Isaac Asimov: Mantle of optimism

Fifty years ago, Isaac Asimov is said to have successfully envisioned how things would be today. Daniel Harvey exam ines the claims

When I was young, I was given Isaac Asimov’s I Robot, and before long I had read most of his books without putting them down - which is strange, because his writing is old-fashioned in many ways, compared to newer writers who sadly passed me by as I grew older.

Asimov can fairly unarguably be said to be among the greatest of the second generation of science fiction authors who wrote in the more optimistic days of the post-war boom, along with Arthur C Clark and Philip K Dick. But Asimov did not have the school teacher tone of the former, making a point of spending pages explaining every technical detail; nor did he have the flair for action and pathos of the latter.

However, it was his writing style, largely techno-utopian and asexual, which were most symptomatic of the times, and made him most likely to be read by adolescent boys like myself. But Asimov’s books did not translate well to the big screen as a result. Clark could boast of 2001: a space odyssey, generally seen as a masterpiece of cinema, while Dick gave us Blade runner, based on his less pithy title, Do androids dream of electric sheep? On the other hand, Asimov’s The bicentennial man, with Robin Williams playing the lead, did not do very well, and the less said about Will Smith in I Robot, the better.

Nevertheless, other writers in this generation had similar preoccupations. They all were consumed by technology, space travel and endless economic and population growth. In fact, the point was always humanity’s limitless potential to expand. Even in works for the screen like Gene Rodenberry’s Star trek or George Lucas’s Star wars, where humanity has to compete with alien species, they always seem to be the most numerous, and always come out on top.

Unlike new science fiction today, which fixates on trends related to human consciousness, and the changes and redefinition of our humanity itself - ‘the singularity’, immortality, super-intelligent and capable ‘post-humans’ and the like - back then human beings were presented as never-changing, whilst fundamentally transforming the galaxy around them. In Asimov’s Foundation saga, set 35,000 years in the future, humans populate every corner of the galaxy, but are mostly still the same bipedal, boring, dumb beings they are today.


Over the last week there have been numerous articles recalling the predictions Asimov made half a century ago. In a short article for the New York Times written in August 1964, and connected to that year’s World Fair, he imagined how things would look 50 years later. What sort of predictions does he make?

Well, a lot are pretty impressive. He claims that “men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better” and describes this retreat into the private space of people’s homes - complete with “electroluminescent panels”, ceilings that “glow softly” and windows which change tint according to the time of day. But television was already ubiquitous in America in 1964, so it seems odd that he does not conclude that it would continue to absorb people in the same way in the future.

However, he hints at the transition from single-direction mediums to sophisticated forms of communication. He predicts what has to be the smart phone and the iPad:

Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call, but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space, will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth ...1

Except, that is, for the radioactive batteries:

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive, for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity.

Also, kitchen appliances: “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare ‘automeals’, heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on.” As well as ready meals: “… complete lunches and dinners, with the food semi-prepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing”. But inevitably we will all have to keep “a small corner in the kitchen unit, where the more individual meals can be prepared by hand” - you might have guests!

In other areas he is not so accurate. He predicts all cars will have “jets of compressed air” to “lift land vehicles off the highways, which, among other things, will minimise paving problems. Smooth earth or level lawns will do as well as pavements. Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets, though local ordinances will discourage the practice.”

And then there is what you might think would be an infrastructural nightmare to construct: “For short-range travel, moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the centre) will be making their appearance in downtown sections.” Some generously have interpreted this as predicting escalators and the speeded-up walkways found in airports, but that is not quite the same as sitting on a park bench which takes you to work in the morning …

He is, however, spot on in predicting efforts to automate vehicles, giving them “robot brains”, which at the moment Google, other corporations and university departments are perusing actively as a line of experimentation, with some convincing prototypes already built.

But on his key themes he is sensibly conservative compared to his contemporaries, who all more or less assumed humans would be way further ahead than we turned out to be in practice: “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence”. They will be “large, clumsy, slow-moving, but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances”.

And on space travel: “… by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars” - although he did predict we would have bases on the moon, with people on Earth having difficult conversations with the lunar inhabitants on their mobile phones (due to the 2.5-second delay).

There is not much to be gloomy about, except for that abiding fear of the 1960s (even more so later in the 70s): the “population bomb”. Asimov predicts: “In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000.” This will result in “Boston-to- Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, [becoming] a single city with a population of over 40,000,000”. He goes even further, mooting the possibility of a “world Manhattan” in 500 years. Inevitably that would mean building enormous cities underground and underwater to leave the land free for cultivation.

