Isaac Asimov was my introduction to science fiction. I imagine he has been for a lot of people. The libraries here in Norway didn’t have a lot of fantasy/science fiction material in my youth. But there were a few robot anthologies with Isaac. I fell in love.
It’s incredible to me that Asimov began the Foundation series in 1942. I would begin my reading with the Robot series (Elijah Bailey series). These four books give the reader an excellent starting point for understanding Foundation: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire (these are links to Wikipedia so spoiler warning is necessary).
The Caves of Steel (1954) is the very beginning of the Foundation series. Far into the future (approx. 3000 years) mankind has discovered hyper-travel and has emigrated to the stars. Fifty planets, known as the Spacer worlds, have been terraformed and enjoy a low density of humans. Robots are used for labor intensive jobs. In the meantime Earth is over-populated and have passed laws against the use of robots. Elijah Bailey lives on Earth in one of the domed cities.
A Spacer ambassador has been found murdered outside his domicile. Elijah is forced to go work with his partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, a human-looking robot. Unfortunately one of things Elijah holds against Daneel is the fact that he looks just like the murder victim. On their journey of discovery they end up visiting the Spacer worlds.
Some of the themes Asimov explores in this combination of sci-fi and mystery are over-population, technology and prejudice.
The Naked Sun (1957) brings us to the world of Solaria. Solaria is a planet where the population is kept at 20000 and robots serve the human population. In fact robots outnumber the humans greatly. This time the victim is a genetic specialist in the birthing center of the planet. On a planet where contact between people is kept at a minimum, we get a real locked-room mystery. Once again Elijah and Daneel need to solve the murder mystery.
In the Elijah books robots are for the most part treated as property and expected to do as their masters say. When Elijah calls the robot “Boy” it might be seen as Asimov’s way of breaching the topic of racism/slavery/prejudice. Asimov was agoraphobic and as such Solaria would probably be the exact opposite of his heaven. Elijah certainly has to struggle quite a deal with his own agoraphobia in this novel. We also get a look at the way we tend to make assumptions without enough information. The rest of Solaria just “knows” that Gladia has to be guilty of the crime, but Elijah is not as certain of that.
In The Robots of Dawn (1983) we once again meet Gladia from Solaria. She has settled on the planet Aurora. A roboticide has occurred and Elijah and Daneel need to find the killer. R. Jander Panell was another humaniform robot created by Han Fastolfe. The robots of Aurora are incredibly lifelike and their interaction with their humans can be quite intimate.
To aid in their investigation, Daneel and Elijah are assisted by another of Fastolfe’s creations, R. Giskard Reventlov. They discover that Jander was a member of Gladia’s staff. In fact, she considered him her husband. Some of the possibilities for motives are jealousy, power and greed. While Asimov’s Robot books are mysteries, they are also an exploration of sociological possibilities. The impact of technology (in this case robots) is one of Asimov’s recurrent themes. How far do we take technology or let technology take us? The Robots of Dawn is also very much about human relationships. How much do we let our urges, the taboos of society and our individualism steer our lives?
Robots and Empire (1985) is the final book in the Elijah Bailey/Robot series. By this time Elijah has died and we encounter one of his descendants, Daneel Giskard. In it we get a step closer to Asimov’s Foundation series – a natural continuation of the Elijah/Robot’s series.
For most of the Spacer population Earth people are seen as vermin. They have been forbidden emigration to other planets and are forced to stay on over-populated, capped earth.
However, Earth people are overcoming their agoraphobia and are using faster-than-light transportation to get to planets away from the Spacer Empire. These “Settlers” see the Earth as something to revere. One of these Settlers is Daneel Giskard.
On a trade journey Daneel discovers that Solaria seems empty of humans. The robots are left, still working with their previously assigned jobs. Gladia Delmarre is still alive on Aurora and she is asked by Daneel to help figure out what has happened on Solaria. She brings R. Daneel and R. Giskard to aid in the investigation.
Once again Asimov explores the theme of technology and its effect on humans. The ending of Robots and Empire was quite touching and a fitting end to the Robot series. When you read the Foundation series, you will see just how Robots and Empire merges these two series. These books are a treat. While they are dated in some respects, their themes are incredibly relevant today.