Isaac Asimov's splendid gift

April 08, 1992

Curious indeed is the fact that a man who could imagine whole empires in space and travel between the stars and colonies in far-flung corners of the universe hated to go 400 miles away from his New York home. Isaac Asimov, one of history's most prolific writers of works in which technology put mankind into situations new and stunningly unusual, was afraid of flying.

Dr. Asimov, who died Monday at 72, was a chemist who took advanced degrees at Columbia. He was one of the Big Three of science-fiction writing. Another of them, Robert Heinlein, died several years ago. Like the last survivor, Arthur C. Clarke, Dr. Asimov could see things in the future that few others could discern. He predicted assembly-line robotics in 1939, when the world was still trying to figure out what to do with television. In 1950, he saw the computer revolution coming. For others, ENIAC I was still a novelty. In 1941, Dr. Asimov, an admirer of historians who thought their analysis of past events gave them a leg up on what comes next, coined the term "psycho-history" for a new technique of predicting future trends through mathematical analysis.

His "Foundation" series, published in magazine form, then by a small book publisher in 1951 and turned into a big hit during the 1960s by Doubleday, showed how a practitioner of this new technique could even prepare for the downfall of a civilization. Predicters of less drastic futures might see some of Dr. Asimov's concepts at work in, say, econometric forecasting.

Above all, Dr. Asimov's prodigious work -- 467 books, plus two monthly magazine columns and a barrage of other printed articles -- has come to be recognized as classic literature for this genre. His fictional presentations were driven by the same impetus as his non-fiction work -- to explain something complicated in clear, understandable terms. Like the others of the Big Three writing group, he helped legitimize a writing niche not expected to produce great works. But his non-fiction works made science comprehensible to many non-scientists, too, in volumes that continue to sell.

At bottom, the life of an Isaac Asimov exemplifies the principle that imagination has no real limits at all. That a man so sharply restricted by an emotional dysfunction could imagine so much, dream such great dreams and transport so many millions beyond the limits of a world they thought they knew is at once remarkable and to be expected. Dr. Asimov, who believed mightily in the triumph of desire over obstacles and of reason over irrationality, would have expected nothing less from any other writer with gifts as great as his own. His passing must sadden many, but his works live on to gladden the hearts of many more children of the universe he painted so vividly.

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