I just finished Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov. I first thought this would be another repackaging of his robot stories, but it was really another best of Isaac Asimov volume, including many of his most famous short stories except “Nightfall.” I’ve always thought of Asimov as an entertaining but mediocre writer. While listening to Robot Dreams, I realized my impression of Asimov came mostly from I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy, stories he wrote when he was very young in the 1940s, and I read as a teenager in the 1960s. After reading a handful of his books back then I mostly ignored Asimov except for his nonfiction, which I liked a lot.
Several years ago I reread The Naked Sun and really admired it. I had read it and The Caves of Steel in the SFBC edition of The Rest of the Robots and hadn’t particularly liked them. I’m not a fan of mysteries. But when I reread The Naked Sun I really got into it, not for the murder mystery, but for the tale of agoraphobia, something I could relate to in my old age. Now that I just finished a huge book of short stories and novelettes I realize I was wrong about Asimov being a bad writer. Several of these stories showed a good deal of storytelling finesse.
It was George Guidall, the narrator of the audiobook edition of Robot Dreams that really helped me see Asimov in a new light. I always felt Asimov was an idea writer who avoided writing emotional scenes, but Guidall’s reading revealed the feelings in these tales. I thought Asimov was a tone-deaf stylist, but Guidall showed me Asimov did have a sense of drama (sometimes). I now have to assume that Asimov was not a bad writer, but I was a bad reader. That’s not to say Asimov didn’t write a lot of forgettable science fiction. Logic tells us, not all of Asimov’s zillions of short stories are gems.
I still believe Isaac Asimov will never be considered a literary writer except that I came across “My Five Star Books.” It’s a long list of books from a lifetime of reading by a very serious reader. The Foundation Trilogy is on it. And it’s not a list of SF books. The list feels like a list of books that Harold Bloom would recommend, most of them were once part of Great Books collections. I guess I really need to reread the trilogy.
Then last year when PBS had it’s Great American Read The Foundation Trilogy was one of the few science fiction books that America voted in. It came in at #49 of the top 100 books. Even for a popular vote, not many genre science fiction titles made the list. Dune was #35. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was #39.
The Foundation Trilogy has even gotten an Everyman’s Library edition. But it’s kind of expensive at Amazon. Barnes and Nobel also have a similar priced deluxe hardback version. Amazon does have a Kindle edition of the trilogy on sale for $4.95 right now.
One problem with Asimov was he was so damn prolific. He wrote hundreds of books and hundreds of short stories, and I imagine thousands of essays. It’s very hard to pick out his best work, or even read through all his work to find the best. Actually, it’s painful to just read his bibliography.
Yesterday I was discussing with my online friend Piet about which books were Asimov’s best. What would we recommend to new readers? We came up with the idea of the minimum set of books needed to showcase Asimov’s work. What’s the smallest number of volumes needed to convey Asimov’s best work.
Another problem with recommending Asimov is I doubt young readers will like a lot of his stories because they feel too old fashioned. Which novels and stories do you think have lasting value that resonates with the youngest generations? Leave a comment.
The first book we both recommend is a one-volume edition of The Foundation Trilogy. That used to be one of the main enticements to the old Science Fiction Book Club. I reread the first book, Foundation a few years ago and was very disappointed. After discovering so much positive press I want to give the trilogy another chance. However, the Foundation series is huge. I assume only Asimov’s most fanatical fans will read all of it.
After the trilogy, Piet recommended The Complete Robot next. It’s a one-volume of all the robot short stories but lacks the two classic robot novels. I’m reading through that volume now. I wished I had an audio edition, but no such luck. I’m not so sure I’d recommend it to new readers anyhow because it’s a very large collection with too many stories that aren’t Asimov’s best. However, it is considered the first book to read if you want to read the entire merged Robot/Foundation series.
