Archive for December, 2018

Isaac Asimov’s Robot/Empire/Foundation series

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018
I saw the name of a book called Foundation over and over again on “must read” lists of sci-fi classics. So I picked it up… not knowing that it was actually part of a series of 15 books… and that Foundation placed about two thirds of the way through the series! So I read from Foundation to the end, then started at the beginning in story order (although the oldest books are actually #5, #6 and #7). Confusing history of development, but that hardly matters since the results are brilliant.
1 - Caves of Steel
Caves Of Steel (1954)

Caves of Steel, the first book in the Robot Series was… okay. Asimov clearly wanted to show that science fiction didn’t always have to be one certain mode of writing, and here he’s set his first robot novel up as a detective story, thereby crossing boundaries (and setting the scene for Blade Runner, Neuromancer, etc). It was written in 1954, three years after Asimov’s first novel (but actually the fifth in the grand Robots/Empire/Foundation series).

Unfortunately, as a detective novel, it’s not that great. The crime, and how it was solved, is a bit obscure, and he never really gets a great story together in terms of motive, execution, etc. The ending is also unsatisfying.

What is great, however, is his description of the future Earth “old world” society, and how it’s contrasted with the creepy “new world” society (is it a coincidence that it has 50 worlds?). There’s plenty of description of day-to-day life on Earth in the future, and it’s pretty fascinating. Also, for someone who read the Foundation series before reading the other Asimov series, I get the sense that I’m re-creating his history of the series, especially since I’m catching up on past events that were referenced in Foundation & Earth (although Asimov at the time of writing Caves of Steel would not have fully conceived the events of that book), so it’s all pretty cool… and it means I’ll need to re-read Foundation & Earth at some point…

2 - The Naked Sun
The Naked Sun (1957)

The Naked Sun follows our hero Elijah Baley on his first voyage offworld, in this case to Solaria, where human society has established itself at its most neurotic extreme (and its most robot-dependent). It’s a fascinating study in weirdness – Solaria is a colony world that is as opposite from overcrowded robot-hostile Earth as it is possible to be, and lucky Elijah has been called in to investigate… and once more paired with his robot counterpart R Daneel Olivaw, an ever-present Asimov character.

The book also serves to introduce the character of Gladia, a Solarian, who will be a key figure in the next two Robot books as well.

The book is somewhat frustrating in how it dwells on the freakish character of the Solarians and how they have built their snobbish, chauvinistic society (although it’s surprisingly open-minded about casual sex!). It’s also not a very satisfying mystery, nor is its resolution very different from that of the first one (concealed). But it also does a perfect job in building up the concepts that will lead to the invention of psychohistory, the creation of the Galactic Empire and the isolation of Earth, and all sorts of other groovy things in the Isaac Asimov universe.

3 - Robots of Dawn
The Robots of Dawn (1983)

Robots of Dawn is a third Robots book, after a very long interval, published near the end of his life, with just one other Robots book to come (and also a bunch more of Foundation sequels & prequels). So it was the book that, in a way, started to bring things together. And yet… I nearly gave up on it halfway through.

Somehow, at some point, main character Elijah Baley became a severe navel gazer, pondering the strange intricacies of human development, looking questioningly into mirrors, along corridors, into shadows and around corners, as he attempts to solve a murder (or is it a murder?). Interview after interview with yet another bizarre and deplorable Auroran takes place. Elijah Baley suffering more agorophobia! And self-doubt!! A (seemingly) meaningless episode in a rainstorm thoroughly confused and amazed me. I’d had enough. This Asimov book was so different from the others I’d read (many of which had their flaws, but which redeemed themselves quickly) and I started to wonder if I was wasting my time…

And so, this one took a lot longer; but by the end Asimov hit with a whammy, proving that he’d been in control (nearly) the whole time. A masterful book that really makes you think (although there is at least one mystery that is projected/predictable before the end) and it’s all good. It also proves an amazing unifier for his grand Galaxy theme that just sort of goes on and on… It also introduces a mythical new character, and develops the wonderful Gladia character to her full potential. Bravo! Wonderful!!

