Derek’s Asimov Guide

Introduction

One of my major pastimes during the last two months of sheltering in place has been reading a bunch of Asimov books that have been sitting on my bookshelf, slowly accumulated from thrifting at the SF Library Bookstore $1 science fiction section, annual SF Big Book Sale, and a handful of Goodwills, Salvation Armies, and Hospice Thrift Stores in the Bay Area.

(Before I continue: if you’re not the kind of reader that loves science fiction and are not prepared to read a significant number of books that I am about to recommend, and would in all honesty only read one sci-fi book this year, then I actually would direct your attention instead to Ted Chiang’s Exhalation short story collection, and, if you’re even more strapped for time, the last masterpiece of a short story in that collection. I’d even gladly send you a copy of that book, as I’m confident enough in its efficacy as a gateway drug that will bring you back to this Asimov guide. At the very least, you can proudly say that you read that short story before it inevitably becomes the second Ted Chiang short story film adaptation to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.)

If you are in the situation I was in a year ago, dimly aware of Asimov’s key role in science fiction literature (and science generally) but not yet a reader and not sure where to start and what to expect, then this guide is exactly for you. Especially if you also happen to have lots of extra time on your hands for whatever reason.

My goal is to convince you to read not just one book, not just some books, but 14 books as quickly as you can, in a specific order. 

Strangely, I’m in the position of not actually wanting to give you much of a convincing argument, for fear of spoiling important parts of the reading experience. So what follows is an unusual structure to a guide. I will first simply present an order of fourteen books that I think provides the best and most essential linear experience of sci-fi concepts and themes throughout Asimov’s expansive bibliography. I hope you will take me at my word that this is the best order, and NOT read anything else of this guide until you have completed the list. This ironically is my recommendation for how to read this guide, and in fact I recommend you basically avoid looking for any information at all about Asimov online, so as to enter his universe completely blind, as I did.

If that is entirely too unconvincing to get you to pick up the first book on the list, then you should read the one section that follows, which will be my attempt at a big picture, lightly treading, spoiler-free case for why Asimov is worth your time right now. 

After that section will be a clear spoiler warning. Do NOT read anything that follows that warning without reading all fourteen books unless you are the masochistic type that likes to look up the end credit scenes of Marvel films before even watching the film. But what awaits you will be some of my detailed reflections on the various cross-cutting themes and philosophical ideas of the books. A retrospective guide, if you will. 

My recommended order for reading Asimov’s most popular books

Again, if you are predisposed to want to read Asimov at some point in your life, and are willing to take my word on what is the best way to go about doing it, then read nothing else of this guide and simply acquire and read these books in exactly this order. In fact, don’t even pay much attention to the list itself; just focus on them one by one. You can even ignore the list, Venmo me money, and I’ll online order you one book at a time.

  1. Foundation
  2. Foundation and Empire
  3. Second Foundation
  4. Foundation’s Edge
  5. I, Robot
  6. The Caves of Steel
  7. The Naked Sun
  8. The Robots of Dawn
  9. Robots and Empire
  10. Robot Visions (“Mirror Image” specifically)
  11. Foundation and Earth
  12. Prelude to Foundation 
  13. Forward the Foundation
  14. The End of Eternity

A brief case for why you should invest your time

If you were born after Asimov died, like me, and your only cultural sense of Asimov is that he had something to do with a Will Smith film about robots, like me, then I encourage you first to completely dissociate your expectations of Asimov from that film and consider this. Asimov was the first to coin the term “robotics” and essentially pioneered the field from the sidelines of literature. He was writing stories about artificial intelligence before computers were invented. His actual most profound ideas are about population ethics, political and social science (“psychohistory” in his universe), and existential risk. Plus a few wickedly fun sci-fi surprises. Many of the details in his stories that reflect these themes are uncannily relevant to our current moment, including an entire world of sheltered-in-place humans, deadly pandemics, commercialized space travel, scientists developing mathematical models to predict political outcomes, despots and demagogues, and mass social movements with the power to topple regimes. Most delightfully, Asimov incredibly efficient books play out like stage performances, much less interested in space battles and fancy gadgets than in the drama of long, deep conversations in the face of pivotal moments in human history. Invest time in these books because they will expand your mind and philosophy in surprising ways. And if all else fails, read them to get more out of that Apple TV+ series coming next year.

And now, a spoiler warning

Do NOT scroll past the long break below unless you have read all fourteen books, or you might have a key reading experience spoiled within the first few sentences of my reflection section.

Reflecting on Asimov

Writing in progress…