Literary Criticism of Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was an unusually prolific author with more than five hundred published books in his bibliography, including fiction, autobiographies, edited anthologies of fiction, and nonfiction works ranging in subject from the Bible to science, history, and humor. Asimov was especially known for his ability to explain complicated scientific concepts clearly. Although his writing reputation was based on his science fiction, his nonfiction writings are useful reference works on the many subjects he covered. His goal was not only to entertain but also to inform.

isaac-asimov-6Asimov’s novels are primarily science fiction, and of these almost half, fourteen novels, are tied together at some point with part of the Foundation series. Early in his writing career Asimov established four series of stories: the Empire series, consisting of three novels and collections of short stories; the Foundation series, consisting of seven novels, with more that Asimov outlined to be finished by other authors; the Robot series, consisting of four novels and collections of short stories; and the Lucky Starr series, a collection of six juvenile novels not related to the Foundation series. Asimov borrowed heavily from history, specifically the history of the Roman Empire, to create his plot lines for the Foundation books. Of all his novels, The Gods Themselves, a Hugo and Nebula Award winner, was Asimov’s favorite.

The Empire series

The Empire series consists of three novels, Pebble in the Sky, The Stars Like Dust, and The Currents of Space. Later Foundation series books attempt to tie these three into that series. Asimov’s first published novel, Pebble in the Sky, is the best of these. The writing is not Asimov’s most polished, but the hero, Joseph Schwartz,  provides an interesting middle-aged counterpoint to Bel Arvardan, a younger man of action coping with a postapocalyptic, radioactive Earth.

The Foundation series

The Foundation series began as a trilogy. The first three Foundation books, known for some time as the Foundation trilogy, were written during the 1950’s and took much of their plot line from the history of the Roman Empire. Because of the length of the trilogy, it is rarely taught in schools, but the first two of the three books, Foundation and Foundation and Empire, are examples of Asimov’s fiction at its best.

The hero of these novels is Hari Seldon, a mathematician who invents the discipline of psychohistory. Using psychohistory, Seldon is able to predict the coming fall of the empire and to help set up the Foundation in order to help humankind move more quickly through the coming “dark ages” that will be caused by the collapse of the empire. Psychohistory is unable to predict individual mutations and events in human history, however, so Seldon’s Foundation is unable to predict the rise to power of the Mule, a mutant of superior intelligence. Asimov’s introduction of the concept of psychohistory, a science that could predict the future course of humankind, has inspired many history, psychology, sociology, and economics majors, and was significant in the creation of an actual psychohistory major at some colleges and universities.

By the third book, Second Foundation, Asimov was tired of the Foundation story and came up with two alternate endings that he hoped would let him be free of it. In the first, the Mule discovers the secret second Foundation and destroys it, thereby ending Seldon’s plan. Asimov’s editor talked him out of this ending, so he wrote another, in which the Second Foundation triumphs. Seldon’s plan is restored to course and nothing of interest happens again to the human species—thus freeing Asimov from the need to write further Foundation novels. Time and financial incentives eventually overcame Asimov’s boredom with the Foundation trilogy, and thirty years later, during the 1980’s and 1990’s, he began filling in the gaps around the original stories with four other novels. He went on to produce Foundation’s Edge, Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation. None has quite the same magic as the first two Foundation novels.

 

The Robot series 

The ideas introduced by Asimov in the Robot series are perhaps his most famous. Asimov’s robots are human in form and have “positronic” brains. During the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the television program and films of Star Trek: The Next Generation contributed to public awareness of this concept through the character of the android Data, who, like Asimov’s robots, has a positronic brain. Asimov also invented the three Laws of Robotics, which he tended not to let other people use. His invention of mechanical creatures with built-in ethical systems is used freely, however, and from that standpoint Data is an Asimovian robot. The concept of a tool designed for safety in the form of a robot was new to science-fiction writing when Asimov introduced it, and it stood in sharp contrast to the usual mechanical men of science-fiction pulp magazines, which tended to be dangerous and run amok.

There are exciting ideas and parts in each of the four Robot novels, The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire. The Caves of Steel is a good place to start. The character R. Daneel Olivaw is introduced in this novel and appears in six additional novels. The “R.” stands for robot. This particular novel is also notable for its blending of two genres, science fiction and mystery. Additionally, the title describes Asimov’s solution to an overcrowded Earth, an incredible complex of multilayered mega-cities covering the entire planet.

The Lucky Starr series 

Because he was intentionally writing juvenile novels of the Lucky Starr series for a hoped-for television series and was afraid that they would affect his reputation as a serious science-fiction writer, Asimov originally published them under the pseudonym Paul French. In these novels, David Starr and his friend Bigman Jones travel around the solar system in a spaceship. Asimov adapted Western stereotypes to create these plots, but he used his amazing ability to explain science to create plot devices and solutions based on science.

The Gods Themselves 

The Gods Themselves is one of Asimov’s best novels and one of the few unrelated to any others. However, to single it out as a “stand-alone” novel would imply that the books of his series are dependent upon one another, which is not true. The Gods Themselves is one of the few Asimov novels dealing with aliens. The Gods Themselves (the title is taken from a quote by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”) is actually a series of three interrelated stories treating stupidity and responses to it. Humans exchange energy with aliens in a parallel universe with the Inter-Universe Electron Pump. When one human realizes the pump will eventually cause the sun to explode, he works to warn others, but nobody listens. Meanwhile, in the parallel universe, one of the “para-men” also attempts to shut down the pump. Although neither succeeds due to stupidity on the part of their peers, the problem eventually is solved by others, and the human universe is saved.

 

Fantastic Voyage and Fantastic Voyage II

Fantastic Voyage was contracted as a novelization of the 1966 film of the same name. However, because of the rapidity of Asimov’s writing and the slow pace of filmmaking, the book actually appeared before the film. In the novel Asimov attempted to explain and justify some of the scientific impossibilities and inaccuracies of the film but never succeeded to his own satisfaction. Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain was in many ways a second attempt at rectifying the science of the first.

Novelettes into Novels 

As a publishing ploy, it was arranged that Robert Silverberg would expand three of Asimov’s best and most famous novelettes, “Nightfall,” “The Bicentennial Man” (which became The Positronic Man), and “The Ugly Little Boy,” into full novels. Although Silverberg is an excellent and literary writer, his style and Asimov’s do not blend particularly well. Given the opportunity, readers should begin by reading the original award-winning work. “Nightfall” in particular has won worldwide acclaim and is the most mentioned and remembered of Asimov’s stories. Its premise concerns what happens to the psyches of a people who live in a world that only experiences total darkness once every two thousand years.

Other Major Works
Short Fiction: I, Robot, 1950; The Martian Way, 1955; Earth Is Room Enough, 1957; Nine Tomorrows, 1959; The Rest of the Robots, 1964; Asimov’s Mysteries, 1968; Nightfall, and Other Stories, 1969; The Early Asimov, 1972; Tales of the Black Widowers, 1974; Buy Jupiter, and Other Stories, 1975; More Tales of the Black Widowers, 1976; The Bicentennial Man, and Other Stories, 1976; Good Taste, 1977; The Key Word, and Other Mysteries, 1977; Casebook of the Black Widowers, 1980; Computer Crimes and Capers, 1983; The Union Club Mysteries, 1983; The Winds of Change, and Other Stories, 1983; Banquets of the Black Widowers, 1984; The Disappearing Man, and Other Mysteries, 1985; Alternative Asimovs, 1986; Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, 1990-1992 (2 volumes).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press,Inc 2008.

 

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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