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Science Writer, `Robotics' Creator Isaac Asimov Dies

By Sidney C. Schaer

New York

More than 40 years ago, a character in Isaac Asimov's most famous science fiction series, the "Foundation" trilogy, said, "My novels are going to be interesting and are going to sell and be famous. What's the use of writing books unless you sell them and become well-known? I don't want some old professors to know me. It's got to be everybody."

Even as he was writing those words, Asimov was establishing his reputation as one of the world's premier science fiction writers. Asimov, who died in New York Monday at 72, ultimately became this century's most recognized one-man encyclopedist -- with 477 published titles by his own count.

Long before the advent of the Information Age, Asimov was a singular information processor. "Isaac Asimov is the greatest explainer of the age," said Carl Sagan, the Cornell University astronomer.

Such a feat was accomplished by an extraordinary combination of imagination and intellect: an imagination that allowed him to soar into the future matched with an intellect that allowed him to roam in the past and present, searching for explanations of anything and everything.

"Isaac wrote seminal works of science fiction, and I suspect that long after his other contributions sort of blend into history, his speculations about robotics and artificial intelligence will survive long into the future," said longtime collaborator Martin Greenberg, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

Asimov, along with the genre's two other acknowledged giants, the late Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, influenced the generation that propelled us into space and landed us on the moon, Greenberg said. The coming generation, he said, will have been much more influenced by the technology of moviemaking, particularly the George Lucas epics.

"Before, the sense of wonder was strictly with the writers," said Greenberg, who during the past 15 years collaborated with Asimov on more than 100 anthologies.

A man of little false humility, Asimov could be self-deprecating and self-congratulatory at the same time. Consider the citation in the most recent "Who's Who," which runs 128 lines -- mostly devoted to listing his published works but including a recipe for living that says in part: "I have been fortunate to be born with a restless and efficient brain, with a capacity of clear thought and an ability to put that thought into words ... I am the lucky beneficiary of a lucky break in the genetic sweepstakes."

Although he could not lay claim to publishing the largest number of books (the Guinness Book of Records identifies that champion as Josef Ignacy Kraszewski, a Polish writer of the 19th century who produced more than 600 volumes), Asimov did cover the largest range of subjects. He managed over his creative lifetime to have at least one book included in each of the Dewey Decimal System's 10 major library classifications.

Asimov explored what interested him: Shakespeare, the Bible, Gilbert and Sullivan, limericks, history, whether it be Roman, Greek or American. He annotated "Gulliver's Travels" and collected Sherlock Holmes limericks.