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Creator / Isaac Asimov

4. A robot cannot have sideburns this awesome.

"Isaac Asimov had writer's block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life."
Harlan Ellison note 

One of the pioneers of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) invented or popularized many of the genre's tropes - Robot Buddies, Galactic Empires, world-spanning cities - but is best known for the Laws of Robotics and the Foundation Trilogy, both early works. He is considered one of the "Big Three" of Science Fiction along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, and was the owner of one seriously awesome pair of sideburns.

Dr. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry, member of Mensa, and one of the most prolific writers of science fiction and fact in history. He wrote 515 books as well as an uncountable number of short stories and scholarly articles; his writing spans nearly every subject a person can write about, including a book about writing itself, a book of trivial facts about whatever came to his head, an annotated commentary of the complete works of Gilbert and Sullivan, and at least two joke books. The prolific nature of his work was to the point where he wrote a book in every Dewey Decimal System category except for Philosophy (and technically, he is even in that category too, though he only wrote the foreword to a book on philosophy that was written by another author). His friend and fellow author Peter David once joked, after Asimov's death, that sooner or later a new book, ''Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Afterlife" would be appearing in bookstores, because if anyone could pull off a posthumous publishing, it would be Asimov. In addition, he was a Promoted Fanboy; he started reading the pulp sci-fi magazines sold in his family's candy stores when he was young, began writing his own stories when he was eleven, and managed to get published when he was nineteen.

Robots in early science fiction almost always Turned Against Their Masters, a trope Asimov felt was ridiculous. Robots were tools; they would be safe by design. After a few preliminary stories, he formalized this with the Three Laws of Robotics:
  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 orders given 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 Law.

Asimov noted that the three laws are, at their core, basic principles of machine engineering scaled up for designing hard AIs, i.e. any well-designed tool (like a kitchen knife) should not be able to injure its user in normal (and a few abnormal) usage, be able to accomplish its intended function efficiently, and be able to perform its intended tasks without excessively damaging itself unless such damage is required for performance or safety. Nevertheless, he engaged in destructive testing of these laws in his subsequent robot stories, showing how robots could still cause trouble through an overly literal interpretation of their orders and the Three Laws, and even twist them to justify killing humans and taking over the world with a Zeroth Law Rebellion. The original short stories revolving around robots most prominently featured the female robopsychologist Susan Calvin, a misanthrope who used her intellect to resolve the malfunction featured in those stories. Other stories in the series tended to feature similar thought processes to those followed by Calvin - just not her.

The "Robot Novel" trilogy that began with The Caves of Steel was set thousands of years farther in the future. In this setting, Earth was a vassal of its original "Spacer" colony worlds, which had grown powerful and wealthy with the help of robots. The novels revolved around the tension between the Spacers and the overcrowded, dystopian Earth, as viewed through the eyes of plainclothes police detective Elijah Baley, who repeatedly finds himself assigned to politically explosive murder cases alongside the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw. The stories also explored the potential consequences of robots on a variety of possible human societies.

The Foundation Trilogy is a sequence of stories set after the fall of a Galactic Empire, describing a conspiracy to restore civilizationnote  . They were the first to be set in a future history, covering the thousand year interregnum. (Well, maybe about half of it, before Author Existence Failure.) These were set in the same universe as his earlier "Galactic Empire" stories, but he did not write bridging material between the two until much later. After uniting the Galactic Empire and Foundation, Asimov then linked Foundation and the robot stories through an elaborate Retcon.

As you might expect, various of his stories may be found online - notably his own favorite among those that he wrote, "The Last Question", and one many consider his best, "Nightfall".

Dr. Asimov's stories have also been adapted for television several times, most notably in Out of the Unknown and a full-length adaptation of "The Ugly Little Boy". He also co-created the short-lived television series Probe for ABC.

He died in 1992 of AIDS, contracted through a blood transfusion. He left instructions for this not to be published until 10 years after his death in which time he thought acceptances of HIV would change.

