Isaac Asimov FAQ, Part 3/4
4.11 Did Asimov write the Foundation books with any plan in mind?
Asimov's original intention was to write a series of longer stories to
complement the series of short stories he was writing about robots. He
started the Foundation series as a saga of the collapse of the First
Galactic Empire and rise of the Second.
It wasn't long before he got bored with the series. Since the
Foundation's ultimate success was guaranteed by psychohistory, there was a
considerable lack of dramatic tension, and it was hard keeping the stories
from contradicting each other. He therefore wrote "The Mule" as a way to
end the series by wrecking the Seldon Plan. That was not satisfactory to
Asimov's public, and he wrote two more Foundation stories (now collected
in _Second_Foundation_) to restore the Plan. The nature and activities of
the Second Foundation were developed only at this point, to make the story
With these last two stories written, he considered himself forever
finished with the Foundation series, even though there were still 700
years of the Plan to run. They would simply be 700 years of the
Foundation's growth and triumph, and really rather dull. He did write one
more Foundation story to open _Foundation_ and nothing more for over
In the 1980's, Asimov was persuaded by Doubleday to write a new Foundation
book. The result was _Foundation's_Edge_. Again, he decided to create a
more interesting story by making up a new threat to the Seldon Plan.
_Foundation's_Edge_ was so successful that Asimov was persuaded to finally
write the third Elijah Baley novel, _The_Robots_of_Dawn_, which created
the first (implicit) connection between the Foundation and Robot books.
This connection, which was *not* anticipated when Asimov started writing
robot and Foundation stories in the 1940's, was made explicit in the next
two books written, _Robots_and_Empire_ and _Foundation_and_Earth_.
Finally, because he wasn't sure what to do next, Asimov wrote
_Prelude_to_Foundation_ and _Forward_the_Foundation_ to tell the story of
Hari Seldon's life and the beginnings of psychohistory.
4.12 Is Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" an Asimovian robot?
The television program "Star Trek: The Next Generation" included an
android character, Data, whom we are specifically told (in the episode
"Datalore") was created in an attempt to bring "Asimov's dream of a
positronic robot" to life. Unfortunately, the producers of the show
locked onto the "positronic" aspect as if that were the key quality to
Asimov's robots. Asimov's view was exactly the opposite -- his robots are
"positronic" because positrons had just been discovered when he started
writing robot stories and the word had a nice science-fictiony ring to
it. The use of positrons was just an engineering detail and relatively
unimportant to him.
Asimov's key insight was that, inasmuch as we engineer our tools to be
safe to use, we would do the same with robots once we start making them --
and that the main safeguards for an intelligent being are its ethics. We
would, therefore, build ethics into our robots to keep them going off on
uncontrollable killing sprees.
In some sense, the specific Three (Four) Laws are themselves an
engineering detail, the robotic equivalent of the Ten Commandments -- it
is a specific ethical system but not the only one possible. In Asimov's
universe, they are the basis for robotic ethics and so absolutely
fundamental to robotic design that it is virtually impossible to build a
robot without them.
Asimov tended not to let other people use his specific Laws of Robotics,
but his essential insight -- that robots will have in-built ethical
systems -- is freely used.
In particular, Data *is* an "Asimovian" robot because he *does* have an
in-built ethical system. He does *not* have the Three Laws, however
(witness the episode "Measure of Man" in which he refuses to follow a
direct order from a superior officer [Second Law] without invoking either
danger to a specific human [First Law] or the higher needs of all of
humanity [Zeroth Law]). Moreover, his ethical programming is *not*
fundamental to his design (his prototype, Lore, lacks it altogether, and
Data's ethical program is turned off for much of "Descent, part II").
Asimov stated that Roddenberry asked for his permission to make Data a
positronic robot after the fact. Asimov himself had no input into the
There were plans to have Asimov appear on the show as a holodeck
simulation and talk to Data (just as Stephen Hawking did). A combination
of Asimov's location and ill-health made this impossible.
4.13 What *are* the Laws of Robotics, anyway?
The Three Laws of Robotics are:
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 the 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.
From Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D., as quoted in _I,_Robot_.
In _Robots_and_Empire_ (ch. 63), the "Zeroth Law" is extrapolated, and the
other Three Laws modified accordingly:
0. A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity
to come to harm.
Unlike the Three Laws, however, the Zeroth Law is not a fundamental part
of positronic robotic engineering, is not part of all positronic robots,
and, in fact, requires a very sophisticated robot to even accept it.
Asimov claimed that the Three Laws were originated by John W. Campbell in
a conversation they had on December 23, 1940. Campbell in turn maintained
that he picked them out of Asimov's stories and discussions, and that his
role was merely to state them explicitly.