4 - Robots and Empire
Robots & Empire (1985)
I actually read this book near the end of my Isaac Asimov odyssey of 15 books, and it’s a pretty perfect capture of all the things that make Asimov such a brilliant author. Here he abandons his human character Elijah Baley of first three Robot books and makes two robots R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov his main focus! He also probes the fascinating character of Giskard (who was revealed to be much more than he appears in the previous book), and explores fascinating topics like the dangerous evolution of artificial intelligence, human culture, human memory, human evolution itself, space exploration, politics, human prejudices, myth-making, the origins of psychohistory (and the origin of mental powers à la Second Foundation), all on top of a intriguing James Bond-level plot.
There are also fascinating flashbacks to the life of Elijah Baley, and a new mystery – what happened to Solaria!? There are also examples of great intellectual detective work that credibly explain away what might have easily become too great a stretch for the imagination of the reader to accept if it were handled by a less talented author than Asimov. Asimov had the talent to constantly astound in new ways, totally awesome.
5 - Pebble in the Sky
A Pebble In The Sky (1950)

One of the great things about Isaac Asimov was his ability to adapt so many different literary genres to the science fiction story, and in this one – the first novel he ever wrote – he writes a sort of comedy of errors. A man is accidentally shot forward in time (Futurama, anyone?) where he learns what kind of place the radioactive hellhole Earth of the future is (coinciding with the events described at the end of Robots & Empire, a book Asimov needed 35 years to finally actually write).

The plot, though, is somewhat convoluted, and way too fantastical. The villains are moustache-twiddlingly caricatured, and their evil plot too far fetched to be successful. Happily, Asimov wraps it up quickly with a very clever action by one of the main characters, instantly redeeming himself as a writer.

Whether he was dissatisfied with the comedy of errors concept after this book I’m not sure – he might have been since he didn’t attempt it again – his knack for writing clever endings certainly did hold out, as many of his books wrap up with astounding flourish. Bravo!

6 - The Stars Like Dust
The Stars Like Dust (1951)
Here Asimov picks the “road movie” concept to write around, with a young aristocrat on the run from a galactic conspiracy that pushes forward the development of the growing galactic empire. The plot is interesting, as are the characters, and Asimov writes a bit more action into the book than he does in lots of is others (and, correspondingly, there’s also a lack of the type of significant conceptual development that you’d normally find). There are a few elements to the plot that are quite dissatisfying, though, and a few of the developments were predictable from the beginning, so I’d probably rank this as one of his weaker books, although he manages to come through with a total zinger of an ending (in fact, I suspect that he may have deliberately wrote the book around this idea).
7 - The Currents of Space
The Currents Of Space (1952)

If you were to read the 14 Isaac Asimov books in the Robots/Empire/Foundation cycle, this – the seventh book, halfway through – gives the first real introduction of Trantor as a key element, although it’s still a minor part of the story as a whole. It is also the last book with an Earthman as a character until the final tale (sorta).

In this book, Asimov writes more about economics than he does in any other book (geopolitics is also a key theme, but that is also a part of many of his other books). There’s also a lot more astronomy and physics in this book than there is in other books, giving it a bit of educational value on top of everything else. Ironically, it also contains more action and violence than nearly any of his books.

Following a concept later made familiar in the Dune series, Florinia is the only planet in the galaxy that produces a certain substance. It is controlled by a tyrannical race of pampered “noblemen”, its rebellious inhabitants policed by a goonish police force. Into the fray we get a mysterious stranger with amnesia. Who is he? While all of these elements may seem clichéd now, they probably weren’t in 1952 when the book was written. While it’s not one of Asimov’s better books, it’s still very interesting and a great read. The ending wraps up very cleverly, although it’s still a bit of a headscratcher. Great stuff.

8 - Prelude to Foundation
Prelude To Foundation (1988)

Prelude to Foundation is exactly that – a prelude to the famous series that Isaac Asimov started writing in 1951; it is also one of the last books he ever wrote (with a second prelude book that picks up where this one left off, Forward the Foundation, being his actual last book).

The book goes back to the mystery format that Asimov experimented with his robot novels, and we see our man Hari Seldon arrive on Trantor and immediately become a fugitive. He travels around Trantor’s many worlds, meeting many people, encountering strange religions, rival clans, and picks up his sidekicks historian Dors Venabili and guttersnipe Raych. Asimov also advances interesting theorisers of futuristic class (and caste) societies, while also waxing philosophical on yeast foods (which crop up also in his robot stories).

9 - Forward the Foundation
Forward The Foundation (1993)

Isaac Asimov’s final book is more story-telling than really pushing the envelope on the Foundation series, tying up all the strings and bridging the last gap in the story; unfortunately, it doesn’t really say anything new, or even reveal as much as Prelude To Foundation already showed. The book concerns itself a lot with Trantor politics, as Hari Seldon struggles to keep his Parahistory project together against challenges inside and out. It has a few revealing moments about the nature of the Second Foundation, though, making it a good pairing with Foundation’s Edge.

10 - Foundation
Foundation (1951)

This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I finally gave it a start in mid-2018. The concept is interesting – Asimov outlines a future space empire that is crumbling, with a scientific prophet outlining a 1,000 year future transition from one galactic civilisation to another. The beginning of the book features Hari Seldon briefly, before moving on to outline other elements of future societies (the psychohistorians, the encyclopedists, the mayors, the traders, the merchant princes) as time passes. Each section is, in fact, a short story now tied together as as series into a single novel, but with only the overarching concept (and some characters) as unifying features.

