Tag Archives: isaac asimov

Isaac Asimov and Information Theory

I have been reading a lot about information theory these last two months. In the course of this reading, the same people keep showing up again and again. Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, J. C. R. Lichlider, Marvin Minsky, Norbert Wiener, and John McCarthy to name just a few.

It is the last few that caught my attention. Having read much of what Isaac Asimov wrote over the course of his life–including his 3-volume autobiography, which I’ve read at least 14 times–the last three names were already familiar. Marvin Minsky, Norbert Wiener, and John McCarthy were mentioned a number of times in the second volume of Asimov’s autobiography, In Joy Still Felt.

Asimov knew them in his years living in the Boston area. All three worked in information theory at M.I.T. Asimov, who had quite the ego, said of Minsky that he was one of two people that was smarter than Asimov himself. The other was Carl Sagan. At a party for Asimov’s 50th birthday which both Sagan and Minsky attended, Asimov wrote that “Carl did not fail to point out that I had in the same room with me the two men I conceded were more intelligent than I was.”

Minksy was involved with robotics at the time. Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics.” He also tried to get Asimov to collaborate on a mystery with him. McCarthy worked with Minsky on artificial intelligence.

Thinking back on this, it seemed that Asimov’s interaction with these men was purely social, and a matter of proximity, and knowing the same people. What is remarkable to me is that, knowing these people at the forefront of information theory, I can’t think of a single instance where Asimov wrote about information theory in the way he wrote about other sciences. He had the best and the brightest in the field over to his house, but as far as I can tell, he never showed any intellectual interest in the theory.

Sure, Asimov wrote about robots and the Three Laws, but that is not information theory. Asimov wrote about entropy in physics and chaos theory, but not about the parallels between entropy and information. He wrote popular pieces about using computers, but I could find a single essay in the 399 monthly science columns he wrote for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from the late 50s until his death in 19922 that went into any detail on information theory. The closet I can come are 2 essays in the 1970s.

The first, “The Age of the Computer” is really more about the impact of computers on society, not information theory. The other, perhaps a little closer, is “The Ancient and the Ultimate” is about how information is contained (book form or digital).

I can’t explain this lack, especially given his camaraderie with Minsky, McCarty and Wiener. Asimov admitted that there were certain fields he simply didn’t understand. Economics was one such example that he gave. Could information theory have been another? After all, he did admit that Minsky was more intelligent than he was. By implication, could that mean he just didn’t get information theory?

It’s too bad, really. I would love to read an F&SF-style essay on information theory written by Asimov.

Isaac Asimov and Stephen King: A Few Words Between Fellow Writers

Since I am (obviously) on a Stephen King kick again, I thought it apropos to share snippets from a few letters between Isaac Asimov and Stephen King that I recalled reading in Stanley Asimov’s book, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters.

According to Stan Asimov: Stephen King wrote this letter to Isaac on the occasion of the publication of Isaac’s 262nd book, which was eventually to become Isaac’s first bestseller:

September 9, 1982

Good luck with Foundation’s Edge–not that you’ll need it, you dog, you!

Isaac replied to king as follows:

14 September 1982

Foundation’s Edge seems to show promise, but I am careful not to let my hopes get too high. After all, I get a best seller about as often as you don’t get one.

And a few years later, King wrote this one:

May 29, 1987

I wanted to write a fan letter telling you how much I’m enjoying working my way through The World’s Greatest SF Stories. I simply refuse to countenance your death until you have reached at least the year 2000.

And Isaac replied:

25 June 1987

I imagine you never expected your life to be this crazy because how could anyone not be surprised at finding himself the most successful writer in the history of the world. And so good that you clearly deserve to be.

I don’t know about you, but I just get a kick out of these behind the scenes exchanges between two fantastic writers. They show a charming humility in each that isn’t always visible when they are in the spotlight.

Asimov’s Annotations (mostly for Fred Kiesche and Paul Weimer)

Because Fred Kiesche, Paul Weimer and I were discussing them on Twitter yesterday, here is a photo for Fred and Paul designed to turn them green with envy:

Click to enlarge

Technically, Asimov’s Guide to Shakepeare and Asimov’s Guide to the Bible are not annotations in the sense that the entire work is included and commented on. But Asimov wrote that he thought it wasn’t practical to include the entire work because both the Bible and the works of Shakespeare are far too long.

