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Subject: Isaac Asimov FAQ, Part 3/4
This article was archived around: Fri, 09 Feb 2001 06:46:25 GMT
Last-modified: 1 October 2000
Copyright: (c) 1994-2001 Edward J. Seiler and John H. Jenkins
Maintainer: Ed Seiler <email@example.com> and John H. Jenkins
4.9 What is the significance of the ending of _Foundation_and_Earth_?
_Foundation_and_Earth_ ends with a "hook" for a sequel -- the main problem
of the novel itself has been solved, but a new problem is introduced in
the last few pages which threatens the future of mankind.
Asimov fully intended to write a sequel to _Foundation_and_Earth_,
continuing the story chronologically. He had, however, no specific plans
for how he would develop the problem with which _Foundation_and_Earth_
ends, let alone how to resolve it. His next (and final) two Foundation
books were stories of the life of Hari Seldon, written largely because he
couldn't figure out what would happen after _Foundation_and_Earth_.
He died before he had any specific plans for what would happen next.
4.10 Why do Asimov's books give two reasons why the Earth becomes
Asimov introduced the idea of the Earth becoming radioactive in
_Pebble_In_the_Sky_. It is also a plot element in the other two "Empire"
books, _The_Stars,_Like_Dust_ and _The_Currents_of_Space_. In these three
books, it is always assumed that the Earth became radioactive as a result
of a nuclear war. These books were all written in the early 1950s, when
it was commonly felt that there would be a nuclear war between the United
States and Soviet Union in the next few years.
Later on, Asimov realized that this explanation wouldn't wash. The
effects he described would not be possible as the result of a nuclear
war. He therefore provides a different explanation in _Robots_and_Empire_
Within the fictional universe, the explanation is that the *characters* in
the three Empire novels thought that the Earth became radioactive as a
result of a nuclear war, but that they were wrong.
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, using Edward Gibbon's _Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire_ as a model.
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 "Now You See It--" as a
way to end the series, but John Campbell, the editor of *Astounding*,
would have none of it and insisted that Asimov alter the ending so that
the series could continue. By the time he wrote the next Foundation
story, "--And Now You Don't," Asimov had come to hate the series so much
that Campbell didn't even attempt to convince him to continue.
(Ironically, "--And Now You Don't" is among the strongest stories in the
Over the course of the writing of the original Foundation stories, the
focus shifted slightly. The "tiny bit of cribbin' from the works of
Edward Gibbon" faded into the background. Mentalics were introduced at
Campbell's insistence as a means of throwing a monkey wrench into the Plan
with "The Mule" -- superhumans with psychic powers were a favorite theme
of Campbell's. The existence of the Second Foundation had been a part of
the series from the beginning, as was its location at "Star's End," but
its exact nature wasn't clearly defined until it acquired its role as the
With these last two stories written, he considered himself forever
finished with the Foundation series, even though there were still over 500
years of the Plan to run. They would simply be century upon century of
the Foundation's growth and triumph under the direction of the Second
Foundation, and really rather dull. Asimov did write one more Foundation
story to open _Foundation_ and nothing more for over thirty years.
In the 1980s, 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 1940s, was finally made explicit in
the next two books written, _Robots_and_Empire_ and
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 1950s 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 kaempfen die Goetter 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_, 66 in _Asimov's_Galaxy_, 10 in _Gold_, and 3
in _Magic_, but he did not compile an index to these. (_Gold_ also
reprinted 3 of the IASFM essays that appeared in
_Asimov_on_Science_Fiction_ and 19 of the essays that appeared in
_Asimov's_Galaxy_, and _Magic_ reprinted 2 of the IASFM essays from
_Asimov_on_Science_Fiction_ and 3 from _Asimov's_Galaxy_).
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://homepage.mac.com/jenkins/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.
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 January 1973,
and appeared in the Doubleday collections _The_Tragedy_of_the_Moon_ (1972)
and _Asimov_on_Science_ (1989).
5.10 In his story "Pate de Foie Gras", Asimov presented a puzzle, but did not
provide a solution to that puzzle. He stated that some people wrote him
with an answer immediately after the story's publication, and as science
advanced he eventually began receiving letters with another possible
solution. But he doesn't say what those solutions were. Did he ever
provide the solutions, and if so, what are they?
