So, I’ve begun rereading what is alternatively called the “extended Foundation series”or “the extended Robot series” by Isaac Asimov. It’s a long series with a number of twists and turns, so I’m going to start from where it begins. Sort of. According to some people. Jehosaphat, this is going to take some explaining.
Isaac Asimov is one of the greatest writers in the history of the science fiction genre. Due to his background in medicine, his science fiction was generally “hard scifi” which focused on technical aspects even while allowing his science fiction to expand into realms normally only occurring in “pulp” or softer scifi genres- such as fully functional robots and interstellar travel.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll hear that one of Asimov’s greatest accomplishments was his stretching three seemingly disconnected story arcs- the Robot series, the Foundation series, and the Galactic Empire series- all connected into a single story arc stretching through as many as fifteen different novels, written over a period of fifty years. Due to the three series being written separately and then later combined into a single continuity, the chronological order and the story order are different from one another. Generally, the “full list” is as follows, in story order:
- I, Robot (1950) or alternatively The Complete Robot (1982) Collection of 31 Short Stories about robots. (Both books contain the same stories).
- The Caves of Steel (1954) His first Robot novel.
- The Naked Sun (1957) The second Robot novel.
- The Robots of Dawn (1983) The third Robot novel.
- Robots and Empire (1985) The fourth (final) Robot novel.
- The Currents of Space (1952) The first Empire novel.
- The Stars, Like Dust– (1951) The second Empire novel.
- Pebble in the Sky (1950) The third and final Empire novel.
- Prelude to Foundation (1988) The first Foundation novel.
- Forward the Foundation (1992) The second Foundation novel.
- Foundation (1951) The third Foundation novel, comprised of 5 stories originally published between 1942-1949.
- Foundation and Empire (1952) The fourth Foundation novel, comprised of 2 stories originally published in 1945.
- Second Foundation (1953) The fifth Foundation novel, comprised of 2 stories originally published in 1948 and 1949.
- Foundation’s Edge (1982) The sixth Foundation novel.
- Foundation and Earth (1983) The seventh Foundation novel.
This list is based upon a list offered by Isaac Asimov himself (with the addition of Forward the Foundation, which had not yet been written at the time Asimov offered the correct order. For my purposes (and certainly with no deference to the Author’s preference of order) I skipped I/The Complete Robot, as it is a collection of short stories which serve to demonstrate how robots in the literary universe operate, and to explain to the reader the basis for Asimov’s Three Laws of Robots. These laws form an integral plot point in a number of the books, and in many ways play a part in the over-arching story line (which I’ll explain later, in case I have readers who have not yet read that far in the series.) The Laws of Robotics- which have since been utilized by a number of other Science Fiction writers (myself included) as an homage to the Robot Master- are as follows:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Excusing the first submission, that would make the first book of the series The Caves of SteeI. I suggest that beginning here is sufficient as the Three Laws are addressed often in The Caves of Steel, as well as the introduction of two principle characters who will continue through multiple novels: Human Police Officer Elijah Baley, and the Humaniform Robot known as R. Daneel Olivaw.
The Caves of Steel takes place on a far future Earth roughly three millennia from now. The human population is broken into two “subspecies”- Earthers who still live on Earth, and “Spacers” who live on fifty colonized worlds. Earthers are much what we’d expect from 21st century humans as far as health and lifespan, however the population of Earth is roughly fifty billion people shoved into massive super cites where your rank in society determined your wealth and living status, and Spacers who live in much smaller populated worlds where they can live on average for three centuries. While Earthers have little interest in Robots (I’ll go into this in a moment), the Spacers societies generally have more robots than humans existing on their worlds. A unique and politically charged homicide forces Elijah Baley to accept a partner offered by the Spacers, R. Daneel Olivaw- the first Humaniform robot, one who is able to pass as human in public.
For an early Science Fiction novel, The Caves of Steel is unusual in that it blends many genres together in a way now commonplace for science fiction. While set in a Scifi setting, it incorporates a number of Nior concepts, particularly the Crime Drama elements which (based on their current popularity) offers the book a timeless quality. Asimov is able to write a very successful “Whodunit In Space” including a number of red herrings and false flags which allow the novel to twist and turn, keeping the reader engaged while Elijah Baley slowly comes to the correct identity of the killer. This is intentional on Asimov’s part- specifically, the book is a two hundred and twenty-four page argument to his editor at the time, who believed the genres of Science Fiction and Mystery were independent worlds that could never cross each other.
I have often felt that an important aspect of Science Fiction is to reflect something of the society they written in, or perhaps, written about. Aside from the warnings of global overpopulation and the effects that a “your worth is your job” mentality in an overpopulated society, The Caves of Steel (as well as the following novels in the Robots series) have a social reflection in multi-ethnicity. As is common in scifi, the human populations (both Earther and Spacer) are decidedly Caucasian- to the point where the discussion of skin tones is rare. However, the robot population reflects minority populations in both societies- in the dog-eat-dog controlled wage society of Earth the “minority population” is seen as job-stealers who are disrupting the fabric of society, while in the more economically open Spacer societies where the acquisition of wealth is not seen as a necessary pursuit, robots are seen as necessary members of social and technological circles (albeit still second class citizens). This is further reinforced by Elijah Baley’s habit of referring to robots other than Daneel as “boy.”
Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw (R being a recognition of his existence as a “Robot”) risk their safety, challenge their own understandings of society, and build a relationship neither would have believed possible at the start. Asimov does a masterful job of weaving a story that requires the specific assets of both a hard-nosed Nior detective and an unfeeling logical machine to succeed. Even with that, the crime element of the story builds throughout, and the duo come within less than an hour of failing in their task.
Many people who read the book will identify more with Daneel than Elijah- further proof of the masterful strokes of Asimov to make an unfeeling machine somehow “feel” more human than the actual human central in the story. However, I would ask that readers pay close attention to Elijah Baley. The character will end the book a much different person than he began it, which will be a trend through the entire Robots segment of the series.
As an introduction to both a four-novel series as well as the over reaching fourteen novel series, The Caves of Steel introduces a world, central characters, and even some recurring minor characters well, and demonstrates Asimov’s ability to write character growth very well. As a standalone SciFi Mystery, the book is a solid offering even considering that it is the progenitor of the sub-genre. As is often the case with sixty year old novels, the pacing of the dialog may be off for some readers. Also, some of the Earth society concepts will have a definitively 1984 kind of feel to them. Those points aside the novel is a solid offering of Scifi, and builds the foundation, pun intentional, for a massive multi-novel, multi-arc series that is the final extrapolation of a fifty year chain of dominoes.
Also, if you have interest in my own Science Fiction, please download Corrogatio for free to read two of my short stories, as well as sign up War Eternal on Channillo. Additionally, please check out my Patreon page, where I post backer-only fiction every month.