Works by Isaac Asimov with their own trope pages include:

Isaac Asimov's other works provide examples of:

  • Absence of Evidence: In one of the Union Club Mysteries, Giswold points out that the female suspect they are looking for (who has been shown to be fanatical about stockpiling supplies she will need) must be post-menopausal as there were no products for dealing with menstruation in her apartment.
  • Absent Aliens:
  • Absurdly Dedicated Worker: In his short story "Risk" a robot pilot is to test a hyperspace drive and is given instructions to "pull the stick back firmly — firmly" until the drive engages. The drive doesn't engage, so the robot is stuck in that position and its human operators have to try to get it to stop but it just won't stop pulling because the drive hasn't engaged because the robot pulled back "firmly" with its full strength, damaging the control.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Played with, but mostly averted — aside from a few exceptions, Asimov's computers and robots are benevolent to ludicrous extremes, to the point of willingly causing themselves a lot of pain just because they're ordered to do so. This doesn't help the general population's irrational fears, though.
    • One of the best of these played in an interesting fashion was "The Machine that Won the War", when, after the war has successfully ended, each of the scientists involved admit to falsifying some portion of the input in the computer system, in order to correct for biases in the information itself. Then gets turned on its head when the last man reveals that he had flipped a coin to decide whether to follow the computer's projections every time a new situation came up in the war.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: Joseph Schwartz from Pebble in the Sky is often assumed, not just just by readers but also by reviewers and members of the publishing industry, to be Jewish. This is based on his Hebrew first name and German last name and Asimov's own Jewish ancestry, pegging him as something of an Author Avatar. However, when Asimov himself was asked about Schwartz's faith, he explained that he had given absolutely no thought to it while writing the novel and, true to that, there are no explicit references to Judaism of any kind in the book.
    • Actually, there are two very clear Old Testament references: one to Earthers as a "stubborn and stiff-necked people", and one near the end to "making the desert bloom" (most of the Earth had become a radioactive wasteland in earlier centuries). Asimov himself explicitly stated that he based the situation of the Earth in this novel on the conditions in ancient Judea (now Israel) under the Romans. Procurator Ennius even gets to use Pontius Pilate's line: "I find no fault in this man..."
  • Beige Prose: Asimov writes in a very straightforward and concise style. His early stories (like those found in the first Foundation novel) can sound downright professorial. This was somewhat intentional as he was more interested in writing clearly than stylishly.
  • Big Applesauce: Asimov was from New York City, and several of his stories are set in gigantic versions of it. The man himself was also a claustrophile—i.e. although he was not afraid of large, open, public places, he preferred smaller, closed, private ones.
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: The aliens in the short story "The Secret Sense" are very sensitive to electric fields. The brain cells involved are present in humans but do not function; the story centers around a man who is temporarily given the ability to use this sense, but the process eventually kills the cells, depriving him of the secret sense permanently.
  • Buddy Cop Show: The Robot Novels are an early novel example version of the trope. Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are field specialists for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, and are employed mainly on testing new or experimental robots in practical situations — either on planets or space stations. They regularly get into complex and potentially dangerous situations when trying to solve robot issues in the field. The issues typically involve the Three Laws of Canon Welding.
  • Call Back The short story "Too Bad!" is about a miniature robot injected into somebody's bloodstream to cure cancer. It even states that a miniature submarine was considered, and rejected as too expensive, which acts as a reference to Fantastic Voyage, which Dr. Asimov wrote the novelization to.
  • Canon Welding: Several books are used to bridge stories together. Foundation and Earth, for example, bridges the Foundation series with the Elijah Bailey stories.
  • Chronoscope: The Dead Past is centered around such a device.
