Isaac Asimov | writing style

Writing style

If I had the critic's mentality (which I emphatically don't) I would sit down and try to analyze my stories, work out the factors that make some more successful than others, cultivate those factors, and simply explode with excellence. But the devil with that. I won't buy success at the price of self-consciousness. I don't have the temperament for it. I'll write as I please and let the critics do the analyzing.

— Asimov, 1973[109]


Asimov wrote a typed first draft composed at the keyboard. He imagined an ending first, then a beginning, then "let everything in-between work itself out as I come to it". (Asimov only used an outline once, later describing it as "like trying to play the piano from inside a straitjacket".) After correcting the draft by hand, he retyped the document as the final copy and only made one revision with minor editor-requested changes. After disliking making multiple revisions of "Black Friar of the Flame", Asimov refused to make major, second, or non-editorial revisions ("like chewing used gum"), stating that "too large a revision, or too many revisions, indicate that the piece of writing is a failure. In the time it would take to salvage such a failure, I could write a new piece altogether and have infinitely more fun in the process". He submitted "failures" to another editor.[109][186]

One of the most common impressions of Asimov's fiction work is that his writing style is extremely unornamented. In 1980, science fiction scholar James Gunn, professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas wrote of I, Robot:

Except for two stories—"Liar!" and "Evidence"—they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent. ... . The robot stories and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.[187]

Asimov addressed such criticism at the beginning of Nemesis:

I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be 'clear'. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.[188]

Gunn cited examples of a more complex style, such as the climax of "Liar!". Sharply drawn characters occur at key junctures of his storylines: Susan Calvin in "Liar!" and "Evidence", Arkady Darell in Second Foundation, Elijah Baley in The Caves of Steel, and Hari Seldon in the Foundation prequels.

Other than books by Gunn and Patrouch, a relative dearth of "literary" criticism exists on Asimov (particularly when compared to the sheer volume of his output). Cowart and Wymer's Dictionary of Literary Biography (1981) gives a possible reason:

His words do not easily lend themselves to traditional literary criticism because he has the habit of centering his fiction on plot and clearly stating to his reader, in rather direct terms, what is happening in his stories and why it is happening. In fact, most of the dialogue in an Asimov story, and particularly in the Foundation trilogy, is devoted to such exposition. Stories that clearly state what they mean in unambiguous language are the most difficult for a scholar to deal with because there is little to be interpreted.[189]

Gunn's and Patrouch's respective studies of Asimov both state that a clear, direct prose style is still a style. Gunn's 1982 book comments in detail on each of Asimov's novels. He does not praise all of Asimov's fiction (nor does Patrouch), but calls some passages in The Caves of Steel "reminiscent of Proust". When discussing how that novel depicts night falling over futuristic New York City, Gunn says that Asimov's prose "need not be ashamed anywhere in literary society".[190]

Although he prided himself on his unornamented prose style (for which he credited Clifford D. Simak as an early influence[13][191]), and said in 1973 that his style had not changed,[109] Asimov also enjoyed giving his longer stories complicated narrative structures, often by arranging chapters in nonchronological ways. Some readers have been put off by this, complaining that the nonlinearity is not worth the trouble and adversely affects the clarity of the story. For example, the first third of The Gods Themselves begins with Chapter 6, then backtracks to fill in earlier material.[192] (John Campbell advised Asimov to begin his stories as late in the plot as possible. This advice helped Asimov create "Reason", one of the early Robot stories. See In Memory Yet Green for details of that time period.) Patrouch found that the interwoven and nested flashbacks of The Currents of Space did serious harm to that novel, to such an extent that only a "dyed-in-the- kyrt[193] Asimov fan" could enjoy it. Asimov's tendency to contort his timelines is perhaps most apparent in his later novel Nemesis, in which one group of characters lives in the "present" and another group starts in the "past", beginning 15 years earlier and gradually moving toward the time period of the first group.[citation needed]



Asimov attributed the lack of romance and sex in his fiction to the "early imprinting" from starting his writing career when he had never been on a date and "didn't know anything about girls".[89] He was sometimes criticized for the general absence of sex (and of extraterrestrial life) in his science fiction. He claimed he wrote The Gods Themselves to respond to these criticisms,[194] which often came from New Wave science fiction (and often British) writers. The second part (of three) of the novel is set on an alien world with three sexes, and the sexual behavior of these creatures is extensively depicted.

Alien life

Asimov once explained that his reluctance to write about aliens came from an incident early in his career when Astounding's editor John Campbell rejected one of his science fiction stories because the alien characters were portrayed as superior to the humans. The nature of the rejection led him to believe that Campbell may have based his bias towards humans in stories on a real-world racial bias. Unwilling to write only weak alien races, and concerned that a confrontation would jeopardize his and Campbell's friendship, he decided he would not write about aliens at all.[28] Nevertheless, in response to these criticisms, he wrote The Gods Themselves, which contains aliens and alien sex. The book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972,[167] and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1973.[167] Asimov said that of all his writings, he was most proud of the middle section of The Gods Themselves, the part that deals with those themes.[195]

In the Hugo Award-winning novella "Gold", Asimov describes an author, clearly based on himself, who has one of his books (The Gods Themselves) adapted into a "compu-drama", essentially photo-realistic computer animation. The director criticizes the fictionalized Asimov ("Gregory Laborian") for having an extremely nonvisual style, making it difficult to adapt his work, and the author explains that he relies on ideas and dialogue rather than description to get his points across.[196]

Portrayal of women

Asimov was criticized for a lack of strong female characters in his early work. In his autobiographical writings, such as Gold ("Women and Science Fiction"), he acknowledges this and responds by pointing to inexperience. His later novels, written with more female characters but in essentially the same prose style as his early science-fiction stories, brought this matter to a wider audience. For example, the August 25, 1985 Washington Post's "Book World" section reports of Robots and Empire as follows:

In 1940, Asimov's humans were stripped-down masculine portraits of Americans from 1940, and they still are. His robots were tin cans with speedlines like an old Studebaker, and still are; the Robot tales depended on an increasingly unworkable distinction between movable and unmovable artificial intelligences, and still do. In the Asimov universe, because it was conceived a long time ago, and because its author abhors confusion, there are no computers whose impact is worth noting, no social complexities, no genetic engineering, aliens, arcologies, multiverses, clones, sin or sex; his heroes (in this case R. Daneel Olivaw, whom we first met as the robot protagonist of The Caves of Steel and its sequels), feel no pressure of information, raw or cooked, as the simplest of us do today; they suffer no deformation from the winds of the Asimov future, because it is so deeply and strikingly orderly.

However, some of his robot stories, including the earliest ones, featured the character Susan Calvin, a forceful and intelligent woman who regularly out-performed her male colleagues.[197]

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