One of the pioneers of Science Fiction, Isaac Asimov 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 is 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, with novels, short stories, scholarly articles, books about writing itself, a book of facts and at least two joke books to his credit. This is to the point where he wrote a book in every Dewey Decimal System category except for Philosophy. 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:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- 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 A Is, i.e. a well-designed tool (like a kitchen knife) should not cause its user grievous injury in regular use, it should also be able to accomplish its intended function well and with minimal effort, and it should be able to perform its intended tasks without excessively damaging itself. 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/Xanatos Roulette to restore civilization . 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.
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 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:
- I, Robot
- The Caves of Steel
- Foundation series
- The End of Eternity
- Lucky Starr series
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:
- Because John W. Campbell (editor of Astounding Science Fiction) insisted that humans always triumph against aliens, Asimov avoided having aliens in his Robot and Foundation stories.
- To answer criticism that none of his books featured sex or aliens, The Gods Themselves has some alien sex. Of course, because it's alien sex it's totally non-erotic by human standards.
- The short story "Victory Unintentional" revolved round three robots exploring the surface of Jupiter and contacting the Jovians living there.
- AI 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.
- 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).
- Arc Words: 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).
- Author Avatar
- Beige Prose: Asimov writes in a very straightforward and concise style. 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.
- Canon Welding
- Celebrity Paradox: In his "Black Widowers" mysteries, Black Widower Emmanuel Rubin is a friend, though often denying it, of Isaac Asimov. Asimov never actually appears in any of the stories, but is mentioned in several, usually with Rubin snarking about how conceited he is.
- 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.
- The Commandments: The Laws of Robotics.
- Cosmic Egg: Used as fuel in The Gods Themselves.
- Defictionalization: U.S. Robotics, a maker of dialup modems, derived its name from Asimov's U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men.
- Dirty Old Man:
- Once received an official plaque commemorating him as one at a convention. He accepted with good grace. He also wrote Sex and the Single Dirty Old Man (a parody of Sex and the Single 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...
- Everybody Smokes: Due to the time they were written in.
- 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 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.
- 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 of course 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.
- He Also Did: Everything. Asimov wrote for pretty much every category of book you can name, short of cookbooks.
- Heads or Tails: In The Machine That Won The War, the final reveal is that a war has been won this way.
- I Comma Noun: In addition to I, Robot, played with in I. Asimov: A Memoir, where the differing punctuation turns a pronoun into an initial.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: Asimov said that he had been often criticized for having not enough sex in his works, so in The Gods Themselves he introduced aliens with three genders.
- 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.
- Literal Genie: Pretty much 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.
- Madness Mantra: Happens at the end of Nightfall, when the six suns set but the stars in the night sky reveal themselves, leading the character of Aton to start crying and saying 'Stars--all the stars--we didn't know at all. We didn't know anything. We thought six stars in a universe is something the Stars didn't notice is Darkness forever and ever and ever and the walls are breaking in and we didn't know we couldn't know anything--'
- Master Computer: Multivac
- 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.
- Never Heard That One Before: The Gods Themselves has a character named Selene, pronounced "sell any", who is quick to point out that whatever joke that brings to mind she's heard it already.
- 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.
- Pen Name: Both used straight (he wrote children's novels as Paul French) and Inverted Trope: Many readers assumed "Isaac Asimov" was an exotic pen name for someone with a boring name like Jack Smith.
- 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
- Prequel in the Lost Age: The Galactic Empire novels to the Foundation trilogy.
- 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.
- Science Marches On: When robots and computers actually arrived, they didn't work anything like he predicted (though it's worth noting that most other writers of the time were even more off base). People reading it today might mistakenly think this is a case of Did Not Do the Research; obviously, it isn't, since there was nothing to research at the time. When he started writing, basic computer theory was still being developed, and the electronic computer hadn't been invented yet. Notable especially for what he thought would be easy and what would be hard are quite different. He thought in 2061 we'd still be using vacuum tubes but have self-aware AI. He didn't think the equivalent of a modern integrated circuit chip would be invented until after tens of thousands of years of refinement.
- This trope only applies to his fiction, though, as all his non-fiction writings about science, especially his chemistry works, are considered very accurate and consistent with today's understanding.
- In A Pebble in the Sky, there's an extended section describing the role of proteins as genetic material. The book was published in 1950, two years before the definite experiment which proved that DNA was the genetic material.
- Self Deprecating Humor: He did this often. See Celebrity Paradox above, for instance. Also, in one of the Foundation stories there's an Imperial official, Lord Dorwin, who's mentioned to be extremely proud of his large, fluffy sideburns, suggesting he's at least partly an Author Avatar (take another look at the portrait up top). Dorwin talks with Elmuh Fudd Syndwome and generally seems to be an Upperclass Twit -- a "most consummate donkey," as one of the story's cleverest characters put it.
- 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.
- Starfish Aliens: The inhabitants of the positronic opposite world in The Gods Themselves.
- The Summation
- Terminally Dependent Society
- Throwing Out the Script: "Ignition Point!" is about a man who figures out how to write carefully constructed content-free speeches that will get audiences fired up. In the first test, the speechwriter stops in the middle, throws away the speech, and starts improvising -- the speech worked on him, too.
- 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: Pebble in the Sky
- Unusual Chapter Numbers: The Gods Themselves starts with the sixth chapter, then goes back to one in the middle of it. After chapter five, the sixth chapter concludes.
- 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".
- Writers Suck
- Or at least attributed to him.
- starting centuries before it falls. Take that, Xanatos!
- On the other hand, Lord Dorwin turns out to be "an accomplished diplomat and a most clever man" who managed to commit the Empire to nothing at all in five days of discussion that left the people he talked with feeling completely satisfied.