Rereading Isaac Asimov, part 2

So over the past four or five weeks, I’ve read (or re-read, in most cases, some 40 years or so since I first read most of these stories in the late-’60s/early-’70s) some 100 Isaac Asimov stories, including the complete contents of (in roughly this order) The Best of Isaac Asimov, I, Robot, Nine Tomorrows, Asimov’s Mysteries, Eight Stories from The Rest of the Robots, The Bicentennial Man and other stories, Earth Is Room Enough, Nightfall and other stories, and — [I read The Martian Way just a couple years ago, and so did not reread the four stories in that book in these past weeks] — and along the way other collections that mostly overlapped those, with a few extra stories in each: Robot Visions, Robot Dreams, and The Complete Robot. I also read Harlan Ellison’s I, Robot screenplay, published in 1994, and segueing from that, his script for “Phoenix without Ashes”, published in original script form in a 1975 anthology Faster than Light, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois [though its premise is contrary to the book’s title…], glanced through Edward Bryant’s novelization, Phoenix Without Ashes (published in 1975), which I read way back when but did not reread just now, and read for the first time the graphic novel version of Phoenix Without Ashes, just published in 2012, with illustrations by Alan Robinson, that is extremely loyal to the original script version.

But Harlan Ellison is a tangent to Asimov (one I might follow up on presently), and I’ve promised to blog about rereading Isaac Asimov. I will drill through many of these stories in subsequent posts, but for now, I will note these general conclusions:

  • Many Asimov stories are basically puzzle stories: descriptions of circumstances that defy obvious explanation, with decontruction and explanations by experts like Susan Calvin (the robot stories) or Wendell Urth (several of the “Asimov’s Mysteries”).
  • The stories collected in I, Robot are the selected robot stories Asimov had written up until that time (the book was published in 1950, collecting stories written over the previous decade) that fit into a common framework of future history, that were relatively consistent among themselves. Reading the many other robot stories Asimov wrote over the decades, it’s remarkable how they reach conclusions different to one degree or another from the canonical I, Robot stories, and from one another.
  • Most Asimov stories proceed on a very methodical fashion, as alluded in my previous post. One of the most remarkable, the late story “The Winds of Change”, is virtually a monologue that, methodically, step by step, undermines his listeners’ apprehension of reality.
  • As a general rule, one appreciates the best stories in any context by reading the many other stories that might have been considered; in Asimov’s case, I’d initially thought to revisit only The Best of Isaac Asimov and perhaps I, Robot. But as methodical and almost predictable as his stories might be, they are at the same time addictive– they’re easy to read, and you can’t read just one, there’s always another at hand. All that extra reading, seeing how Asimov composed his stories, seeing his recurrent themes and patterns, makes one appreciate the truly exceptional stories all the more.
  • And so, for the moment, I would say the best Isaac Asimov stories are: “Nightfall”, “Reason”, “The Dead Past”, “The Ugly Little Boy”, and “The Bicentennial Man”, for various reasons different for each story. There are many other notable stories, worth reading, especially several later stories in which Asimov responded to social developments of the ’70s and ’80s, and I will describe those five, and the others, in a couple subsequent posts.
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