Last millennium (and let's pause to say how cool it is that we live in an age where we can say that), I undertook a reading project to read all the books that were part of Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Robot stories before the year 2000. For various reasons, I can't say I was successful—in my own defense, there are enough to fry a positronic brain—but even then I knew that the series had staying power. In fact, this month will see the publication of Isaac Asimov’s I Robot: To Obey by Mickey Zucker Reichert, the second book in a brand new trilogy that explores Asimov's brilliantly conceived Three Laws of Robotics, 73 years after Asimov's very first robot story was published.
Here's the first part of a stroll through Isaac Asimov's Robot and Foundation stories....
Asimov's Robot Stories
By 1940, Isaac Asimov was tired of science fiction's usual portrayal of robots as villains. He envisioned a future where robots could be useful tools for human use, not something to be feared. He wrote a series of wonderful short stories that explored this idea, and even unified their behavior with the now-famous Three Laws of Robotics, a set of rules that govern a robot's safety, utility and self-preservation. Eventually, the best of these stories were collected in on of science fiction's classic short story collections, I, Robot (1950). Others were collected in a lesser-but-still-fun collection called Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robots (1966). All of them were later collected in The Complete Robot, though Asimov wrote a handful of robot stories after its publication.
Most of the earlier short stories explored some aspect of the Three Laws and how they played off one another. They occasionally featured the scientists Dr. Susan Calvin, who came up with the idea of the positronic brain that governs the robots' behavior. It is inside the positronic brain that the Three Laws are codified.
Asimov's Robot Novels
Asimov knew a good thing when he saw it, and he later told novel-length stories about the Robots, set in an era of human existence where the people of an overpopulated Earth were at odds with Spacers, humans who have since moved off-planet and routinely make use of robots. The first novel was the classic Caves of Steel (1954), a murder mystery that paired the human Elijah Baley with the humanlike Spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw. (Robots are designated by the R. initial.) Together they investigate the murder of a Spacer Ambassador on Earth. Elijah and Daneel would team up again for two sequels: The Naked Sun (1957), where a murder takes place on a Spacer world called Solaria (a problem for Elijah, who, like most Earthers, suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of open spaces); and The Robots of Dawn (1983), where they must solve the mystery of a "roboticide," in which the mind of a humaniform robot is destroyed. A fourth Robot book, Robots and Empire (1985), takes place two centuries after Elijah Baley's death, when Earthers (called "Settlers") have overcome their fear of space and have colonized other planets. The story has R. Daneel Olivaw, a Spacer named Gladia Delmarre originally from the planet Solaria and D.G. Baley (a seventh-generation descendant of Elijah's) investigating the mysterious destruction of several "Settler" spaceships on the now-abandoned Solaria.
Written more than 30 years after Caves of Steel was published, Robots and Empire was an attempt by Asimov to bridge his two popular series: the Robot stories and his popular Foundation stories, discussed later.
Asimov's Empire Novels
Though not directly related to the Robot stories, Isaac Asimov wrote a trilogy of so-called Empire novels that are loosely connected to his Foundation series, so when he later decided to link his Foundation stories with his Robot stories, the Empire novels got pulled into the same timeline, situated between them. So, chronologically: The Robot stories take place as mankind is moving to the stars, the Empire novels take place during the time of the Galactic Empire, and the Foundation novels depict the fall of the Empire.
The Stars, Like Dust (1951) actually takes place before the formation of the Galactic Empire. In it, a man from the planet Nephelos is attending the University of Earth when he learns that his nobleman father is caught conspiring against the Tyranni, a minor Empire and ruler of 50 planets.
The Currents of Space (1951) is a story of the Haves and Have-Nots. While the Squires of Sark live in luxury and wealth, the providers of that wealth on the planet Florinia below labor endlessly. Because a revolt would mean galactic war, this oppression is sanctioned by the Trantorian Empire.
Pebble in the Sky (1950) is about a mid-20th-century man who is accidentally sent forward in time to a future governed by a great Galactic Empire. Earth, now radioactive, is a lesser part of the Empire, whose center of power is the planet known as Trantor. He becomes the subject of a scientific experiment that accidentally gives him telepathic abilities.
What Goes Up, Must Come Down
In one sense, the Robot and Empire series depicted mankind's rise to power. But as we all know, what goes up must come down. Return to this space next week for a look at Asimov's classic Foundation series!