Today marks what would have been the great and prolific science-fiction writer Dr. Isaac Asimov’s 100th birthday. Or at least his birthday party. Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia, sometime between October 4, 1919, and January 2, 1920. Not knowing the exact date but knowing it was no later than January 2, this was the day he designated and celebrated as his birthday.
Asimov wrote or edited more than 500 books and 9,000 letters and postcards over the course of his esteemed writing career. Best known as the author of I, Robot and the Foundation series, he was the 1984 Humanist of the Year and president of the American Humanist Association from 1985 until his death in 1992.
According to his bio at the website SFandFantasy.co.uk,
Asimov was a long-time member and vice president of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as “brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs.” He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association.
In celebration of Asimov’s centennial, we present several excerpts published in the Humanist magazine between 1957 and 1989, in which he opines on what’s great about science fiction, the importance of promoting rationality, and both the future and the end of a decade.
Asimov, on what good science fiction does that no other form of literature does…
The forms of “science fiction” most familiar to the general public are the comic strip adventures of individuals such as Flash Gordon and Superman, and the movies dealing with various types of “monsters.”
Neither comic-strip nor Hollywood version is really science fiction. Therein lies the confusion. Rather, both are the result of adding a thin veneer of scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo to a very old type of literature, the adventure-fantasy. Substitute for the dragon that is slain by Siegfried the equally fabulous monster slain by Flash Gordon, and there are few other changes of any consequence that need be made. The Chimera that devastates the countryside and must be slain by Bellerophon on his flying horse, Pegasus, is much like the monster that rises from twenty thousand fathoms in the black lagoon and must be slain by a movie hero and his flying aeroplane.
For adult science fiction, for real science fiction, it is to the magazines that one must turn, and to the novels which have usually first appeared as magazine serials. Even there, not all stories are “good.” (But, then, come to think of it, why should anyone expect all of science fiction to be good, or even most of it? One of the best science fiction writers recently said to an audience of avid science fiction fans, “Nine-tenths of science fiction is crud.” The audience sat stunned and disbelieving, and then the writer added, solemnly, “Nine-tenths of all writing is crud.”)
Embedded in the crud, however, are stories that are entertaining, well-written and exciting—but, more than that, thought-provoking in an odd way that is duplicated in no other form of literature. Here you will find strange, new societies: societies oriented primarily toward advertising and its psychology; societies hidden in underground cities that can no longer face the open; societies faced with the discovery of new intelligent life-forms, or their discovery of us; societies faced with the depletion of resources or repletion of population; societies in which telepathy and all of its implications are commonplace.
Is this important? Of course it is. Good science fiction is fun, and good science fiction is important. It does something that no other form of literature does: it consistently considers the future.
We are living in a society which, for the first time, must consider the future. Until 1750, the average man was certain that, short of the Day of Judgement, the essential way of life would proceed much as it always did and always would, except for changes in the actual cast of characters playing out the human drama.
After 1750, more and more men became increasingly aware that society was changing in odd and unpredictable directions and would continue to do so; that what was good enough for the father would turn out to be not good enough (or perhaps too good) for the son; that as things had always been, they would not remain.
After 1945, men further became aware that even the mere fact of continued existence of human society in any form was by no means to be assumed. The possibility of a new kind of Day of Judgment grew big.
Science fiction is based on the fact of social change. It accepts the fact of change. In a sense, it tries on various changes for size; it tries to penetrate the consequences of this change or that and, in the form of a story, it presents the results to the view of the public.
It is this which has always made it seem rather ironic to me that science fiction is continually lumped under the heading of “escape literature,” and usually as the most extreme kind, in fact. Yet it does not escape into the “isn’t” as most fiction does, or the “never was” as fantasy does, but into the “might very well be.” In its best phases, if science fiction escapes, it is an escape into reality.
The writers of science fiction are themselves not always aware of what they are doing. Many of them might swear in all earnestness that they are interested only in turning out a craftsman-like story and earning an honest dollar. To my mind, however, they represent the eyes of humanity turned, for the first time, outward in a blind and agonized contemplation of the exciting and dangerous future, not of this individual or that, but of the human race as a whole.
– “Escape to Reality,” the Humanist, November/December 1957
Asimov, on receiving the Humanist of the Year Award in 1984…
We owe it to ourselves as respectable human beings, as thinking human beings, to do what we can to make humanity rational. And having done this—or having tried to do this—we can respect ourselves.
And that’s what I’m in it for—so that I needn’t be ashamed of myself. That’s why I’m glad I got the Humanist of the Year Award. It’s probably going to mean very little to most people (except that it will inspire them to write me more letters), but it means a heck of a lot to me. It means that I’m a success in my own eyes. And it’s in my own eyes that success counts.
– “Is Big Brother Watching?” the Humanist, July/August 1984
Asimov, on the end of the 1980s and the approaching next century…
The magazine Science News once questioned a number of scientific authorities on the Velikovskian theory of astronomical hopscotch that defies all the most elementary notions of celestial mechanics. All the authorities questioned gave reasoned refutations of this or that. I did not. I simply said, “There is no idea, however ridiculous on the face of it, that some people won’t instantly hug to their breasts and be ready to die for.” Some issues later, the Velikovskians had their chance to reply, and every last one of them attacked my statement and left all the others alone. I had, quite obviously, struck a nerve.
Well, then, what do I expect of the next century? Assuming that we avoid destruction from the dogged adherence of humanity to superstition and its rejection of rationality, will we at least make a little progress in our cause?
I’m sorry. I don’t think so. In addressing the humanists of 2089 (and I am sure there will be humanists in the world of 2089, if there should indeed be a world of 2089), I would have to say this.
Despite all the further advance of technology, despite the fact that we have computerized the world, despite the fact that robots are doing the menial work of humanity and that human beings are freed to work creatively at human tasks, despite the fact that we have expanded to the moon and beyond and are rapidly penetrating the solar system generally, and despite the fact that we understand the universe far better than we used to a century ago, the vast majority of human beings still take solace and comfort in their various superstitions and still follow any pied piper who fills their ears with notes of nonsense while filling his or her own pockets with money. And we are still in the minority and still struggling to convince people that, if, indeed, there were a god, he would in the end reject anyone who failed to make use of that one truly godlike gift.
But if that is so, and if we are engaged in a never-ending fight with no victory in sight, why continue?
Because we must. Because we have the call. Because it is nobler to fight for rationality without winning than to give up in the face of continued defeats. Because whatever true progress humanity makes is through the rationality of the occasional individual and because any one individual we may win for the cause may do more for humanity than a hundred thousand who hug their superstitions to their breast.
– “The Never-ending Fight,” the Humanist, March/April 1989