The Three Laws did not appear in Asimov's first two robot stories,
"Robbie" and "Reason", but the First Law was stated in Asimov's third
robot story "Liar!", which also featured the first appearance of
robopsychologist Susan Calvin. (When "Robbie" and "Reason" were included
in _I,_Robot_, they were updated to mention the existence of the first law
and first two laws, respectively.) Yet there was a hint of the three laws
in "Robbie", in which Robbie's owner states that "He can't help being
faithful, loving, and kind. He's a machine - made so." The first story
to explicitly state the Three Laws was "Runaround", which appeared in the
March 1942 issue of _Astounding_Science_Fiction_.
5. Other writings
5.1 What is the relationship between the movie "Fantastic Voyage" and
Asimov wrote the novel from the screenplay. He made a certain number of
changes which he felt were necessary to minimize the scientific
implausibility of the story. Because, as he put it, he wrote quickly and
Hollywood works slowly, the novel came out some six months before the film
was released, giving rise to the idea that the movie was made from the
Asimov was never satisfied with _Fantastic_Voyage_, and he never thought
of it as "his" work. Later, a person who had bought the rights to the
title and concept (but not the characters or situation) of the original
was interested in making _Fantastic_Voyage_II_. Naturally he turned to
Asimov, who at first refused. At some point, Asimov agreed, but insisted
on handling his side as a pure book deal with Doubleday. Consequently,
Asimov's book _Fantastic_Voyage_II_ should not be considered a sequel to
5.2 What did Asimov write besides the Foundation and robot books?
Lots. Asimov published over 500 books by the time of his death. Many of
these, of course, are anthologies of work by other people, and a large
number are juvenile science books, but there are a lot of books left.
Following is a list of some of Asimov's better-known or more influential
works. The list is purely subjective, based on the personal preference of
the FAQ-keepers. There is much which is worthwhile but not listed. See
the full lists of Asimov's works for more information.
A) Other science fiction novels
The Lucky Starr books
Fantastic Voyage, and Fantastic Voyage II
The Gods Themselves
The End of Eternity
B) Science fiction short story collections
Earth is Room Enough
The Martian Way and Other Stories
Nightfall and Other Stories
The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories
The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov
The Hugo Winners/New Hugo Winners (7 volumes)
Isaac Asimov presents the great sf stories (25 volumes for 1939 through 1963)
Black Widower stories (several collections)
A Whiff of Death
Murder at the ABA
Asimov's Guide to the Bible
Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare
Asimov's New Guide to Science
F) Essay collections
F&SF Essay collections
(Asimov had a monthly science column from the early 1950's through 1991)
Asimov on Science Fiction
The Roman Republic
The Roman Empire
H) Other non-fiction
Understanding Physics (aka The History of Physics)
Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor
The Sensuous Dirty Old Man
Asimov Laughs Again
5.3 What is the source of the title of the novel _The_Gods_Themselves_?
The title is obtained from the quote "Against stupidity, the gods
themselves contend in vain" , which originally appeared in German ("Mit
der Dummheit Kampfen die Gotter selbst vergebens") in Friedrich von
Schiller's play _Jungfrau_von_Orleans_ (The Maid of Orleans, or Joan of
Arc), Act III, Scene 6. _Bartlett's_Familiar_Quotations_ translates the
quote as "Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain."
_The_Oxford_Dictionary_of_Quotations_ gives the translation "With
stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain."
5.4 Is there an index of his science articles for the Magazine of
Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF)? Of his editorials in Isaac
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM)?
Asimov compiled a list of his F&SF essays on the occasion of the 20th
anniversary of his first essay, in the November 1978 issue of F&SF, and
reprinted (slightly updated) in the collection _The_Road_to_Infinity_.
That list is ordered alphabetically according to the title of the essay,
and includes a designation of the collection in which each essay appears
as well as a very brief subject description for each essay. However
Asimov went on to write a total of 399 essays, the last of which appeared
in February 1992. (A 400th essay was compiled by Janet after his death
and published in the December 1994 issue of F&SF.)
Of the 174 editorials published in IASFM, dealing mainly with Asimov's
thoughts on Science Fiction, 22 were included in
_Asimov_on_Science_Fiction_ and another 66 in _Asimov's_Galaxy_, but he
did not compile an index to these.
Asimov also wrote numerous other essays that were published in other
magazines, many of which have appeared in other essay collections.
Seeing the need for a single index to all of Asimov's essays, Rich Hatcher
and Ed Seiler valiantly decided to compile one, and after many months of
work, it was completed. Their guide lists over 1600 essays, including the
subject of the essay, the publication in which the essay first appeared,
and a list of Asimov's collections in which the essay appeared. Indexes
list the essays chronologically for each major series (e.g. the science
essays in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), and also group the
essays by subject, in order to help you find any essay Asimov wrote on any
given subject. The guide is available via the World Wide Web, at
5.5 What is the Asimov-Clarke treaty?
The Asimov-Clarke Treaty of Park Avenue, put together as Asimov and Clarke
were travelling down Park Avenue in New York while sharing a cab ride,
stated that Asimov was required to insist that Arthur C. Clarke was the
best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for
himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Isaac Asimov was the
best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself).
