Perhaps the most prolific writer of the 20th century, Isaac Asimov produced over 500 hundred novels during his lifetime. Best known as author of sci-fi classics I, Robot, Nightfall and the Foundation series, he also dabbled in non-fiction, tackling subjects as diverse as Biblical history and genetics. His legacy includes the language and laws of robotics, a more realistic Star Trek and an almost endless back catalogue. On Asimov’s death in 1992, his family came up with a fiction of their own regarding the cause. And given the stigma at the time, it’s not hard to see why…
Asimov died in April 1992, at the age of 72. Over the course of his writing career, he published over 20 million words. And in the process, he changed the sci-fi genre forever. After news of his passing spread, the literary world was shocked. Doris Lessing, author of The Golden Notebook compared hearing of his death to “learning that the Taj Mahal had collapsed.”
And Lessing wasn’t alone in mourning for Asimov. Fellow sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss, writing in The Guardian newspaper just a few days after his death, described the author’s analytic and inquisitive nature. “He showed a broad humanistic streak and always interested himself in other [sci-fi] writers.” But, as Aldiss then pointed out, crossing the prolific writer was not a good idea. “He did once threaten to sue me.”
Harmony, though, was restored following Aldiss’ apology, for which he “received a good-natured letter in reply.” Which, given Asimov’s propensity for writing, shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. In fact, the author may even have seen his art form as something of compulsion. “If you want to be a prolific writer, you have to be a single-minded, driven, non-stop person,” he wrote in his genre examination, Asimov on Science Fiction.
Asimov went on, “Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Well, then, concentrate on being a good writer, and leave prolific for those poor souls who can’t help it.” But believe it or not, despite the enormous number of books the author published, he didn’t start writing science fiction until he was studying at Columbia University.
Prior to Asimov committing his sci-fi ideas to paper, he’d trained as a chemist, eventually landing a place at Boston University’s medical school. While there, he wrote and had published a textbook for those studying his field. According to the author, the experience “introduced me to the delights of nonfiction.” That love affair that would continue for decades. But his real passion was, of course, science fiction.
Asimov’s love of sci-fi began long before he started writing. The future author reportedly first encountered the genre while working in his family’s sweet shop in New York. There, the magazine racks were packed with science fiction comics and anthologies, and the youngster voraciously read each and every one. Despite this passion, however, his early life took a very different path.
As we mentioned earlier, Asimov originally pursued a scientific career, despite colleges rejecting him twice. After qualifying as a chemist, he worked for the Navy during World War Two and only narrowly avoided being sent to observe the nuclear tests taking place in the Pacific Ocean at the time, following his conscription into the Army. He eventually landed a teaching position at Boston University, but soon gave up lecturing to write full-time.
At that point, Asimov appeared to take the idea of full-time writing very literally. He reportedly wrote for half the hours in each day, only pausing for coffee and food. He typed at a whopping 90 words a minute and never wrote more than two drafts of anything. In the author’s autobiography he explained this philosophy, saying, “If after two typings the result proves unsatisfactory, it has always seemed to me it is better abandoned.”
This borderline obsessive behaviour could well explain the wide range of disciplines Asimov tackled in his writing. From math and astronomy to genetics and carbon, no field was off limits. According to the author, taking complex subjects and simplifying them for general consumption made him happy. In his 1992 obituary in The Washington Post newspaper he was quoted as saying, “I went on to discover the even greater ecstasies of writing science for the general public.”
From there, Asimov began to write guides to other literature, including works by Shakespeare and the Bible. But he wasn’t just a prolific writer. In fact, he was also a talented linguist who spoke four languages. And two of those tongues, French and German, he learned while studying at college. He reportedly also never suffered from writer’s block. This combination of an inherent command of linguistics and non-stop work is powerful in any genre ‒ and he tried most of them.
From mystery to children’s fiction, Asimov tried his hand at many genres and enjoyed success in them all. But his most potent ‒ and popular ‒ works came in the author’s beloved science fiction. Whether in short stories, novellas or entire series, his ideas had far-reaching influence. Take, for instance, 1941’s Liar! Within its pages lurks the word “robotics.” So far, so ordinary, right?
