I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly the Foundation trilogy, and though I’ve read a fair few of his other books as well there’s a lot I haven’t (he’s one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, having written over 500 books). Although best known for his fiction, he also wrote numerous textbooks on subjects such as biochemistry, physics and astronomy.
The sheer number of stories he wrote means that there’s obviously a variation in quality – I remember reading one of the further books in the Foundation saga, that felt like a bland tie-in to an interesting universe – a bit like a mediocre writer being given access to write in the Star Wars or Star Trek official tie-ins. Not as low as fan fiction, but not what you’d expect from one of the giants of his genre, either.
I’m a bit unsure on how to classify and review a short story collection. A novel is a story, which has an arc, characters, emotional and story rises and falls. A collection works in a slightly different way – it’s a series of smaller, micro-stories, which may make it tempting to create groupings around the story that don’t properly fit. So apologies in advance if I do that.
It might be an odd thing to say, but while Asimov is widely thought of as one science fiction’s all time greats, in some ways he’s very underrated.
Generally its acknowledged that Asimov’s characters aren’t his strongest point – while compelling, they tend to lack the complexity and internal conflict of truly outstanding characters. While this is a weakness I agree with, I find myself tempted to associate this with an overall lack of imagination. When I’ve not read any Asimov for a while, I tend to fall into the trap of thinking of his stories that I have liked as childish enjoyments, that I’ve now outgrown – enjoyments like Thunderbirds or Power Rangers.
But Isaac Asimov does have a wild and varied imagination, and Robot Dreams is a strong sampling of his work – 21 stories first published between 1947 and 1989, across 42 years, on a range of subjects and themes.
One of the things that’s striking about the collection as a whole is a 50s sensibility. It’s hard to pin down what I mean by this, but it’s a sensation I felt for most of the stories… Think of a world of picket fences, of neatly mowed lawns, and straightforward characters who are relatively self-aware and not overly deceptive. Everything I’ve read of Philip K. Dick’s has been messy, complicated – Asimov, here in particular, feels straightforward.
Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a sensation I felt across stories. In particular, Lest We Remember revolves around a young couple, the female of the pair referring to themselves as ‘The firm of Jonny and Sue’, which has a particularly ‘gee whizz’ feel to it.
Most of the stories are set ‘ten minutes in the future’ – dealing with developments and trends that, for all we know, could be beginning now.
The Billiard Ball is a story of two scientists, rivals since university, one a Nobel prize-winning theoretician, the other a practical engineer who’s became very rich by putting the former’s ideas into practice.
Multivac, an advanced computer used by Asimov across many of his stories, is used to decide an election in Franchise, as a dating machine in True Love, and to create new jokes in Jokester.
And Breeds There A Man? follows Ralson, a scientist working on a missile defence system during the Cold War who suffers from as a strange delusion.
All of these appear to be set either in the twenty-first century or an imagined time between Asimov’s present and ours – these stories have the feel of being both familiar and fanciful, rooted in the present, but looking out to the future.
And there are other stories that are wildly imaginative – there’s a story set on an isolated asteroid, which has its own strange society; the story of the struggles to set up an independent Mars Colony; post-humanism; a time-travelling Neanderthal; life after death; and a few stories about life that’s advanced beyond our understanding.
Of all the stories, there’s only Eyes Do More Than See that I’d consider a bad story – because of a twist that’s heavy handedly emotional. And even that story has the virtue of being short.
The remainder of the stories are all compelling, for a variety of reasons – mystery, concern for characters, a sense of adventure.
My favourite of the stories is The Martian Way. Set in the early days of the Mars Colony, where Humans have started to settle on Mars with the cost being borne mainly by Earth and subsidised by ‘Scavengers’ who capture the debris left by various spaceships over the years between now and then.
A charismatic politician wants to cut back on the costs of the space programme, a programme that is unlikely to break into profit during his lifetime or that of any of his voters. So, seemingly faced with no option but to return to Earth, one of the Scavengers comes up with a bold plan, that will require pushing technology further than anyone considers possible, in order to ensure Martian independence.