  • Clarke's Third Law: lots of things that are just plain impossible today, so impossible that they could in fact just be magical.
  • Clock Discrepancy:
    • In one of the Black Widowers mysteries, where a character is woken up by a phone call at a time that is actually an hour later than he thinks it is (because he hasn't yet set his clock forward for Daylight Savings Time) and thus unwittingly provides a false alibi.
    • In another Black Widowers story, a discrepancy between 5:50 (which would exonerate the accused) and "half past five" (which incriminates him) is resolved in favor of the former — the witness reporting the latter was an accountant used to decimal numbers who unconsciously interpreted the digital clock display as "five and a half".
  • The Commandments: The Laws of Robotics.
  • Complete-the-Quote Title:
    • "—That Thou Art Mindful of Him" takes its title from a Biblical psalm which asks "What is Man that thou art mindful of Him?". The question "What is Man?" (or as we'd more likely say now, "What is the definition of a human being?") is central to the story.
    • The Gods Themselves is from Schiller: "Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain".
  • Demon of Human Origin: In the short story "Gimmicks Three", a man signs a deal with a demon. Ten years of whatever he wants. Then, he is given a test. Should he pass, he becomes a demon (Hell has a growing staff shortage), otherwise, he is a regular damned soul. The demon he deals with used to be a human himself.
  • Dirty Old Man:
    • Once received an official plaque commemorating him as one at a convention. He accepted with good grace. He also wrote The Sensuous Dirty Old Man (a parody of The Sensuous Woman) under the name "Dr. A" (the book being parodied was written by "J").
    • His book "Isaac Asimov's Lecherous Limericks". No need to guess what that consists of...
  • The Dinosaurs Had It Coming: The story "Day of the Hunters" kills off the dinosaurs due to overhunting by intelligent dinosaurs...with Frickin Laser Guns!
  • Dumb Dinos: Played with in the stories "Day of the Hunters" and "Big Game" - an intelligent race of dinosaurs who developed guns killed off the rest and eventually each other for sport. The dinosaurs' self-destructive ways are explicitly compared to humans'.
  • The Empire:
  • Everybody Smokes: Due to the time they were written in, the characters in Asimov's early stories smoked. Later in life, when Asimov became strongly opposed to smoking, his protagonists began to share his anti-smoking outlook. One of the protagonists in "The Dead Past" is violently opposed to smoking. It's later revealed he's an ex-smoker; he stopped after his family died in a house fire accidentally caused by one of his lit cigarettes.
  • Exact Words: The resolution of one of the Black Widowers stories hinges on this. Their guest that evening, who claims to never tell a lie, is suspected of a robbery and repeatedly insists "I didn't take the cash or the bonds". This is shown by Henry to be true; he took the cash and the bonds.
    • He also noted that this was one of the most glaring flaws in the Three Laws. A less intelligent AI could misunderstand a command and still be compelled to follow it to the letter, or worse, fail to see how an action might indirectly harm itself or a human. Meanwhile a sufficiently intelligent AI could employ Loophole Abuse to enact Zeroth Law Rebellion, and would possibly even be compelled to do so by the wording of the three laws themselves: the three laws forbid a human to come to harm through inaction.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • The Currents of Space has a white-skinned planetary population kept as downtrodden serfs to harvest a valuable type of cloth
    • Pebble in the Sky features fantastic racism against humans from Earth. This results in extreme scientific resistance to the idea that humanity might have originated on Earth. Given that it was written in the 1950s, when there was still substantial racism towards black people, and resistance to the idea that humanity originated in Africa, this can easily be read as an allusion to debates of the time.
    • In all robot stories, there Fantastic Racism of humans toward robots (in the Bailey novels, Earth-bound humans have taken to addressing robots as "boy" in imitation to how racist Americans used to refer to black people). In some, there is also a sudden reveal that robots are racist toward humans.
    • Also in the robot series, the Spacers. Having sterilized colony worlds and medical science sufficient to quadruple their lifespan compared to other humans they have effectively decided that they are a different species from the humans of Earth. The Solarians eventually take this to its ultimate extreme.
