Science fiction is one of those literary genres that is both loved and hated in equal measure. For its detractors, it’s all silly silver suits and bug-eyed monsters, for its enthusiasts, it provides a fascinating insight into humanity and a myriad of potential tech fuelled futures. We fall firmly into the second category and one very big reason for that is Isaac Asimov, a man who opened our eyes to the wonders of science and space at a very young age. This is one reason we believe, that despite being up against a legion of fantastic sci-fi writers including the legendary Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Asimov is the greatest ever.
However, even ignoring our emotional attachment to him, there are some other very compelling reasons why he wears the sci-fi crown.
1. He wrote an incredible universe of books
Some authors are renowned for writing very little. Take Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison or Oscar Wilde, who managed just three novels between them. Asimov, in dramatic contrast, was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited an estimated 515 books, not including short stories. He wrote his first novel, The Stars, Like Dust in 1951 and his last was published in 1992, which meant he averaged more than 12 books a year!
2. He wrote more sci-fi series than anyone else
Sci-fi writers have always seemed especially attracted to creating series of novels. Perhaps because once you’ve created a new universe it’s difficult to let go, or perhaps because they love the idea of expanding their creations. Frank Herbert’s Dune went on for six books. Larry Niven’s Ringworld contains an incredible thirteen novels and over thirty short stories. Asimov, on the other hand, didn’t just write one series with lots of novels, he wrote five series with lots of novels. His most famous are Foundation series, Robot series, and Galactic Empire series. He also wrote Lucky Starr series, under the pen name Paul French, and Norby Chronicles with his wife Janet.
3. He wrote the best sci-fi short story of all time
Like literary series, short stories also have a long and illustrious sci-fi history, thanks largely to the plethora of sci-fi magazines, which hit newsstands in the forties and fifties. One of these, Astounding Science Fiction, was the first place to reject Asimov’s first ever literary effort, “Cosmic Corkscrew” which he started in 1937 and finished a year later. Although given the thumbs down by editor John W. Campbell, he encouraged Asimov to keep trying, and Asimov did just that. To date, there’s been an incredible twenty Asimov sci-fi short story collections published, plus six Widower mystery story collections and five other mystery collections. In total, he wrote hundreds of short stories, including the social science fiction “Nightfall”, which in 1964 was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America the best short science fiction story of all time.
4. Prizes, prizes, prizes!
Supporters of the other two contenders for the title of the King of Sci-Fi, Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke (both of whom we love too), might suggest quantity isn’t as important as quality. While it’s often accepted that Asimov’s style is very functional and his stories “play themselves on a relatively bare stage,” the size of his awards cabinet speaks volumes. In his lifetime, he won eighteen awards for his work. These include the Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Gods Themselves and Hugo Award for Best Non-Fiction Book for I. Asimov: A Memoir. What’s more, according to the UNESCO Index Translationum he’s the world’s most translated sci-fi author and the 24th most translated author ever, above such literary giants as Dickens and Hemingway.
5. He wrote amazing science fact too
Considering Asimov´s incredible output, it may come as no surprise to learn that he’s written much more than just sci-fi. In fact, he’s the only sci-fi writer in history to have been published in nine out of ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification, which organizes library materials by discipline or field of study. Some of his other works include The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, Extraterrestrial Civilizations and Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Now that’s what you call a real renaissance man’s workload.
6. His sci-fi words and concepts became reality
Like Arthur C. Clarke’s, there’s no denying Asimov’s immense scientific knowledge. His Ph.D. in BioChemistry from Columbia is all the evidence you need. This background not only enabled him to create convincing hard sci-fi, but also to come up with his famed Three Laws of Robotics and some less well known entirely new words. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary credits his science fiction for introducing the words positronic (an entirely fictional technology), psychohistory (which is also used for a different study on historical motivations) and robotics into the English language.
7. His name lives on amongst the stars
Last but by no means least, he’s the only sci-fi writer ever to be honoured by having a planetary feature, a crater on Mars, and an asteroid named after him. We’re sure he would have approved.
While we’re huge fans all sci-fi, we think these reasons show there can be only one King of the genre. All hail Isaac Asimov!
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Joel Willans is the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter.
Ray Bradbury has both an asteroid (9766 Bradbury) and a planetary feature (the landing site of the Curiosity rover, “Bradbury Landing”) named after him.
However he might have denied being a science fiction writer.
I love Asimov, and this has got to be one of the best lists showing why. Thanks, stumbleupon!
Without a doubt, the greatest of the great. I hit my 30’s determined to read everything he has written, I am now 66 and still plugging along.
Good article and while I’m a bigger fan of Ray Bradbury I can see why Asimov’s definitely a contender for the crown, through his influence and productivity alone.
Even though I find a lot of Asimov’s book a bit dull, I do agree that Nightfall is one of the finest short stories of all time. Any doubters should read to see for themselves.
I love Asimov, but he’s no longer even in my top 4. Heinlein, Wells, Verne, PKD for me. His Foundation Trilogy was what got me into science fiction when I was a kid. Fun article.
I enjoyed a lot of Asimov’s work, but the Opus books made me think he was a bit of a show pony. I’m not that well read, but I’m yet to come across another author that writes books about his other books and how awesome they are. I thought only American TV shows did that.
Aside of Science Fiction he wrote over 100 books about universal history, biology, physics, mathematics. He truly was an amazing mind and an inspiration to us all young writers.
No question that Asimov is one of the great science fiction writers, but the greatest of all time?? The jury is still out on that one. I would, without hesitation, put him in the top 10, but the genre is too diverse and contributions by other authors too many to award any single writer that crown.
For someone who _admitted_ that he didn’t care much about character development or the emotional issues that are important to fiction, Asimov wasn’t a horrible novelist. He had a clear writing style, he had a pleasant authorial voice, he had a strong pro-science attitude.
He was a C+ who wrote a lot. At this point, he isn’t in the top twenty. When his career was at its peak, he had less competition and he wasn’t really part of any big five, let alone big three.
For me, the collections of his science essays from F&SF (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) were the biggest things he did. “Science, Numbers, and I,” “The Stars in Their Courses,” and “The Tragedy of the Moon” come to mind; each contained 17 essays (usually updated or modified slightly for the book edition). From them I first learned about the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction, the right way to sing the chemical name paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde to the tune of The Irish Washerwoman, many more reasons why Immanuel Velikovsky should not have been allowed to publish, and so forth and so on.
No. Just no. As great a writer as he was, he could not write a credible female character to save his life. The short story he wrote to “prove” he could was silly, patronizing, and an embarrassment. He was definitely one of the greats, but the greatest? No.
Loved Asimov at 14. 40 years later I find him mostly unreadable. Could not make it halfway thru Caves of Steel a couple of years ago. Just so badly written. The characterizations of the wife and son are awful. And the dialogue-the son talks like a teenager out of a third rate early 50’s sitcom. All “Gee whiz pop” and” golly gee”.