The tale of Isaac Asimov is one of a toddler who immigrated from Russia to the U.S. and went on to become one of the foremost writers in the golden age of science fiction. His life was most of all an “American success story,” says fellow writer James Gunn.
Gunn breathed life into the 20th Century author for an evening at West Virginia University as part of the 2010 David C. Hardesty Jr. Festival of Ideas on Tuesday (Oct. 26), telling the audience that his friend Isaac appreciated their support.
Gunn, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, assembled a portrait of Asimov, whom he had known personally, that presented quirks embedded in a broad canvas of writing.
Writing was a constant in Asimov’s life, something he used to delve into topics from the Bible to limericks. Asimov (1920-1992) was proud to say that he had written and edited 470 books at his most prolific, he wrote 13 books a year.
Asimov wrote about life on other worlds and the development of robots, but he disliked flying. Asimov told Gunn to not waste his time on writing a book on Asimov and to instead create his own stories.
Asimov was a know-it-all as a young boy who explained to his teacher that in the poem “Abhou Ben Adhem,” the title character’s name led all other names not because he loved others as the poem suggested but because the list was alphabetical, an answer that sent him straight to the principal’s office. Gunn told of how Asimov kept silent when during World War II he heard fellow soldiers erroneously explaining how the hydrogen bomb worked in an attempt to give up being a know-it-all.
But, as Gunn said, Asimov, the boy who learned to read at 5 while growing up around his family’s candy stores, “rose to assume the smart man’s burden” in his writing.
Click below to hear James Gunn discuss the Asimov style.
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Asimov was working toward a medical degree, but that was derailed when he decided he didn’t want to be in the profession after one of his classes required him to kill and dissect a cat. He chose chemistry and worked as a professor at Boston University until he resigned when his department required him to research instead of write.
Asimov wanted to be known as a science fiction writer, Gunn said, but he also wrote many science non-fiction books.
“His science books represented a significant contribution to a general awakening of the American public to the need for greater understanding of science if the U.S. was to maintain it’s leadership in the world,” Gunn said.
In Asimov’s heyday, the world was discovering spaceships, atomic energy, computers and the moon landings, things he and other writers had described years before.
Gunn said Asimov described the role of his kind this way: “Science fiction writers and readers didn’t put a man on the moon all by themselves, but they created a climate of opinion in which the goal of putting a man on the moon became acceptable.”
Click below to hear Gunn talk about how educators can spark interest in science.
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Asimov is still doing that in some way through the extensive Isaac Asimov collection at the WVU Libraries. Before the Festival of Ideas lecture, a handful of visitors pored over about 150 items of the more than 600 books and related Asimov memorabilia items as part of a special display.
WVU Dean of Libraries Frances O’Brien said the library is proud to host the collection, the result of two large donations starting back in 2002. It is the largest known Isaac Asimov collection in the world.
“Isaac Asimov has written books in every Dewey Decimal Classification,” O’Brien said, which is a neat and unusual feat for a writer.
The collection is a reminder of the interest that Asimov kindled in the sciences.
“So many people tell us they discovered Isaac Asimov often through his fiction when they were teenagers, and it opened up an interest in science that they’ve kind of kept to the present day,” she said.
“He’s a very accessible, a very readable author, and he’s one of those authors that people feel they have a real connection with, so it’s always fun to talk to people that love to read his books and are so happy to see what we have and that we’re taking care of the collection.”
Mike Bagby, a professor in WVU’s School of Dentistry, was one of those teenagers whose interest and career in science was sparked by Asimov’s writing. He now teaches a materials dentistry course that involves chemistry, physics, engineering and dentistry.
Click below to hear Chief of Staff Jay Cole highlight the University's Asimov collection.
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“He can present science in a language that the average person can understand,” Bagby said. “I guess you could say he could create a world that you could visualize in your own mind.”
Abra Sitler, an English junior at WVU, examined the rows of books with gloved hands in the West Virginia and Regional Collection on the sixth floor of the Charles C. Wise Library. She called the collection “spectacular” and said few students probably know it exists.
As an English major pursuing a minor in biology, she lauded Asimov’s ability to understand both writing and science.
“I definitely appreciate what he’s done for science and science fiction and the way I think he’s increased science’s popularity and accessibility,” she said. “It’s kind of rare to have popular writers who write a lot about science.”
But, she believes, the need for science to be understood does not end with Asimov’s writings.
“Science is the future for us,” Sitler said. “Our society is becoming more and more technological, and I think it’s important to understand how that works and how these changes are going to affect society. People just don’t know much about science, and I think Sci-Fi is a great way to get people interested in it, and to get excited about it because it’s really fascinating stuff, and it’s revolutionizing the way we live.”
At the end of Gunn’s speech, he took a question from someone in the audience who asked if the science writers of today were creating a culture in which science could thrive.
“There are some remarkable new writers these days…but most of their writing tends to blur the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy,” Gunn said.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who is right now writing the kinds of things that Isaac was, and I just wish there were.”
By Diana Mazzella
WVU University Relations News
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