His first hero was named Schwartz, but the sci-fi writer wasn’t proud of his heritage. Isaac Asimov is credited with having single-handedly humanized the literary world’s regard for robots, which before he wrote his famous robot stories in the 1940s ran amok like crazed mechanical monsters. He was also the first to lay out the ground rules for the daily operation of pan-galactic empires, for which film makers and science fiction writers who followed are duly grateful.
Asimov, who died on April 6 in New York of heart and kidney failure at the age of 72, had no equal not only as a science fiction writer, but as an explainer of science more than half the 500 or so books he churned out during his stellar career dealt with science fact and the real world. He also wrote knowledgeably about Shakespeare, the Bible and the naughty limerick.
“As an explainer,” says MIT artificial- intelligence maven Marvin Minsky, who calls himself a robot psychologist – a profession literally invented by Asimov – “he was a colossus.” But according to fellow New York science fiction writer and former Omni Magazine fiction editor Ben Bova, what few seem ever to recall is that Asimov was also the first to bring ethnicity to the genre. His first novel, “Pebble in the Sky” (1950), had as its protagonist one Joseph Schwartz, a meek Jewish tailor suddenly transported into the distant future and drawn into a plot by Earth’s ruling zealots to avenge centuries of anti-Terran discrimination by unleashing a plague upon the galaxy.
For Asimov in this formative novel, Earth was a metaphor for ancient Judea – one battered by radiation poisoning and forced to employ institutionalized euthanasia, but also one capable of wreaking havoc on its galactic captors. Asimov openly lifted his concept of interstellar empire from Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
“In the late 1930s,” recounts Bova, “the average science fiction hero was heavily Anglo-Saxon, broad of shoulder, square of jaw and capable of fixing an interstellar spaceship with some chewing gum while working his slide rule furiously. Isaac broke that mold. And he did so with an editor (Astounding’s John Campbell) known to be not only heavily Anglo-Saxon, but a Celt who believed that Scots were the best people of all.”
Ironically, though, the son of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants to Brooklyn never held his own people in similar regard. Asimov often proudly contended that he was not a good Jew. Science fiction writer and critic James Gunn, author of “Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction,” wrote: “Asimov attends no Jewish religious functions, follows no Jewish rituals, obeys no Jewish dietary laws, and yet he never, under any circumstances, leaves any doubt that he is Jewish.”
“I really dislike Judaism,” Asimov once said. “It’s a form of particularly pernicious nationalism. I don’t want humanity divided into these little groups that are firmly convinced, each one, that it is better than the others.
“Judaism is the prototype of the ‘I’m better than you’ group – we are the ones who invented this business of the only God. It’s not just that we have our God and you have your God, but we have the only God. I feel a deep, abiding historical guilt about that. And every once in a while, when I’m not careful, I think that the reason Jews have been persecuted as much as they have has been to punish them for having invented this pernicious doctrine.”
Not surprisingly, Asimov never visited Israel. But the main factor in his avoidance of the Jewish state may have been his lifelong fear of flying. It was difficult to get him to go anywhere, let alone leave his beloved typewriter. When the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot (well, when this writer) asked him to contribute to its quarterly magazine, Rehovot, during the early 1980s, he declined gracefully, citing prior obligations and failing health. On the few occasions when he was called upon by Israeli newspapers to comment upon the Zionist endeavor, however, he made it plain that he wasn’t, so to speak, a big giver to the Jewish National Fund.
Always the rationalist, Asimov recognized the unusual harshness of these views, and acknowledged that he sometimes felt himself to be a traitor to Judaism. He said he tried to make up for this “by making sure that everyone knows I’m a Jew, so while I’m deprived of the benefits of being part of the group, I am sure that I don’t lose any of the disadvantages, because no one should think I am denying my Judaism in order to gain certain advantages.”
Indeed, any advantages Asimov gained in life he earned. Born in Russia, he emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three, and spent his formative years alternately impressing and harassing his teachers with his keen intelligence and hermetic memory. Asimov spent most of his after-school hours in his father’s Brooklyn candy store, where he first encountered and developed an abiding love for the science fiction pulp magazines of the 1930s.
Asimov received an undergraduate degree in science from Columbia University in 1939, and a doctorate in biochemistry in 1948, after serving with the U.S. Naval Air Experimental Station during the war alongside sci-fi titans Roert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp. He joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine in 1949, but resigned in 1958, having concluded he’d make a mediocre researcher, and would do better writing.
“The guy was everywhere, omnipresent,” says Bruce Sterling, one of the founders of the science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk. “He had a finger in every scientific pie, and a lot of literary ones too.” Adds David Brin, a Los Angeles SF writer: “He was always an optimist. He always believed in human beings, in our ability to reason out solutions to our problems. The optimism, the vigor, the fact that he conveyed a love of the universe, will continue for all time.”