Now, all us 21st-century types are familiar with the term “robotics.” And we probably all understand it to mean the tech used in and by robots, as well as the study of them. Asimov, though, was the first writer ‒ ever ‒ to use it in this specific context. With one word, the science-fiction writer changed language forever. And he didn’t stop there.
The following year, Asimov published Runaround. And in that story, he explained the three Laws of Robotics, something sci-fi writers have since wholeheartedly embraced. They are as follows. To start, a robot can not allow harm to come to a human. Secondly, the machine has to obey the orders given by a human, as long as they don’t interfere with the first rule. And lastly, an android must protect its existence, providing that doesn’t breach the previous two restrictions. Sound familiar?
From The Simpsons to Alien, Asimov’s three laws have appeared on-screen for decades. But it’s not just his own creations that have the author’s stamp of approval. He even collaborated with Gene Roddenberry, responsible for the existence of one of the genre’s most enduring franchises, Star Trek. It wasn’t, however, always smooth sailing.
The genre’s two most powerful forces didn’t actually see eye-to-eye at first. Asimov, in fact, disliked the Star Trek series so much he actually wrote an article in TV Guide complaining about it. Roddenberry then wrote to the author explaining the trials and tribulations of producing a sci-fi show, sowing the seeds of an enduring friendship.
The pair not only collaborated on the series but also the first Star Trek movie. Since then, of course, many of Asimov’s novels and stories have been adapted for the big screen. From Bicentennial Man to I, Robot and Fantastic Voyage, itself the inspiration for 1980s classic Innerspace, his works continue to inspire film-makers.
More recently, Apple TV announced that an adaptation of Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy was in production. The novels constitute perhaps his most famous work, for which the author won his first Hugo Award – the sci-fi equivalent of an Oscar. Originally a set of short stories that became three full novels, the set eventually expanded to encompass seven books.
Despite such prolific writing habits, Asimov still somehow managed to squeeze in a private life, although we’ve no idea how. He married his first wife, Gertrude, in 1941, having dated her for just six months. The pair went on to have two children together, daughter Robyn and son David, before separating in 1970.
Just two weeks after Asimov’s divorce in 1973, he married his second wife, Janet Jeppson. The pair first met in 1956 and a few years later, began a decade-long correspondence. That written relationship later became a real-life friendship. And in 1970, they officially began dating following the author’s split from Gertrude. The couple remained together for the rest of his life.
In 1977 a few years after Asimov and Jeppson started dating, the author suffered his first heart attack. By 1983 his condition had deteriorated so much that he needed a triple bypass operation. During that surgery, sci-fi’s favorite son contracted the infection that would lead to his death in just under a decade.
Following Asimov’s death in 1992, his family reported that heart and kidney problems were the cause. And while that was at least partially true, the official line left out a crucial part of the author’s diagnosis. It’s a decision relatives made, it appears, to keep themselves safe. As a result, it would take a decade for the truth to finally come out.
It appears that, during that 1983 bypass surgery, Asimov needed a transfusion. He was then unwittingly given blood infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Diagnosed with the condition not long after the surgery, the author himself wanted to go public at the time. His physicians, however, advised against it. And he and his family took that advice, despite their reservations.
Back then, little was understood about HIV and public perception of those affected was often negative. Sometimes, it was even dangerous. Labeled the “gay plague” by some during the 1980s, anti-AIDS prejudice was rife (AIDS standing for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the affliction to which HIV-sufferers become vulnerable). Some called the condition a punishment from God, while others ostracized and abused sufferers.
Indeed, 40 years ago, HIV was inextricably ‒ and erroneously ‒ linked exclusively to homosexuality.Few back then understood the virus’ transmission routes, which include not only sexual contact, but also intravenous drug use and blood transfusions. As such, people were scared and anti-AIDS discrimination began to rise. So prevalent was the fear, there’s even a word for it: serophobia. And nowhere was that more obvious than in the media.
