Isaac Asimov: Overview

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Author: James Gunn
Editor: Jay P. Pederson
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,026 words

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At the age of three, Isaac Asimov was brought to Brooklyn from Petrovichi, Russia, by penniless immigrant parents. He grew up in a series of candy stores, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and reached the rank of associate professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, became a sought-after public speaker limited only by his dislike of travel and fear of flying, earned millions of dollars and, with more than 470 books, a reputation as the most prolific author of his generation, and died in Manhattan at the age of 72. His life and career were shaped by science fiction, and reflected its changes of fortune and status.

A dedicated fan who aspired to become a writer, Asimov graduated from membership in the Futurians to become the most Campbellian of John W. Campbell's writers for Astounding Science Fiction, visiting Campbell regularly to discuss ideas and drop off stories. The Astounding editor gave Asimov the idea, among others, for his signature story "Nightfall," codified the "three laws of robotics" of Asimov's robot stories, and helped shape the concept of "psychohistory" for Asimov's Foundation stories. Asimov repaid Campbell with loyalty and stories enriched by his own thoughtful development, his inventive details, and his carefully transparent prose. More than any other writer, Asimov became the symbol for SF's "Golden Age." He was the supreme rationalist, valuing clear thinking and cool logic above all else.

Unlike Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt, the other two major writers of the Golden Age, Asimov, typically, was always a part-time SF writer, creating the greater portion of his Golden Age SF while a student at Columbia University. Like most writers of the period, for his first decade he wrote only short stories. He produced his first novel in 1950, when a 48,000-word novella commissioned for a magazine was rejected; he expanded it into Pebble in the Sky for the newly created Doubleday SF program. Asimov always considered himself a fortunate man, blessed by chance that turned even failure into greater success, editors who looked upon him as a son, and a dean who forced him to relinquish his academic position for full-time writing. At every turn his career confirmed the way events worked out for the best.

Inspired by the success of Pebble in the Sky, Asimov focused his efforts more on novels and expanded his ambition beyond Campbell and Astounding to H.L. Gold and the new magazine Galaxy. Later his vision would expand to other editors, particularly Anthony Boucher and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction; under another editor his relationship would develop into a monthly science column that Asimov would maintain until his final illness. But he was never a full-time writer until he resigned from his position at Boston University in 1958, and then, under the impetus of the Soviet Sputnik, he devoted most of his time to science popularizations, returning to SF only occasionally until his last decade. For the quarter of a century after Sputnik, except for short stories the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420000348