National Science Fiction Day is unofficially celebrated by many science fiction fans in the United States each year on January 2, which corresponds with the official birthdate of famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. I grew up on science fiction — both novels and classic movies — and my favorite author in the genre remains Asimov. In fact, when I was in my teens I attempted to track down and read everything he’d written; I didn’t realize at the time that he’d written or edited more than 500 books. While I love his early pulp stories more than anything else and have completed many of his long-running science fiction series, I am also a big fan of his mysteries and books on history. I’ve also read quite a few of his autobiographical works.
Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Smolensk Oblast, Russia on an unknown date between October 4, 1919 and January 2, 1920, inclusive. Asimov celebrated his birthday on January 2. In 1921, Asimov and 16 other children in Petrovichi developed double pneumonia. Only Asimov survived. He later had two younger siblings: a sister, Marcia and a brother, Stanley. Asimov’s family traveled to the United States via Liverpool on the SS Baltic, arriving on February 13, 1923, when he was three years old. Since his parents always spoke Yiddish and English with him, he never learned Russian, but he remained fluent in Yiddish as well as English. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Asimov taught himself to read at the age of five, and his mother got him into first grade a year early by claiming he was born on September 7, 1919. In third grade he learned about the “error” and insisted on an official correction of the date to January 2.
After becoming established in the U.S., his parents owned a succession of candy stores in which everyone in the family was expected to work. The candy stores sold newspapers and magazines, a fact that Asimov credited as a major influence in his lifelong love of the written word, as it presented him with an unending supply of new reading material as a child that he could not have otherwise afforded. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1928 at the age of eight.
Asimov became a science fiction fan in 1929, when he began reading the pulp magazines sold in his family’s candy store. His father forbade reading pulps as he considered them to be trash, until Asimov persuaded him that because the science fiction magazines had “Science” in the title, they must be educational. At age 18 he joined the Futurians science fiction fan club, where he made friends who went on to become science fiction writers or editors. Asimov began writing at the age of 11. His first published work was a humorous item on the birth of his brother for Boys High School’s literary journal in 1934.
In May 1937, he first thought of writing professionally, and began writing his first science fiction story, “Cosmic Corkscrew” (now lost), that year. On May 17, 1938, puzzled by a change in the schedule of Astounding Science Fiction, Asimov visited its publisher Street & Smith Publications. Inspired by the visit, he finished the story on June 19 and personally submitted it to Astounding editor John W. Campbell two days later. Campbell met with Asimov for more than an hour and promised to read the story himself. Two days later, he received a rejection letter explaining why in detail. This was the first of what became almost weekly meetings with the editor while Asimov lived in New York, until moving to Boston in 1949; Campbell had a strong formative influence on Asimov and became a personal friend.
By the end of the month Asimov completed a second story, “Stowaway”. Campbell rejected it on July 22 but — in “the nicest possible letter you could imagine” — encouraged him to continue writing, promising that Asimov might sell his work after another year and a dozen stories of practice. In October 1938, he sold the third story he finished, “Marooned Off Vesta”, to Amazing Stories, edited by Raymond A. Palmer, and it appeared in the March 1939 issue. Asimov was paid $64 (equivalent to $1,114 in 2017), or one cent a word. Two more stories appeared that year, “The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use” in the May Amazing and “Trends” in the July Astounding, the issue fans later selected as the start of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. For 1940, ISFDB catalogs seven stories in four different pulp magazines, including one in Astounding. His earnings became enough to pay for his education, but not yet enough for him to become a full-time writer.
Asimov’s career can be divided into several periods. His early career, dominated by science fiction, began with short stories in 1939 and novels in 1950. This lasted until about 1958, all but ending after publication of The Naked Sun (1957). He began publishing nonfiction in 1952, co-authoring a college-level textbook called Biochemistry and Human Metabolism. Following the brief orbit of the first man-made satellite Sputnik I by the USSR in 1957, his production of nonfiction, particularly popular science books, greatly increased, with a consequent drop in his science fiction output. Over the next quarter century, he wrote only four science fiction novels. Starting in 1982, the second half of his science fiction career began with the publication of Foundation’s Edge. From then until his death, Asimov published several more sequels and prequels to his existing novels, tying them together in a way he had not originally anticipated, making a unified series. There are, however, many inconsistencies in this unification, especially in his earlier stories.
Asimov believed his most enduring contributions would be his “Three Laws of Robotics” and the Foundation series. Furthermore, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction for introducing into the English language the words “robotics”, “positronic” (an entirely fictional technology), and “psychohistory” (which is also used for a different study on historical motivations). Asimov coined the term “robotics” without suspecting that it might be an original word; at the time, he believed it was simply the natural analogue of words such as mechanics and hydraulics, but for robots. Unlike his word “psychohistory”, the word “robotics” continues in mainstream technical use with Asimov’s original definition. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured androids with “positronic brains” and the first-season episode “Datalore” called the positronic brain “Asimov’s dream”.
