This site contains reviews of all of Isaac Asimov’s books and short fiction. All of Asimov’s books are reviewed, even the ones I haven’t read cover-to-cover (of which there are only four). Reviews of his short fiction cover all of his anthologized science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries, and a few bits and pieces of unanthologized material.
The reviews vary in length. Reviews of the more important books or stories tend to be longer, and reviews of the less important ones tend to be shorter, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. For example, there may be value to be gained in looking at why a particular book just doesn’t work. On the other hand, when a good book is part of a series (such as the F&SF essay collections), it’s hard to say much about a later volume that hasn’t already been said about all the earlier ones, except summarizing the contents.
Harlan Ellison, in his introduction to The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World quotes his editor at Avon, George Ernsberger, as saying, “There isn’t, really, something interesting to say about every story ever written—including, often, the very best ones.” (Thanks to Josh Wimmer of io9 for introducing me to the quote.) Having gone through so much written by Isaac Asimov, that’s something I of which I have become very much aware.
At the very least, I try to touch on why an Asimov fan—that is, someone who enjoys reading Asimov’s writing and wants to read more, or someone who is trying to study Asimov and his life—may or may not want to read a particular book or story. That may have something to do with its quality, and it may not. It varies from book to book.
Sometimes the reviews are very personal and talk about my own reaction to a piece. This is mostly because my own experience with reading reviewers is that there really isn’t such a thing as objective literary criticism; all reviewers have ideosyncratic reasons for liking or disliking certain things. I’m just trying to be up-front about mine.
Now, my main qualification for writing these reviews is simply that I’ve read a lot of Asimov. My own training is as a historian and mathematician, and professionally I deal with the computer representation of text. There is a certain amount of hubris involved for someone like me in undertaking a task like this, but I should point out that the man I’m talking about freely wrote books about the Bible and Shakespeare and astronomy and all kinds of stuff he had no formal training in. He also repeatedly denied having any real knowledge of “how to write,” certainly none that he knew how to convey. I'm comfortable, then, being a reader who doesn’t know “how to read” but does a lot of it anyway, and talking about a writer who didn’t know “how to write” but did a lot of it anyway.
The reviews are not synopses. I feel no obligation to summarize plots or contents. On the other hand, if a particular plot point is relevant to how I feel about a book, I will discuss it without hesitation and without spoiler protection, so be warned! This is especially true of Asimov’s better known fiction. If you seriously don’t want to be told where the Second Foundation is—well, maybe you should finish reading the first three Foundation books before coming here. (Although I always thought it was something of an anticlimax when it turns out it was just Hari Seldon’s sled.)
It goes without saying that some people will disagree with me. (That’s why I felt obligated to say it.) Feel free to write me to correct factual errors or to try to convince me that my own feelings regarding a book are wrong. If you can get me to enjoy a book in my Asimov collection more than I already do-more power to you; I certainly won’t mind. Comments and suggestions are also welcome.
In the end, however, there’s no accounting for taste, and sometimes I simply don’t like a book, so don’t be surprised if your take is different from mine.
Ratings are on a scale of 0-3. There are two ratings for the books: the first is for the Asimov fan, and the other is for the intended audience. 0 is bad, 3 is good.
I opted for two ratings because very often how a book is evaluated depends on how it is approached, and someone who reads the book primarily because it is by Asimov will evaluate it differently from someone who reads it because of the general class of book to which it belongs.
For example, take the Norby books. I don’t particularly care for them, and I don’t think they reveal anything particularly interesting about Asimov or his writing-mainly because the bulk of the writing was done by his collaborator, Janet Asimov, and he did very little actual work on them. The result is that I consistently rate them very low (around 0, in fact) so far as the Asimov fan is concerned.
On the other hand, I’m not a member of the target audience for the Norby books. When my beautiful, brunette, brown-eyed daughter was eight, she was part of the target audience, and she loved them. They’re fun books for pre-teens. The characters are colorful, the action is straightforward, there’s time travel and space travel and dragons and all kinds of fun stuff. As a result, the “target audience” rating for the Norby books tends to be relatively high.
Similarly, there are books which are of more interest for the Asimov fan than for the target audience (such as the weaker Empire novels).
One additional wrinkle is that there are a number of books where I have trouble rating them for the target audience. Books like the Norby volumes or various science juveniles are books that would have been targeted at me when I was younger, or to my children once I moved out of the appropriate age range and they moved into it. I can handle those. Books in genres which I myself rarely read are harder to evaluate: mystery anthologies, bawdy limericks, and so on. If you are a fan of such a genre and can give me a better basis for judging a book’s merits, I’m more than happy to be educated.
