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Biosci Fi: The Curious Case of Isaac Asimov

Having started off this series of occasional reflections on bioscience-oriented science fiction with posts on works by Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, it seems right to move next to the other member of the 1950’s science fiction “Big Three” – Isaac Asimov.

I find it harder to write about Asimov and Biosci Fi, though.  Partly, it’s because he wrote so much – according to Wikipedia, over 260 published short stories and over 500 books.  Although I read what seemed like a lot of it decades ago, I never came close to reading all of it. Partly, it’s because I have re-read almost none of his work in the last ten years.  And partly it’s because I don’t think there is much “bio” in his science fiction.  Psychology and its implications for history is a common thread, from his first successful story, the rightly famous Nightfall, through his magnum opus, The Foundation Trilogy (itself largely a collection of previously published short stories).  Psychology’s only competitor for primacy is, oddly (or not), the robot, from his robot short stories, many brought together as the collection “I, Robot,” to his novels with a robot detective.  But biology is, at least in my remembered experience, rarely to be found.

And that is why he is a curious case.  Heinlein started his career as a naval officer; Clarke was a physicist turned astronomer.  But Asimov was a card-carrying, tenured biologist – or, at least, biochemist.  He got his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1948, for a thesis entitled Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of Catechol.  He began teaching at Boston University Medical School in 1949, where he became a tenured associate professor in 1955.  But soon, in 1958, he stopped any serious academic work (and stopped receiving any even semi-serious academic pay) and started relying on his previously part-time writing for his full income.  But from 1949 to 1958 he not only taught biochemistry but was one of three co-authors of the second and third editions of a biochemistry textbook, Biochemistry and Human Metabolism.  I have not made (and do not expect to make) a full exploration of his science fiction (life is short; his art is very long), but I can find only a few scattered places where biology plays an important role.

Perhaps the most famous is a plot point in The Foundation Trilogy – the Mule, who upset Hari Seldon’s carefully calculated “psychohistorical” predictions of the future of the Foundation, was not predicted because he was a mutant, and hence unpredictable.  Even in 1945, though, when his story about the Mule was published, the 25 year old Asimov should have known that mutations are not necessarily unpredictable, though when and in which individuals they arise might be.  The work of Thomas Hunt Morgan and the other Lords of the (fruit) Fly[1] had long since shown some statistical predictability in how frequently certain mutations arose.   And, in any event, biology was deployed there not in the heart of the story, but as part of the kind of surprising explanation to a puzzle, the kind of story arc that Asimov so often used.

I recently reread, probably for the first time since the early 1970s, a book of 20 Asimov short stories, selected by the author for reprinting in 1969 in a volume called Nightfall and Other Stories. Most date from the 1950s or earlier.  Four had biology in their plots.

The first of the four, Green Patches, was published in 1950.  Its protagonist is a fragment of the integrated life consciousness of Saybrook’s Planet, a consciousness that pervades all the different kinds of living things – bacterial, plant, and animal – the planet hosts.  This intelligence was trying to bring its kind of “completeness” to Earth by hitching a ride on the second Earth expedition to the planet.  The first been blown up when its leaders discovered it was hopeless contaminating by the alien life; all the life forms on board were breeding new creatures that had the fuzzy green patches of the local life-form’s communication organ. The ending struck me ‘s gimmicky, but the underlying idea was interesting, particularly the evangelical zeal of the planetary life form to bring completeness (nirvana?) to the life of Earth.  (The story was initially published under the editor’s chosen title, “Misbegotten Missionary,” which Asimov disliked and replaced, in this republication, with his original title for the piece.  I like the editor’s better.)

The second, a long, turgid, and, to me, somewhat confusing story, Hostess, was published in 1951. It postulates a galaxy with six known intelligent life forms.  Increasing contact with humans has caused increasing incidence of a deadly disease among the other species.  The disease turns out to be caused by infection with an immaterial seventh intelligent species, one that has long endemically infected the brains of humans and, indeed, all vertebrates on earth.  Humans have therefore adapted to it, to some extent, while the other species, which had only very limited exposure to it, were much more powerfully affected.  This invisible organism had a complicated reproductive cycle and needed to return to Earth for sexual reproduction.

