Optimism from the Ashes: The Galactic Humanism of Isaac Asimov

Dale DeBakcsy

Who will save humanity from comfort?

While we usually think of science fiction as offering insight into how humanity will deal with nuclear conflict or alien invasion, with techno-totalitarianism or robot rebellion, one writer in the 1940s had the foresight to declare that the real enemy to our grandest hopes was something very mundane indeed: the dreaded foe Satisfaction. He trusted that humans had enough collective sense to avoid nuclear self-destruction and that if we ever did design robots of intellectual complexity, we’d also probably develop an ironclad set of principles to keep them from turning on us. He had an impossible, science-leavened optimism that peered out from the destruction of World War II and found the strength to declare that the human project was not yet over.

No, something as small as an atom bomb couldn’t finish off the robust humanity of Isaac Asimov’s (1920–1992) fancy. What might do the job, though, is our increasing ability to seek and achieve a happy medium in all things, to organize society so as to give everybody just enough work to feel meaningful but not so much as to feel oppressed, to orchestrate the professions to provide lifetimes of small-scale satisfactions without the risk of large-scale failure. We will through our ingenuity create a paradise on Earth, Asimov hypothesized, overpopulated but under-threatened, making of humanity a race with its feet firmly on the ground and satisfied to stay that way until galactic events choose to wipe us out.

While other authors made us fear the arrival of a new century, it was Asimov’s genius to make us tremble over man’s place a thousand generations hence, to feel eventual civilization-wide inertia as a present danger to be addressed and fought against with every bit of our cunning and bravery. He gave us the scientific minutiae we crave of the genre, couched in an irresistible psychology of history that drew on his knowledge of the Roman Empire, the implications of biochemistry for human behavior, and the raw power of statistics to conclusively sum our individual differences.

For nerds of a certain age, Asimov was our one-stop shop to ponder the big question of Whither Humanity. Bradbury might have had more natural poetry, Verne more diligent scientific density on the page, and Zamyatin more insight into the brute grind of man against his technology, but Asimov combined historian, scientist, psychologist, and raconteur into one delightful character whose love of the word was so complete that he surrendered the overwhelming fullness of his time to its service. In a half century of authorship, he produced over 450 books (well over, if you count anthologies and collaborations) on every conceivable topic, from Shakespeare to the ozone layer, from the Bible to the art of the murder mystery.

Twelve hours a day at the typewriter, day in and day out, producing at his peak pace over a book each month, Asimov disdained taking holidays, travelling to exotic lands, getting raucously drunk, or enjoying the fruits of the cocktail party scene, all for the simple reason that they took time from his favorite thing in the world: putting words to page. True, by most reckonings, he was too susceptible to flattery and thus willing to say “yes” to projects that beefed up his title count without adding measurably to his immortality. In his memoirs, he states quite frankly that, feeling himself to be underwhelming as a stylist, he tied his fame to his prolificity and drove himself relentlessly, writing against time to pile up a stack of work that no single human would ever be able to match. His volume would be his ticket to eternity.

To every kid told by her or his parents, “Get your nose out of the books and go outside and play” or by society, “The only way to reallylive is to travel the world and see its wonders,” Asimov was the great reassuring counterexample, the man who remained right where he was, reading everything and reporting his findings to all of us with delicious abandon. His conspicuous happiness justified our bookish predilections, giving us the backbone to stay put and read just one more page and then another, damn the common wisdom.

To do Asimov full justice, then, would require a survey of all his works, the five books of limericks, the quiz book he slapped his name on, the various reshufflings of his scientific articles, and the volumes upon volumes devoted to explaining scientific concepts to a young adult audience. The example they collectively give of what can be accomplished by a human unfettered by superstition and gifted with supreme curiosity is humbling and inspiring.

Yes, the nonfiction writings should get their due, and his popular scientific writings especially as the glue between Somerville and Clarke on one hand, and Sagan and Tyson on the other. But I’m not gonna. A person walking into a used book store a hundred years from now (if such things still exist) will find none of those writings. She will, however, find there the Foundation trilogy. She will find I, Robot and Caves of Steel. And if she cracks them open what she will find are worlds just as compelling and thought-provoking as when they were first dreamt up in the long-ago 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps more so.