Stories, unlike books, have only one rating. The official reason is that there is less diversity in intended audience, that is, most of Asimov’s short fiction is aimed at the sf fan, and pretty much all Asimov fans are sf fans, too. The real reason is that I got lazy.
The scale of 0-3 is chosen because it makes it easier for me to remember what the numbers mean. Each rating is illustrated with an appropriate symbol from Asimov’s works.
0 () means “avoid this book or story” or “I would personally rather never re-read this book/story again.” This is the kind of thing that elicits a moan if the teacher assigns it. The one-word equivalent is “d’oh!”
1 () means “there’s no real reason not to read this book or story” or “I don’t mind re-reading it if I have to.” The one-word equivalent is “meh.”
2 () means “read this book or story" or “I enjoy re-reading it.” The one-word equivalent is “sure.”
3 () means “you’ve got to read this book or story” or “I am ever thrilled to re-read it.” The one-word equivalent is “woo-hoo!”
Naturally, the ratings (and reviews) can be skewed by a number of things; I don’t claim complete objectivity.
As a rule, “golden age syndrome” is the biggest single skewing factor. In his introduction to Before the Golden Age, Asimov mentions that the books one read when first discovering science fiction-typically when a pre-teenager-tend to gain a luster thereby that nothing can ever match. This is definitely true in my case, and so I tend to like the books I read for the first time prior to the mid-1970’s much better than the ones I’ve read since.
Non-fiction books tend to be rated, in part, by how badly dated they are. In particular, when Asimov counted multiple editions of a book separately (as he did with the Biographical Encyclopedia and Guide to Science), the earlier editions tend to get 0’s. Why read an earlier edition when a later one is available?
Anthologies of Asimov’s stories are often influenced by whether or not the worthwhile material in them is readily available elsewhere. This isn’t absolute: Books like I, Robot or Nine Tomorrows, all of whose contents are available in later books, are still rated highly. The overall quality of the material matters, too.
And, of course, there are other factors-whether or not I was in a good mood on a particular day, how distracted I was by other things, and so on. In particular, the ratings and reviews were not done all at once, so don’t be surprised if they tend to give slightly different impressions.
Starting with Opus 100, Asimov published numbered lists of his books, and official numbered lists are available through Book 300 (Opus 300). Ed Seiler, owner of the excellent Asimov online site, wrote Asimov before he died and obtained numbers for over a hundred more. Ed and Rich Hatcher have done a fair amount of detective work and estimated book numbers for the remainder. (They occasionally revise their numbering as they get more information, so my numbers may differ slightly from the current ones available on the net, although the listings themselves are pretty much the same.)
The alt.books.isaac-asimov FAQ discusses in more detail the problem of numbering and listing Asimov’s books.
I like the book numbers because it gives me an order-of-publication to use for reading and other purposes. The book numbers from 1 through 300 derive from Opus 100, Opus 200, and Opus 300 and are set in stone. Ed’s correspondence with Asimov provides numbers for 301 through 469, and those are pretty certain with the exception of Book 444 (The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction), which is on my list but not the Seiler/Asimov list. The rest should be taken with a shaker or two of salt.
This site was originally designed using book (and story) numbers as part of the URI for each review, and in retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea because it means I can’t revise my list easily. I expect to address this at some point in the future.
So what gets included? The general rules I follow are:
The catalogue in I. Asimov is taken as completely authoritative up to the date that it was prepared (spring 1990). Anything it lists is officially counted; anything it fails to list—except for The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction—is definitely rejected. The only exception is the doctoral dissertaion, which I include not only because of its historical value, but because Asimov himself would probably have counted it if he had been using his 1990-vintage rules back in 1948.
Anything published after the spring of 1990, the text of which was actually composed or prepared to a substantial extent by Asimov himself, counts.
Books which are somebody else’s revision of an earlier book by Asimov are rejected.
Anything else published after the spring of 1990 has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, using precedents set by Asimov himself as illustrated by the catalogue in I. Asimov.
Anything published after the spring of 1990 whose text consists entirely of Asimov’s writing, selected and edited by other people, counts. (This is based on the precedent set by Other Worlds of Isaac Asimov and The Asimov Chronicles, both of which were edited entirely by Martin Harry Greenberg.) Examples: Yours, Isaac Asimov, Gold, Magic.
Anything published after the spring of 1990 which is just an omnibus edition of one or more of Asimov’s earlier books does not count. (This is based on the precedent set by Triangle and other omnibus works.)
Books that are literary transformations of Asimov’s work produced by top-flight sf writers who were Asimov’s personal friends and whose work was done with Asimov’s personal approval count. (The precedent here is Nightfall and The Ugly Little Boy.) In other words, I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay counts.
