Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2563
ISAAC ASIMOV

by Andrew Boyd

Today, science or fiction? The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A young Isaac Asimov

Mention the name Isaac Asimov and science fiction comes to mind. And well it should. Asimov won a combined thirteen Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards — all career makers for science fiction writers. He wrote Nightfall, which the Science Fiction Writers of America once voted the greatest science fiction story of all time. The movie Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams, was based Asimovís work of the same name, and I, Robot, with Will Smith, took its title and many plot ideas from a collection of Asimovís short stories. Yet, only a fraction of Asimovís writing was science fiction.

Asimov collection of short stories

Asimov grew up in Brooklyn after his family emigrated from Russia. By the time he graduated from Columbia University at age nineteen he was publishing short stories. After graduation, he continued to write for science fiction magazines while working to support the World War II war effort. After the war, he returned to Columbia and earned a PhD in biochemistry. From there, he took a faculty position at the Boston University School of Medicine, where he earned tenure.

It was during his time at Boston University that Asimovís writing changed — but not to a typical academic style. He began writing popular non-fiction in addition to science fiction. Physics, chemistry, biology, and the other natural sciences were favorite topics. But so, too, were history and religion, including a book on the Roman Republic and the two volume Asimovís Guide to the Bible. He wrote mystery books, childrenís books, and annotated poetry books. He completed four books of truly dirty limericks, all published with eminently respectable publishers, and three separate autobiographies. All totaled, Asimov authored over five hundred books. Thatís difficult to even imagine.

Asimov had many coauthors, and he was editor on a number of his books, but the volume of words generated at his own typewriter is nonetheless astounding. Asimov was never accused of having a profound writing style. But he had a very special gift: he never let perfection get in the way completion. His direct, uncomplicated writing style was a recipe for success. Publishers were accepting his work up until his death in 1992 — and readers were reading it.

But Asimovís most enduring contributions lie in his science fiction writing. He was a pioneer of social science fiction — science fiction that examines the interaction of technology and human society. Today, itís completely mainstream, and not just in science fiction books. Social networking sites. iPhones. Stem cell research. Genetic engineering. Itís no longer social science fiction.

Iím Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where weíre interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Isaac Asimov. From the Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov. Accessed December 22, 2009.

A List of Isaac Asimovís Books. From the Asimov Online Web site, http://www.asimovonline.com/oldsite/asimov_titles.html. Accessed December 22, 2009.

The picture of a young Isaac Asimov is taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Asimov last autobiography


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2009 by John H. Lienhard.