Asimov’s Centennial: Conclusion of Phase One

It’s taken awhile but this post will complete the first phase of my Asimov Centennial Project. I’ll review three last stories which will complete the coverage of I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy and provide an index to all the coverage of Asimov’s output from 1939-1950.

Robot and Foundation Stories

The first story to be written outside the timeframe of The Early Asimov and the final regular story to be written and included in I, Robot is “The Evitable Conflict.” In it, Stephen Byerley (who first appeared in “Evidence”) is now World Co-ordinator and dealing with a problem he wants Susan Calvin’s help with. A fascinating portrait of an Earth which has been reorganized into four Regions with Vice Co-ordinators under Byerley is painted and, in each of them, there are subtle but disturbing problems with what should be the perfect guidance of the Machines (or computers, or stationary robots, which still fall under the domain of the Three Laws which ensure no harm can come to humans). An array of impossible possibilities is presented, such as machine error (impossible by design and Law) or human error (impossible because the errors would produce other inconsistencies). Byerley believes it may have something to do with a “Society for Humanity” which is opposed to the role of machines in society. Susan determines that that is correct, but not in the way Byerley thought.

There are two problems in this successful story. A minor one is that, while the thematic fireplace element at the open and close and the trips through each of the Regions of the world demonstrates the story’s excellent structure, it’s almost too excellent – a little too deliberate and obvious. More importantly, the solution to the problem is supposed to rely on logic and it is logical at every step of the way except the sophistry involved in expanding a premise which anticipates a major, and more earned, change later in the Robot sequence. Still, the problem is suitably puzzling, Byerley and Calvin make for an interesting pair, the future world is imaginatively unusual (if a bit schematic), and there is substantial philosophical material to think about if the reader wants to, and a very good puzzle if that would be enough.

While not strictly a story, Asimov did add three or four thousand words of a framing narrative around and between the stories in I, Robot in the form of a reporter recalling, in 2064, a couple of interviews done with an elderly Susan Calvin in 2057. It rearranges the individual stories from their published order and weaves them into a narrative which describes how, after the last world war shortly before Calvin was born in 1982, the first limited robots were developed at the end of the millennium, grew in abilities, and essentially came to run the world. In the meantime, the nations of Earth coalesced first into Regions and then into the Federation of those Regions while, beyond Earth, interplanetary travel and commerce was developed, culminating in the hyper-drive and the first colonies around nearby stars.

While not dramatically plotted as an independent story, it does portray quite a future history and does powerful work in amplifying the Robot stories into a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

(This framing story is not available apart from this book. For instance, one of the weaknesses of The Complete Robot, aside from the fact that it became incomplete, is that it arranges the stories differently and drops this text. On the other hand, The Complete Robot contains two stories not otherwise available in book form.)

The Psychohistorians” was not initially published in a magazine like the other Foundation stories, but was written to ease the reader into the series as presented in book form and to lengthen the first volume of the trilogy to something more like the subsequent volumes.

Young Gaal Dornick makes his way from his small, remote world of Synnax to the capital world of the Galactic Empire, Trantor. Still deep in sensory overload, he finds himself being questioned by a stranger and explains that he’s a mathematician who has come to Trantor to work for the psychohistorian Hari Seldon. Leaving that meeting, he returns to his room and is surprised to meet Hari Seldon, himself. He’s even more surprised when Seldon proves to him that the Empire is near death. And he’s yet more surprised the next morning, when he’s arrested by the Commission for Public Safety and finds himself on trial, along with Seldon, for being a danger to the Empire which has a chance, however slight, of resulting in his execution. A courtroom drama with twists and turns then follows.

Even as an independent story, this would be pretty good and, as an establishing piece for the stories which follow, it’s excellent. Gaal is a sort of stereotyped “country boy in the big city” but is effective and Seldon steals the show as the Obi-Wan/Yoda to his Luke. (In fact, Gaal literally tells him he stole the show in one scene.) Trantor and the Empire are suitably stupendous. The fascinating concept of psychohistory is conveyed clearly, quickly, and dramatically.

(By the way, somewhat akin to the framing story in I, Robot, this story begins with a quote from the “Encyclopedia Galactica.” In the original versions of the other stories, some have quotes from the works of a Ligurn Vier and many have none at all. The Ligurn Vier quotes were rewritten as Encyclopedia Galactica extracts and more were distributed throughout the trilogy. The Foundation stories work superbly either way but the book version does result in a different perspective on the Encyclopedia (and related issues).)


In the future, I’ll be reviewing Asimov’s works more or less by the book. While, on the one hand, there were some fairly extended periods where he published no new SF novels (1959-81 saw only the novelization of Fantastic Voyage in 1966 and the original novel The Gods Themselves in 1972) and, on the other, there were no extended periods in which he didn’t publish a story in the magazines, he still shifted his focus to books generally and I think it will be better (certainly easier) to cover them that way. What has been covered so far are the contents of the following books:

  • Pebble in the Sky (1950; alternate version from The Alternate Asimovs (1986))
  • I, Robot (1950)
  • Foundation (1951)
  • Foundation and Empire (1952)
  • Second Foundation (1953)
  • The Early Asimov (1972; paperback version published in two volumes (1974))

Asimov’s Mysteries (1968) and Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) each include one story from this period and The Rest of the Robots (1964, paperback version containing only stories as Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robot (1966)) contained three.

They’ve been covered in the following posts:

(Half of Foundation is in “Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943” and the other half is in “Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945” while I, Robot and The Early Asimov are split over all the posts.)

I’ve also covered the first volume of his two-volume, 640,000-word autobiography, In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920-1954, in the following posts:

Asimov’s Centennial: Two Stories, February 1947-March 1949 (Second Foundation)

These two stories (of about 25 and 50 thousand words) make up the contents of Second Foundation, the final volume of the original Foundation trilogy.

It is strange how the wordage of Asimov’s Foundation stories fit so neatly into three ordinary volumes (four shorter tales and a prequel making about 75,000 words, then 25 and 50 thousand word stories before this pair of identical lengths) while the focal points of the stories did not. For instance, the two Mule stories are 75 thousand words but are split over the last two books, which open and close with non-Mule stories which have distinct characters and plots though both stories in Second Foundation deal with the notion of a “search” for the Second Foundation. Many people have trouble with these stories for the very reason that they read them as “novels” and find them “disjointed” but I’ve always loved the time-lapse of more or less self-contained stories which combine to tell a larger story.

“Now You See It…”

In book form, this appears as “Search by the Mule.” Initially, Asimov preferred to call it “Now You See It–” though, in its magazine publication, this and the next story each had an ellipsis instead of an em dash. The discussion of this requires an immediate and unavoidable spoiler to the previous tale, though I’ll be as non-specific as possible.

In our last story, we left off with the Mule’s designs of learning the location of his enemy, the Second Foundation, having been thwarted. In the time between then and the opening of this tale, the Mule has been sending the Converted Captain (now General) Pritcher on search after search, continuing to scour the Galaxy for the one force capable of challenging the Mule for supremacy. Pritcher now believes that the Second Foundation does not exist, but the Mule feels that some of his agents have been subtly altered in ways that suggest a long-range plan, which can only show the hand of the Second Foundation. For the next search, he provides Pritcher with a partner: brash, young, and Unconverted Bail Channis, who may bring a new energy and perspective to the search. The Mule tells each a slightly different version of the plan and each is more opponent than ally to the other. This comes to a head when Channis believes he’s discovered the location, sneakily launches the ship while discussing this with Pritcher, they reach the seemingly unimportant, modest world of Rossem, meet the locals including the Elders and the Governor of the world, and accuse each other of being traitors to the Mule. At this standoff, the Mule, who has been following them, arrives and more reversals and a sort of “Mentalic Standoff” follows.

Lucas is often accused of excessive homage to Kurosawa and others to make Star Wars but he also borrowed a lot from the Foundation series. Vader scouring the galaxy for the location of the hidden rebel base possibly owes much to this and some of the thrilling psychological combat and conflicts in the Emperor’s attempt with Vader to turn Luke also owes a lot to this. The uneasy relationship between Pritcher and Channis is compelling and the final scenes with more players magnify this into gripping combat in which hardly a muscle is moved. It also contains much of interest along the way such as the Interludes which depict Second Foundation members communicating with one another in a way that is practically, though not literally, psychic. To borrow a description from the next story, it is explained that Second Foundation speech must be translated:

It will be pretended therefore, that the First Speaker did actually say, “First, I must tell you why you are here,” instead of smiling just so and lifting a finger exactly thus.

On the downside, it seems to me that there is a logical glitch, and/or the Mule is described as being a little more powerful than we were previously given to understand and a detail of the final standoff may not be completely convincing to the hypercritical but, if anything, these are all pretty minor blemishes to a very good tale, though it’s somewhat modest compared to most other Foundation stories, being fairly simple and half the length of the novel-length tales around it. The reason for that is that Asimov enjoyed writing repeated puzzles like the Robot stories but didn’t enjoy writing the extremely complicated Foundation stories with their extended narrative connections and had intended to end the series with this. Fortunately, Campbell made him change the ending to be less conclusive and to write at least one more novel-length tale.

“…And Now You Don’t”

In book form, this appears as “The Search by the Foundation.” Set a generation after the Mule’s time, (specifically in 11,692 of the Galactic Era or 348 of the Foundation) it has two main threads. Precocious and willful fourteen-year-old Arcadia Darell, granddaughter of Bayta Darell (heroine of the story, “The Mule”) initially features in both of them. Through her, we get the backstory that has led to this point and meet the first of the conspirators to connect with her father, Toran. Because the Second Foundation is suspected to have interfered with the Mule, some citizens of the First Foundation are slipping into complacency, believing the Second Foundation will play fairy godmother at need while others feel a hatred for the group which may be running them like puppets. Arkady (as she prefers to be called) manipulates a boy into providing her with equipment she can use to spy on the conspirators’ meetings and develops plans of her own. When one of them, Homir Munn (a librarian and family friend), is sent to Kalgan, which had been the Mule’s imperial capital world, to see if anything about the Second Foundation can be learned there, Arkady stows away. In alternate shadowy scenes from the Second Foundation’s point of view, we learn that the Plan has been badly damaged by the Mule and is likely to fail utterly without their (mis)application of psychohistory to individuals in a much more aggressive and finely tuned way that has been their usual practice.

After the first third of the story, the second thread begins. Arkady and Munn arrive at Kalgan where they meet the current “First Citizen” (dictator), Stettin, and his mistress, Lady Callia. Things initially go in a middling fashion, with Munn failing to get permission to examine the shrine of the Mule from Stettin, but with Arkady managing to succeed with Callia, who then succeeds with Stettin after all. However, things go worse when Stettin decides, from Munn’s lack of progress, that there is no Second Foundation and decides he’s ready to make war on the Foundation, detaining Munn and deciding that Arkady will be a useful bride for him in a few years. This causes Callia to help Arkady escape Kalgan, during which Arkady learns a couple of things – not everything is as it seems and she believes she knows where the Second Foundation is, which she also believes puts her life at risk. She decides not to return home to Terminus, but flees to her birthplace of Trantor. On the verge of being captured by the Kalganian police, she’s befriended by a childless couple who were on an agricultural trade mission but are now returning to Trantor.

Past the halfway point, war breaks out and, as it usually does, it starts badly for the First Foundation. Very unusually, there is an on-screen space battle which is brief but effectively done. That is the climax of the purely physical story of Kalgan vs. the First Foundation but there is still the first thread of the partly-psychological story of the First Foundation vs. the Second Foundation to return to. In a way, the final sixth of the tale is an extended denouement but it does contain a scene akin to the murder mysteries in which all the suspects are gathered together and the detective details the crime and names the culprit, except that there are multiple would-be detectives. After a round-robin in which almost everyone claims they know the secret, the secret is finally revealed and matters come to a conclusion of what will be a rather brutal sort and the very brief true denouement follows.

(Both Asimov and his critics usually credit him for inventing the science fiction/mystery hybrid with the Robot novels but, really, most of his Robot stories and even these Foundation tales, especially this one, are at least puzzle stories and some are already essentially mystery hybrids. They may not have literal detectives explicitly solving murder cases but they are still formally mysteries. Instead of a whodunnit, this is a wherizit.)

While not apparent from this synopsis, one of the most striking things about this tale is its humor. It is a deadly serious story in essence but Arkady is a lively, charming character whose brilliance and naivete combine to produce humorous reactions in others as they tend to see her as a sort of tiny sorceress. But she’s an equally effective dramatic character. When she realizes she’s in over her head while trying to flee Kalgan, her emotional pain and feelings of isolation are very effectively drawn. Even through all this, she keeps her wits about her. While she is by far the most effective character of this tale, the deft character touches aren’t limited to her. For instance, the heartbreak one character feels when he finds out he’s not who he thought he was is a brief but powerful moment and takes what could be a conventional thing and skews it into perceptive originality, much like the internals of Pritcher being controlled by the Mule in earlier stories is unusual, putting the horror in the reader rather than in the controlled man, himself.

In a more general sense, this story continues to produce its mythico-historical resonances which is one of my favorite things about this series. Having starships named after famous characters featured in earlier stories, quoting famous sayings from leaders from centuries before, echoing dynamics from Earth’s own Roman, Roman Catholic, and other history, and much more, gives these tales the tangibility and power of 1776 and 1066 and all that. The thumbnail sketch here of Kalgan (joining those of Rossem, Trantor, Neotrantor, and others in earlier tales) also contributes to this effect.

While not necessarily virtues or flaws, there are a couple of odd views of science and human nature portrayed in this, though. One might view our power of speech as a great connecting force for humanity (though it obviously doesn’t work perfectly all the time even for people skilled in its use and especially not for those of us who aren’t) but it’s portrayed here as “the prison bars of ordinary speech” which isolate us from one another when a more immediate emotional reading of one another could unite us. There is also an oddly utilitarian view of science when a branch of science and the technology related to it which is developed in the story is seen as something that will become inactive and fade from memory because it’s seemingly useless but much of what drives science (as opposed to science grants) is pure love of knowledge and many developments arise from apparently useless things in unforeseen ways.

Moving on to flaws in this very enjoyable tale, the biggest is a structural one. Arkady is obviously the star and animating force until she leaves Kalgan, after which she only gets a single chapter and a brief scene. Given the nature of the unfolding plot, this is perhaps unavoidable, but it is also regrettable.

There are also either three main logical flaws in the story or three failures in my perception. Many readers may wish to skip the bullet points because all three may be irrelevant to them, the second approaches or crosses into spoiling the previous story, and the third one does the same to this story.

  • The whole notion of information on the Second Foundation being scarce except for Hari Seldon’s statement that it’s at the other end of the galaxy seems problematic. Leaving aside the specifics, I have to ask why Seldon would say even that much. If you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy, you shouldn’t say you’re creating a secret society to rule the galaxy. (This is almost certainly an artifact of Asimov making this up as he went along.)
  • The rise of the Second Foundation to prominence after dealing with the Mule in the previous story also bothers me. Since the only people in the room were the Mule himself, an unconscious and Converted Pritcher, and two Second Foundation agents, how could anything about the Second Foundation have gotten out? But perhaps we can grant that the Mule uncharacteristically laid out his suspicions to a Fleet commander before going to the planet’s surface and that got out somehow and grew in the telling.
  • Finally, whatever their resentment, how can anyone of the First Foundation think it wise to try to simply destroy the Second Foundation and feel confident in the Plan’s eventual success if they do so, when the whole point is that only they were able to stop something as unforeseeable as the Mule?

If you just accept the premises and can live with less Arkady in the back half of the story, though, this is a tremendously thought-provoking and entertaining tale which brings things to a good “pausing point” (suitable for either stopping or continuing) and it was to remain paused for about thirty-two years. Perhaps the clearest thing I can say about the value of this work is that my Centennial plan is to chronologically read Pebble in the Sky and the rest of Asimov’s books which include several masterpieces that I look forward to, yet I’m having to fight the urge to start on Foundation’s Edge right now.

Previous posts in this series:

Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, June 1943-May 1945 (Foundation and Empire)

During the war, especially in its later phases, many science fiction writers were unable to continue writing or at least were unable to write as much. Even Asimov’s productivity declined, partly due to his own war work. However, Campbell’s need, combined with Asimov’s increasing proficiency, resulted in Asimov selling everything he wrote [1] from this point through the end of the 40s to Astounding.

Robot Stories and Others

This timespan also demonstrates the growing success of Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series, as only the first story has nothing to do with either, though even it features protoplasmic “robots.” In “Death Sentence,” Theor Realo is an albino misfit given to a sort of archaeological monomania which results in his uncovering evidence that the civilization he currently lives in was preceded by an even greater one. He has visited a world of that civilization and discovered that it is populated by artificial people who are part of a planet-wide psychology experiment that has continued after the demise of its creators. When he finally gets professional scientists (and government officials) to pay attention to him and they discover how much the experiment has been contaminated by Realo’s actions and how dangerous the subjects of the experiment may be, matters come to a head.

The main conflict in this story is between discovering an unknown quantity of knowledge versus unleashing an unknown quantity of danger and the efforts of the scientists to attain the former and the government official to avoid the latter. Oddly, this story focuses most on the notion of avoiding danger. It’s especially odd as Realo’s amateur archaeology reminded me of Schliemann’s discovery of Troy which, all things considered, was a great discovery. Either way, this tale is a fair example of “the early Asimov” despite a weak “surprise” ending.

The second and seventh stories were Robot stories. “Catch That Rabbit” is another Donovan and Powell adventure. They are on an asteroid with DV-5 (“Dave”), who is an asteroid mining bot in control of several subsidiary semi-autonomous robots or “digits.” Since Dave is both experimental and supposed to be autonomous, Donovan and Powell are tasked with overseeing him without overseeing him, so to speak. But, when he doesn’t bring home the asteroidal bacon, the humans have to explicitly watch him after all. He performs properly when they do, but not when they don’t. Most of the story involves the humans insulting each other and proposing solutions without knowing what the problem is (unable to make rabbit stew because they haven’t caught the rabbit) other than that Dave sometimes goes into a weird fugue with his sub-bots marching about oddly. Finally, after deciding it has something to do with crisis situations and the “personal initiative factor,” they try to create a crisis by causing a roof-collapse near the bots but this backfires, putting them in a desperate situation.

This one ends with a groaner and has some plotting conveniences in which some things come too easily and some things not easily enough. but is otherwise a pretty standard robot story – more of an album track than a hit single.

Escape” puts Susan Calvin and the gang at U.S. Robots in the same story with Donovan and Powell but with only a stationary robot (computer) rather than a mobile computer (or proper robot). It begins when Consolidated Robots comes to U. S. Robots with a profit-sharing deal based on U. S. Robots’ “Brain” being given some information and developing an interstellar drive. However, U. S. Robots figures out that it’s a trick because Consolidated has already blown up their own “brain” trying to develop the stardrive themselves. Consolidated’s brain apparently decided the stardrive would be fatal to humans, which triggered the First Law. Susan Calvin believes their Brain, with its advanced, but child-like, personality will be able to succeed so U. S. Robots takes the deal. Things seem to be going well enough and the Brain even has other robots build the starship, so Donovan and Powell are brought in to look it over. Then everyone finds out that things are not going so well, after all, and Susan Calvin fights desperately to fix the situation while Donovan and Powell have an amazing experience.

This is a momentous Robot tale (combining two subseries and foreshadowing the transition from the solar milieu of the stories to the interstellar milieu of the Robot novels and beyond) and is fun, funny, and exciting. At the same time, major underpinnings of the plot aren’t really sensible and, despite all that happens to them, the characters don’t actually do much. In a highly critical sense, this isn’t particularly good but, in a way, it’s the best Robot story yet in terms of being an imaginative and enjoyable creation.

Blind Alley” was the sixth story of this group, In it, Asimov combined the familiarity with bureaucracy gained by working at the Navy Yard with an early Empire setting. Despite the Imperial setting, he included an alien race in its otherwise “all-human galaxy.” These aliens had been on the verge of star travel when humanity met them. Learning that the whole galaxy has been occupied, they cease reproducing and begin to die off. This tale applies Newton’s laws of motion regarding inertia and mass to bureaucracy and shows how powerful that can be, whether for hindrance or help.

This is too long in that, along the middle, you have time to think “this is too long” and part of that is probably due to the segments of bureaucrat-ese which alternate with each section of narrative–however apt, they’re actually hard to read. Still, it’s an interesting story with a great ending and shouldn’t have had to wait until The Early Asimov to be collected. I only wish that, because of issues it creates in the continuity, it had been a generic bureaucracy rather than specifically that of the Trantorian Empire.

Foundation Stories

The Foundation stories took up the third through fifth and the eighth stories in this group. The first three were written from October 11, 1943 to August 21, 1944 and focused on the Traders, who foreshadow Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League. Briefly, in “The Big and the Little,” it is seventy-five years after “Bridle and Saddle” and the Four Kingdoms have been brought to heel by the Foundation’s technological, religious, and, now, commercial power. This relationship is codified in the Foundation Convention. Still, three Foundation ships have gone missing which implies that someone has Foundation-level technology or that someone is a traitor. Jorane Sutt, the power behind an incompetent mayor, sends Master Trader Hober Mallow on a trading (spying) mission to Korell. Once there, Mallow is kept waiting by the dictator and the tedium is broken only when a mob chases a Foundation priest to the ship. He is brought aboard by some of the crew even though his presence on Korell violates the law. Smelling a trap, Mallow throws him back to the mob and is almost immediately invited to meet the dictator. These meetings reveal no evidence of Korell directly having atomic power but he does see guards armed with Imperial blasters. This leads him towards the remnants of the Empire and Siwenna, which used to be the capital of the Empire’s Normanic sector but which has been crushed by various political upheavals. Now a would-be dictator with designs on the Imperial throne rules the sector from Orsha II and may be interfering with the Foundation. If the Foundation responds too strongly, they may attract Imperial ire and, if they react too weakly, they may face further problems from Orsha II. Complicating matters still further, Mallow returns with his findings and becomes embroiled in an internal political fight with Sutt and others, which culminates with Mallow being put on trial for sacrificing the priest. With unavoidable existential threats from within and without the Foundation, it’s a true Seldon Crisis which is worked out by story’s end.

The one bad thing about this story is that (somewhat as in “Legal Rites”) I’m not entirely convinced by the logic of the trial scene and its direct aftermath. Among the vast number of good things about this story, it is his longest yet (and only his second novella after “Bridle and Saddle”) and the length is handled well. More importantly, it is an excellent example of Asimov’s stories not having villains, as such. Sutt is initially the focus and has some effective traits. Even if he is seeking power, he also cares about the Foundation’s safety though, by the point of this story, he’s on the wrong side of history. Mallow takes the position of the hero, or at least one moving with the flow of the times, but isn’t exactly all sweetness and light. The worst characters (the dictators of Korell and the Normanic sector) are secondary or off-stage. So it isn’t a simplistic “good vs. evil” story but a case of complex people having contradictory goals which bring them into conflict. This treatment of these people also leads to a prime question which exercises real historians: the “great man” theory vs. the “forces of history” theory. Mallow, himself, says, “This is a Seldon Crisis we’re facing, Sutt, and Seldon Crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.” However, while this may indeed be a story of forces, and history might have produced any actor to take Mallow’s place had he not been who he was, he did risk life and liberty to defend the Foundation (or gain power for himself, as the case may be). Hardin has joined Seldon as a name to conjure with, being frequently quoted almost a century later. And Seldon, himself, is a “Great Man.” So the stories constantly speak of forces but constantly embody them in individuals of peculiar character. It produces an interesting ambiguity.

While the Foundation is producing its own mythic symbols, it still faces some. As it grows in power, some star systems see the Foundation as a magical place of mysterious wizards but, at the same time, it encounters more and more powerful enemies, including the weakened but still immensely powerful vestiges of the Empire, itself. When Mallow sees the Spaceship-and-Sun symbol of the Empire on the blasters of the Korellian guards, he’s powerfully affected by it and so is the reader.

I’d also like to emphasize the magnificent scene when Mallow arrives on Siwenna and meets elderly Onum Barr who tells him the tale of Stanell VI, the last good Emperor, and of Siwenna’s agonies in the decay of the Empire and his own fall from comfort. Mallow, though a trader and not given to welfare, did get something for nothing (Barr’s information), so secretly leaves rations for Barr. I love the closing line after he finds the rations which taste strange to him: “But they were good, and lasted long.”

Finally, I’d like to end with this excellent quote:

Korell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchies: regal “honor,” and court etiquette.

(Not that classic science fiction can tell us anything about the present, of course.)

The Traders so captured John Campbell’s interest that he asked Asimov to do another story focusing on them, which resulted in the very short “The Wedge,” which is the first Foundation story which doesn’t deal with a Seldon crisis. In it, a trader must attempt to rescue another “trader” (actually, a Foundation agent, who also happens to be a friend) who was trying to drive a wedge into the religious society and gold-based economy of Askone with his forbidden atomic technology before being arrested. The true trader shows the agent how it’s really done.

This is a fine tale but, in Foundation terms, is obviously minor, even to the point of being flipped around in the book order, presumably because it wasn’t tied tightly to the chronology and because “The Big and the Little” made a more powerful closing tale to the first volume of the books.

Speaking of the books, the final Trader tale,”Dead Hand,” is separated from its fellows, leading off the second volume of Foundation tales and bringing the Foundation fully into contact with the Empire. It deals with the efforts of Bel Riose, the Military Governor of Siwenna, to reinvigorate the Empire and conquer the Foundation in the name of Cleon II as well as the efforts of Ducem Barr (son of Onum Barr from “The Big and the Little”) and Trader Lathan Devers (both of whom are his prisoners) to stop him. When Ammel Brodrig, an Imperial sycophant and reprobate, is sent to observe Riose’s activities, Devers tries to convince Brodrig that Riose is bent on making himself Emperor. Unfortunately, Brodrig believes this a little too thoroughly and gets more men and material for Riose in an effort to make this so. As powerful as the Foundation is, the Empire is still powerful when it turns its focus to something and things are not going well for the Foundation. Barr and Devers give up on trying to deal with things as prisoners and escape with the aim of reaching Trantor and turning Cleon against his agents. Their efforts, which even include gunplay, take up most of the remainder of the story.

This stage of the Empire (c. 200 F.E.) is much like the Byzantine Empire in the period of Emperor Justinian and his general, Belisarius (whose name is even very similar to Bel Riose). In this, the tensions between combinations of weak and strong emperors and generals make the Empire a fitful beast and Seldon’s “dead hand” (which makes one think of the “invisible hand” attributed to Adam Smith) is the real actor vs. Riose’s “living will.” This gives the story something of the feeling of Raiders of the Lost Ark in that the sound and fury from our hero or heroes actually signifies little though the two levels of the story (surface action and background themes) each work well even if, by design, they aren’t integrated. Bel Riose is also a very interesting character. He’s nominally the enemy but is an honorable man with the interests of his Empire at heart which, ironically, leads to his being shunned by the court and suspected by all. (Again, not that the vicious being honored and the virtuous being condemned could tell us anything about the present.)

“Dead Hand” was Asimov’s 48th and longest story at 25,000 words but he doubled that at a stroke with his 51st story and first novel, “The Mule,” which was originally serialized in two parts in Astounding and makes up the final two-thirds of Foundation and Empire. The thumbnail sketch [2] is that the Seldon Plan predicts how the Foundation will create a new galactic empire after 1,000 years of misery, rather than 30,000, so long as human nature remains about the same, but the Foundation has no way to deal with the inhuman, or a mutant of unknown powers. This, 310 years into the Plan, is the Mule, a powerful warlord with some sort of psychic strength which enables him to conquer the previous warlord of Kalgan and make war on the Foundation itself. Where all the might of the remnants of the Trantorian Empire failed a century before, the Mule succeeds in conquering the Foundation by the shattering midpoint of the story. That Foundation had become a tyranny with the Mayoralty becoming hereditary. The Traders had been forced into hiding in hollowed out worlds and the like. Each has been seeking to dominate the other, but both come to be dominated equally. Standing against the Mule are Toran, of a Trader world, and Bayta, of the Foundation and its democratic underground, who have just gotten married. Along the way, they acquire Magnifico Giganticus, the small, spindly, beak-nosed, runaway jester of the Mule’s (whose “abduction” by Toran and Bayta actually gives the Mule his pretext for war on the Foundation); Ebling Mis, the famed scientist and closest thing to a psychohistorian the Foundation currently has; and, sometimes, Captain Han Pritcher, of Foundation Intelligence and also of the democratic underground. Their journeys will take them across half the galaxy, from Haven to Kalgan to Terminus to Neotrantor, to the ruins of Trantor itself. There, while seeking knowledge of and help from the mysterious Second Foundation, they will learn shocking things and fail to learn others and not all will survive.

This novel is packed to bursting with both ideas and action. Bayta is convinced that the Empire fell apart from “the triple disease of inertia, despotism, and maldistribution of the goods of the universe” and fears the Foundation is doing the same. (Ebling Mis is characterized as having said at one time that “the only people who inherited anything by right of birth were the congenital idiots.”) She also contemplates aspects of psychohistory:

The laws of history are as absolute as the laws of physics, and if the probabilities of error are greater, it is only because history does not deal with as many humans as physics does atoms, so that individual variations count for more.

Some things which struck me include Mis thinking that the Mule can be defeated “the only way anyone can be licked–by attacking in strength at weakness.” I don’t actually agree with this–we see evidence of America currently being successfully attacked at points of strength, for instance, but it’s a stimulating thought. Similarly, “There are people on Haven itself who would not be unhappy over the Mule’s domination. It’s apparently an insurmountable temptation to give up endangered political power, if that will maintain your hold over economic affairs,” which may give insight into some current events.

In terms of style, Asimov is as clear as usual but wields an increasingly subtle instrument. He textures Magnifico’s character with a sort of Spenserian lilt and rises to psychedelic heights when describing the clown’s playing of the Visi-Sonor, which is a sort of “musical” instrument that operates on the visual center of the brain. Though a very few things like the introduction of the planet Radole are a little overwritten, many things, including the description of the Mayor and his lineage and the fall of Kalgan, have an almost Ciceronian (or, perhaps more directly, a Gibbonesque) structure and elegance.

If, from a distance of seven thousand parsecs, the fall of Kalgan to the armies of the Mule had produced reverberations that had excited the curiosity of an old Trader, the apprehension of a dogged captain, and the annoyance of a meticulous mayor–to those on Kalgan itself, it produced nothing and excited no one.

Speaking of falls, Foundation’s Fall is more effective to me than “Nightfall.” I don’t want to describe it and blunt its impact for those who haven’t experienced it but it takes what has been built up over several stories and internal centuries and produces a cataclysmic scene using almost pure cognition to powerfully affect emotions.

The characterization is also quite strong once again. The Mule is another example of an Asimovian villain who isn’t quite like other villains. While all the main characters suffer at his hands, they do so in unusual and poignant ways. The real hero of this story is Bayta, who is Princess Leia’s ancestor: active and smart, ultimately armed and decisive. As an example of how she seems, a disapproving peasant of fallen Trantor observes that “There were three men, varied, old, young, thin and beaked. And a woman striding among them like an equal.” But Han (Pritcher, rather than Solo, in this case) and Mis are both given their very powerful scenes as well.

This is not a flawless tale. I really wish someone could make me believe in Trantor again, but the ecology of an all-metal planet and the farming of it once again after its partial destruction is impossible for me to explain. I’m also not clear on how Mis was able to determine all of Seldon’s past appearances in the Time Vault and predict his next one, nor why the Vault isn’t generally being recorded and/or guarded. The nature and conclusion of what was supposed to be the Seldon crisis is thought-provoking, but troubling. One of the two most important problems probably comes from Asimov’s “pantsing”: given the nature of the Second Foundation, why was its existence ever disclosed? And the other is that the finale is shocking and tremendous, but threads a very narrow eye of a credibility needle and the denouement is overlong. But these are minor blemishes or nitpicks in what is–still!–one of my all-time favorite works of science fiction. These stories, and this among the foremost, have concepts that engage the mind, people and events that engage the heart, and plots and counterplots with twists and revelations that raise the pulse.

[1] (With the exception of the story which became his first book-length novel and which didn’t appear until 1950.) The stories in order of composition, with the issues of Astounding they appeared in and their major book appearances are:

  • “Death Sentence” (November 1943, The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Catch That Rabbit” (February 1944, I, Robot (1950))
  • “The Big and the Little” (August 1944, Foundation (1951))
  • “The Wedge” (October 1944, Foundation (1951))
  • “Dead Hand” (April 1945, Foundation and Empire (1952))
  • “Blind Alley” (March 1945, The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Escape” (August 1945 as “Paradoxical Escape”, I, Robot (1950))
  • “The Mule” (November 1945/December 1945, Foundation and Empire (1952))

For previous stories, see:

[2] Obviously, from the mess that is this post, these stories are hard for me to discuss because a short synopsis doesn’t do them justice while justice requires thousands of words because almost everything about them is fascinating. (I emitted almost 5,000 words of notes on this 50,000 word novel which would balloon far beyond that if I could manage to put them into coherent sentences.)

Asimov’s Centennial: Eight Stories, September 1941-April 1943

This post covers the eight stories Asimov wrote between September 1941 and April 1943 which include the first two Foundation stories and three more Robot stories. Half appeared in the March-June 1942 issues of Astounding and the rest appeared at various times in various places. [1]


The first two Foundation stories Asimov wrote were “Foundation” and “Bridle and Saddle” which form a tightly connected narrative centered around Salvor Hardin, Mayor of Terminus City, the only city on the newly settled world of Terminus, home of the Foundation of Encyclopedists. The Foundation was created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon and tasked with the creation of a compendium of all human knowledge for preservation through the collapse of the Galactic Empire in order to shorten the Dark Ages which will follow. However, Terminus is a growing city with much of its population only indirectly involved with the Foundation, which ultimately rules them. Hardin is their representative and, while he supports the Foundation, he represents forward thinking and hands-on creation of a living civilization and takes issue with an excessive reverence of the past with only dusty Alexandrian scholarship. In fact, Hardin diagnoses this as the problem with the “whole galaxy.” Lewis Pirenne, Chairman of the Board of Trustees (and thus true ruler of Terminus) represents the other side of the coin. They come into conflict with each other and with, first, Anselm haut Rodric, Sub-prefect of Pluema and Envoy Extraordinary of his Highness of Anacreon (formerly a ruler of the Imperial Prefect of Anacreon, who has declared independence) and, then, Lord Dorwin, Chancellor of the Empire and an apparently foolish dandy. The envoy visits and demands the establishment of an Anacreonian military base on Terminus (to protect them, of course, so they don’t fall into the hands of that awful Kingdom of Smyrno, for instance). Neither Pirenne nor Hardin want this but Pirenne is fairly clueless about the issue. He sees Dorwin’s arrival as salvation and believes the Empire stands behind Terminus, so delivers an impolitic rejection to Anacreon. Hardin knows better and has had Dorwin’s stay recorded and then logically analyzed, presenting the Board with what he really said: hours of words amounting to nothing at all. The Anacreonians know what the true situation is and move in to take over. How Hardin deals with this comes in two stages – the first coincides with a holographic appearance of Hari Seldon in the time vault which provides a dramatic conclusion and the second is elided between stories, but will be revealed in the open of the second story.

