Under the Influence: Isaac Asimov



  • The First Law: A robot may not harm, nor through inaction allow to come to harm, a human being.
  • The Second Law: A robot must obey the orders of a human being, where those orders do not conflict with the First Law.
  • The Third Law: A robot must act to protect its own existence, where this will not conflict with the First or Second Laws.


     Isaac Asimov was the only one of the Big Three (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke) that I ever actually saw in person. It was at a talk whose subject I don't even really recall, but I do remember this man with huge sideburns and unbounded energy dominating the conversation.


     Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific authors in history, authoring over 600 books. While he is perhaps best known as a science-fiction author, only a relatively small fraction of those books were in fact science-fiction; he was a man of vastly wide-ranging interests who wrote both excellent layman's introductory texts and professional, scholarly works in a dozen different fields, ranging from his actual trained profession (chemistry) to physics, astronomy, and religion.


     He was, however, mostly influential on me through his science fiction writing. Asimov was one of the greatest masters of the short "idea-based" story – a story built around some quick, surprising idea which could (and did) range from a scientific paper on a material that dissolved before it was added to a solution, to the threat of alien invasion through infection. He could often achieve more in a page and a half than many other authors could manage in a dozen times as many pages, and many of those stories, such as "The Dead Past", "Green Patches", and "The Martian Way" still have the same punch they had back then, because despite the way in which time has marched on with technology and society, the essential hopes and fears he often touched upon simply don't change, and perhaps never will.


     The first Asimov I remember reading were the Lucky Starr books. Knowing how prolific he was and how much Asimov was included in most of the short story collections, I'd say it's a close to sure bet I'd read some of his stuff before. But the first I remember for certain are these (which he originally published under the name Paul French). The Lucky Starr series is classic in-system space opera, focusing on the adventures of David "Lucky" Starr and his hot-tempered yet often useful sidekick, the vertically challenged John "Bigman" Jones. The novels follow the common juvenile adventure series pattern of the name of the protagonist followed by the subject matter – a pattern once more familiar today from Harry Potter.


     The solar system of the Lucky Starr adventures is the Golden Age solar system, one in which Venus is an ocean world and not an over-baked wasteland, and Mars may be a dying but not a dead world, where other lifeforms may be found in even the most extreme environments, and where the ideals of the Golden Age are in full flower; the most trusted and powerful body in the System is the Council of Science, and their agents the most capable and trustworthy men (for in those days, with few exceptions, it was indeed always men) in all the worlds.


     What separates them from the standard pulp fluff is that Asimov knew to always play fair with his readers, and as a scientist himself he knew to always include aspects of science that he was familiar with to give grounding and solidity to even the most far-fetched stories. He built all of David "Lucky" Starr's adventures around settings and ideas that had at their core rationality. If the threat and technology didn't exactly hold up to modern scrutiny, the stories themselves did maintain their own coherency, taken on their own terms. You could follow the logical steps, extrapolate the technologies or ideas, and see how everything worked out the way Asimov had written it.


At the same time, Asimov was excellent at knowing how to pace a story at any length. He could ratchet up the tension and release it exactly on cue, and he could do it while painting vivid pictures of worlds that didn't exist and threats that were  barely imaginable. One of the most intense sequences in the series, and one that sticks with me to this day, is the time in Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus when Lucky finds himself trapped underneath a titanically large creature called an "orange patch" which utterly outmatches his submarine's capabilities, and must find some way to escape what seems an impossible situation.


The Lucky Starr books led me to look more closely for other books written by the same guy; I immediately found this omnibus called The Foundation Trilogy, which managed to punch my sense of wonder button hard.


For those unfamiliar with the Foundation Trilogy, the simple summary is this: a brilliant scientist, Hari Seldon, perfects a science called psychohistory, with which he can predict, accurately, the overall course of history; with it, he discovers that the Galactic Empire itself is on its way to collapse and the collapse cannot be halted. However, if he takes certain very specific actions, the period of barbarism into which the galaxy will be plunged will be drastically shortened. To do this, Seldon establishes the Foundation (originally called the "Encyclopedia Foundation"), ostensibly to compile a universal encyclopedia of all knowledge so it will not be lost, but actually to serve as the designed nucleus of the new Galactic civilization to arise after the fall of the Empire. The series covers hundreds of years and follows the development of the Foundation and its trials and development from the weakest and most vulnerable colony in the Galaxy to the greatest power of all.


Of course, the "psychohistory" idea is utter bunk; modern chaos theory tells you it can't work, and even when Asimov wrote it he knew enough to know it was basically flawed, but that didn't matter; it was an awesome idea, and Asimov figured he could make it awesome in fact, partially by stealing classic events from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire; he succeeded. One of his motifs worked extremely well; the idea that Seldon had made a series of recordings, timed to be played at the point where he expected the Foundation to be at a crucial point, and provide valuable insight or commentary. It was done in a simple, yet tremendously effective manner, and to this day the words, "I am Hari Seldon!" give me a little tingle of awe down my spine.


Asimov later expanded the Foundation series, but I found those to be lesser efforts and with some considerable plot holes that I didn't like to see. I generally think only of the original trilogy when I think of Foundation. Besides the overall feel of the sweeping breadth and depth of history, Foundation also has directly influenced one of my works; the opening for my (as yet unpublished) trilogy Demons of the Past is a direct and conscious nod to the opening/prologue of Foundation and Empire.


