Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
ISAAC ASIMOV DID not “burst” into science fiction with a spectacularly successful story, as some science fiction writers have. Instead, his first published story, “Marooned off Vesta,” appeared without fanfare in the March 1939 issue of Amazing Stories. Its premise of using water pressure to rescue a crew marooned on a fragment of a spaceship seems plausible, and the interplay between the characters is amusing at times. Nevertheless, As-imov’s reputation as one of the giants of science fiction was built not on his first story but on the positronic robot stories, the Foundation stories, and “Nightfall” (1941).
The robot series was the first to be developed; three of the stories had been printed by the time “Nightfall” appeared, and two others were published before the Foundation series was begun.
“Robbie,” the first of the robot stories, grew out of Asimov’s admiration for the treatment of robots in Eando Binder’s “I, Robot” (1939). “Robbie” appeared as “Strange Playfellow” in the September 1940 issue of Super Science Stories. It had been rejected by John W. Campbell, Jr., because it was too similar to Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” (1938) and by Amazing for its similarity to Binder’s story. The positronic robots were at first portrayed as limited and lumbering monstrosities that only a little girl could love, but they quickly became more sophisticated, sleeker in appearance, and more fully characterized.
Asimov aimed at selling to Campbell at Astounding Science-Fiction; and even before his first story sale, he began his practice of delivering manuscripts by hand. When he delivered “Cosmic Corkscrew” to the Street and Smith offices on 21 June 1938, he asked hesitantly if he might see the editor. Much to Asimov’s surprise, Campbell not only saw him but talked to him for an hour. This talk, along with the others, and Campbell’s continuing enthusiasm, kept Asimov writing and developing ideas during his apprenticeship period, when he was writing stories such as “Cosmic Corkscrew” but not selling them.
Many people have noted that Campbell was a man of strong opinions and that he expected his authors to heed his ideas. According to Asimov’s two-volume autobiography, he had Campbell’s opinion in mind when planning the second robot story: robots would be one way to get around Campbell’s insistence that humans are superior to other beings; the religious theme would also interest Campbell. The result was “Reason” (Astounding, April 1941), a story in which a robot reasons the existence of God in much the same way that Descartes did—and still performs perfectly the functions for which human beings designed it.
Between “Robbie” and the appearance of the collection I, Robot (1950), Asimov wrote some eleven stories about positronic robots. It is not necessary to comment on all of them; important stories in the series will be mentioned.
The third robot story, “Liar!” (Astounding, May 1941), is significant for two reasons: Susan Calvin is introduced, and the first of the Three Laws of Robotics is explicitly stated for...