Issac Asimov at 100
I must have been eight years old. My Uncle Alan, my Dad’s older brother, had already established his expertise at “uncling” by introducing me to the Museum of Science and Industry buying me my first model train set, a Lionel Steamer, and showing me where he stashed his bottomless supply of Hershey chocolate bars.
Now he was to open up my world another notch by leading me to his stack of science fiction. The 25¢ pulp magazines of short stories, and the 50¢ paperbacks. On the top of the paperback stack was I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Right then and there began my decades long love for science fiction.
Before we go further into the writings of Isaac Asimov, who would have been one hundred years old today, let me make a few admissions. Yes, Asimov was far from the most poetic of writers, his prose was simple and direct, very matter of fact. He avoided the romantic, and for the most part anything involving human to human relationships. He rarely placed a female character in a key role, although robotics expert Dr. Susan Calvin is a unifying character throughout the series of short stories that make up I Robot.
But it is easy to put those criticisms aside. For what Asimov did for my eight year old self, and I’m sure for millions of other faithful readers over the years, is open up completely new worlds blending science fact with speculative fiction. He may not have invented the SciFi genre, but he was most certainly a founding father.
Asimov’s worlds were not simply far off locations or future settings here on earth. Asimov went beyond Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, H.G. Well’s The Time Machine and War of the Worlds and Karel Capek, who first applied the word “robot” to artificial beings in his play R.U.R. Asimov described entire galaxies where complex societies were so detailed you could see them in your mind’s eye. Which is exactly what great fiction does.
It was Asimov who set forth the operating manual for how artificial intelligence might co-exit with humans with his “Three Laws of Robotics.”
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
—-Asimov, “Runaround,” 1942
An author could have made a career just exploring the implications of those three laws. But the hundreds of stories and dozens of books in Asimov’s robots series was but a small portion of his output, which on his death in 1992 numbered more than 500 books. Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, he set a standard for modern science fiction, a genre that was, at the time, considered suspect.
Asimov did not stop there. He wrote mysteries and fantasies. And beyond that, hundreds of works of non-fiction. When I met Asimov in 1990, and of course gushed over his science fiction work, he told me that he most wanted to be remembered as a “great explainer.” His works popularizing knowledge ranged over topics from “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science” to “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible,” “Lecherous Limericks” to “The Sensuous Dirty Old Man.” Again, before you say it, yes he did have a reputation for trying to live up to that last title, His actions were inappropriate in 1990 and would not be acceptable today.
My experience with Asimov was a result of a public television special I produced for the Nightly Business Report, “Business in the 21st Century.” Ours was a daily broadcast of stock market data and news and we did these special thematic programs for days the markets were closed. Our regular broadcast often ended with a commentary from an economist or analyst and I though Asimov would be great in that spot on our special.
I got him on the phone and I confess he didn’t see my point but agreed to meet me for lunch so I could make my pitch. Once I got him to stop flirting with my production assistant I explained that his trilogy known as the Galactic Empire Series made a prescient forecast of a future world and the role of business within.
Asimov’s future galaxy was held together by intergalactic trade. Barter is employed since fiat currency comes and goes but the rules of exchange are both simple and constant. Asimov described “Merchant Princes” who captain the ships, make the deals and move the cargo, enforcing the standards of contract paramount to success and, not so incidentally, keeping the peace. It’s not easy to carry on essential trade when you are at war.
Asimov warmed to my idea and, naturally, turned in 90 seconds of commentary on this future world. Instead of the usual studio setting we shot, in honor of our guest, at the Hayden Planetarium’s Space Theater in front of a star field projection. My bosses liked the work. I was trilled to have met one of my heroes. And yes, I did have the PA on the crew. I hope Asimov had a good time.