Books which are selections of other Asimov books are rejected if Asimov’s role in the preparation of the original book was more-or-less editorial. (This is based on the precedent of Would You Believe? and More Would You Believe?.) Example: The Best of Isaac Asimov Presents Superquiz. (Truth be told, I would have taken any excuse to reject this one.)
Asimov’s doctoral dissertation is included in my list (officially) because Asimov would have counted it himself if he’d written it in the 1960’s or 1970’s; it’s certainly more book-like than some of the things he did count. In reality, of course, I count it because I own a photocopy and want to count it.
I was asked in mid-2000 if I might not provide a picture of my collection. It must be impressive, the correspondent suggested. Lacking a digital camera at the time, I couldn’t easily accomodate them. I did, however, have a scanner and therefore scanned in the covers of my books to include with the reviews.
Some of the covers are not in good shape. My books tend to lead rough lives, and my Asimov collection has been more heavily used than most of my other books. Many of the older paperbacks spent long periods of time being carted off to Boy Scout camps or riding in my back pocket, and they’re pretty battered up as a result.
The situation is worse for the hardback books, which typically use a dust jacket for the cover art. Dust jackets tend to be ripped by children anxious to pull books out of Daddy’s hands or nibbled on by budgies looking for something interesting to chew. As a result some of the books in my collection have long lost their dust jackets. Some of the hardback books I got in used book stores and lost their dust jackets long before I got to them. In the case of the early textbooks, the book probably was never published with a dust jacket or cover art to begin with. In all three cases, the net result is that all I’ve got is a dull and uninteresting cover. If I can locate or scan an image of the dust jacket from another copy of the same edition as one I own, I’ll use that instead. Otherwise, there may just be a scan of the title page or nothing at all.
If I have more than one copy with a scannable cover, there’s more than one scan included, with the additional scans in the navigation bar. This includes the foreign-language editions, of which I only pretend to be able to read the Chinese and French. The cover image up by the book title is that of the edition I consider the most important, usually the one I purchased first.
The scans on the review pages are thumbnails and include links to larger versions. I’m following Wikipedia’s example here; a full-sized, low-resolution scan of cover art should reasonably count as “fair use.”
I’ve also been adding the information in the publisher’s “blurb,” usually from the back cover or the flaps of the dust jacket. In part, this is to save me the trouble of writing synopses, but the real value is that it provides on occasion a moment or two of amusement as we see just how marketing departments try to make a book as attractive as possible.
Not all books have blurbs, of course, but wherever possible a blurb is included from at least one of my copies, and sometimes more than one.
I’ve stolen the data for the story listing from Ed Seiler’s list of stories in order of publication. I’m working, however, from an older version of Ed’s data and so the data may not be entirely complete or accurate.
Not everything of interest to the Asimov fan has been written by the Good Doctor himself. There are books which devote a large part or all of their space discussing him or his work, and there are books by authors set (generally with some degree of authorization) in his fictional universe. Reviews are included of any books of these kinds which I happen to have read.
Note, this does not include self-published material or fan fiction. I’m not interested in reading fan fiction of any sort, let alone Asimovian fan fiction. Don’t bother asking me to look at your sequel to “Half-Breeds on Venus;” the answer will be no. After it wins the Hugo and Nebula and has been anthologized in a commercially published book, yes, I’ll look at it then.
(I once started a “Star Trek” fan fiction story but gave it up on the second page. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to writing any. I’ve read some but not for ages. The quality is too uneven to really warrant much time spent on it. Moreover, I’m not willing to review your stuff for you simply because I don’t have the interpersonal skills to tell you that your stuff stinks while still encouraging you to write more. Nor do I have the editorial skills to tell you that your stuff stinks but this is how you can fix it.)
I also have a couple of other pages related to various aspects of Asimoviana which aren’t reviews. Notably, we have from Thrilling Wonder Stories an early timeline the Good Doctor prepared and a report on my visits to the Asimov Archive at the Boston University Library.
And, to spice things up, I’ve also added a blog so that I can have a place to put random thoughts on Asimov’s writing, when I have them—which isn’t often.
Ed Seiler and Rich Hatcher anybody else who has made kind comments or suggestions as I’ve been working on this (of whom there are more than I had expected)....
After years of neglect, I started a redesign and revision of this site in August 2010. The goal was to make the UI cleaner (and less 1995-ish), fix typos, and update the reviews where necessary. Support for comments has also been added, as well as a way for people to use Google’s Sidewiki even if their browser doesn’t support it directly. If you have something interesting or worthwhile to say about one of Asimov’s works, now you can go ahead and say it.