Saturday, January 5, 2008

Isaac Asimov

The Robot and Foundation Series
by Isaac Asimov
Recommended Age: 12+

I said somewhere that I dislike pure science fiction. Maybe it's a generational thing, because my father loves it. And if there's one name that simply screams "pure science fiction" it's got to be Isaac Asimov. So you can understand my hesitation in reading any of his books.

But I finally broke down and read one of them, and it was so good I read a whole series of them, and then another whole series. I like them. Dating from the classic age of sci-fi when the cutting-edge work was being published (either as short stories or serial novels) in magazines like Astounding!, they really weren't what I expected. They didn't seem to push extreme philosophical agendas at me. They weren't borderline pornographic, as a lot of sci-fi cover art might suggest. And they weren't loaded with technical concepts and impenetrable weirdness. In fact, they were pretty clean, simple, down-to-earth stories. Mysteries, really. And lots of fun.

I recommend for all readers 12 years and older the Robot series and the Foundation series.

Besides a number of short stories that have been collected in various books such as I, Robot from Bantam Books, the Robot series includes a trilogy of novels featuring a cop named Elijah Baley and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. A recent television series called Total Recall might give you a good idea what their relationship, and their world, is like (in fact, the actor who played the robot partner on that series exactly matched the way I envisioned Daneel).

It's a future time, when the population on earth has spread into vast enclosed cities, where humans live under crowded conditions, and no one quite trusts robots. Mankind has spread to the stars, colonizing various planets that have developed their own distinctive cultures. And Elijah and Daneel, who have a tense working relationship and yet are best friends at the same time, are the only ones who can solve a series of murder mysteries that threaten the future of robots, mankind, and Earth.

The three novels in this series are The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn. I also recommend I, Robot or whatever collection of Asimov's robot stories you may find, as they establish the "three laws of robotics" and cleverly play with various challenges that could arise in the early days of intelligent machines. Among the best-known of these stories (not included in my Bantam book, but I read it somewhere) is Bicentennial Man, recently made into a lovely movie directed by Chris Columbus.

The Foundation series again started as a loose collection of short stories published in science fiction magazines and later developed into a series of novels spanning decades. These stories take place much further along in mankind's history than the Robot novels, and begin with the story of a great statistical mathematician named Hari Seldon who creates a new theory called Psychohistory.

Based on this theory, Seldon believes he can predict future trends in human history, and unless something is done, mankind will head into another dark ages from which he may never emerge. So he plants a colony at a secret location, a colony that will be isolated from the currents of human history that have spread throughout the galaxy, a colony whose future can be guided by periodic "tweaks" in the form of holographic messages from Dr. Seldon himself, as the history he has envisioned plays out. Naturally during the course of centuries, Seldon's Foundation runs up against increasingly alarming tests, including the death-throes of humanity's galactic empire, the ambitions of a great conqueror, the threat of a "second foundation" organized along different principles, and finally, the search for the all-but-mythical cradle of human civilization: Earth.

In one exciting, tightly plotted, ingenious mystery after another, Asimov guides us from one end of the Foundation's history to another. The titles (at least, in the Bantam edition) are Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation, Foundation's Edge, Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, and Foundation and Earth. I hope I haven't forgotten one. At this point I can only find one of these books in my possession (I think I borrowed the rest from a public library). But they are quite entertaining and fairly easy to read. It's exciting to read solid ideas presented with the immediacy and impact of "pulp fiction." And as the earlier books in the series consist of several short stories or novellas combined together, there are really quite a few Foundation mysteries for you to enjoy.

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