Republic of Guinea Post commemorative stamps for Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov was born on January 2, 1920 (or so his parents asserted). An American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, he wrote or edited more than 500 books. Despite the versatility of subjects he wrote about, Asimov is best known for his hard science-fiction stories. The Foundation Series is his most famous work. The original trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966. Another major work is Asimov’s Robot series. His story “Nightfall” (published in 1941) has been described as one of “the most famous science-fiction stories of all time”. In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted “Nightfall” as the best science fiction short story ever written. Asimov himself believed that his most enduring contributions would be his “Three Laws of Robotics” and the Foundation series. He is credited with coining the term “robotics”. (Summarized from Wikipedia).
I’ve read and reread Asimov since elementary school, and have admired many of his science-fiction novels and short stories. They definitely inspired me to study physics and to write my own stories. Before writing this post, I asked around and searched on the Internet about others’ favorite Asimov’s stories. I found that opinions vary about his extensive oeuvre. According to Frequently Asked Questions about Isaac Asimov:
“Asimov’s favorite novel was The Gods Themselves, largely because of the middle section, which was both absolutely brilliant and included non-humans and sex…
Asimov’s three favorite stories were (in order): “The Last Question”, “The Bicentennial Man”, and “The Ugly Little Boy”.”
Although I enjoyed reading The Gods Themselves and liked the above mentioned three stories, I prefer different ones. My favorite Asimov novels are the Foundation trilogy and The Caves of Steel. Instead of naming my three favorite Asimov short stories, here are citations from each:
Tony said one morning, “it’s time to start buying, and I’m not allowed to leave the house. If I write out exactly what we must have, can I trust you to get it? We need drapery, and furniture fabric, wallpaper, carpeting, paint, clothing – and any number of small things.”
“You can’t get these things to your own specification at a stroke’s notice,” said Claire doubtfully.
“You can get fairly close, if you go through the city and if money is no object.”
“But, Tony, money is certainly an object.”
“Not at all. Stop off at U.S. Robots in the first place. I’ll write a note for you. You see Dr. Calvin, and tell her that I said it was part of the experiment.”
He wasn’t speaking to George. He wasn’t speaking to anyone. He was just uncorked and frothing. George realized that.
George said,” If you knew in advance that the Beemans were going to be used, couldn’t you have studied up on them?”
“They weren’t in my tapes, I tell you.”
“You could have read – books.”
The last word had tailed off under Trevelyan’s suddenly sharp look.
Trevelyan said, “Are you trying to make a big laugh out of this? You think this is funny? How do you expect me to read some book and try to memorize enough to match someone else who knows.”
“I thought – “
“You try it. You try – “ Then suddenly, “What’s your profession, by the way?” He sounded thoroughly hostile.
“Well – “
“Come on, now. If you are going to be a wise guy with me, let’s see what you’ve done. You’re still on Earth, I notice, so you’re not a Computer Programmer and your special assignment can’t be much.”
“Oh, yes,” said Dr. Phineas Welch, “I can bring back the spirits of the illustrious dead.”
He was a little drunk, or maybe he wouldn’t have said it. Of course, it was perfectly all right to get a little drunk at the annual Christmas party.
Scott Robertson, the school’s young English instructor, adjusted his glasses and looked to right and left to see if they were overheard. “really, Dr. Welch.”
“I mean it. And not just the spirits. I bring back the bodies, too.”
“I wouldn’t have said it were possible,” said Robertson primly.
“Why not? A simple matter of temporal transference.”
“You mean time travel? But that’s quite – uh – unusual.”
“Not if you know how.”
“Well, how, Dr. Welch?”
“Think I’m going to tell you?” asked the physicist gravely. He looked vaguely about for another drink and didn’t find any. He said, “I brought quite a few back. Archimedes, Newton, Galileo. Poor fellows.”
The first excerpt is from “Satisfaction Guaranteed” (1955), and, yes, Dr. Calvin is the Dr. Susan Calvin, the most inspiring female scientist I’ve ever met in fiction. The second one is from “Profession” (1957). In some sense that story (supposedly taking place about four thousands years in the future) already seems outdated, but only in details. The advance and the expansion of new technologies are already making profound changes in our society. With more and more professions becoming redundant, and Earth’s population continued growth, “Profession” seems to me much more relevant now than when I’d read it first. “The Immortal Bard” (1953) is my all time favorite. In retrospect I agree with Asimov, physics and literature do not always mix well.
I recently blogged about Asimov’s autobiographies in this post.
Image: Asimov interviewed for the summer 1983 issue of Muppet Magazine
“The Immortal Bard”, if I have the recollection right, was inspired when Asimov heard an analysis of one of his stories that he thought was completely wrong. But then the speaker asked why Asimov thought he understood why the story worked the way it did. And Asimov had to admit, he didn’t really know why his stories worked (or didn’t) and maybe the person who made a career of studying how successful stories are put together was more right.
I don’t know about Asimov specifically, but I’ve read that writers cannot usually pinpoint what causes a story to work. Good critics can dissect someone’s work and appraise its components, but I doubt that even professional critics have the skills to predict/explain why one story resonates with its readers while other stories on the same subject and with similar tropes do not pull their readers. Another example of “the whole is larger than the sum of its ingredients” is the original Star Wars (IV). The latest episode (VII) has all the “right” ingredients but watching it did not recreate the “wow” affect of the original movie.