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There is an very common occurring theme in Asimov's work: an obsessive need not to touch people considered unclean, sometimes justified sometimes not.

Examples:

1) The Caves of Steel (Robots series):

The Spacers (former Earth colonists living in Utopian conditions throughout Space) have long eliminated all disease in their worlds, but their immune systems decayed as a result (the common cold can kill them), so they are downright paranoid when dealing with normal Earth people (who live in entirely different conditions)—forcing them to take thorough showers and burning all materials they come in contact with.

Source: TV Tropes: Terrified of Germs

2) in The Naked Sun Solarians go even further by forbidding meeting in perso and touching between any two people Spacers or not:

By the time Elijah Baley visited Solaria around 5022 AD, its inhabitants had evolved an isolationist culture in which its citizens never had to meet, save for sexual contact for reproductive purposes. All other contact was accomplished by sophisticated telepresence "viewing" systems, with most Solarians exhibiting a strong phobia towards actual contact, or even being in the same room as another human. All work was done by robots.

Source (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solaria)

3) In Pebble in the Sky future descendants of the Settlers are again looking down upon Earthers, this time because Earth is irradiated and they are afraid (based sometimes on the facts, other times on superstition). I can't find the exact quote where imperials avoided touching them, but they certainly were disgusted by the people of Earth whether they wanted to admit it or not.

4) A somewhat smaller example in Prelude to Foundation. The people of Mycogen, a sector in the planet-wide city of Trantor, have a lot of unusual taboos and customs, one of which involves touching:

He manages this by convincing Raindrop Forty-three to show him the prized Mycogenian microfarms, a prized source of food for the aristocracy and Mycogenians alike, then asking her to show her their religious historical book. Raindrop Forty-three accepts on the condition that Hari allows her to touch his hair; (hair being expressively forbidden in Mycogenian society).

Source: Wikipedia: Prelude to Foundation

While all of these examples may be justified with a real lack of immunity in (1) and (2) as well as social circumstances in (2), radiation and mutated diseases in (3), then religious fervor in (4), I really noticed the pattern only when I saw the following example:

5) In The End of Eternity all classes of Eternals despise Technicians (the group to which the main character belongs). They all have to cooperate with them, but not to be nice about it as well. If a Technician is passing through a hallway everyone would look away, etc. The important thing in the context of this question is that in one scene an Eternal was passing by the Technician being very careful not to even touch him. In this example, we are talking merely about professional differences, maybe rivalry and disapproval of what he does. There is no sane justification I can think of.

As presented in the examples, this really seems like quite a recurring theme in Asimov's work. Even more so than what Space Elevator is to Arthur Clarke. Now that I think about it all Asimov's stories settings have always seemed somewhat simplified and sterile.

So, what could have been the reason? Was he possibly afraid of germs or perhaps of touch? It is already confirmed that his agoraphobia was an inspiration for future Earth and Trantor. Did he think that the industrial progress would inevitably lead to that kind of lifestyle? Perhaps he was just trying to depict modern world in future, most notably racism?

Any resources, interviews, mentions, well backed opinions... anything?

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  • 1
    I don't think this was an Azimov-specific hangup. Unless he also directed/wrote scenario for Demolition Man :) It is, as you can guess since you perused TVTropes, a very common trope, arising out of scientific/cultural progression of how humans dealt with hygiene and germs. (our ancestors ate from common plates and didn't wash. You (presumably) wouldn't shake hands with someone who just used the restroom and didn't wash hands. Your descendants might avoid germ-risky physical contact alltogether. Another unreleted influence of this trope may be Japanese culture. Mar 16, 2013 at 14:16
  • This question makes me think of the song "Germfree Adolescent" by the X-Ray Specs. In the time between the second word war and the hippies, cleanliness was generally considered a progress in hygiene. Advertisements for detergents flourished at that time, and officials and medics recommended the use of disinfectants in private households. Only recently has it been found that too much cleanliness might induce allergies by reducing the immune defense. Asimov, I would guess, was simply a child of his time. But it remains open to debate wether he endorsed or caricatured this behavior.
    – user30564
    Mar 16, 2013 at 16:18
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    Note that 1), 2), and 4) are all about Spacers (or their cultural descendants), so there aren't as many distinct examples here as it looks like...
    – Micah
    Mar 16, 2013 at 16:25
  • @all: I agree with the comments regarding examples 1 to 4, but it is The End of Eternity where it seemed to me that he was really pushing it. Mar 20, 2013 at 15:35
  • Considering when these stories were written, several (though by no means all) of those examples seem to me to be to have been intended as metaphors for racism and/or anti-semitism. Dec 2, 2016 at 22:49

3 Answers 3

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I was originally planning to answer based upon Asimov's well-known claustrophilia -- Asimov liked small, enclosed spaces. While I can't immediately produce a quotation, I remember reading an interview in which he was asked if he really thought people would want to live the way they're depicted as living in Caves of Steel and he basically responded, "Well, I would!"

