Isaac Asimov and the Canon of American Literature

The Titan of Science Fiction

     Isaac Asimov is famous for his contributions to science and the field of literature, specifically to the genre of science fiction. It can be said that his contribution to the genre helped to legitimize and popularize science fiction. If one examines Asimov’s life’s work and his extreme devotion to the genre, it is clear that if any author should be chosen to represent Science Fiction in the Canon of American literature, it is Asimov. Asimov has written hundreds of novels, short stories, and poems relating to science fiction. His short stories and novels are easily accessible, as they require little to no reader knowledge base. Asimov can be seen as a visionary, for many of the themes and questions behind his works are issues that we as a people still wrestle with. Asimov’s works have influenced many to write in his style, and some of his works have been adapted into movies. I, Robot, for example, is based on the novel of the same name. Asimov can be considered the grandfather of science fiction. Though his science fiction works identify with humanity as a whole, rather than a specific country, it is because of his and others’ validation of the genre that Asimov should be considered a “great” American author. His works should be added to the literary canon, and his works should be anthologized and studied. It has been said that Asimov has written a book in every major category of the Dewey decimal system, but this is false; Asimov did not have a book in the 100s category, according to asimovonline.com, the “official” website for Isaac Asimov, “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 classification” (asimovonline.com). His most significant literary contribution is to the field of science fiction.

     Science fiction can be used as a vehicle for using imagery not readily available to other genres of fiction. In his article “Robots and the Sacred in Science and Science Fiction: Theological Implications of Artificial Intelligence”, Robert Geraci states that Asimov used robots to explore philosophical ideals. “In Asimov’s stories, human beings waver between accepting and rejecting the robots in their midst. We may crave the safety and security offered by robots, but we fear them as well. This theme runs throughout I, Robot” (Geraci, 970). In I, Robot, the theme of robots being perfect beings created by imperfect beings is evident. In his article “The Riddle of the Robots”, Jon Bing notes the underlying paradox. “In our context, it may be important to emphasise [sic!] that Asimov in the story, still revolves around the Frankenstein motif, the relation between the creator and the product of the creative process. The robot and its two constructors are in an artificial satellite orbiting the Earth, there being no direct evidence of the human society producing the autonomous robot, which is brought to consciousness for the first time aboard the satellite. It argues with considerable force that the two men cannot have created it” (Bing, 204).

     On the issue of national attribution, Asimov was born in Russia, but he should be considered one of the great American writers. Ayn Rand, also born in Russia, is considered one of America’s great objectivist writers. The issue of national identity is complex. Though Russia could lay claim to Asimov, he never defected or returned to Russia to live there. He considered himself American, as well as a citizen of the earth. In his writing, his characters are never identified as belonging to any country, but are strictly identified by their planet. This kind of global unity is clearly what Asimov idealized and is what he wished as an end result of human nature.

     Science Fiction is enjoying a surge in cultural popularity as of late. Series such as Star Wars and Star Trek are enjoying not only successful movie releases, but television series accompaniment. Just a few titles of Science Fiction works that have done well in the past few years are Avatar, The Minority Report, The Matrix, and I, Robot which is based on the Isaac Asimov novel of the same name. However, though the genre science fiction is popular in the culture, it is not well-regarded or well-represented in the American Canon of literature. This is a shame; science fiction is truly a great and valid form of literature for many reasons. Science fiction can be used to ask questions that traditional forms of literature cannot. Science Fiction is a genre of fiction, which is the parent of many sub-genres such as Fanta-Sci, which is the blending of the genres Fantasy and Sci-Fi, and Epic Sci-Fi, which is Sci-Fi which is defined as “epic”, with multiple plots, characters, and usually many novels in a series. Sci-Fi is spread across a number of mediums, including literature, music, movies, and art. Science fiction is often more accessible than fantasy, which it is often grouped with, as it does not require very much in the way of world-building or reader establishment. Science fiction, for the most part, is not exclusive to those who seek doctorates in the sciences, but is designed to be easily read and has identifiable characters, concepts, and plots.

     Asimov will be remembered for his novels, his short stories, and a concept he calls “The Three Laws of Robotics.” They are as follows:

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 when 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 First or Second Laws.


     Perhaps his most significant work that people will point to is his Foundation series, comprised of seven novels. The Foundation series concerns itself with the creation of the “foundation”, an organization that gathers all the knowledge of the galaxy, and how the peoples of the galaxy react to all the information and knowledge being aggregated. Primarily, the reaction is negative. The Foundation series spans seven books, and is heralded as his most significant work. Science fiction authors are often attributed to being those who can see into the future, as being visionary. Asimov can be seen as a visionary, because the Foundation series can be seen as a parallel to a the internet that we have now. Were Asimov alive today and able to see the internet as it is now, he would likely see the internet itself is a sort of “foundation.” Only, instead of a single planet of people storing and controlling all of the known existing information, the active users of the internet are its guardians and caretakers.