But optimism wins out:

There are only two general ways of preventing this: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.

There will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favour of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will undoubtedly have taken serious effect.

In practice, of course, birth rates dropped by themselves in the more advanced, industrialised countries through the spread of contraception, family planning, and general female empowerment. Fertility is dropping universally across the world in fact, and most analyses now predict the population will peak by mid-century at about 10 billion.

There is not much in Asimov’s article by way of a real critique of the effects of technology on society and culture, although he notes that the one great problem with all that automation is that it will have turned us into a “race of machine tenders”. The ultimate problem of the future then? “Boredom”, which he describes as “a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity”, so that the “lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind”. But, for the rest, “the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!


In these snippets of Asimov’s perspective for the future, you can see a great deal of naive optimism. The ruling class confidence produced by post-war prosperity was still very much in evidence. Perhaps there were some signs that all was not well in the garden - the Bay of Pigs crisis and the assassination of John F Kennedy a year earlier. But Vietnam had yet to ground down into the demoralising quagmire it was to become, and the spluttering economy of the 70s in the advanced capitalist countries was still a fair way off.

Asimov made predictions that were more political in his other works. One which jumps out is in a short story at the end of I Robot about the world increasingly divided into supranational regional blocks. Not through any kind of political revolution, mind you, but the gradual automation of society by machines investing power in the hands of global controllers. Thoughts of the remote European Union bureaucracy, etc can hardly be avoided.

Asimov was a liberal, after all, and so the benign hand of some hidden elite gently guiding humanity always hovers in the background of his work. In the Foundation series this was translated into his concept of “psychohistory”, discovered by the mathematician hero, Hari Seldon (modelled on himself perhaps?). This is wielded by an Illuminati-like movement with psychic powers, the science of managing society and predicting the future with unerring accuracy. Apparently Paul Krugman was inspired by this idea to study economics as a student.2

Asimov’s robots, guided by the “three laws of robotics”, are always benevolent, and become almost like parents to humans through their agelessness and intelligence, as much as their servants. An ancient robot with all of human history contained in its memory chips and living on the moon turns out to be the secret hero in the Foundation novels.

There are shades of Stalinism too in this vision of a benign elite of dialecticians leading an increasingly bureaucratic and mechanised society. There is no mention of capitalism or socialism anywhere - just technology. In the same I Robot story, the Soviet Union and the United States are merged into a single “Northern Region”, which is hegemonic over the others (but leaves out Europe, strangely). This could, of course, be related to his own joint Russian-American heritage.

The closest thing to social conflict seen in Asimov appears in The naked sun, where, on the one hand, there is a brief eruption of rioting among unemployed workers made redundant by robots; and, on the other, there is deep mistrust between the poor, teeming multitudes on Earth, and the opulent “spacers” living off-world in vast estates tended by hundreds of robotic servants. It is not hard to see in this the settler colonialism of the 19th century, complete with ‘reactionary’ Luddism.

Asimov’s science fiction, for all its shiny futurism, has been described by some as quite backward and pessimistic, and projecting onto the future a continuation of the present and the past. Space exploration in this sense is little different from stories about cowboys - William Shatner, who plays captain James T Kirk in Star trek, is just another John Wayne.

What in reality would our political programme look like if we followed the vision of Isaac Asimov? Something like the technocratic Venus Project, as imagined by Jacque Fresco?3 Growing up in the Great Depression and New Deal era, as Asimov did, he imagines pristine eco-cities, some floating at sea, but all perfectly ordered, without a blemish or protest in sight. This feels more like a sort of window-shopping for the future. Something you would expect at a World Fair perhaps, but popular nonetheless - five million people on YouTube watched the Zeitgeist conspiracy film, which features the project, on their computers out in bedroom land.4

If it is going to reclaim the mantle of optimism and give people the ability to dream about a better future, science fiction has surely got to avoid this trap. But it also has to get out of the rut of the modern, cynical fixation about technology reshaping human beings into something ‘new, higher and better’. It needs to show how technology is socially constructed and serves social and political objectives.

Real optimism does not mean fancy kitchen units, robot housemaids or bionic eyes. It means imagining new ways for people to organise, debate together, and take control of their own destinies - a real social and human vision of the rule of the proletariat, in other words.


1. All Asimov quotes from www.nytimes.com/ books/97/03/23/lifetimes/asi-v-fair.html.

2. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/30/ who-are-you-calling-dense/?_r=0

3. www.thevenusproject.com.

4. www.youtube.com/watch?v=EewGMBOB4Gg.