There is some interesting biology here. The point that pathogens and their hosts will often co-evolve in ways that decrease virulence is a good one.  The possibility of infectious organisms affecting their hosts’ behavior is real.  The existence of odd sexual reproductive cycles is another piece of accurate biology, little known to laymen.  But none of these points is well explained. And, worse, the nature of the underlying parasite is completely unexplored.  It is “mental” and “immaterial” but infectious and with its own reproductive cycle. How does any of this work?  Asimov offers no explanation and certainly not a scientifically plausible one.

In Breeds There a Man . . . ?, also first published in 1951, the biology consists of the conceit that human cultures are experimental cultures for some other intelligence. It grows versions of us that lead to great things – classical Athens, renaissance Florence – and then sends devastation to “sterilize” the petrie dishes and allow another experiment.  That’s stealing a method of doing (micro)biological research as an analogy, but it’s not bioscience.

And the last, What Is This Thing Called Love?, was first published in 1961 and is the only one of the four I enjoyed.  It has a biological set-up only in that the extra-terrestrials exploring Earth, and every other organism they have ever seen in the galaxy, reproduce clonally by budding, so they deeply misunderstand human sex.  And the one who does come closest to understanding it finds it terrifying, foreseeing that, because recombination of alleles in sexual reproduction will speed natural selection, Earth’s creatures will take over the galaxy. I actually like the story’s point that sex is not the only way to reproduce – in fact, on Earth, as well as in this story’s galaxy, it is a minority approach.  But it is mainly a funny return satire of a Playboy magazine satire of science fiction stories.  Its original title was, in fact, Playboy and the Slime God.

Compare this paltry body of work with biological references to the thousands of pages devoted to the working out of the Three Laws of Robotics or of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory and it is nearly invisible.  But it is not just the limited amount of biology in his fiction that bothers me; it’s also the limited role of biology in the fiction in which it appears.  As far as I can tell (and, granted, there is much of his fiction I have not read, particularly his work in the 1970s and 1980s), he never really used advances in bioscience as the driving engine of any of his science fiction.  Psychohistory built the Foundation books; artificial intelligence (and its control) was behind his robot fiction.  But he never seems to have posited advances in the biosciences and explored the ways those would have changed the world.

Yet Asimov was a biochemist.  And, in addition to being a science fiction writer, he was a prolific author of science education essays and books.  (He also wrote on history, literature, and the Bible, with separate “Asimov’s Guides” to both the Old and New Testament.) But he ignored the chance to use insights from his own field to motivate his fiction – or to help educate the readers of that fiction.

Much of Asimov’s fiction is not primarily about characters, dialogue, or careful description but puzzles, with the clever and logical solution forming the crowning conclusion.  But this is one puzzle for which, as far as I know, he left no solution. Why did biochemist Isaac Asimov not write more about biology?  I welcome your thoughts.

Hank Greely


[1] In addition to being an all-time great title, The Lords of the Fly is an excellent history of Morgan and the early fruit fly geneticists, written by Robert Kohler and published in 1994 – highly recommended!

3 Responses to “Biosci Fi: The Curious Case of Isaac Asimov”

  1. Kirk Willmarth says:

    Great read, thanks. I agree that there is a surprising shortage of biology in Asimov given his background. It doesn’t form the backbone of many of his works but it can be found if you go looking for it.

    Bicentennial Man includes prosthetic organs (“robobiology”) and explores what it means to be human when our bodies start as flesh but become mostly synthetic as we age. If a sentient robot starts as metal but meets us halfway, can they be considered human as well?

    Asimov’s other robot novels feature a plot point where people on Earth cannot make direct contact with people on their space colonies. The colonies had eliminated diseases and harmful bacteria, therefore any contact might introduce a pathogen for which the colonists have no natural immunity. This causes complications for the characters investigating a murder since they can’t actually meet people in person. This story (The Naked Sun) also addresses a society that has embraced eugenics.

    The Gods Themselves features an alien society with three sexes and outlines the culture, reproduction and life cycle of such an arrangement. Of course this is just a side note, the theme of the novel (as we might expect) is entirely psychological: can people give up a technology they have become dependent on when they know it will lead to their own self-destruction? Echoes of nuclear power and an interesting parallel to cigarette smoking in the text.

    Fantastic Voyage features a miniature ship being sent into a body to destroy a blood clot. This is more of an exploration of anatomy than biological science fiction but pulls upon Asimov’s biologist background nonetheless. Asimov was asked to write this book as a novelization of the movie, so his reboot (Fantastic Voyage II) is probably a better example of how Asimov would have tackled this idea in the first place. Naturally this edition includes mind reading (by machine).

