Over the last eighteen months, I have involved myself in a daunting literary task: the completion of Isaac Asimov’s twenty-thousand year tale of Galactic history. It is a project I took on with encouragement from my dad, who has a wall full of science fiction in the basement with these books prominently displayed. I had often looked at that row of novels while growing up at home, never quite bringing myself to read them, although I’d chosen many others from the wall to read instead. I suppose I always felt it was just a little too much for me to take on, but when my brother picked up the first novel as part of a book report, my competitive side kicked in and I decided I could put it off no longer.
I’ve just finished the final book in the series, and I am left with not only a total sense of skin-crawling awe, but an intense desire to share this feeling. I want others to experience the sheer scope and vision of these novels. Many of you who are fans of science fiction have certainly read many of the books I am about to write about, but if for some reason you have not, it is imperative that you change this at once. There are many books to cover, and this week, I am going to write about the earliest novels in the chronology, which are commonly called “The Robot Novels.”
It all begins in Asimov’s not-quite-foreseeable future, with his first sci-fi detective novel: Caves of Steel. Originally written as proof that science fiction could be combined with other genres and still be engaging, the book features Elijah Baley, a plainclothes detective with a hatred of wide open spaces and robots, and R. Daneel Olivaw… a robot. Good combination? Lije Baley doesn’t think so. Thing is, he doesn’t have a choice. The Spacers are insistent that Baley work with one of their own to solve the murder, and since none of the germophobic Spacers want to be anywhere close to a dirty, germy Earthman, they send one of their most sophisticated robots- R. Daneel.
In Asimov’s Galaxy, robots must adhere to the Three Laws of Robotics, which stipulate that 1) a robot must not harm humans or allow them to come to harm, 2) a robot must obey commands given to them by humans, as long as they do not conflict with the first law, and 3) a robot must protect its own existence, provided that does not conflict with the first two laws. Daneel is no exception, and although he is unique in that he very closely resembles a human being (most robots are unmistakably robots), he must obey these fundamental laws in the course of his job. His job, as it turns out, is to assist Plainclothesman Baley in solving the murder of an important Spacer, a crime which could cause serious anger among the powerful Spacers, and in turn, serious trouble for Earth. This partnership, though begun on very shaky ground, transforms into a deep trust between the two of them, which lasts for two more novels and forms the basis for many of R. Daneel’s actions over the course of his very, very long life.
Technically, one could begin the “Asimov Chronology” with a good portion of his short fiction, which takes place when robots are first being developed and refined in the laboratories of Dr. Susan Calvin- but I prefer to begin the story when Daneel comes into the picture. Although he begins his life with only a rudimentary understanding of the way humans behave, he grows over many novels into one of the most complex and brilliant characters I have ever had the exquisite pleasure of reading about.
Although the first two Robot Novels, Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, are among Asimov’s earliest novels, the final two are among his latest, written thirty years later when he was working to combine his three eras of history (Robot, Empire, Foundation) into one contiguous story. These final two novels, particularly Robots and Empire, set the stage for the next twenty thousand years and pave the way for the mythical Hari Seldon and his science of psychohistory. What is psychohistory, you ask? That’ll have to wait- because next week, we move along to the Empire novels, which bridge the era of robots with the fall of the Galactic Empire and the rise of the Foundation! I told you this story was big.
Want to place holds on this week’s featured books? The Robot Novels, in chronological order, are:
Enjoy, and see you next week!