It could sound like a clique stating my first ever science fiction read was Isaac Asimov back in the late ’70s, but this may have been unavoidable. This guy was an iconic American writer and professor who dominated the genre for half a century. He even boasted he was the “Best Science Writer” backed up by none other than Arthur C. Clarke. They actually had made an agreement with each other, negotiated as they shared a cab in New York, the so-called “Clarke–Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue”.
The treaty stipulated that Asimov would always proclaim Clarke as the greatest science fiction writer in the world, with himself as runner-up, and Clarke would similarly proclaim Asimov as the best science writer, with himself as runner-up.
Asimov was born in Russia, but his family immigrated to the United States when he was only three years old. He began his writing career in the 1930s by publishing science fiction stories in pulp magazines. Asimov authored 500 plus books, spanning science fiction, non-fiction, and mystery novels. He is most famous for his Foundation and Robot series, which delves into artificial intelligence and the future of humanity. In addition to sci-fi works, Asimov also wrote extensively about science and technology, including essays and textbooks. His prolific writing earned him numerous awards, such as the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker awards. Asimov passed away in 1992, leaving behind a lasting legacy as one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time.
Between himself, Clarke and Heinlein, there was a good chance a kid like me would get scooped up in science fiction by one of these big three, so, when I came across the Peter Elson book cover art, I grabbed it and delved right into the realm of speculative fiction. For me, this gave me context to science fiction content airing on television, and yes, it was in black and white, and yes it included Quatermass, Doctor Who, and all the American sci-fi TV reruns from the 1960s and movies from the 1950s.
The context? That there is a point to science fiction. Books and films can not only entertain but they can also explain modern life, make you think and reflect on how science and technology can impact society and culture, and also inspire or warn about the future. Asimov was very good at posing the “what if” question, and building societies around that.
In the case of Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, well, until the mid-20th-century science on Venus, the nearest planet to Earth, remained vague. The planet was concealed by thick, uniform clouds that made it difficult to ascertain its rotational speed or terrain.
Since the late 1800s, it was speculated that Venus was hotter than our planet, that it made it uninhabitable, at least at the equator. Later, scientists like Svante Arrhenius were convinced that Venus was a wet planet with seas and swamps. In 1955, Frank Whipple and Donald Menzel, two American astronomers, put forth the idea that Venus was entirely covered by a carbonated ocean, creating a seltzer sea that encircled the entire planet. According to their theory, any land masses on Venus would have removed a large amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converted it into carbonates, which is similar to what has happened on Earth. This idea of a planet-wide ocean led many to speculate about the possibility of marine life on Venus, similar to the organisms that existed during the Cambrian era, around 500 million years ago.
So, Isaac Asimov centred his 1954 novel, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, around this theory.
They were all proven wrong by new scientific studies, but that’s science fiction. There has to be a science-based backdrop for any story to work well. The Lucky Starr Series captures what astronomers knew of the solar system at the time, just like how the success of James Corey‘s The Expanse is due to its use of knowledge about our solar system.
The Lucky Starr Series
Taking place in A.D. 7,000, the series is set five millennia after the detonation of the first nuclear bomb. By this time, humankind has established colonies on the inner planets within the Solar System and has also expanded into other planetary systems, encountering various independent and occasionally antagonistic governments. The governing body with the most influence in the Solar System is the Council of Science, employing scientific knowledge and daring operatives to counteract political and military hazards to Earth’s ruling authority.
David Starr, Space Ranger (1952)
David ‘Lucky’ Starr is a biophysicist sent by the Council of Science to the planet of Mars to investigate a bioterror attack on its farmlands. The Earth is on the brink of disaster as the Martian colony that provides essential sustenance is under threat. David Starr has been informed that over the past four months, two hundred individuals have perished after consuming produce cultivated on Mars, that this may be a deliberate plot to instil fear among Earth’s populace.
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953)
Lucky Starr is tasked with stopping a group of space pirates who are attacking and plundering mining colonies in the asteroid belt. Along with his sidekick, Bigman, Lucky must navigate through dangerous asteroid fields and use his scientific knowledge to outsmart the pirates and save the colonies.
Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus (1954)
Lucky Starr is sent to Venus to investigate a suspicious mining operation and uncover a plot to steal its valuable resources. Along the way, he encounters dangerous creatures and navigates the treacherous terrain of the planet’s oceans.
Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956)
The troubleshooter for the Council of Science is sent on a mission to Mercury to investigate a strange phenomenon known as the Big Sun, which threatens to destroy the planet. Along the way, he must navigate treacherous terrain and battle against hostile enemies who want to stop him from completing his mission.
Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter (1957)
David “Lucky” Starr, is on a mission to investigate strange occurrences on the moons of Jupiter. Along with his crew, Starr encounters various obstacles and enemies, ultimately discovering a plot to destroy Earth.
Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn (1958)
The space ranger investigates a mysterious ring around Saturn. Along with his fellow ranger, Bigman Jones, Lucky uncovers a plot by a criminal organization to use the ring’s unique properties for their own gain.
The Space Ranger: The TV Series.
Most of the science in the series has been made redundant by modern astronomy, Venus has no oceans, Mars does not have Martians and Mercury does have a rotation, but a television series is still possible. The series was intended for juveniles that would be pitched as a television show, but the plans for the series fell through due to “Rock Jones, Space Ranger” being in production at the time.