Asimov wrote hard science fiction. Along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, Asimov was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov’s most famous work is the Foundation series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series. The Galactic Empire novels are set in earlier history of the same fictional universe as the Foundation series. Later, with Foundation and Earth (1986), he linked this distant future to the Robot stories, creating a unified “future history” for his stories much like those pioneered by Robert A. Heinlein and previously produced by Cordwainer Smith and Poul Anderson. He wrote hundreds of short stories, including the social science fiction novelette “Nightfall”; in 1964, it was voted the best short science fiction story of all time by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French.
Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as much nonfiction. Most of his popular science books explain concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. Examples include Guide to Science, the three-volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, as well as works on chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, history, and William Shakespeare’s writings.
In 1977, Isaac Asimov suffered a heart attack. In December 1983, he had triple bypass surgery, during which he contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. When his HIV status was understood, his physicians warned that if he publicized it, the anti-AIDS prejudice would likely extend to his family members. He died in New York City on April 6, 1992 and was cremated.
He was survived by his siblings, his second wife Janet Asimov, and his children from his first marriage. His brother Stanley reported the cause of death as heart and kidney failure. The family chose not to disclose that these were complications of AIDS, because within two days, on April 8, Arthur Ashe announced his own HIV infection (also contracted in 1983 from a blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery), which resulted in much public controversy; also doctors continued to insist on secrecy. Ten years later, after most of Asimov’s physicians had died, Janet and Robyn Asimov agreed that the HIV story should be made public; Janet revealed it in her edition of his autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life.
One of the first non-Asimov science fiction works I remember reading (indeed, it may even predate my first Asimov story) was The First Men in the Moon. This is a scientific romance by the English author H. G. Wells, originally serialized in The Strand Magazine from December 1900 to August 1901 and published in hardcover in 1901, who called it one of his “fantastic stories”. The novel tells the story of a journey to the moon undertaken by the two protagonists, a businessman narrator, Mr. Bedford, and an eccentric scientist, Mr. Cavor. Bedford and Cavor discover that the moon is inhabited by a sophisticated extraterrestrial civilization of insect-like creatures they call Selenites.
On June 6, 1995, Great Britain’s Royal Mail released a set of four stamps commemorating the science fiction novels of H.G. Wells (Scott #1616-1619). The First Men in the Moon was featured on the 30-pence stamp (Scott #1617). The stamps were designed by Siobhan Keaney and printed by The House of Questa Ltd. using offset lithography, perforated 14 x 14½ in sheets of 100. The other books included in the set are The Time Machine on the 25-pence value (Scott #1616), The War of the Worlds on a 35-pence stamp (Scott #1618), and The Shape of Things to Come on the 41-pence denomination (Scott #1619). I chose the First Men in the Moon stamp to feature today due to it being one of the first (if not the first) science fiction works I ever read; the 1953 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds was the first science fiction film I ever saw while the first Star Wars movie was the second. Also, The First Men in the Moon seems quite an appropriate stamp given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969.
Brian Stableford argues that H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon is the first alien dystopia. The book could also be considered to have launched the science fiction subgenre depicting intelligent social insects, in some cases a non-human species such as the space-traveling Shaara “bees” in the future universe of A. Bertram Chandler, in others (such as Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive) humans who evolved or consciously engineered their society in this direction. Nigel Kneale co-adapted the screenplay (with Jan Read) for the 1964 film version; it is reasonable to assume that Kneale’s familiarity with the work may have inspired the idea of the Martian hives which feature so significantly in Quatermass and the Pit, one of Kneale’s most-admired creations.
The First Men in the Moon has been adapted to film four times, and once prior to that as a mash-up Verne-Wells film:
- Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) was a French adventure film directed by Georges Méliès released one year after the publication of Wells’s source material. It incorporated two of Jules Verne’s novels (From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon) while the adventures on the Moon were taken from Wells’s book. The film follows a group of astronomers who travel to the Moon in a cannon-propelled capsule, explore the Moon’s surface, escape from an underground group of Selenites (lunar inhabitants), and return to Earth with a captive Selenite. It features the iconic image of the Man in the Moon with a rocket capsule in his eye.
- The first adaptation of The First Men in the Moon was made in 1919. This was the first film made from a science fiction novel.
- The second adaptation was made in 1964. In this version, the men wear diving suits as spacesuits, which they did not in the original novel.
- The third adaptation was made for TV in 2010; this is the version most faithful to the novel.
- The fourth adaptation, in 3D, by David Rosler, was in production from 2009 to 2010.
Soon after the publication of The First Men in the Moon, Wells was accused by the Irish writer Robert Cromie of having stolen from his novel A Plunge into Space (1890), which used an antigravity device similar to that in Chrysostom Trueman’s The History of a Voyage to the Moon (1864). Both novels had certain elements in common, such as a globular spaceship built in secret after inventing a way to overcome Earth’s gravity. Wells simply replied: “I have never heard of Mr. Cromie nor of the book he attempts to advertise by insinuations of plagiarism on my part.”
Jules Verne was publicly hostile to Wells’s novel mainly due to Wells having his characters go to the moon via a totally fictional creation of an anti-gravitational material rather than the actual use of technology.
There are several additional anniversaries of events that occurred on January 2 that have been marked philatelically: