(I’d intended to post this on January 2nd, which would have been Isaac Asimov’s 99th birthday but I didn’t get it done in time. All is not lost, though, as January 10th is the 80th anniversary of the March 1939 Amazing Stories hitting the magazine racks and bringing his first published story, “Marooned Off Vesta,” into the world.)
When Isaac Asimov died, among the hundreds of works he left behind were the numerous stories and novels which made up his galaxy- and millennia-spanning super-series of Robots, Empire, and Foundation. This universe can often seem confusing and daunting to new readers, leaving them unsure of what to read and when. There’s no one way to read the series, so I hope to discuss the works in a way that will help readers decide for themselves.
In the end, the series looked like this when placed in its internal chronology:
- The Complete Robot (1982)*
- The Caves of Steel (1954)
- The Naked Sun (1957)
- The Robots of Dawn (1983)
- Robots and Empire (1985)
- The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
- The Currents of Space (1952)
- Pebble in the Sky (1950)
- Prelude to Foundation (1988)
- Forward the Foundation (1993)
- Foundation (1951)
- Foundation and Empire (1952)
- Second Foundation (1953)
- Foundation’s Edge (1982)
- Foundation and Earth (1986)
* See the various “Robot Stories” sections below for the complicated details on this book.
That list of fifteen volumes might produce the impression of a single series produced over the forty-three years from 1950-1993 and, looking back on the books, that’s true. This is the simplest, though perhaps least satisfactory method of reading the series. It involves buying and reading everything, encountering some revelations out of order, and moving back and forth between contrasting styles. Still, some people may prefer it and I certainly recommend reading it this way during at least one re-read.
Contrary to the retrospective impression, looking at the series as it was written, it is not unitary and wasn’t composed in a four-decade flow, but is a fusion of two entirely separate series, each with their sub-components, and both were written in two distinct periods, beginning with magazine short stories in 1940 until a hiatus in 1957 before a final phase from 1982 to 1993. Only a few Robot Stories from 1967 to 1977 appeared in that gap. Aside from the Early Robot Stories, which were produced throughout the Early period, all the Early works–the Foundation Stories, Empire Novels, and Early Robot Novels–were written in separate groups and will be discussed in that way.
The Independent Robot and Foundation Series
The Early Robot Stories (#1)
The Robot Series can be subdivided into the Robot Stories and the Robot Novels. The Robot Stories can be subdivided into the U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men Stories and Others. The U. S. Robots stories can mostly be subdivided into the Donovan and Powell Stories and the Susan Calvin Stories. The first Robot Story was “Robbie,” which appeared in the September 1940 issue of Super Science Stories. It was actually a bit of a standalone, only being revised to be more connected with the later Robot Stories on the publication of the first Robot Stories collection, I, Robot (1950). All eight remaining stories collected in I, Robot were originally published in Astounding, beginning with the Donovan and Powell story “Reason” (April 1941), followed by the Susan Calvin story “Liar!” (May 1941). After two more Donovan and Powell stories, the fourth and the second Susan Calvin story are one and the same: “Escape” (August 1945). Three more Susan Calvin stories round out the collection. It’s important to note that even before the Late Robot Stories, The Complete Robot wasn’t really complete, as the nine stories in I, Robot are woven together by a framing story in which Susan Calvin is talking to a reporter about her time at U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men and which turns the stories into a small piece of future history but this is discarded in The Complete Robot.
During this time, two other Robot Stories appeared in Amazing and Super Science Stories but Asimov considered these lesser works and didn’t collect them until the strange book that is The Rest of the Robots (1964). This collected the previously published Early Robot Novels (see below) with eight robot stories, seven of which were previously uncollected. The stories alone were later brought out by Pyramid in a paperback called Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robots (1966). These included those two 1942 tales and six tales from 1951-8 which included four more Susan Calvin stories (one of which had already been collected in the non-Robot collection, Earth Is Room Enough), the last Donovan (no Powell) story (a short-short), and one Other. These stories had no framing story but they did have introductions by Asimov which were also dropped from The Complete Robot. On the other hand, “Sally” (June 1953) and “Someday” (August 1956) had been collected in non-robot collections and not included in The Rest of the Robots, but were redefined as Robot Stories and included in The Complete Robot.