Asimov was also known as constant punster, and he had no hesitation whatsoever in writing an entire story just for the sake of a pun or other play on words. To my mind he was much better at it than others who have attempted it (Piers Anthony comes to mind), and he knew when not to do it – that no matter how tempting the pun might be, it's a bad idea to do it in dramatic parts of your narrative. Others are not always so wise. One of my favorites of his deliberately comedic stories is "Shah Guido G."


Mysteries were one of Asimov's true loves and he wrote many of them – some non-SF, but many very much SF. His "Wendell Urth" mysteries were very clever puzzle pieces, even if much dated now by the various changes in society and technology. I always find it fascinating to read such stories because of the way in which their future is both hopelessly primitive and astoundingly advanced (for instance, if computers are around they're huge multi-room constructs used only by government or large companies, but at the same time people may own houses with their own atomic reactors). The xenobiologist Urth himself was in some ways a deliberate exaggeration of some of Asimov himself; most notably, Wendell Urth's refusal to go anywhere he couldn't walk reflected Asimov's unwillingness to fly anywhere.


There's little doubt that Asimov's SF mysteries influenced my Jason Wood stories – the way in which one could introduce concepts or devices or creatures that did not exist in the real world, yet somehow play fair with the concepts, was one of the driving concepts behind his stories, and my Jason Wood series draws on that.


Asimov's true legacy, for good or ill, however, lies with the Three Laws of Robotics (quoted at the beginning of this article). Prior to Asimov's Three Laws stories, most stories of robots used them for shock and terror value, as dangerous machines rather than controlled tools. The Three Laws are a basic statement of the principles by which a truly useful and safe automaton should be directed: protect its makers, do as it is directed, and prevent damage to itself, with appropriate priorities on each of these.


According to Asimov, technically the basic idea was originally conceived by John W. Campbell Jr. (editor of Astounding), but Asimov codified the Laws and they are and remain his in effect. The Laws have spread far beyond Asimov's work, even being quoted and used in much more widely distributed material (for instance, Bishop in Aliens quotes the First Law verbatim)


Asimov is often charged with writing characters of no depth, flat and undifferentiated. To an extent this is true; he was usually writing stories of ideas, and for his ideas the people were simply there to perform certain actions to get the idea showcased properly. However, when it was necessary, he was more than capable of producing powerful and interesting characters.


Nowhere was this more clear than in his original two Robot mysteries featuring Elijah "Lije" Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, The Caves of Steel  and The Naked Sun. The first novel was written in direct response to John W. Campbell Jr's assertion that in essence science-fiction and mysteries were incompatible genres; Campbell's position was that an SF story was set in a world the reader didn't know and thus the story could be solved by methods unknown to the reader. Asimov disagreed, feeling that the mystery novel itself had a basic structure that showed how to do a mystery regardless of what other genre it was in.


With The Caves of Steel he succeeded admirably, painting a future world with little in common with our own, yet providing the reader with all the clues necessary to figure out the solution. He also provides us with one of his strongest characters, Elijah Baley, human detective working for the New York City police department alongside the human-appearing robotic investigator, R. Daneel Olivaw (where "R" stands for "Robot") in a world where Earth is the oppressed, fading motherworld and one hostile to robots in general. Baley's personality and choices play strongly into the development and eventual resolution of the mystery, and do so again in the sequel The Naked Sun.


Asimov also taught me that sometimes you don't need fancy prose; straightforward sentences just telling you what happens to the characters, what they see, what they do as the plot unfolds, these will do the trick perfectly well. Simple direct prose can bring the reader in transparently, so that the words themselves are almost a part of the reader, rather than an interface.


I wish I could have talked to Asimov, but alas I was too young at the time. The questions that would have been worth asking would not have been in my mind then. As with many other things, the timing… did not work. But in another sense, I think I have met him… for he certainly put much of himself into his stories.


Thanks, Isaac Asimov. If there's an afterlife, I'll expect you'll have added considerably to the library by the time I get there!






  1. No one is immune to the influence of Isaac As-a-color, shade of purple-gray. Take for example one of my own stories:

    Set Here A Spell By Gary Jordan, Copyright © 2003

    It wasn’t that long after The Great War, and a lot of people still distrusted magickers of any type, but I’d been there when the king bound The Wizard to his oath, and I knew the terms of the treaty. The key item had been the new oath that every apprentice witch, warlock, wizard and mage must take, using his True Name:

    “I, [state your True Name], vow not to harm humankind or their allies, nor through inaction, allow humankind to come to harm; not to harm my liege lord, nor through inaction, let my liege lord come to harm save where such actions or inaction might cause harm to humankind; to obey the orders of my liege lord or those appointed by him over me, save where obedience would harm humankind or my liege lord; and not to harm myself or allow myself to be harmed, save where that would harm humankind, or my liege lord.”

    That Oath was administered as part of an incantation and placed a geas on the Oath-taker, and was done before the Oath-taker had power enough to deflect it or suborn it; it was administered under conditions which precluded the influence of an outside party to do so as well.

    Yep, there’s a hint or two of Isaac’s influence on ME.

  2. The facts seem to be that Campbell was responsible for the actual wording of the Three Laws, but that he extracted them from Asimov’s stories. A friend of mine sent Asimov a limerick expressing the Laws, and he sent back a postcard approving them. Unfortunately, I remember only the last three lines, giving the Second and Third Laws:

    … Next you must do
    Everything you’re told to:
    Only then may you save your own ass.

Your comments or questions welcomed!