After writing a Robot tale, Asimov picks up the story in “Bridle and Saddle,” which is set thirty years later and eighty years into Seldon’s Plan to traverse the Dark Ages. In it, Hardin is an aged, but vigorous ruler, and the surrounding kingdoms send citizens to Terminus for “religious” training in which they learn by rote how to use Terminus’ technologies. The kingdom of Anacreon contains 25 systems ruled by a regent who still harbors a grudge against Terminus, which is one small world plus this spiritual power. The bulk of the tale deals with the positioning over the coming Seldon crisis (or unavoidable moment of conflict). On Terminus, Hardin has become the old guard as Pirenne once was, being challenged by a young upstart politician because his giving Terminus’ technology to Anacreon is seen as weakness. The final straw comes when Anacreon finds an Imperial cruiser, orders Terminus to repair it, and Hardin agrees. At Anacreon, the regent spars with the heir apparent (son of the brother he killed). Shuttling between the worlds are priests in both true believer and cynical forms. When the cruiser is presented and the heir-apparent has come of age, Anacreon attacks and Terminus must somehow defend itself.

Of the many things these stories have made me think of, two very different ones are uppermost now. One is that these stories are like dramatic plays. There is a bit of narrative akin to scene settings or stage directions and much dialog between vivid actors in which the drama comes from the conflicting ideas conveyed through their concise speech. (“Foundation” contains the oft-quoted saying of Hardin’s, that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”) On the other hand, I think about how this won an award for best all-time series out of a group of nominees which included The Lord of the Rings. Obviously, it’s a bit of apples and watermelons to compare an eleven-hundred-page fantasy novel of dense narrative which was the tip of an iceberg of scholarship and imagination complete with invented languages to these pieces of short, drama-like, science fiction but Asimov mentions a key thing here and an evocative thing there which produces the sense of vast and complex kingdoms which used to be prefects which formed provinces which formed sectors which formed quadrants which formed the galaxy-spanning Galactic Empire which had endured for eons but which is now falling into decay, presenting us with a thousand-year plan toward a new empire of progress. The scope in time and space has something of the Lord of the Rings backstory but is painted much more economically and, underneath its religious covering and faith in Seldon’s Plan (eventually to be shaken), it is a logical and technological story.

As far as the specific construction of the stories, the first, as I say, has an arc brought to completion in a sense, but also ends on a cliffhanger. While Asimov was making it up as he went along, with no idea what the second story would be, he did properly prepare the cliffhanger by making, not just the end, but several prior sections end with something on Hardin’s mind without immediately saying what it was. Equally importantly, he gives the reader satisfaction in building up to Seldon’s first appearance as a hologram, which does occur before the brief denouement. The modern reader doesn’t even have to wait for the next issue, but can move to the next tale without pause. [2]

Asimov doesn’t take much credit for characterization and is rarely given any, but Seldon is downright mythical, Hardin is a vivid and credible character, and even Lord Dorwin, who seems to be a “funny hat” character with his unforgettable lisping speech, is shown to have depths of diplomatic prowess which his mannerisms are intentionally constructed to hide.

The parallels to history are pervasive but not overly literal or slavish. The whole thing is clearly modeled on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Anacreon’s struggle with Terminus is akin to, for example, the so-called Holy Roman Empire’s struggle with the Papacy. (As Gibbon said, it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”) Terminus sometimes plays the role of Switzerland. In other words, these are parallels of the most general or most specific sorts and don’t straight-jacket the stories or require any knowledge of history to appreciate on at least a dramatic level.

My only real problems with these two stories are background (such as how the Empire fell so fast, even on the periphery, in a mere eighty years and how technology was forgotten and a religion so quickly and firmly entrenched) or minor (such as how the anti-gravity on a ship continues working when everything else is disabled). Generally, they are remarkably tight.

Finally, on a personal note, I have to confess (no secret to regular readers of this blog) that I’m an Asimov fanatic generally and a Foundation fanatic specifically. It was these stories that turned me into the SF fan I am. I’ve read them a few times but not for years and was worried that they would no longer exercise the same power they once did but they do. As I came to the end of “Bridle and Saddle” I even remembered the main events of the closing sequence, though I enjoyed it like it was the first time. With rare and often mixed exceptions I’ve enjoyed so little of my reading of current science fiction the past few years that I’d almost fallen out of love with science fiction. While I’ve found interest in most of the Asimov stories I’ve read through this project, especially some of the Robot stories and “Nightfall,” these stories bring it all rushing back, not from nostalgia but from the joy of their enduring clarity, economy, ideas, and drama.

Robots and Others

It’s odd that Asimov found such a superb concept in the Foundation stories and executed them so well from the start given that the Robot stories are still finding their way. “Runaround” is a second Donovan and Powell story which does a fair job of combining a comically “drunk” robot and a serious struggle for survival on Mercury, hinging on the tension between the second and third laws [3]. After a failed First Expedition, the pair are determining whether the mining station should be reopened with modern equipment. However, they need power for protection from the sun and need selenium for that, so give SPD-1 (Speedy) the simple task of getting some. Naturally, it turns out to be anything but simple and they end up having to resurrect some of the old First Expedition robots (which are gigantic and very basic machines that require human riders to even be able to function) in order to make a dangerous journey to find out what’s wrong with Speedy. When they figure that out, they have to try a few increasingly desperate solutions in order to avoid horrible deaths. It seems to me that there’s a massive flaw in this story (if you don’t mind spoilers, see below) but, otherwise, this is a cleverly arranged and fun tale.

One of the two very minor Robot stories is “Victory Unintentional” which is a sequel to the non-Robot story, “Not Final!” It is an overlong story which aims to humorously describe the Jovian superiority complex colliding with indestructible robots of vast powers which is demonstrated in a string of incidents and was famously rejected by Campbell with a note which said only “CH3CH2CH2CH2SH” which is the chemical formula for butyl mercaptan, which is what gives the skunk its smell.

