 – Hugo Award for Best Novelette for The Bicentennial Man
  • 1977 – Nebula Award for Best Novelette for The Bicentennial Man
  • 1981 – An asteroid, 5020 Asimov, was named in his honour
  • 1984 – The American Humanist Society named him the Humanist of the Year. From 1985 until his death in 1992, Asimov served as its President
  • 1986 – The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 8th SFWA Grand Master
  • 1995 – Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book for I. Asimov: A Memoir
  • 1997 – The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted Asimov in its second class of two deceased and two living persons, along with H. G. Wells and following editors Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell
  • 2009 – A crater on the planet Mars, Asimov was named in his honour
  • 2010 – In the US Congress bill about the designation of the National Robotics Week as an annual event, a tribute to Isaac Asimov was included as follows: "Whereas the second week in April each year is designated as 'National Robotics Week', recognizing the accomplishments of Isaac Asimov, who immigrated to America, taught science, wrote science books for children and adults, first used the term robotics, developed the Three Laws of Robotics, and died in April, 1992: Now, therefore, be it resolved...
  • 2015 – Selected as a member of the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.

Regrettably, the United States has never issued a stamp commemorating this famous writer.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2015

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