By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Isaac Asimov (1920-92) is one of the most prolific authors who have ever lived, with several hundred books to his name (as writer and editor). He’s the only writer to have published books in nine out of ten Dewey library categories.
Although Asimov is best-known for his science fiction, he himself preferred writing non-fiction. With one or two exceptions, between the late 1950s and early 1980s he virtually gave up writing fiction altogether, preferring to focus on his popular science writing among other things (Asimov was a lecturer in biochemistry before he quit academia to become a full-time writer in 1958).
Below, we select and introduce ten of Isaac Asimov’s best books, covering the extraordinary range of his output from science fiction classics to accessible works of non-fiction. Asimov was popularly known as ‘the Great Explainer’, and the non-fiction books we include below demonstrate why he’s so deserving of that epithet!
In the case of Asimov’s book series – notably the Foundation novels and the Robots quartet of novels – we’ve limited ourselves to one representative novel from the broader series, but both sequences are worth reading in their entirety.
1. The Naked Sun.
This is the second of the four ‘Robot’ novels, published in 1957. It’s the second book to feature Asimov’s detective, Elijah Baley, who first teamed up with the robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, in The Caves of Steel.
The premise of this novel is hauntingly familiar to us in the wake of social distancing and lockdowns: on the planet of Solaria, people don’t ‘see’ each other, since ‘seeing’ is viewed as abnormal, even dirty, because it means coming into contact with other people’s breath, germs, and sweaty bodies.
Instead, Solarians ‘view’ each other via screens, being in different buildings – or even different rooms in the same building – when they converse with each other. Inhabitants of Solaria quite literally cannot bear to be in the same room as each other. So how was a prominent scientist murdered? Could a robot be responsible?
2. The Gods Themselves.
Between 1957 and 1982, Asimov published just one science-fiction novel. The Gods Themselves is a standalone novel and won both the Hugo and Nebula, the two leading awards in science fiction. The title was taken from Friedrich Schiller: ‘Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain’.
The book’s three sections each take place on a different ‘world’: the first is set here on Earth, the second in a parallel universe, and the third on a lunar colony. Earth exchanges matter with the other universe, but this exchange imperils our own solar system, since it may lead to the Sun becoming a supernova …
3. Asimov’s New Guide to Science.
This book is perhaps Asimov’s biggest-selling popular science book. Originally published as The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science in 1960, it went through numerous updates and expansions as more and more was discovered about the universe; the 1984 edition, Asimov’s New Guide to Science, is the one to get.
Although the book was initially conceived as a guide to twentieth-century scientific discoveries, Asimov insisted on taking the longer historical approach: something that would also serve as the basis for his vast Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (which is also worth seeking out).
4. I, Robot.
This 1950 collection must be Asimov’s best-known collection of short stories, and the tales included here cemented his reputation as the leading science-fiction writer on robots and robotics (indeed, Asimov is credited with coining the latter term). Here you’ll find such classic Asimov short stories as ‘Robbie’ and ‘Runaround’, along with a number of others.
5. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare.
As well as writing dozens of popular science books, Asimov also turned his hand to other subjects, including history and literature. This is his finest literary commentary (if we exclude the Bible one, to which we’ll come in a moment), although his commentaries on Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels are also illuminating and compelling.
Here, Asimov takes each of Shakespeare’s plays in turn, explaining prominent allusions and references to places, historical figures, or characters from myth. It’s a great book for enhancing your understanding of the Bard’s works, although it’s not always cheap online …
6. Nightfall and Other Stories.
Here’s another popular collection of short stories, published in 1969 and named after what is probably Asimov’s most famous story.
The 1941 tale ‘Nightfall’ was suggested by a conversation Asimov had with the editor John W. Campbell (of whom more below), who told Asimov about a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson (‘If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!’).
7. I, Asimov.
When Asimov died in 1992, Doris Lessing remarked that the news was like hearing that the Taj Mahal had collapsed. Asimov was a giant in not only science-fiction but the publishing world in general.
This memoir, posthumously published in 2001, is essentially a distillation of Asimov’s two enormous autobiographies, updated to include details from Asimov’s final years, with the book organised into categories rather than as a strict chronology.
Anyone who’s interested in the workings of Asimov’s prodigious mind should read this, to learn about how he came to write his books but also how sociable he was (an active member of various clubs, a dabbler in limericks, and popular after-dinner speaker; though ultimately happiest behind his typewriter).
8. The End of Eternity.
This 1955 novel is Asimov’s finest exploration of a perennial science-fiction trope: time travel. The book focuses on a society of time-altering people, known as ‘Eternity’; the novel’s protagonist must decide whether to engineer events so that the society is founded, or alter things so that it never existed.
The novel is one of Asimov’s most suspenseful; it was shortlisted for the Hugo award.
9. Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.
Of all of Asimov’s many non-fiction works, this two-volume commentary on the Bible – one book covers the Old Testament, and the other takes us through the New – is, for our money, the best. It’s not always easy to get hold of, but this mammoth volume – which Asimov wrote while he was negotiating his divorce from his first wife and moving in with Janet, who became his second wife – is a tour de force.
An avowed atheist himself, Asimov approaches the Bible as an historical document and literary work, tracing the origins of various stories in the Old and New Testaments and explaining the historical and geographical significance of the various places mentioned. It’s gripping, informative, and told in Asimov’s inimitable scholarly yet accessible manner.
10. Foundation and Empire.
Technically, the original ‘Foundation trilogy’ published in book form in the early 1950s is a ‘fix-up’ of various short stories which Asimov wrote for John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine.
The precocious Asimov was still only in his early 20s when he wrote these foundational (no pun intended) works of science fiction, using Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as inspiration for his epic saga of the fall of the Galactic Empire.
Although Foundation is the first book in the series and the place every beginner should start, it’s in the second book, Foundation and Empire, that things start to get really interesting, not least thanks to the Mule, a mutant warlord whose appearance on the scene threatens the predictions made by Hari Seldon about managing the long decline of the Galactic Empire …