    There may be more examples but these are the only ones I can think of where biology actually has an impact on the plot.

    In relation to your question – why did Asimov not write more about biology? He created his best science fiction series from the 1930s to 1950s. Think about what we knew about biology at that time. DNA was discovered to be the molecule of genetic inheritance in 1943. Only in the latter part of his sci-fi period did we crack the genetic code. We only had a cursory understanding of how genes interact (operons were only proposed in 1960), we did not have reliable DNA sequencing (1970s), recombinant DNA (1970s), PCR (1983) or a large amount of knowledge about molecular biology and genetics that Asimov would have surely been able to combine with his biochemistry background to generate some great stories. I think if he had been writing only thirty years later, he might have been able to provide a much richer set of biological science fiction. There may not have been enough known about molecular biology or genetics at the time he created his main fiction series for him to focus on hard biological science fiction.

    This may be why historically biology takes a backseat to physics and engineering in the realm of science fiction. If you were to make a list of science fiction and organize it by the branch of science central to the story, I would imagine the list for biology would be pretty small relative to other genres (and many of these are only recent): Dune (ecology), Galapagos (evolution – surprise it doesn’t always go how you’d expect!), Gattaca/Jurassic Park (genetic engineering), Brave New World (cloning), Speaker for the Dead/Avatar (symbiosis, alien life cycle and differing social norms that arise from this – both told form an anthropologist’s perspective). I’d even throw Frankenstein in the mix – it was certainly sci-fi for its day given what was known about electricity and biology. But I would say across the realm of classic sci-fi it’s hard to find any author that uses biological science as a driving force. With all that we’ve learned about biology in the last fifty years, maybe this will change going forward.

  2. hgreely says:

    Great comment! Thanks so much. I’ve been hoping to get some conversations going on biosci fi, but I think yours is the first comment I’ve had on my three substantive posts.

    First, thanks for the other Asimov biology examples. I had read, but had forgotten, The Naked Sun. (I remember liking it.) I never read Bicentennial Man and, although I read The Gods Themselves, the absolutely only thing I remember about the book is its great epigraph, from which the title was taken: “Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain” from Schiller’s play on Joan of Arc. I just read a summary of the plot and nothing sounded at all familiar, but I know I read it. And although I remember a bit more about Fantastic Voyage, my main memory, as a then 14-year old boy, is of the movie and, specifically, of Raquel Welch.

    I do think there is more biosci fi, understood broadly, both old and new than you see. I hope over time to write more about it. For example, H.G. Wells had several books with some biological themes; more recently, the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold is full of biosci fi. In fact I would say, at least in the Vorkosiverse, biology is her driving force (along with military space opera and romance novels). And she has 4 Hugos for novels and one for a novella. But, yes, the “classic sci fi” of the 30s and 40s pulps and the 50s and 60s paperbacks drew on physics, chemistry, and astronomy. I’d guess that the main reason is that it was overwhelmingly about space flight. But the limits of good, and generally known, science behind interesting things like genetics no doubt played a role.

    I did have another, vaguely similar, thought about Asimov, though. Maybe in the 1940s and 1950s, biochemists weren’t really very much biologists, but were “really” chemists who happened to work on organic compounds found in living things. Biochem still feels a bit closer to chemistry than to biology; that might have been much stronger when less was known.

    I was also wondering just how serious a scientist he was. I did a little searching for scientific publications by Asimov but came up with only five publications of his, all joint, in Pub Med that appear to be scientific research. All were published between 1950 and 1954; three of them are about ratios of various molecules in normal and malignant human tissue. I also searched Science, where, before 1960 he published only a book review (of a book on blood groups). I did find his name in Science in a list of researchers who got or had renewed contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission. He had one: “Boston University School of Medicine. I. Asimov. Radiation-induced changes in nucleic acids and their hydrolysis products.” So he seems to have done at least some scientific research, albeit nothing that looks to have been nearly as exciting as his science fiction career.

  3. Michael Will says:

    Kirk Willmarth made some really good points, especially about “Fantastic Voyage” and other key books, and the scientific world as it was in 1950. Strangely, while writing an article in 2010 about how life sciences had taken a major wrong turn in database technology, I got fixated on “Foundation”, a book I hadn’t read for many years. So fixated in fact, that I wrote a whole other article on psychohistory on modern computers http://www.geopense.net/distrib/FP.pdf

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