Saturday, December 19, 2020

SF Luminaries: Isaac Asimov

Yousuf Karsh: Isaac Asimov (1985)

So if Robert Heinlein was the 'Dean of Science-Fiction writers' and Arthur C. Clarke was the 'Colossus of Science Fiction', what - in the opinion of paperback blurb-writers, that is - was Dr. Isaac Asimov? He was, it would appear, the 'Grand Master of Science Fiction'.

Isaac Asimov: Forward the Foundation (1994)

Whatever your views on this vital matter, it does seem worth mentioning, if only to introduce the subject of the (so-called) 'Big Three' of Science Fiction from the second half of the twentieth century. Clarke dedicated his 1972 book Report on Planet Three and Other Speculations as follows:
In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer.
To this Asimov riposted as follows:

Then, of course, there are Clarke's three famous laws ("As three laws were enough for Newton, I have modestly decided to stop there"):

To which the good doctor (Asimov was the only one with a PhD among the three of them, a distinction of which he took full advantage) replied:

These rather infantile exchanges give you some idea of the level of much of the two writers' work. There's a cheap-smart cleverness to much of it which appeals to teenagers - it certainly did to me - but can wear off somewhat as one processes into middle age.

So what is there to be said for Isaac Asimov? His popular science writing; his historical surveys of this, that and the other (The Bible, American History, Byzantium and Ancient Rome, among many, many others); his joke-books and other ephemera have all lost currency with the passing years. The ongoing controversy about just how many books he had written (500-odd at final count); the 'why aren't you at home writing?' gag whenever anyone spotted him in a public place - all dust, all gone where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

The answer, then, would have to depend on two things: Robots, and the Foundation Trilogy.

The first of these can be summed up in the following set of laws, formulated in 1942 - long before Clarke's - with the help of Astounding editor John W. Campbell:

These may seem, at first sight, somewhat simplistic, but they proved fruitful territory for a long series of stories and novels over the next half-century. Here's one breakdown of their possible implications:

And here's a list of the principal titles in the series:

Isaac Asimov: I, Robot (1950)

    short story collections:

  1. I, Robot (1950)
  2. The Rest of the Robots (1964)
  3. The Complete Robot (1982)
  4. Robot Dreams (1986)
  5. Robot Visions (1990)

  6. novels:

  7. The Caves of Steel (1954)
  8. The Naked Sun (1957)
  9. The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  10. Robots and Empire (1985)

Alex Proyas, dir. : I, Robot (2004)

There's no denying the influence these stories have had on the whole field of SF. In fact, it's hard to consider the omnipresent 'android theme' at all without taking some position on Asimov's laws.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series (1951-53)

However, before waxing too hyperbolic on the subject, it's important to backtrack a little:
In 1966, [Asimov's] Foundation trilogy beat several other science fiction and fantasy series to receive a special Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series". The runners-up for the award were Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Future History series by Robert A. Heinlein, Lensman series by Edward E. Smith and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Mind you, if the vote had been held a few years later, it might well have gone to Frank Herbert's Dune series instead. Or not. Who knows? The point is that Foundation is not only the pinnacle of Asimov's work, but one of the most important sets of stories in SF history.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series (1951-53)

Why? What is it about this series of stories (which first appeared in Campbell's Astounding in the late 1940s) which has given them such longevity? I mean, which of the other contenders for 'best all-time series' - with the exception of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - can still be taken seriously at this late date?

It all comes down to Psychohistory. Psychohistory is an impossible idea, but it appealed strongly to readers then (and now). This imaginary science, invented by Asimov alter-ego Hari Selden, purports to be able to analyse long-term trends in society with sufficient accuracy to be able to foresee the future.

Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series (Folio Society, 2016)

At first all goes swimmingly - the rise of the Foundation on the planet Terminus, the fight with the dying Empire, internal squabbles - until the advent of the Mule, a telepathic mutant who manages to upset the apple-cart (almost) entirely.

If you want a plot summary, you'll find a number of them online - or better still, you might feel inspired to read the series yourself. The point is that it was fascinating: not in spite of its pseudo-scientific trappings but because of them. Asimov always had a smooth way with a yarn, but here he outdid himself, wrapping conundrum within conundrum, mystery within mystery.

Isaac Asimov: Foundation's Edge (1982)

Then, some thirty years after publishing the last story in the series, Asimov decided to go back to it. The result, eventually, was two new sequels and two prequels to the original trilogy. These have elicited mixed opinions. Foundation's Edge itself is extremely readable, and certainly equal in merit to Second Foundation. Can the same be said of all the others? Probably not.

