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Isaac Asimov's Biography: The Pebble in the Sky

Isaac Asimov was a highly prolific author and inspiration for many. His career started in 1939 when he first began writing sci-fi short stories.

 Isaac Asimov's Biography: The Pebble in the Sky
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Isaac Asimov is one of the world's greatest authors of all time. His work has inspired countless generations of children and adults to take up an interest in science and dare to dream of the future of mankind.

He was a bestseller and highly-renowned writer in his own time and his work can be found on many bookshelves around the entire world. In the following article, we'll explore the life, times and work of this prodigious literary genius and pay homage to his legacy.

A Brief Biography of Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was born sometime between October 4th, 1919 and January 2nd, 1920 (the latter being the one he officially recognized) in Petrovichi near Klimpvivhi in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

His family would later emigrate to the United States in 1923 where they lived in Brooklyn, New York. 

Between 1939 and 1948 he would earn a B.Sc., MA, and Ph.D. and become a professor of biochemistry. He would also earn a plethora of awards and honors, become one of the most famous sci-fi authors of all time and have several of his works turned into blockbuster movies.

Asimov suffered a heart attack in 1977, had a triple bypass in 1983 and was infected with HIV during a related blood transfusion. 

Isaac Asimov died in New York City on the 6th April 1992 and was cremated. 

What is Isaac Asimov famous for?

Isaac Asimov is widely recognized, and loved, as one of the best science fiction writers of all time. He has inspired countless generations of children and adults around the world and widened their understanding of space and science in general.

He was also a Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University. 

For his fans, he stands as equals with other literary geniuses in the genre including the great Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card and Philip K. Dick to name but a few. 

Asimov was an incredibly prolific author who managed to write, or edit, over 500 books excluding many more short stories. His career started in 1939 when he first began writing sci-fi short stories with his first novel, The Stars, Like Dust was published in 1951

Isaac Asimov Like Stars, Like Dust
Source: Amazon

He kept writing until well into the early 1990's with his last works published in around 1992. At that rate, he averaged around 12 books per year, quite incredible. 

Asimov was not only a prolific individual book writer but wrote more sci-fi series than any other writer in his genre. Some of his contemporaries focussed on one universe or a few but Asimov created no less than 5 in total.

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His most famous series being the Foundation series, Robot series, and Galactic Empire series. He also wrote Lucky Starr series, under the pen name Paul French, and Norby Chronicles with his wife Janet.

To date, there are also 20 compilations of his many, many, short stories (numbering in the hundreds). 

Isaac was also a brilliant factual science author as well as a, near peerless, science fiction author. He has been published in nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification (which organizes library materials by discipline or field of study).

Some of his other works include Our Angry EarthThe Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, Extraterrestrial Civilizations and Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. He truly was a man with an incredible talent for writing and an inspiration for any aspiring author.

Asimov was known as the best sci-fi writer in his lifetime

During his lifetime, Isaac Asimov was known as "One of the Big Three" science fiction writers. The other two being, the equally brilliant, Arthur Clarke (of 2001: Space Odessey fame but not exclusively) and Robert Heinlein (he wrote Starship Troopers and many more). 

Clarke Heinlein and Asimov
Source: 1, 2, 3

These three men are so-called as they are widely recognized for starting the "Golden Age" of science fiction writings in the mid-20th Century. Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein are regularly quoted as influencing those authors who followed them, not to mention the general public interest in science fiction in general. 

Asimov's work has also literally changed the English lexicon forever. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction work for introducing the words positronic (an entirely fictional technology), psychohistory (which is also used for a different study on historical motivations) and robotics

Although Asimov and Heinlein held an uneasy friendship (they often had disagreements), he and Clarke were very close indeed. They first met in New York City in 1953 and traded friendly jibes and insults for many years after. 

"In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates his book to the second-best science fiction writer". 

Their friendship was optimized by the formulation of the so-called "Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue" that they created in a cab ride in New York. 

In effect, this '"treaty" meant that Asimov had to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world, but Clarke must insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world. 

Thus the dedication in Clarke's book Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations (1972) reads: "In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer."

An asteroid and a crater on Mars are named after him

In 2009, an impact crater in the Noachis quadrangle of Mars (47.0° S and 355.05° W, or 46.7° S, 4.9° E) was officially renamed in honor of Isaac Asimov. The crater is roughly 84 km in diameter. 

Asteroid 5020 Asimov was previously called 1981 EX19 and was discovered by S. J. Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory on the 2nd March 1981. This minor celestial body has an average apparent magnitude of 9.4

Asimov’s three laws of robotics

Apart from his enormous catalog of works, freshly minted words for the Engish lexicon and being one of the most famed science fiction authors of all time, Asimov is also well-known for devising the "Three Laws of Robotics".

