Isaac Asimov wrote a lot, about a significant amount of topics. When I chose to read through his books, what I meant was his ‘Greater Foundation Series’, a series of 14 books (not including I, Robot, which is a collection of short stories). To break up the series for blog posts, I’m going to do them in their sub-series divisions.
We start with the Robot Series. There may be spoilers ahead.
The Robot Series follows the impact of Elijah Baley, a Earth-born police detective, and his friend and partner, the humaniform robot R. Daneel Olivaw, on the direction of humanity in the far future (Asimov doesn’t give a year, but I’m guessing between 2,500 and 3,500 years in the future).
In this future, Earth (population eight billion) has stagnated, with most of their population living in enclosed cities and the Earth quickly losing its ability to feed and supply the people. With them are the Spacers, fifty worlds (combined population 5 billion) colonized more than a thousand years earlier. The Spacers are long lived (centuries, though they count their ages in decades, see below) and dependent to various degrees on the multitudes of robots. The Spacers hold the power, though the series reveals there isn’t a consensus on how to use it.
The Caves of Steel (1953)
The first book introduces the heroes, Elijah and Daneel, tasked to solve the murder of the Spacer doctor who built Daneel to infiltrate Earth society. While Elijah has an Earthman’s distrust of robots to start, he and Daneel soon become friends. Elijah’s detective style is rough and seemingly chaotic, but he slowly makes his way through the mystery. And along the way, he becomes a proponent of Earth taking a lead in colonizing the galaxy.
The Naked Sun (1955)
Elijah Baley finds his presence requested on the Spacer world of Solaria, a planet with the greatest ratio of Robots to Humans in the galaxy (10,000 to 1). On Solaria, human contact is rare, even between married couples, yet somehow someone murdered a prominent doctor. Paired again with Daneel, Baley begins to realize that the Spacer lifestyle – lasting centuries and dependent on robots – is not superior.
The Robots of Dawn (1983)
Written thirty years later, Robots of Dawn puts Baley in space again, this time on Aurora, the first and most powerful of the Spacer planets. The victim is the second humaniform robot, R. Jander Panell. The only man who could have done it is the leader of the Spacer faction that promotes Earth expansion. Being found guilty could trap humanity on Earth and leave the galaxy to the Spacers. Baley must prove his innocence, when he’s the only one who could have done it.
Robots and Empire (1985)
Two hundred years after Robots of Dawn, Elijah Baley’s influence has lead Earth to begin colonizing, establishing the Settler worlds: robot free and rough frontiers still under development. Gladia, a character introduced in The Naked Sun and who came up in The Robots of Dawn, and D.G. Baley, a seventh generation descendant of Elijah Baley, along with Daneel, embark on an adventure through Solaria, Aurora and Earth. This is the only book that doesn’t follow the Detective Murder mystery format, and was written to bridge the gap between the Robot series and the Empire series.
Fun note: Elijah Baley has been dead for more than 160 years, the rest of his life is told through memories of Daneel and Gladia. It’s nice to see how his life ended, and how his life is remembered.
Thoughts on the series and the writing
Obvious statement of the post: Asimov is a genius.
Asimov is an amazing writer, from a whole other style of science fiction writing. There are so many simple ways in which his stories are just different. For example, when discussing lives and the passage of time, it is normal to use decades as the unit of measurement (for example, stating it was twenty two decades ago against two hundred and twenty years).
In terms of world building, Asimov does a great job building two distinct societies – Earth and the Spacers. Each has their advantages and disadvantages, and the interpretation of how and why they’re important changes during the course of the series. I really enjoyed watching it play out, even if I knew how it would end up (given that I have read some of the Foundation series before).
And of course there’s the robots and the Three Laws. Other than knowing the three laws, most of my experience with them has been through the I, Robot movie with Will Smith. But within the books, it’s so much more than just three lines of code.
It gets explained that the Three Laws are so basic in the construction of the positronic brain that failure to follow them is physically painful for the robot. For example, a robot that saw his master injured by poison develops a stutter and a limp. The discussions about the influence of the laws on robotic behavior are deep and thoughtful. Much of the discussion about the various mysteries involves how one might get around the laws, to various degrees of realism.
A lot I’d like to keep in mind as I continue into my own writing career.
I’m excited to start the Galactic Empire novels. I hope to learn some lessons for my own multi-series universe.