The one I find people forget about the most is Familiar Poems, Annotated, which is itself a fascinating read. I sometimes wish I’d read it before taking AP English in 12th grade. I might have argued with the teacher’s interpretations more.

The only one that I am missing is, naturally, the one I want the most and that is Asimov’s Annotated Paradise Lost.

Anyway, there they are, prime examples that Asimov wrote more than just science and science fiction. And the four actual annotations pictured above are all first editions. (Guide to the Bible and Guide to Shakespeare are not.)


Charming Asimovian modesty

Isaac Asimov was known as a bit of an egoist1 but this was something that he openly acknowledged. He called these “charming Asimovian immodesties” and later referred to his attitude as “cheerful self-appreciation.” However, once in a while, he could come across as brilliantly modest. For instance, this quote from him which I read a few days back. I think it is especially applicable today, when the Internet acts as a gigantic megaphone-without-filters and we see follies magnified all around us, from those within and without the spotlight.

It is always a little difficult for me to laugh freely at the follies of mankind. If I look closely enough, I find that I share them all.

Would that we could all take this attitude from time-to-time before making dumb decisions.

  1. That is a bit of understatement.

My annual Isaac Asimov autobiography reading

in memory yet green.jpg

Last year, I skipped my annual Isaac Asimov autobiography reading. I was busy with writing, blogging, and my Vacation in the Golden Age reading and it was all too much for me. But I didn’t want to skip it two years in a row, as I so enjoy sitting down with In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. I’ve cut back on some writing and the fact that I delayed Episode 37 of my Vacation in the Golden Age to April 30 has given me the opportunity to squeeze in this reading. I started this weekend, sitting in my back yard with a beer and cracking open In Memory Yet Green.  This is my 15th time reading the book since I started keeping records on January 1, 1996. And indeed, I have much of the book memorized. So why read it again and again and again?

I’ve written before that one regret I have is not having entered active fandom sooner than I did1 for the singular reason that I never got to meet Isaac Asimov. Perhaps, if I had been active as a youngster in the 1980s, I might have had a chance to meet him. I love his books, fiction and nonfiction alike and I was breathless after reading his memoir, I. Asimov for the first time in the spring of 1994. (He’d already been dead 2 years at that point.) When I discovered he’d written an even more detailed autobiography, I set about obtaining copies at once and they were even better than I imagined. The voice that Asimov uses when writing about himself is unique. I haven’t seen it with any other writer. His words disappear and it’s as if he’s sitting in the chair next to me, sipping from a mug of coffee, and rattling off one story after another about his life, about writing, about science fiction, you name it. When I read these books, I hear his Brooklyn accent and it’s as if he is talking directly to me. So it really doesn’t matter that I’ve heard the stories more than a dozen times. Reading these books is the closest I’ll ever get to sitting down with the Good Doctor and listen to him speak.

The books have had a queer side-effect. There are countless people in the science fiction world mentioned in the books, and I felt like I’ve gotten to know some of them quite well, albeit through Asimov’s lenses. So reading these books is like a mini-convention for me–a rather remarkable one, granted, at which all the lights of science fiction have gathered around me and decided to share their stories. It is a remarkable experience every time I do it and just when I start to think that maybe I’ll skip it this year–the urge to dive into the books becomes unbearably strong.

I imagine that most people have some book that they could read again and again and again for the sheer pleasure of it. These just happen to be mine.

  1. I only entered active fandom after I made my first professional story sale back in January 2007.

How Isaac Asimov made me feel better about my current hiatus from fiction-writing

Taking a break from fiction-writing was a particularly difficult decision for me. But I was getting burned out. Life was intruding and something had to give. Once I made the decision, I felt pretty good about it, but in the back of my mind, it still bugged me a little. “I should be writing,” I’d tell myself. “That’s what my heroes would have done.” But it turns out that is not entirely true. While walked to the grocery store, I recalled a passage from Isaac Asimov’s autobiography that described something similar. The year was 1942. Asimov was 22 years old, was working on an advanced degree, had already published some of his robot stories, as well as classics like “Nightfall” and “Foundation.” And he was about to move to Philadelphia to work at the Navy Yard with Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp as part of the war effort. He ended up on a routine of visiting New York regularly during his stay in Philly. This was happening around May 1942. He wrote:

It was a dreadful routine, but I kept it up for week after week. Because I was in New York only for the twenty-four-hour period centered about Saturday night I could never see Campbell, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t want to see anybody but Gertrude, and writing, which had been at a halt since February, continued to be nonexistent.

