Asimov’s Robots and Empire (and how to read it)

Inspired by historian Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy tells the story of a future humanity, and a small group of scientists struggling to maintain their galactic civilization over hundreds of years. Even though Asimov never quite completed the series, the story–set millennia in the future–is timeless and engaging and a classic of science-fiction literature.

But he also wrote a series of short stories (and, later, novels) about robots and their impact on human beings. Now, decades later, the modern field of robotics is using the good Doctor A’s three laws of robotics as a guideline to create real-world ethical rules for robots to follow. One can only hope that the engineers and programmers making ever-more autonomous military drones and robots are doing the same.

I first read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy as well as his classic collection of stories I, Robot as a child. I didn’t know what to think when he stitched both series together in the novels Robots and Empire and Foundation and Earth. However, re-reading the series with the eventual convergence in mind, the eventual meetings between characters of the two series seem inevitable.

The two series, including the interim “Empire” trilogy, are spread between about sixteen books, and the question of what order to read them is one with no easy answer. I think that neither published order nor chronological order quite does the series justice. I’ve put together the reading order that I think makes the most sense for maximum enjoyment of the books. You’ll notice two things: That I’ve left out a few books, and also that this follows neither in-universe chronological order or published order.

The stories and books written by other writers have the flavor of metacommentary: They expand on the original idea, but are not required reading and can distract from enjoying the original books. I highly suggest reading these after you’ve finished the entire series. (For those who prefer reading in strict chronological order, a few minutes with Google will turn up a reading order for you.) In particular, the “Second Foundation trilogy” is quite good, as is the first of the three “Caliban” novels by Roger MacBride Allen. There’s also a series of Susan Calvin novels being worked on.

Rumors tell us that the good Doctor was stymied after the end of Foundation and Earth, and so could only go backwards and write the “Foundation” prequels. Since the series was never quite finished, I feel that a non-linear approach is the best choice here. This allows one to emphasize the building of themes within the books, rather than individual plot threads.

I’ve also committed the sin of leaving books out: The “Empire” novels, and those “Foundation” prequels, in particular. These are not the author’s strongest work by any means, and I hesitate to recommend that any reader, particularly one new to Asimov’s work, take these on. The prequels in particular contain spoilers that, in the opinion of someone who read the later books as they were released, contain revelations that will spoil the end of the later books.

All that said, any reasonably intelligent reader could read them in a random order. They’re all good on their own, and contain enough clues that the reader can figure out what’s happened so far.

The Foundation books in particular have a reputation for being talky, and it’s not undeserved: Dr. A loved to have his characters sitting and talking to–or at–each other, often about recent “historical” events that put the current chunk of the tale into context. Fortunately, his characters are interesting and varied enough to pull this off.

Here’s my reasoning for this order. If you haven’t read the series, you might want to skip the rest of this article.

I, Robot is a short, fun read–like almost everything Asimov wrote. It was the first book of Asimov’s that I read, and it’s a great introduction to his work.

Next, jump ahead in time and read the original Foundation trilogy. The reader will notice immediately the lack of robots in human society–what happened to the robots during the thousands of years in between these books?

Now we jump back into the past, slightly after the events in I, Robot, but well before the Foundation books, and read the Robot mystery novels. We see the harm that robots can do to a society where they are forced to preserve human life at any cost, as well as their rising awareness of the problem.

The next step is to read the two sequel Foundation novels. We see that the R. Daneel Olivaw has been behind the scenes for years. But how was this achieved? We’ll find this out in the next book.

Robots and Empire is the single book in the series that ties everything together, so that’s next. Since Asimov never finished the Foundations series, this is the closest thing we have to a climax. Which is why I placed it here, and not after the Robot novels.

Our epilogue to all this is the short novel The End of Eternity. While it’s related to the series by the thinnest of threads, it works best here, finishing off the entire story. When we put this book down, we know two things: The noble, optimistic promise of humanity’s future will pan out imperfectly, but the grand vistas of time stretching forward at the end of this book show us that history is cyclical, and that the nobility of human achievement is in the very act of us striving for something better.

If you disagree with my order, please tell me why; I’d love to hear about it.

This article is a heavily modified version of my answer to this question on the Stack Exchange network.


7 thoughts on “Asimov’s Robots and Empire (and how to read it)

  1. hi
    im sorry my english isn’t very good
    i want to ask you said ” the R. Daneel Olivaw has been
    behind the scenes for years.”
    you mean he backed of from empire and this stuff or he is the bad guy and he hide himself as a good guy?
    i dont started series yet but if uts second one its a huge spoiler.
    sorry about my english again

  2. Great list! I personally, really enjoyed Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation and if they were to be put in the reading list I would put them right after the original trilogy. However, I can see your point about it revealing too much about the robots and their mysterious actions to preserve humanity.

    I would disagree, however, that these books are Asimov’s weakest work, they simply aren’t necessary to the reading list in terms of telling the epic tale. I found Forward the Foundation, in particular, to be very reflective of our current times and the need for principled people to act even in the face of grim reality and death, possibly related to the author’s own personal battles at the end of his life.

    This leads me mention one of the other important themes of his stories, which is that, as you said, the nobility of humanity is the effort toward improvement and growth, each person a thread in the tapestry. However, the actions of some brave few have the ability to affect the course of history so the need for strength, principles and creativity is required to produce the people who can take the necessary actions to move us forward. This is clearly exemplified in the character of Elijah Bailey and mirrored much later by Golan Trevise.

    Other themes include the power of human creativity to make logical leaps, the massive variety of humanity, the dangers of science when coupled with meglomania, and the self-destructive nature of prejudice.

    Finally, there are two key elements to the Asimovian universe (aside from FTL space travel) that must be accepted to understand his worldview: 1) humans are the only sentient life in the galaxy 2) mental telepathy is real and achievable. It’s interesting to me that these are both so fundamental to his worldview. The first is likely, IMO, but the second is more interesting to me as I wonder why he was so adamant about including it in his stories.

    Thanks again! I’m a huge fan and have read most of these books multiple times.

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