Running sensationalist headlines playing on the fears of their readers, newspapers helped stoke anti-AIDS prejudice. Headlines such as “I’d shoot my son if he has AIDS” and “Britain threatened by gay virus plague” solidified the public’s view that HIV wasn’t their problem. As a result, blatant homophobia in the media was everywhere.
In fact, to begin with, HIV was briefly called GRID, or Gay-Related Immuno Deficiency, before cases among heterosexuals around the world began to mount up. In America, the number of new infections reached a staggering 150,000 a year during the 1980s. People were dying at an alarming rate, and there were no treatments available.
During the next decade, infection rates in the U.S. dropped to around 40,000 a year, and have pretty much stayed that way. That’s thanks in part to new drug treatments, alongside greater awareness of the condition and how it’s transmitted. But the change in society, accepting that HIV isn’t a death sentence, and that those with it aren’t modern-day lepers, has taken much longer.
And it’s this fact that gave the Asimov doctors pause when it came to revealing the author’s HIV status. Worried that anti-AIDS feeling would extend to his family, the physicians were able to convince them to keep the secret for their own sake, as well as his, even after his death. But this decision was no doubt influenced by one Arthur Ashe.
Two days after Asimov’s death from AIDS-related complications, tennis star Arthur Ashe publicly announced that he had contracted HIV. He, too, had been infected following a blood transfusion, and was forced to admit his diagnosis after a newspaper got wind of it. Wishing to beat the media to the punch, the former world number one was forced to give a press conference.
The controversy that surrounded Ashe’s diagnosis must have played a part in the decision to stay quiet about Asimov’s death. Despite the tennis player’s immaculate record, marriage, children and achievements, the public struggled to accept that a straight athlete could be HIV-positive. And the sports star’s family made reference to that in his press conference.
During the conference, in reference to the couple’s young daughter, Ashe’s wife said, “Arthur and I must teach her how to react to new, different and sometimes cruel comments that have very little to do with her reality.” Following his diagnosis, the tennis star concentrated on raising awareness of the condition, something he did until his death in 1993.
Persuaded to keep Asimov’s secret, Jeppson and the rest of his family stayed quiet for another ten years. Finally, in 2002, the author’s widow made a huge decision. A successful psychiatrist and author in her own right, she decided to edit and condense her husband’s autobiographies. At the end of It’s Been a Good Life, she finally revealed the true cause of her husband’s death.
That same year, Jeppson further explained what led them to the decision to stay silent about Asimov’s status. In a letter to Locus magazine, the psychiatrist refuted claims that she had been the one to insist on secrecy, describing just how untrue that was. And the publication itself had pointed the finger at the widow.
Jeppson’s letter to the magazine began, “A few years after Isaac’s bypass surgery, he had some symptoms that made me read the medical journals.” What she learned from those texts caused her some alarm. So the author’s wife made a decision about his health. “I wanted him tested for HIV.”
However, Jeppson’s attempts proved unsuccessful as, “the internist and the cardiologist said I was wrong.” Asimov’s doctors finally gave in, but by then, it was too late. Jeppson went on, “Testing was done only when he was seriously ill and in the hospital for surgery on his by-then-infected heart valves.”
Jeppson’s letter continued, “The surgery was canceled and doctors told us not to reveal Isaac’s HIV.” Neither Jeppson nor Asimov initially agreed with this course of action, as both wanted to go public. She told Locus magazine, “I argued with doctors privately about this secrecy.”
“But [the doctors] prevailed, even after Isaac’s death,” Jeppson’s letter went on. And so, the secret was kept, under protest, to protect not only Asimov’s family, but perhaps also his legacy. As the years rolled on, some of the stigma surrounding HIV began to disappear, and eventually, the time was right.
Ten years after Asimov’s death, Jeppson explained, it was time for the truth to finally come out. In her 2002 letter, the psychiatrist gave one very simple reason why she had decided to publicly announce her husband’s HIV status, as well as the fact that he died of AIDS-related complications. “The doctors are dead now.”
Jeppson went on, “When Prometheus asked me to write It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac’s daughter and I agreed to go public on the HIV.” It appears, then, that Asimov’s legacy has come full circle. Having lived a life filled with books, it seems only right that a printed volume should have the final word on his death.