One day when I was 12 I ventured into the adult section of my local public library for the first time. There, I encountered the Science Fiction Shelf. That year I began reading my way along the shelf, starting with the “A’s” and moving along the alphabet. Naturally, one of the first writers I delved into was Isaac Asimov. There was quite a lot to tackle, but as I recall I pretty much made my way through the library’s entire Asimov collection (before moving on to Bradbury, Clarke, Delaney, Ellison, and so on until I got to Zelazny).
Of course, back in those days, there were only about 100 Asimov books in existence. At the time of death in 1992, Asimov had authored or edited more than 500 books, including such sci-fi classics as I, Robot and the Foundation series. Asimov, who was born on January 2, 1920, was also a professor of biochemistry who wrote numerous popular books on science, math, religion and even Shakespeare.
What’s more, he was a character. With his wild shock of professorial hair and his hip ’70s muttonchops, Asimov became the public face of science fiction right when it was starting to creep into the mainstream via Star Trek and Star Wars. I got to hear Asimov speak at many science fiction conventions when I was a teenager, and he was always entertaining and delightful. He was so recognizable I even remember one day spying him sitting in Central Park with a beautiful young lady. Of course, it being New York, I was much too cool to go up and say anything to him. (At least I think I was.) Anyway, I already had his autograph.
It was Asimov’s science fiction that made me a fan and a geek. I’ve heard it said that science fiction is the modern era’s equivalent of philosophy. It is where people go to read and think about the big issues of our day. Asimov’s books certainly provided that experience. And I loved his characters, too. I recall one young girl who appeared in one of his stories who stowed away on a spaceship only to be caught when she needed to use the bathroom. And as a budding teenage illustrator, I spent hours drawing my version of the robopsychologist Susan Calvin, in her lab coat and glasses — my first image at that point of a female scientist.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Asimov!
[Note: A version of this post runs every year on this date.]