     “The Last Question” is his most famous short story, and is his personal favorite. “The Last Question” is a short story that is concerned with the robots called Multivacs, and the destruction of the universe. Multivacs are computers designed to answer any question it is asked. In “The Last Question”, a Multivac is the question “How can the net amount of entropy be massively decreased” (Asimov, 292). To which Multivac answers “INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER” (Asimov, 293). The heat death of the universe is a theory about one possible end to the universe. Heat death incorporates the first two of the three laws of thermodynamics;

1. Energy cannot be created or destroyed.

2. No transaction of energy is 100% efficient.

     This theory states that eventually, with enough time having passed and enough transactions having taken place, no more free energy will exist and the universe cannot maintain motion, thus no life can be sustained. At the end of “The Last Question”, the final technological descendent of Multivac, AC, is asked the question by the last of the humans as the stars in the universe begin to go out. The last star goes out, and AC is left in the darkness. Asimov then delivers his these now-famous lines “And AC said, ‘LET THERE BE LIGHT!’ And there was light-“(Asimov, 300). It is remarkable that Asimov chose to use this story as an allegory to the creation of the Universe in the account of Genesis in the Torah, despite proclaiming to being non-religious. This story is also similar to the concepts of Hindu concept of reincarnation, only on a universal scale instead of a more localized scale.

     In conclusion, science fiction is hailed as a field of literature for those we label as “visionaries”, but we fail to honor them with canonization or scholarly study. Science fiction remains and will remain relevant to literature and the culture, because the future is never truly reached, only chased and dreamt of. Isaac Asimov, the true titan of the field of science fiction, deserves to be more widely recognized by scholars, and not discovered simply by word-of-mouth or stumbling across one of his books on the shelf of a bookstore.

3 thoughts on “Isaac Asimov and the Canon of American Literature

  1. The question of including science fiction in the American Canon provides an interesting discussion. Science fiction is a genre that has tremendous value to society. As Connor says “Science fiction can be used to ask questions that traditional forms of literature cannot” (Connor). Some issues, especially those surrounding the interplay between technologic expansion and humanity, are not addressed in sufficient depth in any other genre of literature. Science fiction however, is a genre that has not been viewed as tremendously reputable. In my experience I often see complex themes introduced in works of science fiction dismissed, and the genre mislabeled as popular fiction. This is the largest barrier I see to the genre earning a thriving place in the canon. When science fiction is at last able to hold a reputable place in that canon I feel its contribution could be significant.

    -Stephen Huschka

  2. Like Stephen commented earlier, I believe that the Science-Fiction canon has a lot to offer, but has a variety of barriers to overcome before it can be recognized and studied in a Scholarly manner. I think as well, that this is the most interesting Canon because unlike other canons, there is a huge cultural reception for it. More importantly, the lack of scholarly analysis is astounding because this canon is so integrated in to American Society. In fact, I think this is one of the few literary canons that has produced the most film adaptations and the genre alone has created unique stories. However, a barrier I can see becoming problematic is how does Science-Fiction get defined? I think this question is very important because Michael’s presentation of the intersection of Science and literature brought up a few issues that could hinder the pace in which Sci-Fi becomes a more reputable canon to scholars. For instance, Michael said that although it isn’t necessary to have a scientific background to discuss science issues, there should be some self-education. Raising the question, Isaac Asimov actually had degrees in science related fields, did that assist his canonization? If so, what does this mean for other Science Fiction writers? More importantly, would the rise of figures like Isaac Asimov encourage a more scholarly audience? Furthermore, should the idea of science be grounded in our science? I think in this case, if there are clear boundaries of what Science Fiction is since it is such an overlapping literary genre, and hopefully this would encourage a rise of Science Fiction scholars to promote this literary canon.

  3. Considering the idea of “Canon” as the entire collection of works pertaining to a certain subheading (in this case, American), Asimov would have less of a claim than if we consider his work purely for it’s merit as literature. In terms of his nationality, I don’t know that he would pass a USDA check for 100% American meat, but the themes and questions he raises in his literature are above the standard that his contemporaries chose to write about.
    Science fiction, as a whole, seems more prepared to talk about larger themes than other types of fiction. For example, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein deals with dozens of challenging questions on a variety of thought provoking topics from the way humans organize societies to questions surrounding the morality of a motherless birth. Considering the way in which science fiction authors push limits and ask questions, I believe science fiction as a whole should hold a much higher rank in the American literary canon.

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