But Asimov was also fairly social -- he lectured, attended conventions, and engaged in various organizations. There's no indication that he himself avoided human contact, much.

If anything, in fact, he seems to regard a desire to avoid contact as a serious problem for a culture that adopts it. Solaria--the most extreme of his "no-touchy!" cultures--is depicted as ultimately doomed in large part because of its extreme views on human contact. Spacers who avoid shaking hands with Elijah Baley are usually depicted as snooty, even after it's made clear that they're really doing it because their relatively germ-free environments have made their immune systems weak.

So, while I'm not certain there's any solid statement on the record as to why Asimov visited this theme so often, I think we can safely surmise that he was interested in exploring the tension between the "rural" mindset of wide-open spaces and comparatively rare human contact; and the "urban" mindset of being constantly surrounded by large numbers of other people whom you are very likely to be unable to avoid interacting with and often physically jostling, even when not actively seeking out contact. And further, I think it can be argued that Asimov's own preference was clearly for the "urban".

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  • His SF Detective, Wendell Urth, also was reclusive and did not travel.
    – Oldcat
    Jun 26, 2014 at 22:45
  • @Oldcat That may very well be rooted in his own personality. Asimov wasn't too fond of traveling himself and rarely left Brooklyn/Boston once he was discharged from the military. Most of his speaking engagements were near home (except when he went on cruises). He also talks about his dislike of flying in his autobiography I Asimov.
    – Jay
    Oct 21, 2014 at 18:53
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Asimov took some of the characteristics of Solarian society from his experience with editor Horace Gold, and his agoraphobia

http://www.asimovreviews.net/Books/Book003.html

Gold had fought in World War II and, according to Asimov, suffered badly from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It didn’t affect his talents as a writer or editor, but it made a wreck of his social skills. He could barely manage to talk to people face-to-face. For example, Asimov recounts visiting Gold at home only to have him suddenly dash out of the room. Asimov was on the verge of leaving when the phone rang and Gold’s wife handed it to him. He was a bit surprised, since nobody knew he was there. It was, however, Gold calling from a second line in the bedroom to finish the conversation.

A very similar scene occurs in "The Naked Sun" when Quemot is in the same room as Bailey, panics, and then calls Bailey virtually from a different room.

Asimov combines Gold's agoraphobia and Asimov's own preference for enclosed spaces to get Bailey's fear of the outside - and he combines Gold's agoraphobia with the germ-phobia of American culture in general (Asimov was certainly familiar with the idea of the "dirty diseased immigrant") to get Solarian culture.

It's worth noting that Mycogen's practices and the repeated references to the antiquity of their culture (and the fact that they know about robots - an otherwise very obscure bit of knowledge) seem to be an indication that their culture is has preserved some practices from the Spacers/SolariansAurorans (and not the Settlers, which colonized most of the galaxy). So Mycogen isn't an independent example of an Asimov germophobe culture - the germophobia is a hint of an ancient cultural connection.

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  • Thanks. Fixed that error above.
    – Andrew
    Feb 27 at 20:07
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    Asimov was also a biochemist - his PhD was on a fungal tyrosinase, he was familiar with sterile culture techniques, imagine expanding this to planet-wide food source level and dealing with contaminated cultures. An extension of sterile culture is to remove potential fomites, such as hair that could fall into the cultures and cause contamination and the germophobia.
    – bob1
    Feb 28 at 22:39
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Greetings from the year 2020. Two things come to mind: anyone born in the time and place that Asimov was would have noticed a trend away from in-person meeting because of the telegraph, telephone, radio and television which culminated with the Internet and now, in the year 2020, an epidemic which is emphasizing remote work and even school.

Grimly ironic is that Asimov's own immune system was compromised (as his fictional colonists' were) when he contracted AIDS during a blood transfusion.

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    Asimov grew up in New York City; by the time he moved to Boston he'd seen the city grow by more than a million people. And by all accounts he loved meeting people. I really don't think he felt that people were seeing fewer and fewer people, at least not in his early career when he wrote Caves of Steel.
    – DavidW
    Oct 7, 2020 at 2:38
  • maybe not him personally but even the phrase "phone call" shows how people used to meet ("call") in person and the novelty was being able to do so by phone.
    – releseabe
    Oct 7, 2020 at 2:47

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