They are all interesting, but hardly necessary for the appreciation of the original series. In many ways their main purpose appears to be to accomplish a link-up with Asimov's similarly extended 'Robot' series into a connected history of the cosmos from the near to the far future.

In any case, here they all are, arranged in chronological order for your convenience:

Isaac Asimov: Foundation Series (cover art by Chris Foss, 1976)

    Foundation prequels:

  1. Prelude to Foundation (1988)
  2. Forward the Foundation (1993)

  3. Original Foundation trilogy:

  4. Foundation (1951)
  5. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  6. Second Foundation (1953)

  7. Extended Foundation series:

  8. Foundation's Edge (1982)
  9. Foundation and Earth (1986)

Isaac Asimov: Galactic Empire Series (1951-93)

    Galactic Empire series:

  1. The Currents of Space (1952)
  2. The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  3. Pebble in the Sky (1950)

In between the 'Robot' and the 'Foundation' series come the 'Galactic Empire' novels. These, though entertaining enough, lack the unity of the other two series, but do - in theory at least - bridge part of the gap between them.

What else? Short stories! Tons and tons of short stories, as befits one of those hardy pioneers who spanned the pulp and the hardback era. These are far too many to discuss in detail, though they do include 'Nightfall', which continues to be routinely included on lists of most important or influential SF stories.

What's most notable about them (imho) is the gradual way in which they morph from the hard Science Fiction of his beginnings into the mystery genre. Not being a great connoisseur of detective stories, it's difficult for me to judge his prowess in this form, but they do, collectively, seem to me to represent a bit of a come-down from his earlier work.

It is, however, arguable that Asimov never wrote anything but mysteries - whether set in the future or the present, fairyland or space. Here, in any case, is a list of his main publications in the field, including two novels and the extensive 'Black Widowers' series:

Isaac Asimov: Murder at the ABA (1976)


  1. The Death Dealers (1958)
  2. Murder at the ABA (1976)

  3. Short stories:

  4. Asimov's Mysteries (1968)
  5. Tales of the Black Widowers (1974)
  6. More Tales of the Black Widowers (1976)
  7. The Key Word and Other Mysteries (1977)
  8. Casebook of the Black Widowers (1980)
  9. The Union Club Mysteries (1983)
  10. Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984)
  11. The Disappearing Man and Other Mysteries (1985)
  12. The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  13. Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990)
  14. The Return of the Black Widowers (2003)

Isaac Asimov: The Black Widowers series (1974-2003)

There's a certain laborious facetiousness in his work in this form - and in the fantasy genre, which he also ventured into in his later years - despite its undoubted smoothness and readability. The constant roguish and would-be flirtatious references to sex also date them somewhat, and make them increasingly difficult to stomach for a contemporary audience. Each to their taste, I suppose. Like virtually all of his fiction, they seem to have sold quite well, judging by the numbers of copies still to be found in second-hand bookshops.

So how should one sum up the life and work of Dr. Isaac Asimov? He appears to have had a good time, for the most part, and to have brought enjoyment to many, many readers. That's not a bad epitaph for any writer.

It's true that his reputation as a sage has now begun to fade, but it's hard to imagine a future where people will no longer read Foundation or the 'Robot' stories. His twin anthologies The Early Asimov (1972) and Before the Golden Age (1974) combine to give an excellent picture of that far-off era when Science Fiction (or the pulp variety, at any rate) was young.

For the rest, it's hard not to feel his levity became him well - at least he resisted the temptation to become a prophet, unlike his near-contemporaries Heinlein and Herbert, or (for that matter) his nemesis Arthur C. Clarke.

Isaac Asimov (1983)