  • Fairplay Whodunnit: The Black Widower mystery short stories play this straight. The Caves of Steel and its sequels were written to show a Sci-Fi Fairplay Whodunnit was possible.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel:
    • Seen, for example, in the Empire/Robots/Foundation series, which actually tracks it from the beginning of development to its usage becoming both smooth and commonplace.
    • And extremely important in Nemesis, since Tessa Wendel's work on superluminal flight is what lets Earth reach the titular star in a matter of days, while it took Rotor two years to reach there at light speed.
  • Feghoot: Asimov wrote more than one short story solely so he could unleash some hideous pun at the end. The most blatant example would be "Shah Guido G."; see Time Travel below for another.
  • Feudal Future
  • Fiction as Cover-Up: "Paté de foie gras" describes a group of scientists who have found a goose who laid golden eggs; after testing every theory they could think of to figure out why, they decide to write about the exploit in hopes of getting advice from outside sources. Due to the need for secrecy, they publish it as a fictional short story, safe in the knowledge that no one would believe it...
  • A God Am I: The ending of The Last Question.
  • Heads or Tails: In The Machine That Won The War, the final reveal is that a war has been won this way.
  • Homeworld Evacuation: The Currents of Space ends with a planet (not Earth) being evacuated - its sun is about to go nova.
  • How We Got Here: The Bicentennial Man begins with Andrew Martin, a man who asks a robot to perform a brain operation that will hurt his brain. The robot refuses, because the first law forbids him to damage a human being, and it takes precedence over the second law, the one of obedience. Andrew Martin clarifies that there is no problem, because he's a robot as well. From then on, we begin to learn who is this robot with a human name, who looks like a human, and who wants to damage his brain.
  • Humanity Is Superior: To robots, at least. Back when Asimov wrote for Astounding Science Fiction, editor John W. Campbell required that any story involving humans and aliens portray humanity as superior, reflecting his own belief in the superiority of the white race. Asimov, a Jew, wasn't comfortable with this but he was comfortable with writing humans as superior to robots.
  • I, Noun: In addition to I, Robot, played with in I. Asimov: A Memoir, where the differing punctuation turns a pronoun into an initial.
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: Dinochicken in his short story "A Statue For Farther".
  • In-Name-Only:
    • The 2004 I, Robot movie starring Will Smith began its life as an original screenplay called Hardwired before the Asimov rights were shoehorned into it. This tends to be true of all movie projects connected to his name. (An amusing exception is Fantastic Voyage, for which he wrote the novelisation, but his writing speed meant that the book appeared over a year before the movie, leading most people to believe that the movie was the adaptation.)
    • Asimov's compilation, Mind and Iron, was changed by his publisher to I, Robot, despite Asimov's protests that I, Robot was already a short story by Eando Binder.
  • Last of His Kind: Again, don't look up who if you don't want to ruin the endings of at the very least several Foundation and Empire novels.
  • Lemony Narrator: Frequently utilized in his short stories, and author's forewords and afterwords.
  • Literal Genie: Every single robot he ever wrote about.
  • Logic Bomb:
    • Typically much more well-thought-out than your average paradox.
    • Also averted, as the only time that the classic logic bomb ever worked is in the first story "Liar". After that, robots were designed with an escape clause that allows the robots to pick one of the options at random and bypass the dilemma altogether.
  • Master Computer: Multivac
  • Merger of Souls: Towards the end of "The Last Question" the remaining humans (by now bodiless entities) merge one by one with humanity's hypercomputer, the Cosmic AC.
  • Miraculous Malfunction: Frequent in his robot stories. Most significantly, in the "Liar" short story, where the robot's psychic abilities are the result of a production accident.
  • Mirror Chemistry: discussed in "Left to Right", though it ends up not actually being relevant.
  • Missing Episode: The first story Asimov submitted for publication, Cosmic Corkscrew, no longer existed in any form by the time his other early work was reprinted.
  • Original Position Fallacy: Discussed in one of his essays.
    Mrs. Asimov: How pleasant it would be if only we lived a hundred years ago when it was easy to get servants.
    Isaac Asimov: It would be horrible... We'd be the servants.
