Friday, October 12, 2012

Where to Start: Robots/Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov

(This "Where to Start" was requested by a reader. I hope you all enjoy.)

Isaac Asimov is one of those SF authors that everyone knows. After all, you can't have an intelligent discussion about robots in science fiction without talking about the man who invented the term robotics. It doesn't take a SF fan long before they come across a reference to Asimov in some other work, whether it's positronic brains or psychohistory. So sure, you may know a lot about Asimov, but have you actually read Asimov?

Maybe the answer is "yes, of course, duh". And that's awesome. But maybe the answer is a shameful shaking of your head and maybe you admit that part of the reason you've never read Asimov is because there is just so much. And you could ask your friends where to start but you don't want to be labelled as a SF n00b. Or maybe you tried to read Foundation and just got bogged down in his short story-esque writing style and you just can't get what a big fuss everyone is making over Asimov.

Never fear! I am here to help. I have read every novel by Isaac Asimov and most of his short stories. And I am here to help you dig into his universe.

For you see, the majority of Asimov novels actually fall into one universe, and it just happens to chronicle the history of that universe from a time very close to our own (or in the past if you pay attention to the dates) to a time in the far far far far future.

A lot of people will recommend reading Foundation first. But DON'T DO IT. Foundation is a great book, but for those of us with more modern sensibilities, it can be hard to get through. It's divided into four parts that read more like short stories and aren't (in my opinion) very engaging. So if that's the first Asimov book you ever pick up you may think, "WHY? Why does everyone think he's so awesome. This book is just sort of 'meh'."

So where should you start?

1) I, Robot

Note: I would like to take a moment to say that the movie of the same name is an abomination, and if you saw it, please don't hold it against this book or any other book by Isaac Asimov. Ok?

I recommend everyone dipping a toe into Asimov start with I, Robot. Heck, I've been known to recommend I, Robot to people dipping their toe in Science Fiction in general. This is mandatory reading for anyone who claims they are a Science Fiction fan. But I don't just recommend it first because it's a crucial, pivotal work in the history of Science Fiction. I recommend it first because it's good.

Sure it's just a collection of short stories strung together with a wrapper about a reporter interviewing Susan Calvin for a fluff piece, but it's amazing. The short stories range from mind blowing to hilarious. Basically, there is something for everyone here--minus an epic insane space opera storyline.

And if you read it and you don't like, no big loss of your time, because it's a fairly short collection of short stories. But really, you have nothing to loose by reading it, because it is such a critical work of Science Fiction. At worst, you come out of it having read a classic. And it's maybe a 100 pages of short stories. Anyone can find time to read that. Heck, my program manager who just had a newborn found time to read it.

My second Asimov recommendation (and another book I always recommend to newbies in SF in general) is:

2) Caves of Steel

I love this book. In fact, it's one of my favorite science fiction books. I tend to re-read it every other year. And R. Daneel Olivaw is one of my favorite characters. Ever.

Why is this a book I often recommend to newbies in SF? Well, the answer is because though this is a SF book, it's really a murder mystery that happens to take place in a SF environment. And who doesn't love a good who-done-it? People who aren't used to SF genre can get engrossed in a mystery plot and not get overwhelmed by the different SF elements. After all it's just a story about a cop and his partner who are looking into a mysterious death. Sure it takes place in a mega-city in a Futuristic Earth and introduces us to the struggle of Earthmen against the Spacers...but that's all icing on the cake of a great murder mystery.

Once you read Caves of Steel, you have to finish the robot books, so...

3) The Naked Sun
4) The Robots of Dawn
5) (optional) Robots and Empire

I'm actually going to allow you to skip Robots and Empire. There is one big reason for this and one small reason. The small reason? It's not Asimov's best book. However, you may want to read it for completion, because you've read all the other Robot books and you love Daneel so you want to read this one. That leads us to the big reason. It's impossible to find. You would think that would be fixed in this world of e-readers, but nook doesn't have an e-version (I don't know about kindle). Your best bet is to search Used Bookstores, which is what I had my grandmother do for me for this one and for the Galactic Empire books (which we're about to get to). I now own two copies, but they're both old paperbacks. If you know me personally and want to borrow it, that can be arranged. Otherwise, you're on your own kids.

So now I'm going to go with the road not taken. A lot of people might think, "OK, so you recommend the robot books first, but now Foundation, right?", not exactly.

Isaac Asimov is one of those authors where I recommend reading his books in order based on their chronology in universe, not publication. And lucky for us, the chronology in universe is easy to find, because Asimov himself defines it in one of his forewards in a book.

So next you'll want to read the Galactic Empire books, which are three standalone, but classic books. The science is wonkey, and they used to be really hard to find (hence I had my grandmother search in used bookstores) but lucky for us they have recently been republished! So now you will have no trouble finding them in book or electronic form!

6) The Currents of Space
7) The Stars, Like Dust
8) Pebble in the Sky

The Galactic Empire books lead directly into the Foundation books, which are the easiest Asimov books to find, so never fear looking for these on the shelf. But be warned. Foundation is a classic for a reason, but it's not because the writing is amazing. It was one of Asimov's first full length novels and it suffers from having been written by a master of short stories. It's basically four short stories thrown together. But they get better! So read it and enjoy.

9) Prelude to Foundation
10) Forward the Foundation
11) Foundation
12) Foundation and the Empire
13) Second Foundation
14) Foundation's Edge
15) Foundation and the Earth

And there you go! You've read all of the novels in the Robots/Foundation universe!

Asimov has also written some standalone novels that don't connect, which are all amazing and you can read in any order you please. I highly recommend Nemesis

I really love Isaac Asimov and hope you will enjoy his books too.

1 comment:

  1. Hooray! I read these books in this exact order. When friends ask what Asimov they should start with, my gut instinct has always been to recommend chronological order, but I'm always hesitant to make that recommendation.

    When I made the request for this post I was hoping to see what order the only other friend I have who's read the whole series (you) would think and you apparently think the same. (I also have old used out-of-print copies Robots and Empire and the Galactic Empire books, having gotten them before the reprint.)

    I also agree that Nemesis is a great standalone novel. Other non-series Asimov books I recommend: The Gods Themselves and Nightfall (though many prefer the short story to the novelization adapted with Robert Silverburg).