12 Most Asimovian Reads Worth Your Time
Whether you’ve read any of his books or not, you’re probably familiar with the name Isaac Asimov. Even today, some 20 years after his passing, his influence on science fiction, technology, and culture is deep and far reaching. Just one example is Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, who recently revealed how he was inspired to pursue economics after reading Asimov’s Foundation Series.
As an adolescent, Asimov was of one of my favorite authors, and I still smile when I recall first reading The Foundation Trilogy (it was only a trilogy then) and realizing I was just like Gaal Dornick — “a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.”
In celebration of Isaac Asimov and the more than 500 books he contributed, here are 12 essential Asimov reads.
“Nightfall” is the signature story that immortalized Asimov’s reputation as a master science fiction writer. Published in 1941 and based on an Emerson quote, the story is set on a planet in which darkness occurs only once every thousand years. The tale is distinguished in how it uses science fiction to invert the familiar — in this case, nighttime — into something strange and wholly unknown. This allows Asimov to explore the sociological implications of a once-in-a-millennia event and tease out how people would react. Would people “believe and adore” as Emerson suggested, or would they react quite differently, with fear and anxiety?
2. The Robot Series
Before there was HAL, C-3PO, or Data, there was R. Daneel Olivaw, the Bicentennial Man, Robbie, and the rest of Asimov’s robots. The Robot Series span numerous short stories and four novels, and it is in this fiction where Asimov coined the term “robotics” and came up with the Three Laws of Robotics. Asimov’s Robot Novels successfully blend science fiction and mystery and feature a human detective (Elijah Bailey) and robot partner (R. Daneel Olivaw) to solve a series of crimes. Most of Asimov’s robot short stories are collected in The Complete Robot, and the Robot Novels include The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire.
3. Asimov’s Autobiography
One of the remarkable surprises in Asimov’s oeuvre is his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920–1954 and In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954–1978. Starting with his birth in 1920 and arrival in the United States to the late 1970s, the two volume autobiography reveals how Asimov became interested in writing and science fiction, his first professional sales and meetings with other science fiction writers, and his eventual breakthroughs and successes as a writer. What distinguishes the autobiography, though, is how well Asimov details the many other aspects of his life, from the mundane and every day, to the cities where he lived (New York and Boston), to the major historical events he lived through, including WW II, McCarthyism, and Vietnam. Toward the end of his life, Asimov completed a more topical (and less detailed) memoir, I. Asimov: a Memoir, that was published posthumously.
4. The Galactic Empire Novels
The three novels that make up Asimov’s Galactic Empire series are all late 40s early 50s space opera fiction. Though stand-alone, sequentially the novels portray the beginnings and ascension of the Galactic Empire that figures prominently in Asimov’s Greater Foundation Series. The Galactic Empire novels include The Stars, Like Dust, The Currents of Space, and Pebble in the Sky.
5. The Gods Themselves
In The Gods Themselves, Asimov broke from his usual form of humans and robots and proved he could tell a plausible and fascinating story about aliens, and in this case a race with three sexes. The novel won the 1972 Nebula Award and the 1973 Hugo Award, and was identified by Asimov as his favorite science fiction novel.
6. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare
You won’t find this on the reading list of any college Shakespeare classes, but Asimov’s analysis of The Bard’s major works is thorough, clear, and astute.
7. Asimov on Science: A 30-Year Retrospective
You really can’t have a representative list of Asimov’s works without including his science writing. Though science non-fiction doesn’t have the shelf life of science fiction and most of Asimov’s science books are out of print, it’s worth noting that he produced a huge volume of popular science books and articles, including 399 monthly science essays for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Asimov on Science is a retrospective collection of 31 essays from that magazine, spanning 1958 to 1989, the years when Asimov contributed to the magazine.
8. Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters
Compiled by Asimov’s younger brother, Stanley, this fascinating collection presents excerpts from thousands of Asimov’s letters. The letters are arranged by subject and accompanied by introductions by Stanley.
9. The Black Widowers
Though mostly known for his science fiction, Asimov also wrote entertaining mystery stories. The Black Widowers stories all take place in a private club in New York City in which six members meet each month and attempt to help a guest solve a mystery. In all of the stories, it is the club waiter Henry who quietly takes in all the information, waits for the members to try and solve the problem first, and then solves the mystery when they can’t. Asimov’s Black Widowers stories are gathered in six books: Tales of the Black Widowers, More Tales of the Black Widowers, Casebook of the Black Widowers, Banquets of the Black Widowers, Puzzles of the Black Widowers, and The Return of the Black Widowers.
10. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible
Demonstrating his propensity to write in most major fiction and non-fiction categories, Asimov even wrote a book about the Bible. Neither a spiritual nor a scholarly work, Asimov’s guide focuses on the names, places, and events in the Bible with helpful historical and chronological context.
11. The Last Question
Next to “Nightfall,” “The Last Question” is probably Asimov’s most famous story, and it was his own personal favorite of all his short fiction. The story is a mediation on entropy, with an AI trying to answer whether there’s a way to stop the universe from eventually dying. Enjoy the ending if you’ve never read this classic.
12. The Foundation Series
The Foundation Series is Asimov’s most famous and celebrated work, and is about the fall of the Galactic Empire and the attempts of scientist Hari Seldon to use the mathematical tools of psychohistory to predict the future and reduce the period of instability between the fall of the old empire and rise of a new civilization.
Provocative ideas underpin the Foundation narrative and elevate it from genre science fiction. The best example might be the healthy tension surrounding psychohistory, with the conceit on the one hand that we can employ science and rationalism successfully to forecast behavior, and the counter on the other that individual variability will always exist and elude analysis and prediction.
The Foundation Series began as a trilogy. In later years, Asimov added two prequels and two sequels. Foundation — the first book in the original trilogy — remains a good place to start for new readers.
Isaac Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, and wrote more than 500 books. The above are just a few of my favorite Asimov reads. What are yours?
Featured image courtesy of listentothemountains via Creative Commons.