In each of Asimov's collections that included the story, whenever there
was a foreword or an afterword, he avoided giving away the answer. In
later years, he complained jokingly that because of the advance of
science, there was at least one new way that would probably be even better
than his original solution.
The problem presented in the story is that the goose lays golden eggs, and
through careful scientific analysis, it is discovered that the goose is a
living nuclear reactor that utilizes the isotope oxygen-18 to convert the
isotope iron-56 to the isotope gold-197. The gold production goes up if
the goose is provided with water enriched in oxygen-18. Further
investigation shows that the something in the goose's liver converts any
radioactive isotope into a stable isotope, so if the mechanism could be
discovered, it would provide a method to dispose of radioactive waste.
The problem is that there is only the one goose, whose eggs will not
hatch, and if the goose dies, they will never be able to use its secret.
The scientists are able to perform a biopsy of the liver, but the small
amount of cells extracted are insufficient to produce the effect. How
then, can they determine the mechanism and not have it disappear forever
once the goose dies?
The story, written in 1956, leaves the solution as an exercise for the reader.
An abridged version of the story titled "A Very Special Goose" appeared in
the September 25, 1958 issue of Science World, a magazine for high school
students published by Street and Smith, the publishers of Astounding. In
the teacher's edition, a solution is provided in the form of a letter from
Don A. Stuart, which is a pseudonym used by Astounding editor John W.
Campbell. Spoilers follow!
That solution explains that the best way to produce an environment free of
oxygen-18 is to put the goose in a sealed greenhouse, together with a
gander. The greenhouse is supplied with a sufficient quantity of plants
and water for the geese to feed upon, and sunlight will keep the plants
growing. Eventually the goose will process all of the O-18 from the air,
food, and water, turning it into gold. Once the level of O-18 is
sufficiently reduced, the goose will start laying gold-free eggs, and
goslings will soon hatch. If enough goslings survive, they can be studied
to determine the mechanism of the conversion process. The male goslings
will then have to be studied to see if they can survive in an O-18 rich
environment, since if they convert it to gold, they will not be able to
get rid of it by laying eggs.
Here are some of the other solutions presented in the
alt.books.isaac-asimov newsgroup in the past.
Since it is the liver of the goose that is of interest, if there was a way
available to grow copies of the goose's liver, the mechanism might be
studied in that way. Thanks to modern science, it should be possible to
take the cells extracted by the liver biopsy and grow such livers in the
Because of advances in in-vitro fertilization, it might be possible to
extract egg cells from the goose's ovary, fertilize them, and implant them
in a normal goose. This assumes that the egg that grows in the surrogate
mother goose is not a golden one, and enough chicks that hatch are
genetically capable of developing the mechanism.
Now that various other farm animals have been cloned, it might be possible
to create clones of the goose, once again assuming that the egg can grow
in a normal fashion. The advantage here is that the chicks will certainly
have the same genetic capabilities as mother goose.
5.11 Did you know that Asimov is the only author to have published books
in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System?
No, because that claim is not true, despite the fact that it is repeated
in numerous lists of "amazing but true facts" that circulate on the
Internet, and even shows up in the third edition of _The New York Public
Library Desk Reference_. Asimov himself mentioned this a couple of times,
but always by prefacing it with the clause "I have been told by a
librarian that...". The reason that the claim is not true is because not
one of Asimov's books was classified in the 100s category of Philosophy.
Here are the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System:
000 - Generalities
100 - Philosophy
200 - Religion
300 - Social Sciences
400 - Languages
500 - Pure Sciences
600 - Applied Sciences & Technology
700 - Arts
800 - Literature
900 - History & Geography
Although a great number of his books were classified in the 500s and the
600s, there are three other categories that were sparsely represented (for
Asimov, that is):
200s - 7 titles
400s - 2 titles [_Words From History_ and _Words From the Myths_]
700s - 3 titles [_Visions of the Universe_, _Asimov's Annotated Gilbert &
Sullivan_, and _Isaac Asimov Presents Superquiz_]
A more accurate statement is that Isaac Asimov is the only author who has
so many well written books in so many different categories of library