Asimov’s overarching quetion—“How are we to survive our success?”—is one I don’t see growing stale any time soon, and his answers only grew in satisfying complexity as the years wore on. In the Foundation trilogy (1951–1953), the bloated collapse of the galactic Empire is eased through the precise calculations of psychohistory as wielded by two small cohorts of scientific preservationists. In I, Robot (1950), the sum total of mankind’s production and labor is minutely controlled by robotic master machines that, in shaving off the sickening depths of worldwide economic downturns, also remove the dizzying highs, relieving suffering at the cost of mass societal enervation. The End of Eternity (1955) employs a massive bureau of time travel to calculate and adjust the trajectory of humanity to prune away the development of space flight in order to maintain the genial midground of terrestrial existence. Meanwhile, Caves of Steel (1953), the young adult Lucky Starr series (1952–1958), and The Gods Themselves (1972) all place faith in the pioneering spirit of lunar and exoplanetary colonists to revivify an Earth grown sated on the convenience of its ultra-scale urbanization.

If the stories themselves are widely different, the message is the same: somebody must see the long story of mankind, accept where it will likely go, and do something to push it back into its former glories in spite of itself. And in those moments when Asimov’s simple urgency has its hooks deep in you, there is no resisting the urge to think that, just maybe, that person could be you.

Of course, it isn’t. There are far too many science fiction novels to read to get up and spend time fending off galactic inertia. But for that fiery moment, it could be you, and who is to say how many astronauts and engineers, how many science popularizers and space policy formulators, had their foundational moment within the confines of that could? Pushed by Asimov’s vision into doing something about it all, perhaps their efforts will drag us along with them to the next big thing humankind has in store for itself.

Asimov was by no means the summit of humanity. He was vain (though in that entirely adorable way only rivaled by Stan Lee) and, as noted, entirely too susceptible to flattery. As a parent, he was distant, too wrapped up in expanding his list of books to spare time for the children he didn’t understand. He inserted awkward sexual innuendo into his conversations with just about ever
y woman he ever met and was quite proud of what he thought as his gift for flirtation. Perhaps consequently, his women characters are overwhelmingly disappointing—shrewish or materialistic or completely devoid of even those dubious personality marks. The best of them is Susan Calvin, and even her most memorable moment involves murdering a robot in a fit of disappointment over lost love.

But he was generous and throve on simplicity in the way one would expect of a boy who grew up as a candy store clerk during the Great Depression. He was a matter-of-fact atheist who engagingly explained religions as historico-psychological phenomena. He loved writing to its core, and his titanic efforts ensured that the works of the great Golden Age science fiction writers would not descend into obscurity (and if those efforts also promoted his own brand, well, what harm in that?). Most importantly, he gave us a vision of ourselves not scarred by the craters of atomic war or filled with the groans of agony as our robot overlords apply the lash one more cruel time, but rather decorated with the intense discussions of physicists and psychohistorians, conscientious robot politicians and daring space rangers, as they all try to puzzle out what precisely it is that we humans are to do with ourselves next.

It is a future to look forward to, to wish one’s progeny launched safely upon, and to work toward with every bit of intelligence rattling around our brains. Asimov gifted us a posterity to work toward rather than an apocalypse to dread. He put us to work, because he knew that work—hard work toward a distant end—is the true delight of mankind and will always be.


Further Reading

I mean, it’s Isaac Asimov. There’s not a shortage of things to read. Foundation, of course. Caves of Steel and I, Robot, absolutely. The short stories “Nightfall” and “Lastborn”—oh so yes. But the top for me is The Gods Themselves, because it is precisely my favorite kind of book—a book with no discernible action focused on a dimensional-sized scientific problem featuring many scenes of Scientists Talking. Its scope is huge, its action minuscule, and I love just precisely that.

Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the author of The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One (The Humanist Press, 2016). He is a frequent contributor to FI’s Great Minds column and also writes the weekly Women in Science series at WomenYouShouldKnow.net.

Asimov dared to ask how humanity would be saved from enervation brought on by its own success.

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