Isaac Asimov fans push for West Philly tribute

Fans of one of the brightest stars of 20th-century science fiction would like to see a modest tribute in West Philadelphia.

Writer Isaac Asimov spent three years in that neighborhood, from 1942 to 1945, while he worked as a chemist at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

Though Asimov would write 500 books by the time he died, he may be best known for the Foundation series and the Robot series. Both are set in a distant future shaped by advanced technology. Asimov started writing both while living in a brick apartment building at 50th and Spruce streets.

“It’s not really possible to point to what’s responsible to the fertility other than that he was a young guy, he was in collaboration with a bunch of young 20-something writers, all playing with big ideas,” said Stephen Segal, editor of Philadelphia Weekly, who also wrote the book “Geek Wisdom.” 

He notes that, in the Navy Yard, Asimov worked with some of the best science writers of the time, other scientists and engineers. At the core of 20th-century science fiction, he thinks, was that it was written by scientists and engineers.

Segal and a collaborator want to see a Pennsylvania historical marker on the corner, to recognize the writer who lived in the neighborhood they live in now.

Will Smith starred in a movie in 2004 loosely based on Asimov’s book, “I, Robot.” But the books are a lot more cerebral. “I, Robot” revolves around the rules for how people and their very lifelike robots interact. Robots can calculate future scenarios that might not take place for years or even millennia.

Segal grew up reading the novels.

“To a young, brainy nerd, who sees the world through the lens of puzzle pieces that need to be put together, Asimov’s stories suggested a world that I understood and a world that made sense to me,” he said. “The idea that the future is a series of problems to be figured out and solutions to be found probably had a pretty profound effect of my life and what I do with it.”

Asimov, who died in 1992, said he didn’t believe in personal immortality, that his books would suffice. If Segal’s campaign succeeds, the Philadelphia marker will add a little bit to the writer’s legacy.

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