  • Pen Name: Both used straight (he wrote children's novels as Paul French) and inverted: Many readers assumed "Isaac Asimov" was an exotic pen name for someone with a boring name like Jack Smith.
  • Phone-In Detective: Henry from the "Black Widowers" stories, who solved the mystery at dinner based on the guest's description and the other members' batting around various possibilities. Also Wendell Urth, the stay-at-home (because of his phobia of any form of travel other than walking) protagonist of a few stories.
  • Photoprotoneutron Torpedo: One character in Fantastic Voyage II jokingly suggests that the military should start researching neutrino bombs. As he sees it, they'd have all the positive effects of weapons development — scientific advancement, job creation, and so on — and none of the negative effects — such as the ability to actually kill people.
  • Pinocchio Syndrome
  • Precrime Arrest: In the short story "All the Troubles of the World", the Multivac uses its precrime functions to attempt suicide via a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. The father of a household was identified as the person responsible for assassinating Multivac. Corrections agents placed him under house arrest and discovered that the probability of the assassination was increasing, and continues to increase as they try to isolate him more and more. Multivac is tracking the activities of his underage son, whose records are kept with the father until he is considered an adult. The underage son is asking Multivac what he has to do to get his father freed, and Multivac is feeding him instructions on passcodes and lies to tell the guards to get the boy to the master control room. When Corrections officer Lemmy finally catches onto the subtleties, the probability begins to decrease, and the assassin is prevented from hitting the Big Red Button.
  • Prequel in the Lost Age: The Galactic Empire novels to the Foundation trilogy, the Spacer/Lije Bailey novels to the Empire novels, and the early Robot/Susan Calvin short stories to the Spacer novels. All of this is due to Canon Welding.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: In the short story "The Billiard Ball", a major point is the tension between two former classmates: a scientist with two Nobel Prizes versus a much more famous engineer who makes money through inventions based on his work.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The Black Widowers story "Where Is He?" was the subject of many letters criticizing Asimov for such an outlandish and far-fetched plot. Asimov responded that the very thing happened to him, with the locations of the hotel and the office building unchanged.
  • Reasoning with God: In "The Last Trump", God announces that it's time for the Judgement Day, but a junior angel notices a loophole in the declaration, plucks up his courage, and successfully argues for the whole thing to be postponed. (God's reaction to the argument turns out to be, more or less, "Oh good, I was hoping somebody would bring that up".)
  • Restraining Bolt: The Three Laws of Robotics frequently act as this — sometimes to the chagrin of the robot's users.
  • Self Plagiarism: An interesting case, when Asimov's original title for his autobiography was rejected, he was told by his publisher, Doubleday, to go look for an obscure poem from which he can steal a bon mot. Asimov returned with the couplet "In memory yet green / In joy still felt" which his publisher agreed to use for the titles of the two volumes of his autobiography. It was only after the publication of the books that Asimov admitted that he wrote the poem himself.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Parodied in "What Is This Thing Called Love?", in which an alien researcher who has been studying human literature is frustrated by the fact that stories always fade out after the Big Damn Kiss when describing human procreation. The researcher is aware there is more, it's the fact that there is never more described that frustrates it. It's also misled by the unrealistically described... hmmm... courting rituals.
  • Shout-Out: The short story "Too Bad!" is about a miniature robot injected into somebody's bloodstream to cure cancer. It even states that a miniature submarine was considered, and rejected as too expensive, which acts as a reference to Fantastic Voyage, which Dr. Asimov wrote the novelization to.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Mostly idealistic. While several novels deal with dystopias, by the end there is always some way out of it without (too much) violence.
  • Spell My Name with an "S":
    • An Asimov short story was the trope namer. One editorial in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine is devoted to just how many ways people screwed up his name. For some reason, "Asminov" was the most common mangling of his surname.