Donovan and Powell are mechanics of a sort while Susan Calvin is an actual roboticist. Almost all the stories deal with permutations, corner cases, and loopholes regarding the famed Three Laws of Robotics and are forms of logic puzzles which can, if memory serves, be read in most any order and which don’t especially affect the rest of the series beyond giving resonance to the other robot-related narratives.
The Foundation Stories (#11-13)
The Foundation Series is commonly considered to be made up entirely of novels due to the packaging of the famed The Foundation Trilogy (which perception often places obstacles in the way of readers of the first “novel,” especially) but it can actually be subdivided into The Foundation Stories of the 1940s and the Foundation Novels of the 1980s and ’90s. However, unlike the Robot Stories and Novels which differ in both content and category, the collections and novels in the Foundation Series deal with the same content. The series began with “Foundation” in the May 1942 issue of Astounding and the same magazine was home to a 1942 sequel, two 1944 sequels, two 1945 sequels, and a pair from 1948 and ’49. The first four stories are relatively short and self-contained. Each of the next two pairs contains a shorter and longer (short novel length) story which form more connected narratives, but all describe the first four centuries of the one-thousand-year Seldon Plan, which is one man’s practical application of the science of psychohistory he developed – the science of predicting humanity’s large-scale behavior. The objective is to use the Plan and the Foundation he established to shorten the dark ages which will follow the fall of the Galactic Empire into barbarism. It is absolutely essential to read all these and in order with one qualification. When Gnome Press began to gather the stories into books in 1951, they felt the series began abruptly (and the first volume was a little short) so they wanted a prequel story. Asimov obliged and produced the very effective “The Psychohistorians.” In the original stories, Seldon is deceased and appears as a hologram. In the prequel, he is depicted as an old man. This raises the option of reading the eight original stories and encountering the myth first, or reading the prequel and first encountering the man.
The Empire Novels (#6-8)
The Empire Novels were written as stand-alones set in the time of the Trantorian Empire before that of the Foundation (and, in the final chronology, after that of the Robot Stories and Novels). The first written was Pebble in the Sky (1950), which is internally the last Empire novel, showing Trantor as a power and Earth as a backwater. This was followed by The Stars, Like Dust (1951) and The Currents of Space (1952), set before Pebble. None of the Empire Novels share characters or plots and only share the loose background milieu of the Trantorian Empire at widely separated periods. These can be read in any order (though date of publication or “strength of Trantor” orders would be better than random). Beyond that, they are not as highly regarded as the main Robot and Foundation works by most, so might not be read at all by people looking to skip volumes but I like them, both as interesting tales in their own right and as resonating with the Foundation stories which depict the end of the Empire these books depict in younger days.
The Early Robot Novels (#2-3)
The Robot Novels can be subdivided into Early and Late. The Early ones are The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957). These introduce the new characters of the human detective, Elijah Bailey, and his robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. The Novels share a common milieu, though one is set on Earth and the other on a “Spacer” world, set well after most Robot Stories and only loosely connected to them. Each, in turn, is loosely connected to each other in plot terms, as each is a self-contained mystery which can be read in either order but, in character terms, the first has the low ranking detective meet his new partner and the second shows them as older and established partners, so the order matters.
The Middle Robot Stories (#1)
The concluding comments on The Early Robot Stories apply to these as well, so the rest of this section concerns minutiae.