Before that story, Asimov tried three times to satisfy Campbell’s request that he write something for the new “Probability Zero” department of short-shorts in which ridiculously impossible ideas would be written convincingly. The second of those was “First Law” which is a bar story with Donovan (but without Powell) involving a breaking of the First Law which tries to be funny in a “so bad it’s good” way but is only so bad, it’s bad. This was rejected and wouldn’t appear for nearly fifteen years. Before that, he tried “Big Game,” which was also a bar story about two men talking about early steps in time travel when a third starts talking about how he’d already invented a time machine. It ends on a misanthropic note which causes me to wonder why Asimov submitted it to Campbell and was surprised when he rejected it. It wasn’t to appear for thirty-three years in an Asimov anthology. Finally, he wrote “Time Pussy” which was accepted but Campbell asked him to use a pseudonym, ostensibly to look like a new author so other new authors would be encouraged to try. Asimov unhappily chose “George E. Dale” as the name under which arguably the worst of the three stories would appear. (In defense of Campbell, the first was un-Campbellian and the second could be seen as damaging to a series on the cusp of being very important.) I hate to even describe it, but it’s about cat-like aliens, who have a strange relation to cause and effect and time, accidentally being killed by humans who try to preserve the corpses for a reward but fail with a terrible joke. (Bizarrely, this anticipates the immensely more successful Thiotimoline stories and all these come on the heels of the superb “Bridle and Saddle.”)

Having taken three tries to produce a Probability Zero, Asimov took his sixth crack at Unknown but that came after fourteen months of not writing anything due to engaging in his chemistry research, then engaging and marrying his first wife, Gertrude, and finally joining Bob Heinlein and Sprague de Camp at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia for war work. But then Fred Pohl sent him a letter about rewriting “Legal Rites” which reminded Asimov of his thwarted ambition, so he felt compelled to try again. In “Author! Author!,” Graham Dorne is a mystery writer who dreams of bigger things but his plan to quit writing mysteries is complicated when his detective, Reginald de Meister, becomes real and tries to coerce him into writing more mysteries (as does Dorn’s editor). However, when de Meister (who has been written as being irresistible to women) meets Dorn’s girlfriend (who was the inspiration for de Meister’s fictional love) de Meister changes his mind about returning to the world of books and, of course, Dorne changes his mind about not writing the mysteries that would put him there. The rest of the plot involves their maneuvering to attain their desires. It’s too long but, allowing for some old-fashioned humor, it is pretty funny (“‘Why don’t you go to hell?’ Graham asked curiously”) and plotted fairly well. An odd aspect is that several details show the author and editor are modeled on Asimov and Campbell but several details show they aren’t, not least of which is their extremely adversarial relationship. But Campbell apparently liked it, not only buying it, but paying a bonus. So Asimov had finally achieved his dream of appearing in Unknown. Except that he never did. Wartime paper shortages caused the death of Unknown before Asimov’s story could appear. Fortunately, he’d already written and sold his next story before he got the news, so his hiatus had safely passed. Further, when a book editor discovered that it existed, “Author! Author!” was finally freed from the Street and Smith vaults and published in the 1964 anthology The Unknown 5.

[1] The stories in order of composition, with their first magazine appearances and major book appearances are:

  • “Foundation” (Astounding (May 1942), Foundation (1951))
  • “Runaround” (Astounding (March 1942), I, Robot (1950))
  • “Bridle and Saddle” (Astounding (June 1942), Foundation (1951))
  • “Big Game” (no magazine, Before the Golden Age (1974 anthology))
  • “First Law” (Fantastic Universe (October 1956), The Rest of the Robots (1964))
  • “Time Pussy” (Astounding (April 1942), The Early Asimov (1972))
  • “Victory Unintentional” (Super Science Stories (August 1942), The Rest of the Robots (1964))
  • “Author! Author!” (no magazine, The Early Asimov (1972))

For previous stories, see:

[2] Though a paragraph explaining why Hardin believes Anacreon has no atomic power is expanded quite a bit and references to praesodymium are replaced with plutonium, the only significant change between the original versions and the book versions of these two stories is that Hari Seldon, at the end of his life, appears in a very brief opening segment of “Foundation” which was removed from the book version (called “The Encyclopedists”) and inserted in modified form at the end of the “prequel” story (called “The Psychohistorians”). This is very unlike most early Robot stories which are often tinkered with quite a bit.

[3] Though all three Laws are finally given here, they are called the “Rules of Robotics” and given in a loose way before being revised in I, Robot (though, even in the book, they are still called “Rules” in this story). Other changes include shrinking the time between the First Expedition and Donovan and Powell’s arrival from fifty to ten years (setting the story in 2015), replacing a reference to Frankenstein with an explanation of the Earth-ban along with a similar tweak when they find out they have to ride the big bots, and changing the ending to make a much longer segue into the next story in the book.

Spoilers for “Runaround”: The reason Donovan and Powell are in trouble is simply that Speedy was given a weak order amounting to almost a suggestion to acquire the selenium which turns out to be in a region that could destroy Speedy, setting up a conflict between the law of obedience and that of self-preservation which results in his circling the selenium in an increasingly mentally confused state. When they initially come near to Speedy, they don’t know what the problem is but they later communicate with him when they do know what the problem is. It seems to me that they could simply either rescind the original order or repeat it more emphatically which should break the “Buridan’s Ass” problem without the desperate measures they do take.

A Guide to Reading Asimov’s Robots, Empire, and Foundation Series

(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.

Internal Chronology

In the end, the series looked like this when placed in its internal chronology:

  1. The Complete Robot (1982)*
  2. The Caves of Steel (1954)
  3. The Naked Sun (1957)
  4. The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  5. Robots and Empire (1985)
  6. The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
  7. The Currents of Space (1952)
  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)

* 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.

External Chronology

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.