Thus the dedication in Clarke's book _Report_on_Planet_Three_ reads "In
accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best
science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction
5.6 There's this really neat story by Asimov which I would like to
read again, and I can remember the title; could you tell me
where to find it?
If you correctly remembered the title, and Asimov did in fact write the
story, you can find a list of collections and anthologies that the story
appeared in on the Web in the Guide to Isaac Asimov's Short Fiction at
http://www.clark.net/pub/edseiler/WWW/short_fiction_guide.html. If you
can't find the story there, it is probably because Asimov did not write
it. Often there is confusion between Asimov and other well known science
fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein. Asimov also
edited or co-edited a large number of anthologies, and since his name was
usually featured prominently on the cover, readers sometimes mistakenly
associate his name with a story that appeared in an anthology that was in
fact written by another author. But if you remember the correct title,
you will probably find the story listed in the "Index to Science Fiction
Anthologies and Collections", compiled by William Contento, at
http://www.best.com:80/~contento/, which covers stories anthologized
before 1984, or in "The Locus Index: Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror:
1984-1996", at http://www.sff.net/locus/0start.html.
5.7 There's this really neat story by Asimov, but I can't remember the
The story is probably "The Last Question." It can be found in a number of
Asimov's anthologies (it was his favorite of his own stories, after all):
_The_Complete_Stories_, volume 1
It is also found in a number of anthologies *not* consisting entirely of
stories by Asimov:
_3000_Years_of_Fantasy_and_Science Fiction_, L. Sprague DeCamp, ed.
_Space_Opera_, Brian W. Aldiss, ed. Doubleday, 1975
_The_Science_Fiction_Roll_of_Honor_, Frederik Pohl, ed. Random House,
1975, pp. 35-49
_The_Future_in_Question_, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D.
Olander, eds. Fawcett Crest, 1980, pp. 368-381
_Isaac_Asimov_Presents_the_Great_SF_Stories_18_(1956)_, Isaac Asimov and
Martin H. Greenberg, eds. DAW, 1988, pp. 286-299
_Cosmic_Critiques_, Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. Writer's
Digest Books, 1990, pp. 111-122
(Publication information for Asimov's stories can most easily be found in
Ed Seiler's exhaustive story list at
There is a mathematical possibility that you're thinking of a story other
than "The Last Question", but it's *very* slight. Asimov's own experience
was that if someone couldn't remember the title of one of his stories (and
especially if they weren't entirely sure if it was by him), then it was
"The Last Question." But just in case, here are some of the stories with
titles that often aren't remembered as well as the plot:
"The Last Question" concerns the fate of the universe, when a computer is
asked several times through the ages if entropy can ever be reversed.
"The Feeling of Power" describes a time in the future, when a young man
amazes everyone with his ability to perform mathematical computations in
his head, instead of relying on computers like everyone else does.
"Profession" is about a boy who is brought to a house for the
feeble-minded after tests show that he is abnormal, because unlike the
others, who are all educated by machines and have their professions chosen
for them, he is capable of original thinking.
5.8 I'd like to hear some opinions about some of Asimov's books.
Do you have any?
Certainly opinions of Asimov's books are a favorite topic of discussion in
the alt.books.isaac-asimov newsgroup, and this FAQ does not intend to
answer this question once and for all. However most people have not read
most of Asimov's books, and those that have are probably to busy reading
to offer their opinion for the umpteenth time to new readers of the
John Jenkins has written reviews for a great number of Asimov's books,
both fiction and nonfiction, and collected them together on the World Wide
Web as Jenkins' Spoiler-Laden Guide to Isaac Asimov
http://www.blueneptune.com/~tseng/Asimov/Asimov.html. John offers his
views of what he likes and dislikes in Asimov's books from the point of
view of a dedicated Asimov enthusiast, and provides a graphical rating
system that neatly summarizes his evaluations for both the Asimov fan and
the intended audience of each book. He has completed reviews for all of
Asimov's fiction books, and is currently working through his nonfiction
and short stories. A keyword search of the Guide can be performed at the
Isaac Asimov search page at
5.9 What is the title of the essay that Asimov wrote concerning the
ultimate self-contained, portable, high-tech reading device of the
future which turns out to be a book? Where can I find it?
The title of the essay is "The Ancient and the Ultimate". It was first
published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in May 1971, and
appeared in the Doubleday collections _The_Left_Hand_of_the_Electron_
(1972) and _Asimov_on_Science_ (1989).