I was under the impression, after all, that the purpose of my writing had been to pay my way through school. Now there was no school to be paid. Indeed, the work I was doing was paying me. Why should I write, therefore? I even stopped reading science-fiction magazines, for the first time in thirteen years (I think because reading science fiction magazines activated guilt feelings over my failure to write it.)

It wasn’t until January of 1943 that Asimov tried his hand at writing again.

Recalling and re-reading this made me feel better because it showed me that everyone needs a break at times, at that even as big a science fiction star (and one so prolific) as my idol, Isaac Asimov, needed them, too. Life intrudes on everyone. His break didn’t seem to stop his writing career. Indeed, when he came back to writing in January 1943, he was even more successful than before.

I’ll go with that assumption.

My annual Asimov autobiography re-read

I started reading Isaac Asimov’s retrospective memoir, I. Asimov last night.

I’ve written here often enough about my ritual, each April, where I read Isaac Asimov’s 3 autobiography volumes. I always read I. Asimov first, even though that was written last, because that one is a retrospective of his whole life. In the epilogue, Janet Asimov writes of Isaac’s death, and I don’t want to end on a sad note. So once that book is finished, I turn to the first volume of his massive autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, and follow that up immediately with In Joy Still Felt, so that when I am all done (after nearly 1,000,000 words worth of reading!) Asimov is still alive and well in 1979.

I was a senior in college when the hardcover of I. Asimov first came out. Believe it or not, I hadn’t read a whole lot of Asimov at the time. My science fiction experience was still very narrow-focused on a few writers (like Piers Anthony) that I had discovered as a teenager. But I bought the first edition hardcover (it was on the bestseller lists, if I recall) and took it back to my apartment to start reading. Almost immediately, I fell in love with Asimov’s colloquial style. It was as if he was sitting in my living room, telling me the story, instead of my reading it off the page. I was also fascinated by his life story, not so much because anything exciting happened, but because in many ways, he was so normal, yet became a great science and science fiction writer–it was almost like reading an instruction manual on How To Do It.

Continue reading My annual Asimov autobiography re-read

Isaac Asimov at 92

Today would have been Isaac Asimov’s 92nd birthday. Come April, he’ll have been dead for 20 years. It is hard to believe. It is still one of my biggest regrets that I never got to meet him. I really started to broaden my science fiction reading right around the time he passed away. At the time, I may have only read one or two things by Asimov, but of course I knew who he was. In the spring of 1994, his retrospective memoir, I. Asimov was released and I learned a whole lot more about him–and regretted at once never reading his stuff sooner. In the 20 years since, I’ve read that book, and his two other autobiography volumes nearly 20 times. And I’ve read just about everything else he’s ever written. My Asimov collection is my favorite part of my personal library.

At times like this, I often imagine an alternate history in which Asimov did not die at 72, but continued to live on for another twenty-five years or so, much like his friends Jack Williamson and Frederik Pohl. What would Isaac have thought about the Internet? Would he, like Pohl, have started a blog? What would he think of the publishing world today, with e-books and the battle for profits? It is impossible to say for certain, but he wrote enough during his life to make some educated guesses.

Continue reading Isaac Asimov at 92

My Isaac Asimov books: a bibliography in pictures

Reading my friend Michael A. Burstein’s post earlier today, “Thoughts: The Last Shuttle by Isaac Asimov” not only got my thinking about the end of the manned U.S. space program, but about Asimov and what he would think about the situation today. That in turn got me thinking about how much he’d written and how many books of his I’ve read and tried to collect. And so, I present below a bibliography in pictures of the Good Doctor. Or at least those books that I’ve managed to collect and cram onto my shelves. All images are high res and you can click on them and be able to read most of the titles. (Unless they are otherwise obscured.)

Click to enlarge

We start (above) with the first shelf. I used sort my books alphabetically by author and then chronologically within an author, but as you’ll see, I never got them sorted chronologically after the last move nearly two years ago. So the Asimov books are all together, but pretty random. Probably the most interesting book above is Familiar Poems: Annotated. I own all of Isaac Asimov’s annotations, except Paradise Lost.

Continue reading My Isaac Asimov books: a bibliography in pictures

What Isaac Asimov and HBO’s The Wire have in common

Answer: a book.