There were no Robot Stories between those collected in The Rest of the Robots, ending with “Lenny” (January 1958) and “Segregationist” (April 1967) but the latter marked the start of a new set of a dozen tales which went on until “Think!” (March 1977). Eight of these were collected in various non-robot collections and reprinted in The Complete Robot (including the sole Baley/Olivaw short story) while four were first collected in that collection. Oddly, two of those appeared in later collections but two (both published in Boys’ Life: “A Boy’s Best Friend” and “Point of View”) are not available in any other individual book. A further odd note is that “Point of View” is one of several Multivac (supercomputer) stories but the only one to appear in The Complete Robot despite all of them dealing with what Asimov sometimes described as a “stationary robot” (whereas robots are sometimes called “mobile computers”).
The Late Sequels (#14, #4)
Before Asimov shifted to writing mostly non-fiction in 1959 (though never abandoning short fiction and even writing the novelization of Fantastic Voyage in 1966 and the singleton, The Gods Themselves, in 1972), the Early Novels and even the collections tended to be about 70,000 words each. When his publishers and fans persuaded him to start writing science fiction novels again, the former encouraged him to write longer books, so he doubled the length. This resulted in more room for milieu, plot, and character but also produced a much more relaxed and dense feel. Other than that, it’s important to address another common misconception and note that the first of the Late Novels are much like their predecessors. Foundation’s Edge (1982) is a single long novel but extends the narrative of the previous stories in compatible terms. Robots of Dawn (1983) is simply a third Baley/Olivaw mystery. As such, they can be treated as the first of the new, but also the last of the old, books and read accordingly.
The Joined Robot and Foundation Series
The Join (#5, #15)
The books which firmly establish the Late period are Robots and Empire (1985) and Foundation and Earth (1986). While the 1985 book is a Robot Novel and has “Empire” in the title, it’s too far a stretch to consider it an Empire novel and it’s also not a fourth self-contained Baley/Olivaw mystery. Without spoiling anything, it is here that the Robot and Foundation Series are joined, which makes the whole series look different. Choosing to read this as #5 or reading it as one of the last novels will have an impact on a reader’s experience of the series which can’t be overstated. As it recasts the future of the Robots and Empire portion specifically, so Foundation and Earth yet again recasts the series looking back and has an ending which is peculiar, to say the least. Its most direct transformation is on Foundation’s Edge, turning it into a two-part novel, but it has a massive effect on the Foundation Series and the series as a whole. In whatever reading order, it will generally be last or nearly so.
The Foundation Prequels (#9-10)
The Late Foundation Novels can be divided into the Sequels and the Prequels. Asimov found himself at something of a loss when considering how to follow up Foundation and Earth, so when a fan wondered about young Hari Seldon, he seized on the idea and wrote two prequels (Prelude to Foundation (1988), Forward the Foundation (1993)) on just that. These novels are pretty tightly connected with one another and presuppose the things revealed in the 1985-6 novels which completely transform the original trilogy, so these also represent a critical decision. One thing to note about Forward the Foundation is that, in a nod to the original stories, it was ostensibly published as a group of novellas in IAsfm/Asimov’s and collected into a book but, by my recollection, it felt more like an already-written novel that was parceled out in the magazine as a stealth serial.
The Late Robot Stories (Robot Dreams, Robot Visions, Gold)
Finally, “The Complete Robot, Final Edition” has not yet been produced, so there are five robot stories, written from 1986 to 1990 after a gap from 1977, which appear only in three mostly reprint and/or non-robot collections. Robot Dreams (1986) contains the Susan Calvin story “Robot Dreams” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1986); Robot Visions (1990) contains “Christmas Without Rodney” (IAsfm, Mid-December 1988), “Too Bad” (The Microverse, November 1989), and “Robot Visions” (Robot Visions, April 1990); and Gold (1995) contains “Cal” (Doubleday, 1990).
Most or all of the information in this post comes from my own collection and memories of long-ago readings, from Isaac Asimov’s three volumes of autobiography, and from the ISFDB. As always, any corrections are very welcome.