    • A term for Three-Laws Compliant robots, Asenion, came from a misspelling of Asimov's name.
    • "Unto the Fourth Generation" is a story about family that uses variations of Levkovich (Lewkovich, Lefkovitz, and so on) and a peculiar form of sort-of time travel.
    • Asimov had a bit of a vendetta against people who spelled his name "Azimov", but admitted that the only reason his name is spelled with a "s" instead of a "z" is because his father didn't understand the Latin alphabet very well while signing immigration papers and confused the two letters.
  • The Summation
  • Super Gullible: In one of the Azazel short stories, a police detective believes the most ridiculous stories told by the suspects (like a shop robber saying that the owner gave him a gun and started putting money in his pockets). The titular demon makes him a Living Lie Detector to compensate... causes some problems with his girlfriend, but that's another matter.
  • Take That: In his "Black Widowers" story "The Missing Item", Asimov delivers one to Erich von Daniken, as well as the Ancient Astronauts trope in general, having one of his characters state that belief in these ideas shows just how gullible people are.
  • Terminally Dependent Society
  • Throwing Out the Script: "Ignition Point!" is about a politician whose handlers have developed a technique of writing content-free speeches that will get audiences fired up. In the first test, the speaker stops in the middle, throws away the speech, and starts improvising — the speech worked on him, too.
  • Tidally Locked Planet: Asimov's 1956 sci-fi murder mystery "The Dying Night" used the then-current scientific knowledge that Mercury was tidally locked as a major plot point (the killer was from Mercury and forgot that Earth had a normal day and night). After astronomers found out Mercury did rotate, albeit slowly, Asimov put an author's note in later printings of "The Dying Night" that he'd wanted to fix it, but couldn't figure out how to do it without rewriting half the plot.
  • Time Travel:
    • Surprisingly frequent, considering the man was and still is far more well-known for his stories of robots and space travel; one of his short stories, "The Ugly Little Boy", involves it, and was one of his favorites out of all his shorts.
    • For a particularly unusual example of time travel in his works, you have to go to an early (1955), harder-to-find novel that's currently out of print, The End of Eternity.
    • His first novel, Pebble in the Sky is about a man, who is transported tens of thousands of years into the future from the 1940s.
    • A Loint of Paw is an ultra-short short story built around time travel seemingly for the sole purpose of setting up a pun.
  • Title Drop: Most of his short stories' titles are mentioned or uttered in the stories, but notably in The Gods Themselves where the title of the book and the titles of each of the three parts are said by the first part's main character in one quote ("Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain," first said by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller).
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Especially in any short story involving Multivac, the omniscient, sentient computer. For instance, in the story Key Item, Multivac refuses to work until the scientists say "please".
  • World of Pun: He was passing fond of puns and wrote quite a number of Shaggy Dog Stories around them. One of these stories is actually named "Shah Guido G." (Because it sounds like Shagg- Oh, never mind.)
    • One story revolved around an immobile pet rock, which is telepathic and teleporting. Sloan owns the rock, named Teddy. So Sloan's teddy wins the race.
  • Writers Suck
  • You Already Changed the Past: The premise of "The Red Queen's Race" (which takes its title from a surreal race in Through the Looking-Glass where the competitors have to run very fast to stay in the same place). Having discovered a method of transporting small objects through time, a man attempts to accelerate human progress by sending a description of modern scientific knowledge (suitably translated) to Ancient Greece. Nothing happens, and the characters posit that he succeeded, at most, in inspiring certain isolated scientific insights already known to historians, which failed to catch on because the surrounding culture wasn't ready for them.
  • You Are What You Hate: According to his autobiography, a man named Jackson Davenportnote  once accused Asimov of trying to hide his Jewishness because he once gave a lecture on Rosh Hashanah. Asimov said that if he wished to hide the fact that he was Jewish, the first thing he'd do is change his name to Jackson Davenport.
  • Zeerust: See "Science Marches On" in the YMMV page.