With nearly five hundred books to his credit, Isaac Asimov was probably the most prolific American writer of the century, and his range was as vast as his output. He was among other things a master at explaining science to the general public. In strictly literary terms, however, he is most noted for his science fiction. The conceptual contributions of his many novels and stories have profoundly influenced the genre since 1939, and in his nonfiction Asimov consistently championed science fiction as an important literary form.
Born in Russia in 1920 and brought to the United States at the age of three, Asimov grew up reading science fiction in his father's Brooklyn candy store. (He convinced his father that his reading was not trash by pointing to the word "science" on the various magazine covers.) Asimov's first published story, "Marooned Off Vesta," appeared in Amazing Stories in March 1939, but he had also been getting highly encouraging rejections from John W. Campbell, Jr., the pioneering editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell soon bought Asimov's "Trends" and a fruitful editorial relationship began. Often Campbell would propose a story idea and Asimov would write it—such was the case with "Nightfall," a tale about the effects of darkness on a world where night comes only once every two thousand years: the effects are terror and madness. Asimov's "Nightfall" appeared in Astounding in 1941 and was later voted the best story in all of science fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Soon after breaking into Astounding Asimov began developing his landmark tales of robots and robotics (his coinage). Seeking to subvert the traditional image of robots as hostile to their creators, Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics, which have since become the common property of science fiction writers:
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 and Second Laws.
With these successively weaker laws, Asimov nullified at a stroke the imagined threat of robots and created the matrix of innumerable story situations in which the three laws can create conflicts, dilemmas, and puzzles for both the robots and their human creators.
A little later, in May 1942, Asimov began publishing in Astounding the series of...