I remember where I first encountered Asimov, but not when. I’m certain I was still in primary school, so i can’t have been older than ten, but that’s about it. As to the where, it was Richard Booth’s Bookshop in Hay-On-Wye, the second-hand book capital of the world. Lost in a cellar filled with thousands of ancient paperbacks, I left the building with two. Pirates of the Asteroids and Foundation. Both by Isaac Asimov.
The former was exactly what the cover and blurb would lead you to believe. A rollicking adventure story of a young man using his wits to overcome a band of pirates dwelling in our solar system’s asteroids. A list of similarly pulp-sounding titles in the series appeared on the inside cover. But what caught my eye was a foreword by the author, in which he apologised for using out of date science in the book, and offered a few updates. Hold on a minute, I thought. The science in this matters? Brilliant! Knowing that the author knew their stuff assured me I was in safe hands.
And then there was Foundation. Here was a book like nothing I had ever read. Or anything I have read since. Every few chapters, the characters would be forgotten and Asimov would skip ahead a few decades. There was no real overarching plot, just a series of episodes like some bizarre TV series. Each would present its own unique problem, then wrap it up before being packaged away and left behind. The scope of the thing was massive. A Galactic Empire sinking into decline, with its only hope a colony of intellectuals banished to a remote world.
It would be years until I read the follow-ups to either book, but the names stuck with me. Salvor Hardin. Terminus. Anacreon. Trantor. Later they would be joined by others. Daneel Olivaw. The Mule. Bel Riose. Every bookshop I visited, I kept an eye out for that exotic name. A name so distinct it often appeared alone. Not Isaac Asimov. Simply: Asimov. Aside from possibly a few Star Wars EU books, I had never read much SF before. But from Foundation onward, I was hooked.
There can be no doubt that Asimov is one of the most important authors of the 20th century. A man who helped popularise an entire genre. These days, it seems like he has fallen out of favour a little, with criticisms applied to his writing, calling it basic, or workmanlike. But that’s missing the point. Asimov’s work may not have elegant sentences or long-running metaphors, but it has something more important: Accessibility. That’s what writing is, after all. A means by which to convey ideas. And Asimov had ideas enough for a dozen authors. The simplicity of his style is its elegance. He had an unrivalled gift for making even the most mundane of things seem amazing.
Something else that separates Asimov from so many others is his love of intellect. His heroes are rarely the type to go charging around the Galaxy with a gun, blasting down hordes of enemies. No, they’re smarter than that. Foundation posits a world where only cleverness can save us. Not just cunning or outwitting our enemies, but the preservation of knowledge itself. This is not just uniquely entertaining. It is inspiring. Even in the face of humanity’s darkest hours, a book can be more powerful than the deadliest weaponry. If that is not the greatest ideal SF can teach, I don’t know what is.
My love of Asimov has come a long way. Over the years, I’ve hunted down all but one of his books (Return of the Black Widowers, if anyone has a spare), and read them again and again, finding fresh delight each time. For my A-Levels, I wrote a short SF piece heavily inspired by Foundation, particularly Bel Riose. Then at University, I wrote my Master’s dissertation on the role of Empires in SF, an idea I had first encountered thanks to Asimov. Here I also discovered the overwhelming negative view of genre literature held by Academia at large. Given Asimov’s love of learning, incorporated into so many of his works, I was enraged, saddened, and amused in equal measure by this resistance. But in the end, i graduated with a first. I could not have done that without Asimov.
Asimov died in 1992, before I was born, but he’s been a part of my life for over a decade and a half now. Today would have been his one hundredth birthday. Probably. Record-keeping was not a strong point of post-Revolutionary Russia. I don’t know how we would have celebrated the day, though i assume he’d have spent it writing. All I know is that I’ll celebrate the genius of Asimov by reading on of his books. And then likely a couple more.