HBOs series The Wire was one which I never watched when it originally aired. But since I’ve had HBOGO, I’ve been watching the episodes. This evening, I was watching Season 3, Episode 11 and made a rather startling discovery. To explain, you have to understand a few things:

  1. I have read Isaac Asimov’s autobiography at least a dozen times and would recognize the hard covers anywhere.
  2. If I see a bookshelf anywhere, I am compelled to look at what is on it. I do this in stores that use the books for decoration, and anywhere else I see books.

There’s a scene in this episode of The Wire where the detectives are exploring Stringer Bell’s apartment after he’s been gunned down. McNaulty turns to look at the books on a bookshelf. Here is what I saw as I watched the show (screen captured via my iPad):


Take a look at the very first book on the shelf, just above McNaulty’s head. I would recognize that book a mile away. On my iPad, the video quality was HD and when I paused it I could read the title. The screen capture isn’t as clear, but I’ve taken a picture of the book on my shelf so you can see for yourself:


Yes, that’s right. It’s the same book. The first volume of Isaac Asimov’s 2-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov 1920-1954. See for yourself. Look at first picture and then look at the book on my shelf. There’s no mistaking it and if you watch the episode in HD, you can read the title.

Pretty cool, eh?

Lessons in storytelling: advice from Isaac Asimov

I have mentioned countless times how much I admire and look up to Isaac Asimov. And while I know he had his faults (don’t we all) I have to credit him with teaching me some important things about story-telling, despite the fact that I never got to meet him in person. In fact, an element of my most recent story, “Take One For the Road” (Analog, 6/11) owes a debt to the lessons the Good Doctor taught me.

In the first volume of his autobiography, Isaac Asimov discusses one of this most famous stories, “Nightfall”.  During the course of this discussion, he speculates as to why so many people thought it to be one of the best science fiction stories of all time. (He doesn’t agree with this assessment.) One of the thing he points out is that pacing of the story. He points out, quite correctly, that there is a breakneck pace to the story in part because he never allows a scene to come to its natural conclusion. It is always interrupted by some other event which in turn builds upon the tension in the story.

I deliberately tried to do this in “Take One For the Road”. For those who have read the story, the most obvious attempt at this is the scene in which Simon is describing the mission to Mercury, and the scene is interrupted with him becoming violently ill. I was attempting to build up tension by ending a scene before it could come to its natural conclusion, with the hope of pulling the reader along for the ride. I don’t know how successful I was with this, but from the comments I have received from those who have read the story, the most common compliment is in the pacing of the story and that tells me I had some measure of success in my attempt.

The lesson here, I think, is that you can learn from the advice and experience of those who came before you. There are numerous places in Asimov’s autobiographies where he talks about the writing advice he’d been given over the years. In fact, he says that part of the reason he wrote the books was to provide a kind of how-to guide for would-be writers. The pacing in my own story certainly owes a debt to the advice the Good Doctor provides, and which I managed to interpret and internalize and especially on which I was able to execute. But the critical point, I think, was in understanding how pacing in a story matters, and having a good example to follow. “Nightfall” may not be the greatest science fiction story ever told, but it is certainly an exceptional one. And I was able to learn from it.

So what examples have you been able to learn from in your own writing?

Isaac Asimov, The Good Doctor (January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992)

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Just a brief note to remember the fact that it was 19 years ago today that science fiction and the science world lost Isaac Asimov. It’s hard to believe it has been 19 years. Asimov is my favorite all-time science fiction writer, as well as being my favorite science writer.

I’ve written before about how nearly everything I learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. I own the vast majority of the books he wrote (some rare, a few signed) and have read most of them. Every April, in a kind of homage to Asimov’s memory, I re-read his three volume autobiography. I always start with the last retrospective, I. Asimov, and then go back and read In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. I look forward to it every spring, and I never get tired of reading those books. This is the first spring in 16 years that I am just so busy with other tasks that I don’t have time to read these books.

When I decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer, it was Isaac Asimov that I most wanted to be like. Every writer ends up developing a style that is unique to them, but I have tried to model my style as much as possible after Asimov’s. I never got to meet him in person and it is one of the few regrets that I have and why I have made it a point to meet those other science fiction writers who I have admired so much over the years.

My own views of life, science and politics have been heavily influenced by Asimov. He was a rationalist and a clear thinker, and he taught generations of scientists the joys to be found in the mysteries of the universe. And of course, his science fiction entertained millions. Though it is 19 years after his death, I can open any one of his books and hear that Brooklyn-accented voice in my head, as if he were standing next to me, telling me the story or explaining some scientific principle.

And I miss him.