Politics plays a great role in the book, as one character out-maneuvers the other. Action is difficult to picture, and characterisation is nearly absent. Lots of parallels with the fall of the Roman empire and the impending fall of the Cold War powers. Interesting – but, while clever and layered, the stories also seem fairly cold and near-encyclopedic (ha ha… irony… and just as ironical, Foundation is not the foundation of Foundation… sigh…).

11 - Foundation and Empire
Foundation & Empire (1952)

The second Foundation book (of the original trilogy – prequels were published later on) moves the needle a bit from the original book… which contains four stories all of different backgrounds, while this book contains only two stories, both of which are relatively unified. The first one is fairly interesting, dealing with the final days of the galactic empire and the fledgeling Foundation, before going into the second story which introduces mutant mind powers, the hunt for the Second Foundation (which becomes an obsession for the series eventually). It’s nice to be able to follow characters in this universe for a change, even if they are relatively flat, and with perplexing names that make them seem like they come from episode descriptions in TV Guide. A blistering ending sets up the third book, which is equally good!

12 - Second Foundation

Second Foundation (1953)

This is the third book of the Foundation trilogy… when it was still just a trilogy (two more sequels followed it, as did two more prequels, book-ending the original trio quite nicely to make a magic seven books in total). The series of books is surprisingly consistent in quality, so of course this is no exception; given its place overall, it’s also the last book to have a real fifties flair to its writing style (for better or worse).

Like other books in the original trilogy (and unlike the subsequent sequels and prequels), this is a set of novellas. The first of the two is about the psychically-powered mutant the Mule’s search for the Second Foundation, and all of the wild goose chases he embarked on (or set in motion) in order to find it. The end is purely trippy, and probably deserves a second (or third) reading. This is one of the few times that a Second Foundationer has truly appeared, thus showing readers of the series that they do actually exist.

The second tale in the trilogy concerns space hijinks, historic battles that change the tides of war, and other swashbuckling. The location of the Second Foundation is always a lingering mystery, which we solve in…

13 - Foundations Edge
Foundation’s Edge (1982)

This book (and the sequel, which continues where this left off) is quite different than the previous installments, in that this book settles on a batch of characters and sticks with them; it was also written in the eighties, so it has a very different style to the others, which were written in the fifties. Finally, and this may be a bit of a spoiler… Asimov finally explores what the Second Foundation is and how it functions.

The tale, in contrasting chapters, balances the adventures of Foundationer Golan Trevize with those of troublesome up-and-coming Second Foundation whiz kid Stor Gendibal. Hopping in a space ship, Trevize flies off on a mission with a small gang of helpers in search of a planet called Gaia. Gendibal also flies off to intercept him, and there’s a super wild conclusion that is full of great surprises, and amazing thoughts about evolution. Definitely one of the best books of the series.

14 - Foundation and Earth

Foundation and Earth (1986)

Picking up immediately from where the previous book, Foundation’s Edge, left off (a first for one of Asimov’s Foundation books), Foundation and Earth is actually an amazing travelogue of the universe, with our characters bouncing across six different planets, encountering six different cultures, before arriving at some conclusions about the fate of the universe. The book also successfully binds together three of Asimov’s creative ventures – the Robot series, the Empire series, and the Foundation series.

Without giving too much away, each planet that Golan Trevize, Janov Pelorat and Blissenobiarella (or simply Bliss/Gaia) visit offers some sort of wild and woolly adventure, surmising in many cases on the fate of mankind (including its possible evolution) and the future of the robot “race”. Definitely a wild ride and a lot of fun. There’s also a nice bit of romance, which Asimov’s books generally lack. Highly recommended… but maybe you should read the first fourteen books in the series first.

 15 - The Complete Robot
The Complete Robot (1982)

This book collects nearly all of the short stories that Isaac Asimov wrote about robots, which include some of the first fiction that he ever wrote, including some that were important to the Robots-Empire-Foundation continuity.

The books are arranged thematically, and there are sections dedicated to stories that repeat characters the he created (mainly the Powell & Donovan stories about robot testers, and the Susan Calvin stories about robopsychology). Nearly all of the stories are set in the early years of robot development, well before the events of Asimov’s later Robot series (although Robot series main characters Elijah Baley and R Daneel Olivaw do show up in one, a mystery about academic plagiarism of all topics).

The stories are a little bit on the dull side – brainy investigations of the nature of robot development, issues surrounding the robot’s role in society, and the start of the poliarisation of Earth society and that of the Spacers (pre-Empire galactic colonists).The book ends with the stunning Bicentennial Man, which is a gorgeous tale of a family robot that harkens back to Asimov’s first published fiction, a four-page story called “Robbie” that launches the collection, thus neatly book-ending this… book.