Isaac Asimov


  1. Pebble in the Sky. 1950 (London: Sphere, 1974)
  2. The Stars, Like Dust. 1951 (London: Panther, 1965)
  3. Foundation. 1951 (London: Panther, 1973)
  4. Foundation and Empire. 1952 (London: Panther, 1976)
  5. The Currents of Space. 1952 (London: Panther, 1971)
  6. Second Foundation. 1953 (London: Panther, 1975)
  7. The Caves of Steel. 1954 (London: Panther, 1973)
  8. The End of Eternity. 1955 (London: Panther, 1972)
  9. The Naked Sun. 1957 (London: Panther, 1973)
  10. A Whiff of Death [as 'The Death Dealers', 1958] (London: Sphere, 1973)
  11. Fantastic Voyage. 1966. SF Collector’s Library (London: Corgi, 1973)
  12. The Gods Themselves. 1972. A Fawcett Crest Book (Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1973)
  13. The Heavenly Host (1975)
  14. Murder at the ABA [aka 'Authorised Murder']. 1976. A Fawcett Crest Book (Greenwich, Conn: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1976)
  15. Foundation's Edge. 1982. A Del Rey Book (New York: Ballantine, 1983)
  16. The Robots of Dawn. 1983. A Del Rey Book (New York: Ballantine, 1984)
  17. Robots and Empire. 1985. A Del Rey Book (New York: Ballantine, 1985)
  18. Foundation and Earth. 1986. HarperVoyager (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016)
  19. Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain (1987)
  20. Prelude to Foundation. 1988. HarperVoyager (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016)
  21. Nemesis (1989)
  22. [with Robert Silverberg] Nightfall (1990)
  23. [with Robert Silverberg] Child of Time [aka 'The Ugly Little Boy'] (1992)
  24. Forward the Foundation. 1993. A Bantam Book (New York: Doubleday, 1994)
  25. [with Robert Silverberg] The Positronic Man (1993)

  26. Short Story Collections:

  27. I, Robot. 1950 (London: Panther, 1971)
  28. The Martian Way and Other Stories. 1955 (London: Panther, 1974)
  29. Earth Is Room Enough: Science Fiction Tales of Our Own Planet. 1957 (London: Panther, 1960)
  30. Nine Tomorrows: Tales of the Near Future (1959)
  31. The Rest of the Robots. 1964 (London: Panther, 1970)
  32. Through a Glass, Clearly (1967)
  33. Asimov's Mysteries. 1968 (London: Panther, 1972)
  34. Nightfall and Other Stories. 1969. 2 vols (London: Panther, 1973 / 1976)
  35. The Best New Thing (1971)
  36. The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying. 1972. 3 vols (London: Panther, 1979 / 1974 / 1974)
  37. The Best of Isaac Asimov (London: Sphere, 1973)
  38. Have You Seen These? (1974)
  39. Tales of the Black Widowers. 1974 (London: Panther, 1976)
  40. Buy Jupiter and Other Stories. 1975 (London: Panther, 1977)
  41. The Bicentennial Man. 1976 (London: Panther, 1978)
  42. More Tales of the Black Widowers. 1976. A Panther Book (London: Granada, 1980)
  43. The Key Word and Other Mysteries (1977)
  44. Casebook of the Black Widowers. 1980 (London: Panther, 1983)
  45. The Complete Robot. 1982 (London: Panther, 1983)
  46. The Winds of Change and Other Stories. 1983 (London: Panther, 1984)
  47. The Union Club Mysteries (1983)
  48. Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984)
  49. The Edge of Tomorrow (1985)
  50. The Disappearing Man and Other Mysteries (1985)
  51. The Alternate Asimovs (1986)
  52. The Best Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  53. The Best Mysteries of Isaac Asimov (1986)
  54. Robot Dreams (1986)
  55. Azazel. A Foundation Book (New York: Doubleday, 1988)
  56. Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990)
  57. Robot Visions (1990)
  58. The Complete Stories. Vol. 1 of 2 ['Earth Is Room Enough', 'Nine Tomorrows', & 'Nightfall and Other Stories']. (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990)
  59. The Complete Stories. Vol. 2 of 2 (1992)
  60. Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection (1995)
  61. Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection. 1996. Voyager (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997)
  62. The Return of the Black Widowers (2003)

  63. Children's Books:

  64. David Starr, Space Ranger. 1952 (London: New English Library, 1970)
  65. Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids. 1953 (London: New English Library / Times Mirror, 1980)
  66. Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus. 1954 (London: New English Library, 1983)
  67. Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury. 1956 (London: New English Library, 1983)
  68. Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
  69. Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn. 1958 (London: New English Library, 1974)

  70. [with Janet Asimov]:

  71. Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot (1983)
  72. Norby's Other Secret (1984)
  73. Norby and the Lost Princess (1985)
  74. Norby and the Invaders (1985)
  75. Norby and the Queen's Necklace (1986)
  76. Norby Finds a Villain (1987)
  77. Norby Down to Earth (1988)
  78. Norby and Yobo's Great Adventure (1989)
  79. Norby and the Oldest Dragon (1990)
  80. Norby and the Court Jester (1991)

  81. Non-fiction:

  82. Asimov on Science Fiction. 1981 (London: Granada, 1983)

  83. Edited:

  84. Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s (New York: Doubleday, 1974)
  85. The Annotated Gulliver's Travels: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. 1726 / 1734 / 1896 (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. / Publishers, 1980)

Isaac Asimov, ed. The Annotated Gulliver's Travels (1980)

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