Isaac Asimov reading guide

Who was Isaac Asimov?

Isaac Asimov in 1959 at age 39. Colour added by SFVR staff.

If you appreciate science fiction and have never heard of Isaac Asimov, you’ve probably been hiding in a cave or perhaps living in an alternate universe. One of the most prolific writers of general science and science fiction, Isaac Asimov was born Isaak Yudovick Ozimov in Petrovichi, Russia in 1920, and was brought to the US at the age of three.

An American science fiction author extraordinaire, professor and teacher of biochemistry at Boston University, outspoken humanist and rationalist, Asimov is considered one of the masters of science fiction (along with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein).

His output was prolific. During his life he wrote 500 books, both science fiction and nonfiction, along with countless short stories, essays, articles, papers, and letters. He was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International and president of the American Humanist Association. He had a gift for explaining complex science subjects in clear and understandable language and was once given the nickname “The Great Explainer”.

“Isaac Asimov had writer’s block once,” fellow science fiction writer Harlan Ellison said, referring to Asimov’s impressive output. “It was the worst ten minutes of his life.”

Asimov died of heart and kidney failure in 1992, complications of a HIV infection he contracted from a transfusion of tainted blood during a triple-bypass operation in 1983. HIV was not revealed as the cause of his death until 2002, when his widow Janet published the memoir “It’s Been a Good Life”.

Asimov’s Foundation series

As a science fiction writer, his most famous creations were his Foundation and Robot novels. The original Foundation novels, FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, tell the story of Hari Seldon, a scientist who has figured out how to predict the future based on a branch of mathematics he developed called psychohistory. The behaviour of a mass of people is predictable if the quantity of this mass is very large. The larger the mass (in this case, galactic populations), the more predictable the future. Using psychohistory, Seldon foresees the fall of the galactic empire and a dark age lasting thirty thousand years before a second great empire arises. To shorten this dark age, he created two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy, each foundation designed to keep scientific knowledge alive. Most of the events in the Foundation novels revolve around the first foundation on a planet called Terminus. The Foundation saga is set so far into the future that Earth is nothing but a memory.

He continued the Foundation series later with Foundation and Earth, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. Eventually, in later novels, he combined his Foundation series with his robot series and his galactic empire books (see below for a list and Asimov’s preferred reading order). The robot novels are set in an earlier time period, while his Foundation series comes after. 1,500,000 words and eighteen novels are joined to create a timeline that spans 20,000 years. The stand alone novel Nemesis also gets drawn into the same timeline. In Forward the Foundation, Hari Seldon mentions a twenty-thousand-year-old story of “a young woman that could communicate with an entire planet that circled a sun named Nemesis.”

Asimov’s Robot series

His other famous works are his acclaimed robot series. The first four robot novels, The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire, featured Elijah Baley and his human-form robotic partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. They focus on the conflicts between the descendants of human settlers from other planets, “Spacers”, and an overcrowded Earth. The spacer worlds are sparsely populated, occupants living in luxury with robots servicing their every need. Spacers broke off politically from Earth years ago and have military and economic might that the Earth can not match. In contrast, the population of the Earth is confined to densely populated cities, living beneath steel domes in cramped conditions. Earthlings live off processed food, never see the sky, fear open spaces, and consider any type of robotic creation abhorrent. These robot novels are a marvelous blend of science fiction and detective fiction, with R. Daneel Olivaw playing a Doctor Watson type character to Elijah’s Sherlock Holmes. Throughout the robot series, the laws of robotics Asimov created are frequently mentioned.

Laws of robotics

In the short story collection, I, Robot, Asimov established three laws of robotics, which every robot with a “positronic” brain must follow. Later he added the Zeroth Law of Robotics. In total his four laws were:

  1. First law
    A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. Second law
    A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. Third law
    A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
  4. Fourth law
    A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Writing style and themes in Asimov’s work

Isaac Asimov wrote in a clear and direct style. His stories are overwhelmingly driven by dialogue. Descriptions are sparse, characterization is slim, but his ideas are powerful and numerous. Science fiction critic James Gunn, famously complained that in Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot, “virtually all plot develops in conversation”. His style is very easy to read, but has been criticised for lacking depth. Asimov preferred short sentences and direct speech. You could see his style as the polar opposite to Frank Herbert’s depth and complexity and perhaps (at a stretch) a science fiction version of Ernest Hemmingway. Asimov believed extra adverbs and metaphors would unnecessarily clutter up his work. Like a true scientist, his overwhelming desire was to be clear. This is hardly surprising, given his background as a professor of biochemistry and his other passion, writing about science in an easily digestible fashion. The themes, ideas, and situations Asimov used throughout his writing can seem cliched or obvious now, but that’s only because he was, in many cases, the first to use them in fiction. His influence on the science fiction genre has been profound. Arguably, any story that touches on galactic empires, robotics, space travel, time travel, parallel universes, and the impact of technology on human society and religion owes something to his earlier works. It’s easy to forget that the short stories that would become the Foundation series first appeared in print way back in 1953.