I don’t want to say what the action involves, as I was struck by the sense of audacity and I wouldn’t want to spoil this. But the story has a similar feel to stories about the Apollo programme – astronauts going out on highly dangerous missions, pushing back the boundaries of engineering and of known science, the boundaries of what can be done. It’s the kind of subject that I find really stirring and inspiring when done well, and it’s done really well here.
Remarkably, despite it’s similarities in feel to the Apollo programme, this story was written in 1952, five years before Sputnik was put into orbit, and nine before Yuri Gagarin became the first Human in space.
In contrast to The Martian Way, Little Lost Robot and Robot Dreams are small-scale stories, a combination of mystery and moral discussion. In the former, Susan Calvin, a leading robopsychologist and one of Asimov’s recurring characters, is called to a remote scientific base to find the whereabouts of a missing robot. The robot has had its programming, it’s Three Laws altered in such a way that would make it dangerous if it manages to stowaway back to Earth.
Robot Dreams features Calvin again, and a robot that has developed the capacity to dream.
The use of robots as a metaphor for slavery is an old idea, in fact dating back as far as the origin of the word robot.
What’s unusual is that the story would normally feature a kind, caring protagonist, one who argues for the robots’ right to be considered equals. In both of these stories the characters are hard-headed. In fact when the missing robot in Little Lost Robot hides amongst 63 physically identical machines, Calvin immediately recommends destroying all of them, and is talked out of it on economic, not moral grounds. This is despite the fact that she herself believes the robots have developed a limited form of sentience.
It’s an interesting approach – but I think by not explicitly stating the ‘moral’ of the story it’s made more powerful, and prompts more thoughts as to whether these machines genuinely are sophisticated enough to be considered worthy of equality. It also means that these two stories remain powerful and fresh – despite the former being written over half a century ago, and being made familiar by numerous imitations.
On the whole, these are stories that are positive and forward-looking – not ‘Frankenstein stories’ about humanity going too far, ‘playing God’ and being smacked down for it, but stories about the positive results of scientific advancement.
But there are a number of satirical and cynical stories. The Machine That Won The War, tells of a meeting in the aftermath of a victorious war, and discussion of the brilliant machine that helped them achieve victory; Franchise is set in a world where presidential elections are decided by one vote, of a man chosen by Multivac as the ultimate average American; and Lest We Remember is the story of how gaining new, almost supernatural skills brings out the worst impulses in its hero.
One major flaw struck me was the gender politics of some of the stories. Though I get the feeling that Asimov would consider himself a feminist from the stories, I counted six significant female characters across the twenty-one stories (Susan Calvin appearing twice). Two of these six are defined to a large extent by their spouse, one works as a nanny, a stereotypically feminine role, and one is an extremely meek scientist whose husband explicitly states that there aren’t many career women like her on Earth.
The Machine That Won The War; The Last Question and The Feeling Of Power all have a number of male scientists and soldiers whose personalities aren’t important to the story, and could be changed to women by a simple change of name and pronoun, so it makes me a little uncomfortable that the characters are so overwhelmingly male.
Having said that, Susan Calvin is probably the most interesting character in the book, so Asimov is clearly capable of writing women..I think maybe he just underestimated how quickly society would move towards female equality in the workplace.
I’m honestly not sure whether to include this paragraph or not, because it feels like I’m picking on Asimov for a flaw he couldn’t realistically be expected to see as a flaw, a manner of thinking he was conditioned into by his experiences. But it was something I felt as a flaw when reading, so I think probably worth mentioning.
I really enjoyed the collection – despite being a fan, I’ve not read either I, Robot, his definitive book, (which Little Lost Robot is taken from) or The Gods Themselves and Gold, both Hugo award winners, but I am definitely more motivated to seek them out now.
Given the sheer amount of stories Asimov has written, not all of them will be worth reading – but I’d say that twenty of the twenty-one in this collection are.
Verdict: While characters aren’t his strongest point, Robot Dreams is a collection of idea-based scifi from a master of the genre.