Who Was Isaac Asimov?

Asimov is widely considered to be the founder of modern science fiction.

Who Was Isaac Asimov?
Isaac by Luciano

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is remembered as one of the top 3 science fiction writers, along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Asimov is widely considered to be the founder of modern science fiction, born near modern-day Smolensk to a family of poor Jewish millers in Soviet Russia during the Russian Civil War. His family immigrated to the U.S. when he was three years old to escape the chaos of the Russian Revolution.

Early Life

Little Isaac grew up in Brooklyn and showed an early aptitude for a high mental capacity, even teaching himself to read at the age of 5. Between Isaac’s home study and his mother lying about his age to get him in school a year early, he was ahead of the curve. Isaac became a U.S. citizen at 8 years old. After becoming economically settled, Isaac’s parents owned a small chain of convenience stores in New York City. Those stores also sold newspapers and magazines, which helped Isaac further develop his love for reading.

He was especially fond of the pulp magazines that offered him an ongoing repository of exciting stories to read in various genres. Despite his parents doing well for the family, they wouldn’t have been able to afford his reading habit without those magazines always in supply at their stores. Isaac’s father initially banned Isaac from reading the pulps due to the suggestive covers (scantily clad women, gangster types with pistols, etc.), claiming that the pulps were just trash. Isaac kept insisting that the science fiction pulp magazines were scientific and therefore educational. He began writing his own stories at age 11 and by age 19, Isaac Asimov was selling his stories to the pulp magazines.

War Years

Isaac Asimov graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Columbia University in 1938 and completed his Masters in Chemistry in 1941. During the initial frenzy of World War II Asimov married Gertrude Blugerman. He spent the war as a Navy civilian working at the Philadelphia Naval Yard’s Naval Air Experimental Station.

Ironically, he was drafted into the Army in 1945 and served for 9 months before an honorable discharge. He narrowly missed being exposed to the atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll when a bureaucratic mix-up removed him from the task force only days before the bombs were detonated. He still wrote and published science fiction stories throughout the war.

Author and Scientist

Asimov earned his PhD in Biochemistry in 1948 and joined the faculty of Boston University’s School of Medicine. By 1955 he had 3 children and was living in the Boston suburbs with his family. He began publishing novels and nonfiction books in the 1950s, after building up a following from a decade of writing for science fiction pulps. He debuted his famous Foundation trilogy in the early 50s and the novels received wide acclaim.

Asimov then spent the majority of the 60s and 70s teaching and writing nonfiction science books, as well as an array of other nonfiction works, including two-volume commentary on the Bible. Asimov separated from his wife Gertrude in the early 70s, moved back to New York, and quickly remarried to Janet Jeppson. He thrived in New York. One funny anecdote relates the “Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.” Asimov was sharing a cab with his friend Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey) when they agreed that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world while Isaac Asimov was the best science nonfiction writer.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Asimov returned to writing and editing science fiction as his main focus. He even expanded the Foundation trilogy into a 6 book saga. His views on gender and equality also changed from his early twentieth-century worldview, and his later work finally began including strong female characters. After years of heart problems, Isaac Asimov passed away from kidney failure in 1992.

Body of Work

Asimov was such a productive writer and had such a great output of work that it’s not possible to describe it all in one short article. Asimov got his start writing short stories for pulp magazines. Cosmic Corkscrew was the first short-story he completed, and in 1938 he personally submitted it to the editor of Astounding Science Fiction at their New York office. The story was rejected but the editor encouraged Isaac to keep trying.

He did, and he sold stories to other pulp magazines until he finally made his debut in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940. In 1941, Astounding published Asimov’s story “Nightfall,” and the Science Fiction Writers of America declared it the best science fiction short story ever written. Astounding then became the exclusive publisher of Isaac Asimov stories from 1943 to 1949.

In 1950 he published I,Robot and from 1951 to 1953 he published the Foundation trilogy. Both of these groundbreaking timelines would later be expanded into longer sagas during the 80s. By 1958, Asimov had moved to writing only nonfiction columns for sci-fi and fantasy magazines, and he switched his main writing focus to hard science. He published The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science in 1960, as a precursor to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos for explaining complex science to the layman.

Throughout the 60s Isaac Asimov wrote and published over a dozen history books, including multiple books on the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Roman Empire. Two of his most scholarly acclaimed books are Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare and the rare two-volume Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. During this period he also wrote mystery short stories, publishing often with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, including 66 stories about the ‘Black Widowers’ mystery solvers.

Though he was focused on hard science and nonfiction, Asimov still lent his expertise as Gene Rodenberry’s science advisor for the Star Trek TV series. Isaac Asimov returned to science fiction began in the late 1970s. He was approached with the idea of starting a new fiction magazine, and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine was born. Isaac served as editorial director for 15 years, from 1977 until his death in 1992.

Best Novels

Between his dozens of lifetime publications and posthumous publications, Asimov authored a minimum of 200 different books. Many of them were novels. There are two timelines in particular. The first began with I, Robot, which was published in 1950. This collection of short stories loosely tied together by recurring characters introduces the Three Laws of Robotics, which are now required knowledge for sci-fi aficionados. This became the first in a series.

Two sequels were published in the few years following: The Caves of Steel, in 1954, and The Naked Sun, in 1957. This saga shows the extinction of humanity and the growth of a robotic civilization. The Robots saga was expanded during Asimov’s great return to science fiction in the 1980s. He continued the story of the robotic civilization with The Robots of Dawn, 1982, and Robots and Empire, 1985. There’ll be no spoilers here but it’s incredible to read the way the robots become humanlike in their mistakes and in the ‘soul’ of their ‘advanced’ civilization.

Another set of masterpieces for which Asimov is remembered is the Foundation series. Only Asimov can successfully take the reader on a lightspeed jump through 500 years of galactic events in one 300-page novel! After Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, Asimov wrote two sequels: Foundation’s Edge, 1982, and Foundation and Earth, 1986. 1988’s Prelude to Foundation takes the series back to the very beginning, to the life of the very ordinary man who will be worshipped as a god by the end of the saga. Finally the second prequel, Forward the Foundation, was published posthumously in 1993.

Asimov Legacy

Isaac Asimov may not have been aware his sci-fi magazine would breathe life into many writing careers. Though it was originally famous for his name recognition, Asimov’s Science Fiction has showcased the work of now-famous authors like Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), Robert Silverberg (Nightwings), Karen Traviss (Star Wars: Republic Commando), and Harry Turtledove (The Guns of the South).

Asimov also leaves behind a legacy as a highly decorated and celebrated author. He is the recipient of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for science fiction, as well as the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation Award, several Locus awards, was named a Fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 1987 by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Best of all, Asimov Crater on the planet Mars was named by NASA in honor of Isaac Asimov, the father of modern science fiction and one of the greatest authors of all time.

book reviewintellectscience fictionvirtuosos
Stephanie Gladwell
Stephanie Gladwell
Read next: Understanding the Collective Intelligence of Pro-opinion
Stephanie Gladwell

Mother of two, educator of many. Teaches middle-school biology and chemistry. Always interested in exploring the unknown.

See all posts by Stephanie Gladwell