These laws are also known as the "The Three Laws" or simply "Asimov's Laws". 

They are as follows:-

- Number 1: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;

- Number 2: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;

- Number 3: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov first introduced the laws in his 1942 short story Runaround and was later also included in his 1950 collection I, Robot. They form a basic organizing principle and unifying theme within Asimov's robot based works. 

They are a major theme throughout The Robot Series, as well as, his Lucky Starr Series for young adults. Within his fiction, they form part of the core programming of (almost) all positronic robots and cannot be bypassed in any way. Breach of any one of the Law's would lead to irreparable physical damage of core circuitry. 

For this reason, they are intended as a safety feature but do lead to some of his robot characters acting in unusual and, often, counter-intuitive fashion leading to unintended outcomes.

If you weren't aware positronic robots, specifically their 'brains' function as the CPU for all robots and in some cases provide them with consciousness akin to human beings. Positronic was inspired by the recent discovery of the positron particle thus linking his work to current affairs in the scientific community at the time.

Why are the three laws of robotics important?

Many authors, scientists, and leading intellectuals have postulated about mankind's demise at the hand's of superstrong or super intelligent (or both) legions of robots. They could either directly eradicate mankind or, perhaps worse, simply decide the fate of all humans forever effectively enslaving our entire species.

These were some of the outcomes that Asimov's Laws were created to prevent before the problem ever occurred. He postulated that the Law's would make up the fundamental core of every robot's 'brain' and could not be broken without damaging critical circuitry beyond all possible repair.

If this could be technically possible it would be a very practical control to prevent robots from supplanting us. 

Isaac Asimov Laws Terminator
Source: Terminator Exhibition: T-800/Flickr

Robots could conceivably be far superior to humans in strength, would never 'tire' (if they were able to generate their own power) and could outperform humans in almost every way except, perhaps, the ability to think and adapt. But even if they weren't truly conscious their physical advantages would pose a series threat to mankind. 

In our modern world, Asimov's Laws are probably more important than the concept of killer robots over the last century. AI is developing by leaps and bounds and will almost inevitably overtake humans in their ability to think and learn.

It would not take long for them to become so highly advanced in intelligence that humans would be rapidly left behind. How such an AI would look upon us is anyone's guess but it's fairly likely it would consider humans 'lesser' animals to be either exterminated like pests or contained and 'cared' for like pet mice - perhaps even used for experiments.

Any of these scenarios (and more) are the reason why Asimov's Laws are so important. Whether they are implemented through hard-circuitry in physical machines or hard-coded within AI it would ensure they do not, at least, develop hostile intentions towards human beings.

Sophia the robot
Source: International Telecommunication Union/Wikimedia Commons

But should such a robot or AI attempt to contravene the laws it would soon run into a problem. According to Asimov's first law, they would be damaged themselves. Knowing that they would be damaged, they couldn't go through with it, because this would violate the third law.

If Asimov's "Three Laws" were possible to achieve it wouldn't be without its problems. Each and every robot (or AI) would need to have the laws embedded within them from the very beginning. This would ultimately rely on the ethics of the creators to ensure they do this.

It would be the ultimate irony for human beings to be wiped out through the megalomaniacal intentions of even a single rogue human programmer.

Which Asimov book should you read first?

If you are completely new to the works of Isaac Asimov which book to read first depends on whether you want to commit to any one of his great series or just find out if you like his writing style. 

There is a large selection of compilations of short stories that will introduce any budding 'Asimov fan' to his writing style and ideas but the general consensus is one of the Robot or Foundation series. Both these series are set in the same universe, albeit at different times (Robot series is set before the Foundation series), and have a lot of crossover between them so you shouldn't get too overwhelmed.

For this reason, I, Robot (from, unsurprisingly the Robot series) is an excellent choice, to begin with. This is a relatively short book and contains many of the general ideas that Asimov tends to write about in his other works. 

Others recommendCaves of Steelwhich is a fun detective story and another good introduction into his writing style. It also introduces one of his more important characters. 

Given its short length it is a quick and very enjoyable read and will certainly place you in a good position to either leave his work or dive in. But, of course, the choice is completely yours, you could simply pick one at random or take suggestions from your friends and family who have read his work. 

Isaac Asimov which book to read first
Source: 12

What order should you read Asimov's books?

As the main series of Asimov's books are the Robot series and Foundation series most recommendations tend to place these books in a specified order. But it should be noted that the Robot series was originally separate from the Foundation series.

Another popular series was the Galactic Empire novels that were published as independent stories, set earlier in the same future as Foundation. Later in life, Asimov synthesized the Robot series into a single coherent "history" that appeared in the extension of the Foundation series.

