A humble tribute to Isaac Asimov

Today I thought I’d talk about Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). One of my favourite writers when I was a teenager. I still enjoy re-reading his stuff today.

He wrote a lot of brilliant non-fiction, especially essays and books explaining science. But he was perhaps best known for his science fiction – his three laws of robotics, his robot detective novels, and his Foundation series. And he also wrote murder mysteries, books of limericks, and science essays. A lot of them. In fact, Asimov published over 300 books, all of them fantastic.

His writing gives the lie to the notion that ‘prolific’ must by definition mean ‘hasty’, hence ‘bad’. So how did he do it? The hard way. He worked seven day weeks, twelve hour days – or more. Often on two or three projects at once. By his own account, he also didn’t revise too much. Which means that the stuff you read is pretty well what Asimov formulated first off.

To me that underscores his genius. His books are always well-written, which means he had the whole structure of what he was doing in his head – and then wrote it down. Easily and with a steady flow. Stylistically – well, he was often criticised for having ‘no’ style, for bland or pedestrian phrasing. But actually he had a very distinct and specific style, and he explained it once. Plain vanilla. Strip out the adjectives. Keep it simple. Keep it straight-forward. What he said was:

‘I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.’

Sheer genius  of course. And it worked. What he wrote is so easy to read that it captures the reader effortlessly. Yet his words also convey the precise meaning he intended without a single excess phrase. I think that is utterly brilliant. If any author can be said to have inspired me with style, it is Asimov.

Like Heinlein, Asimov had advice for would-be writers. ‘You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.

Asimov was also criticised for his laws of robotics. These were a specific 1930s reaction to the Frankenstein notion that machines would inevitably turn on their creators. In practise they are unworkable (even for humans), and one criticism levelled at his robot stories has been that, more often than not, they turned into intellectual games in which the schtik was either circumventing the laws or finding some way in which they failed. Well, wasn’t that the point? Think about it.

The scenes in Robots and Empire where robots Daneel and Giskard struggle with the limits of their own ‘thinking’ are simply brilliant. I mean. Don’t we all struggle against our limits?

For me the key issue, and one that I’ve not seen outlined anywhere else, was that the laws made it possible for Asimov to write about benign futures. He never did write about interstellar wars and ravening rays in any event. But his drama and tension came from interpersonal conflict – often expounded by arguments between characters which themselves often boiled down to points of logic. His characters didn’t strangle each other – they debated, and those tensions became the drama in his stories. An approach epitomised for me by the quest for Earth in Foundation and Earth. Even Asimov’s actual villains, when he had them, were real people with good sides to them; here, too, conflict came from differing goals – and, as always, the villains believed what they were doing was right and good. That made his stories so much the better.

In this future, robots innately designed to prevent humans coming to harm became a metaphor for the human conscience, a literal physical restraint on our bad selves. Remember the dinner scene with Baley and Fastolfe in The Robots of Dawn?

That book also showed up something else about Asimov’s work. By contrast with Heinlein – whose SF spun on hard-tech engineering – Asimov’s SF was always more about people and societies. The tech was simply a backdrop that made the stories possible – unobtrusive, seldom explained. We never did find out how his interstellar spaceships were driven. It was only towards the end of it that he detailed a ‘blaster’ as a microwave beam (and an adjustable one, at that).

He had the science chops if he needed them. Take my favourite Asimov novella, The Martian Way. The notion of fitting an ice chunk from Saturn’s rings with steam-rocket motors and lobbing them across the solar system was pure hard SF. Yet – again – the essence of the story wasn’t about a gee-whizz engineering future – it was about the stupidities of McCarthyism.

All this was deliberate. Asimov was a scientist and knew that a lot of the things that science fiction needed for story flow – like ‘hyperdrives’ – was just hand-waving. So were ‘positronic’ robot brains. The notion of ‘positronic’ implied something working by a different principle to ‘electronics’, enabling artificial intelligence. In fact a positron doesn’t work differently from an electron – it’s simply an electron with opposite charge, and if it encounters an electron they annihilate each other, releasing energy per the famous Einstein equation. If you could build a computer with antiparticles, it would work the same as a computer built with normal matter. At least until it encountered normal matter (‘boom’). Why didn’t Asimov’s robots all explode when the positrons in their brains hit normal matter? Asimov never explained.

Of course Asimov knew this. But in the late 1930s, when he came up with the idea, positrons had only just been discovered. The name sounded good. And you know what? The credibility of his stories never suffered. Not one whit.

That shows us another side of Asimov’s genius. If the story’s good, the characters real, and the background future credibly consistent, then it’s all you need for a good novel. And Asimov was a great story teller. A really great story teller – whose writing brought pleasure to generations, still does – and that’s without adding in his other writing hat as a brilliant science educator. What more can an author ask for than to be remembered as such?

Do any of you have a favourite Asimov story? Did Asimov change your ideas about writing, as he changed mine?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

11 thoughts on “A humble tribute to Isaac Asimov

  1. Thank you for your post Matthew. My father introduced me to Asimov and what struck me about him was how he made science more interesting than my teachers ever could. He changed science writing forever….it is interesting to read about his philosophy behind writing. Inspiring!


  2. I only discovered Asimov’s works in the last few years. The sparse minimalism of his prose is definitely one of the things I like about his early works. However, I was rather disappointed by his later books, particularly the ones he wrote in the 80s, precisely because he seemed to have abandoned that sparse style in favor of one more heavily padded with fluffy descriptions. The later Foundation novels are about twice as long as the originals and yet have about half as much happen in them. And ‘Nemesis’ has got to be one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. However, the original Foundation stories are absolutely some of the best science fiction out there still today. I would also recommend some of his other early novels, like ‘The Currents of Space’ and ‘The End of Eternity’.


    1. What I found frustrating has been the non-Asimov franchise of his universe. Stylistically different and the bits I’ve read simply didn’t carry the same magic. Thanks for dropping by!


  3. As a pre-Boomer, I read the Good Doctor’s prose in my elementary school years through college. I loved his essays in F&SF, his non-fiction books and his stories. His robot novels led me to many a classical novel. He inspired a number of my generation to take up scientific careers, including me. He showed me that there is a way to settle human affairs without violence. I miss him.


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