Movie and TV adaptations of Asimov’s novels

To date, there have been surprisingly few adaptations of Asimov’s work into movies and television, considering his stature in the science fiction field. His dialogue-driven writing style would seem to be an ideal basis for screenplays everywhere. What has been produced so far has been mostly average at best. Some of the low lights include the Bicentennial Man in 1999 and I, Robot in 2004. What looks extremely promising, however, is Apple TV’s upcoming big budget adaptation of Foundation, due out on 24 September 2021. Here’s a list of the adaptations in order of quality. Even though Apple’s TV Foundation has yet to be released, based on the trailer alone, I’ve placed this at number one. The competition isn’t strong.

  1. Foundation (2021). Based on Asimov’s Foundation books, the series is being created by Apple TV+, produced by David S. Goyer, with a selection of different directors and writers. The first episode will be directed by Rupert Sanders (most famous for the 2017 film Ghost in a Shell). The main characters include Jared Harris as Hari Seldon, Lee Pace as the Emperor of the Galaxy (Brother Day) and Lou Llobell as Gaal Dornick. Read all about Apple Asimov’s Foundation TV series here.
  2. The end of Eternity (1987) (Konets Vechnosti) A little known Russian adaption of Asimov’s The end of eternity is directed by Andrei Yermash, written by Budimir Metalnikov and Andrei Yermash, and stars Oleg Vavilov and Gediminas Girdvainis. Unlike the other adaptations mentioned below, Yermash’s movie is reasonable true to the novel. At the time of writing, The end of Eternity is available to watch on Vimeo here, but without an English translation.
  3. Bicentennial Man (2004). Half comedy, half science fiction soap opera, Bicentennial Man stars Robin Williams, Sam Neill, and Embeth Davidtz. Chris Columbus directs. The film is based on the 1992 novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (which in turn is based on Asimov’s 1976 novelette The Bicentennial Man ). Robin Williams is a human form robot who quests to become completely human over a 200 year period, trying to find friendship and love along the way. Unless he becomes completely human, he believes he will not be worthy of true love (something like that anyway). It’s Hollywood at its worst.
  4. I, Robot (2004) is a star vehicle for actor Will Smith. It’s action packed, brainless, and doesn’t even attempt to use Asimov’s ideas in any meaningful way. Set in 2035, robots are common place and trusted, operating under Asimov’s three laws of robotics to keep them in check. Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) investigates the alleged suicide of U.S. Robotics founder Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) and quickly concludes that, rather than suicide, a human-like robot has murdered him. They quickly uncover a broader conspiracy that threatens humankind. Bridget Moynahan co-stars as Smith’s robotic expert sidekick. The plot is as threadbare as it sounds, and owes little to Asimov’s original stories, apart from the title and the mention of the laws of robotic.
  5. There were also two, low budget adaptations of Asimov’s Nightfall novel (B grade at best and completely forgettable), one in 1988 and the other in 2000.

Asimov novels you must read

Foundation books (described above)

Foundation (1951)

Foundation and Empire (1952)

Second Foundation  (1953)

Foundation’s Edge (1982)

Foundation and Earth  (1986)

Prelude to Foundation  (1988)

Forward the Foundation  (1993)

Robot books (described above)

I, Robot (1950)

The Caves of Steel  (1954)

The Naked Sun  (1957)

The Robots of Dawn  (1983)

Robots and Empire (1985)

Separate you must not miss books

The End of Eternity (1955)
A masterfully written time travel novel that follows Andrew Harlan, an Eternal in charge of carefully controlling and performing changes to reality. Eternals are an elite group in the far distant future who calculate the ebb and flow of human history, making subtle tweaks along the way for the benefit of all mankind. Harlan falls in love with one of his subjects, Noÿs Lambent, and everything begins to unravel.

The Gods Themselves (1972)
In the twenty-second century, the people of Earth unknowingly draw free energy from a parallel universe, using a process created by aliens. The energy drawn has implications for both universes. A cast of human and alien character wrestle with the implications…

Nemesis (1989)

Galactic Empire books

Pebble in the Sky (1950)

The Stars, Like Dust (1951)

The Currents of Space (1952)

Recommended secondary reading

Nightfall – Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (1990)

The Ugly Little Boy – Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (1992)

The Positronic Man – Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (1993)

Short Story Collections

The Martian Way and Other Stories (1955)

Earth Is Room Enough (1957)

Nine Tomorrows (1959)

The Rest of the Robots  (1964)

Through a Glass, Clearly (1967)

Nightfall and Other Stories (1969)

Buy Jupiter and Other Stories (1975)

The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories (1976)

The Complete Robot (1982)

Isaac Asimov’s own recommended reading order for the Foundation, Robot and galactic empire novels

In the preface to Prelude to Foundation, Asimov suggested a perfect order to read his Foundation and Robot series (and stand alone galactic empire novels). At the time, Forward the Foundation (1993) had not been published. However, it would have come directly after Prelude to Foundation (1988).

  1. The Complete Robot (1982) and/or I, Robot (1950)
  2. Caves of Steel (1954)
  3. The Naked Sun (1957)
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  5. Robots and Empire (1985)
  6. The Currents of Space (1952)
  7. The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  8. Pebble in the Sky (1950)
  9. Prelude to Foundation (1988)
  10. Forward the Foundation (1993)
  11. Foundation (1951)
  12. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  13. Second Foundation (1953)
  14. Foundation’s Edge (1982)
  15. Foundation and Earth (1986)