But I’m thinking more about a volume to give people that would convince readers that Asimov was a better writer than his reputation suggests. Being prolific is a significant distinction, but not one when it comes to quality. Asimov had many collections of short stories, several labeled his best, but none were the right mix of stories, and often they were Costco pallets of stories that would overwhelm new readers
Our CSFquery list-builder tells me Asimov had 54 stories from all our citation sources. Only three made it to our Classics of Science Fiction Short Story list: “Nightfall,” “The Bicentennial Man” and “The Last Question.” One of my favorites, “The Ugly Little Boy” was popular with fans being on the 1999 Locus All-Time Poll, 2012 Locus All Centuries Poll, ISFDB Most Viewed Short Stories, and Sci-Fi List Top 200 Stories. Other popular stories were “Reason,” “Robbie,” and “Liar!” his famous older robot stories, as well as “Robot Dreams” a newer robot story and his most remembered space story, “The Martian Way.”
Readers would get most of Asimov’s most admired stories if they bought Robot Dreams and Robot Visions. Links are to Wikipedia that has lists of their contents and links to essays about each short story. They are available as ebooks and audiobooks. They have more stories than most readers need, but they contain almost all of Asimov’s best stories except “Nightfall.”
I’ve read that Asimov considered “The Last Question” his best story, and “The Ugly Little Boy” his second and third best story. “The Last Question” is a total idea story, and even though it’s far out, it doesn’t have much heart. “Nightfall” is Asimov’s most famous story but I’ve read it so many times I can’t judge it anymore. Again, it’s an idea story. I’d pick “The Ugly Little Boy” as Asimov’s top story. It does have emotional impact, almost too much.
The reason why I admire “The Ugly Little Boy” so much is how brilliantly Asimov sets up the ending. I could feel it coming from his careful groundwork and he cut us off perfectly leaving readers with a great deal to ponder. I think Asimov’s best stories were the ones where he put his characters through much suffering, even to the point of being cruel or evil. Timmie and Edith’s fate is particularly horrific.
I also thought “Lest We Remember” had an emotional wallop too. In it John Heath, an average guy is given a drug that improves his memory and he becomes exceptional. Susan Collins his fiancée who was smarter than John doesn’t like the new John, and neither does John’s co-workers and employers. The story has some nice dramatic twists I didn’t expect from Asimov.
I believe it is when Asimov plots a dramatic story with emotional realism that I feel he’s a much better writer. And some of these stories prove he has that skill. That’s why I like his story “Hostess” about an alien invasion with a horrifying twist. These three stories have strong women characters. In the early days of his career, Asimov was known for leaving women out of his stories. When Asimov was a teen he even wrote fan letters to Astounding advocating a no girls allowed policy in science fiction. (See Partners in Wonder by Eric Leif Davin as the source of this juicy bit of info.) So it’s ironic that the mature Asimov discovered feminine empowerment.
Asimov did create Susan Calvin for his robot stories, and she was a fascinating character, but I was shocked by Susan Calvin in “Robot Dreams” where she’s “Cold Equations” murderous.
Rereading Asimov’s short stories make me think about his literary legacy. I feel The Foundation Trilogy will last a while longer, but I don’t know about Asimov’s short stories. For a man who wrote almost 500 books, I’m finding it very hard to pick which works that will have lasting power. I haven’t read The Gods Themselves, so I can’t say anything about it yet, but it’s probably Asimov’s most popular standalone novel.
I know several people that admire the Foundation stories a great deal, plus I’ve been reading a lot about it in recent months. I figure I need to really give The Foundation Trilogy another chance and read it carefully. I believe after I read Robot Visions I’ll be finished with Asimov’s stories. I will have read maybe three dozen out of more than 200. I don’t think I’ll need to be a completest.
- List of Asimov’s short stories showing which anthology they were reprinted in.
- Index of Asimov’s short stories at Asimov’s Science Fiction
- Asimov’s Books at Ranker.com
James Wallace Harris, 12/3/19