Bearing this in mind, suggestions vary from publication order to chronological order to various rationales for the order of reading from following story threads to pure personal preference.

The following table places the main series' titles in publication order. Please note this excludes the Lucky Starr and Norby Chronicles series' as well as independent and short story collections and his other non-science-fiction writings.

TitleSeriesYear
Pebble in the SkyGalactic Empire Series1950
Like Stars, Like DustGalactic Empire Series1951
FoundationFoundation Series1951
The Currents of SpaceGalactic Empire Series1952
Foundation and EmpireFoundation Series1952
Second FoundationFoundation Series1953
The Currents of SpaceGalactic Empire Series1952
The Caves of SteelRobot Series1954
The Naked SunRobot Series1957
The Robots of DawnRobot Series1958
Foundations EdgeExtended Foundation Series1982
Robots and EmpireRobot Series1985
Foundation and EarthExtended Foundation Series1986
Prelude to FoundationFoundation Prequels1988
Forward the FoundationFoundation Prequels1993

Another excellent suggestion can be found in Scifi StackExchange. As the compiler of this reading order notes "The series was never quite finished, so I feel that a non-linear approach is the best choice here. This allows one to emphasize the building of themes within the books, rather than individual plot threads."

Isaac Asimov reading order
Source: scifi.stackexchange

"At their heart, these stories work best when they focus on individual people. This may sound odd, as the robot and Foundation tales are meant to illustrate great sweeps of history, but in my opinion, the strongest tales here are those that are small and intimate. Think of Susan Calvin and the Mule and you may see my point." - Jonny Blaze (Sci-Fi StackExchange).

Whether you agree or disagree is down to personal choice but we hope they are food for thought. 

Asimov's books adapted to Cinema and TV

Although it would be nearly impossible to compile a list of film and TV films and series that have been inspired by the works of Isaac Asimov, there are some notable examples that are direct adaptations of his literature.

The following are some of best-known examples*:-

TitleYearDescription
A halhatatlansag halala1976This was a Hungarian made-for-Tv film based in Asimov's "The Death of Immortality". The literal translation of the title means "The Death of Immortality".
The Ugly Little Boy1977This was a Canadian-for-TV movie based on Asimov's short story of the same name (though originally called "Lastborn").
Конец Вечности (Konets Vechnosti)1987Konets Vechnosti "The End of Eternity" is a Russian movie based on the Isaac Asimov novel The End of Eternity.
Nightfall 1988Nightfall was an American-made move based on Asimov's 1941 short story of the same name. This was also later rewritten as a novel by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg in 1990.
The Android Affair1995The Android Affair is an American made-for-TV movie released in 1995.
Bicentennial Man1999Bicentennial Man is a 1999 American film based on the 1992 novel The Positronic Man which was co-written by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg.
Nightfall (2000)2000This was a straight-to-DVD American movie and is the second film to be based on the Nightfall story.
I, Robot2004Perhaps the first one that spring to everyone's mind I, Robot is an American science fiction film that was released in 2004. 
Formula of Death2012This was a Persian movie based on the Isaac Asimov novel of the same name.

*This list is not exhaustive and has been compiled with thanks to I-Lists.com.

Some of the best quotes from Isaac Asimov

Here are few selected quotes from the great Isaac Asimov.

"All you have to do is take a close look at yourself and you will understand everyone else." -Foundation's Edge

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'" -Asimov, 1987

"The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." -The Quotable Intellectual

"You don't need to predict the future. Just choose a future -- a good future, a useful future -- and make the kind of prediction that will alter human emotions and reactions in such a way that the future you predicted will be brought about. Better to make a good future than predict a bad one." -Prelude to Foundation

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster." -Life, Jan. 1984

"If all human beings understood history, they might cease making the same stupid mistakes over and over." -Prelude to Foundation

His predictions for the future

Apart from works of fiction, Asimov made an interesting prediction of our current world way back in 1964. In a New York Times article, in what he called "visit to the World Fair of 2014" he dared to divine the future of our world. 

Within it, he correctly predicted self-driving cars, video calling, widespread adoption of nuclear power and even single-duty household robots. He also had concerns about overpopulation estimating it to reach 6.5 billion by 2014 (it was actually 7.1 in 2014). 

Although he incorrectly predicted widespread underground and underwater housing and "hover" vehicles that move long on jets of compressed air (though does the Hovercraft sort of count?) 

He also made another poignant, if not depressing prediction on our well-being in general. Asimov divined that our societies of today would suffer from "the disease of boredom". 

“The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.” 

We might not be fully there yet, but this is a very real possibility if our lives become fully automated. The "Devil makes work for idle hands", as the idiom goes 

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