Monday, January 2, 2017

Birthday: Isaac Asimov was a contrarian. "I do not fear computers," he said. "I fear the lack of them."

Today is the birthday of Isaac Asimov. He is remembered as a scifi writer, but in fact, there was almost nothing he didn't write about.

Here is Henry's last birthday appreciation of The Great Polymath, from 2016:


Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)
Author, futurist, polymath

Isaak Yudorivich Ozimov he was born, in Russia. What with the old style and new calendars, and the Russian Civil War, no one was exactly certain when. But he picked January 2, and there the matter stood until he taught himself to read and his mother- the family emigrated to New York in 1923- backdated his birth to September 1919 in order to enter him in school a year early. Asimov, learning of the subterfuge in third grade, announced he was having none of it and demanded his school records be corrected.

His father had a string of candy and newspaper stands, and everyone in the family worked in them. Asimov considered the work a major element of his education, since he was surrounded by a cascade of ever-changing magazines and newspapers (in the Twenties there were eleven daily papers in New York City) he could never have afforded to buy on his own.

His father forbade reading the pulp magazines, considering them trashy. Young Isaac convinced him that if a magazine had “science” in the title, it must be educational, and thus unlocked the word of American science fiction from its earliest days.

He started writing his own stories at 11, and selling them to the pulps at 19. At one of Columbia’s extension schools, he read biology, switching to chemistry after refusing to dissect “an alley cat.” He got his MA in 1941, then spent three years as a civilian employee in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where one of his subordinates was the sci fi writer Robert A. Heinlein.

Asimov’s birthday came to haunt him again in 1945, when he was drafted into the Army. Had he stuck to the fake birthday, he would have been too old. In his nine months’ service, he said, he advanced to the rank of lance corporal on the strength of his typing skills, and barely missed being shipped out to “observe” the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1946 due to clerical error.

After getting his Phd in biochemistry in 1948, Asimov joined the faculty of Boston University School of Medicine, moving steadily upward until 1958, when he moved to a non-teaching post; by then he was making boatloads more money from writing and kept enough toes in the academic waters with his textbooks and scholarly articles. In 1979 he was made a full professor and- world-famous- let to do whatever he wanted.

Asimov’s output, though seemingly limitless and without boundaries, fell into several phases. From 1939 to 1952 he was a successful scifi writer, turning out scores of stories. His Foundation novels tied into other works to create  “future history” of the worlds he envisioned.

He coined words that entered the language, like “robotics” (1941), “psychohistory” and “positronic”. His 1942 conception of the Three Laws of Robotics was immensely influential:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Later, he added a fourth, the Zeroth Law (since, in Asimov's hierarchy of values, the lower the number, the more important the rule):

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

All of them Asomov twisted, reinterpreted, and sometimes, ignored, in his later work.

After 1952 he moved into nonfiction; when Sputnik went up, he saw the potential of popular science writing and moved there. In 1982 he moved back to sci fi for the bulk of his output.

As his fame- and sales- increased, it seemed anything with Asimov’s name on it would sell. Borrowing a page from Alfred Hitchcock, he lent his moniker to a science fiction magazine. He wrote a three-volume commentary on The Bible, and annotated Shakespeare’s plays. He wrote mystery novels (he was a Baker Street Irregular and a Nero Wolfe fanboy), musical commentaries (he adored Gilbert & Sullivan) and Yiddish limericks.

With his wartime friend Heinlein and the Briton Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov formed “The Big Three of Science Fiction,” an honor he wore lightly: during a New York cabi ride with Clarke, the two hatched The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue. This stated that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second-best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second-best for himself).Thus, the dedication in Clarke's book Report on Planet Three (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."

Immensely intelligent (he was a member of Mensa, though he faulted its members for benign “brain proud and aggressive about their IQs”), he once remarked that the only two people he’d ever met who were smarter were an artificial intelligence expert called Marvin Minsky and the astronomer Carl Sagan. His honors included 14 honorary degrees; a fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences;  and substantive honors from the American Heart Association, the American Chemical Society, and Westinghouse.

He was a New Dealer politically, claiming, early, the title of feminist (even though his works tend to feature few fully-developed female characters), and arguing that gay rights were a natural consequence of concerns over population control (you can hardly deny non-procreative sexual outlets to people in a world destined for near-fatal overcrowding, he said).

His bibliography contains 515 published works in all of the Dewey Decimal System classifications, an output encouraged by his claustrophilia, fear of flying and general lack of enthusiasm for travel. But he adored cruise ships and was a popular shipboard lecturer; gregarious and patient, he would answer any question put whether from a retiree on the QE2 or a kid at a comics convention.

The late 1960s and the 1970s were the Age of Asimov. After publishing a critique of the Star Trek TV series, he was invited to become a consultant to the series. Under Mortimer Adler’s leadership, he became a copious contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Perhaps, in some measure because of his personal bouts with measuring time, in 1973, he published a proposal for calendar reform, called the World Season Calendar. It divides the year into four seasons (named A–D) of 13 weeks (91 days) each. This allows days to be named, e.g., "D-73" instead of December 1 (due to December 1 being the 73rd day of the 4th quarter). An extra 'year day' is added for a total of 365 days.

in December 1974, former Beatle Paul McCartney approached Asimov and asked him if he could write the screenplay for a science-fiction movie musical. McCartney had a vague idea for the plot and a small scrap of dialogue; he wished to make a film about a rock band whose members discover they are being impersonated by a group of extraterrestrials. The band and their impostors would likely be played by McCartney's group Wings, then at the height of their career. Intrigued by the idea, although he was not generally a fan of rock music, Asimov quickly produced a "treatment" or brief outline of the story. He adhered to McCartney's overall idea, producing a story he felt to be moving and dramatic. However, he did not make use of McCartney's brief scrap of dialogue, and probably as a consequence, McCartney rejected the story. The treatment now exists only in the Boston University archives.

McCartney seems to have consoled himself by making a video of band of Old West grifters composed of himself, Linda Evans and Michael Jackson.

Asimov’s literary legacy has not received much critical study, in part because of the scope and variety of his work, and also because of the exceedingly spare, unadorned style he used. One critic has claimed that most sci fi writers since the 1950s were heavily influenced by Asimov, either by trying as hard as they could to write the way he did, or by trying as hard as they could not to.

Seemingly indestructible, Asimov died of multiple ailments in 1992. A decade later his wife revealed his ills were triggered by having contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during bypass surgery in the 1980s. His doctors persuaded the family not to make the diagnosis public, lest the scandal rebond upon them all. Such was the hysteria and stigma of the time that they agreed, and the story was not released, oddly, until most of Asimov’s doctors were dead.

Asimov’s brother Stanley, was a longtime editor and executive at Newsday, the Long Island paper. Isaac was proudest of his 1985-92 presidency of the American Humanist Association; he was succeeded by his friend, Kurt Vonnegut,Jr.

An asteroid and a crater on Mars bear Asimov’s name.

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