The works of some writers are like mirrors to the world.
Other writers provide windows.
Isaac Asimov, who died yesterday of heart and kidney failure at age 72, invited us to see the world through a prism: multi-faceted, complex, inter-related in a thousand different ways, big and small.
Born in Petrovichi, in the young Soviet Union, raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., from the age of 9, and trained as a biochemist, Asimov was as prolific as Shakespeare but several times more thought-provoking.
His stories explored man's relationship with other men and the institutions created by men. He explored the interrelationship between man and his technology. And he explored man's relationship with the natural and physical worlds.
Then he mixed each of these relationships together in different combinations, looked at them from different perspectives. Then he turned those perspectives on end, as well.
He was a science fiction writer. Science fiction writers do that.
Asimov once wrote a short story titled "Strikebreaker."
It was about a diplomat from Earth who travels to an inhabited planetoid only to find the society there gripped in a do-or-die class struggle.
The sanitation workers had gone on strike and the rest of the world would rather die than give in to people they saw as beneath them. Nor would they sully their hands by touching the sanitation equipment and saving themselves.
It was a fierce, uncompromising look at prejudice, written in the 1950s when fierce uncompromising looks at prejudice were the exceptions rather than the rule.
Asimov wrote another short story, "Nightfall," voted the best short story ever written by the Science Fiction Writers of America.
In "Nightfall" Asimov imagined a planet with six suns -- a planet in which true darkness occurs only once every 2,049 years.
What would happen, he imagined, to society when that night fell?
It was an engaging idea but, typically, Asimov took it one step further. In "Nightfall," he looked at the interrelationship between science and mythology, the interplay between those who search for truth and those who cling to ignorance.
Asimov wrote nearly 500 novels in all, and hundreds of additional short stories and essays. He has been an editor and, until recently, a columnist for Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine.
He might be best known for his "Foundation" and "Robots" series -- classic story lines which he later combined into one unified story with his 1986 novel, "Foundation and Earth."
In the "Foundation" stories, he imagined a future in which the social sciences have been developed to the mathematical precision of the physical sciences.
In novels such as "Caves of Steel" and short story collections like "I, Robot" and "The Rest of the Robots," Asimov explored in fascinating detail the way technology alters society, often with such subtlety that people do not even know it.
He imagined that robots would be programmed with three, supposedly immutable, laws: Robots may not injure a human, or by inaction allow a human to be injured; robots must obey human commands except when that command conflicts with the first law; robots must protect their own existence, except when that conflicts with the first two laws.
Having established these laws, Asimov then showed how they could be circumvented or neutralized.
This was the way Asimov attacked his art. It was thought-provoking and fun. Food for the head.
He began writing short science fiction stories as a teen-ager and, after 12 rejections, made his first sale, "Marooned Off Vesta," to Amazing Stories in 1938.
His first book of science fiction, published by Doubleday in 1950, was "Pebble in the Sky," about a man transported by a nuclear accident from the 20th century to the Galactic Era 827.
His final novel, "Forward the Foundation," is scheduled for publication by Bantam later this year.