It can be done, from a screenwriter’s perspective. Lucky’s world is set five thousand years in the future. A lot can happen in that time that can make the series work without compromising the plot too much. The terraformation of Venus and Mars with comet water can give The Space Ranger a plausible backdrop.
The Laws of Robots
It was only natural the next Asimovian world I ventured into The Robots series. This time it was the book cover art by Chris Foss that did it. What was striking to me was how Asimov developed his paracosms and then linked them together. ‘The Big Sun of Mercury’ is linked to his Robots paracosm, with its references to positronic robots and the Three Laws of Robotics, and Psychohistory is mentioned in ‘Robots of Dawn’, but he officially does this in ‘Robots and Empire”, creating one big paracosm called the “Greater Foundation” series.
Here Asimov introduces us to the Three Laws of Robotics. The first law is that a robot shall not harm a human, or by inaction allow a human to come to harm. The second law is that a robot shall obey any instruction given to it by a human, and the third law is that a robot shall avoid actions or situations that could cause it to come to harm itself.
The Caves of Steel (1954)
Set in a future where Earth is vastly overpopulated and humans live in enclosed cities called “Caves of Steel. The story follows a detective named Elijah Baley who is assigned to investigate the murder of a prominent Spacer (a person from one of the outer space colonies). Baley is partnered with a humanoid robot named R. Daneel Olivaw, and together they navigate the complex social and political tensions between Earth and the Spacers to solve the case.
Taking place before the Spacer worlds’ hostility towards Earth and when the U.S. Robots corporation is operational, ‘The Positronic Man’ was published in 1992.
The Naked Sun (1957)
Detective Elijah Baley is sent to the planet Solaria, where the inhabitants live in isolation and communicate only through holographic projections. Investigating a murder on Solaria, Baley and Olivaw must navigate the complexities of their unique social structure. As he delves deeper into the case, Baley discovers a conspiracy that threatens the future of Solaria and its inhabitants.
The Robots of Dawn (1983)
Baley is sent to investigate the murder of a prominent robotics expert and a robot on a distant planet, Aurora. His investigation leads him to a conflict between two rival factions of robots, one of which is secretly working to overthrow their human masters. Baley must navigate the complex relationships between humans and robots to solve the case and prevent a potential uprising.
Robots and Empire (1985)
Two hundred years after the exploits of Elijah Baley, the robot named R. Daneel Olivaw is still working with Baley’s descendant, Daneel Giskard Baley. With the aid of Gladia Delmarre, they travel to Solaria and probe the obliteration of multiple “Settler” vessels that had previously landed on the planet. Their mission entails seizing the potentially unmonitored robots and fighting off rivals who
This book introduces telepathy and an additional Law of Robotics, the Zeroth Law.
The 1988 interactive movie film “Robots” is about a group of robots who rebel against their human creators and start their own society. It’s very much a gimmick that doesn’t do much of the book any justice.
‘I, Robot’ (2004) isn’t an Asimov adaptation at all, it’s based on an original sci-fi murder mystery screenplay entitled Hardwired. They just slapped on the short story title, included the Three Laws of Robotics and renamed a character to Susan Calvin. Is this a ‘Robots’ movie? Not really, considering the scope of the books.
To do this series justice, which is a no-brainer, the material is all there in the books, a scriptwriter should take the same approach as the creatives did for the TV adaptation of Brave New World. The writers of that series grasped the important elements of that book and modernised them, putting to screen something that is worth watching.
The Galactic Empire
These three standalone books are set in the nascent days of the Galactic Empire.
Pebble in the Sky (1950)
A man named Joseph Schwartz is transported 50,000 years into this future Earth from the present day and finds himself caught up in a conflict between the ruling empire based on Trantor and a rebel group on Earth. Along the way, he discovers secrets about the true nature of the empire and his own past.
The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
Before the establishment of the Trantorian Empire, Earth has lost contact with its colony planets. A young man named Biron Farrell becomes embroiled in a rebellion against the ruling government on the planet Tyrann. Along the way, he discovers a secret about his own identity and must navigate political intrigue and danger to help the rebels succeed.
The Currents of Space (1952)
In 11,000 AD humanity colonized many planets. A man named Rik is sent to investigate a planet called Florinia, where a mysterious force known as the “carbon currents” is affecting the population’s behaviour. Rik discovers that the ‘carbon currents’ are being manipulated by an outside force in order to control the planet’s economy. He works with a group of rebels to overthrow the manipulators and free Florinia from their control.
Asimov’s space opera was not only the source that lay the ‘foundation’ for George Lucus’ Star Wars films, but the idea of a prequel pretty much came from these two books.
Prelude to Foundation (1988)
Mathematician Hari Seldon is pursued by the Empire’s secret police and sets out to create the science of psychohistory, which he believes can predict the future of civilizations. Along the way, he meets a range of characters and explores the planet Trantor, the centre of the galactic empire.
Forward the Foundation (1993)
Hari Seldon, the creator of psychohistory, lives and develops his theory of psychohistory from hypothetical concept to practical application, on Trantor.
Hari Seldon refers to a twenty-thousand-year-old story of “a young woman that could communicate with an entire planet that circled a sun named Nemesis, the basis of a book he wrote in 1989, ‘Nemesis’.
The Original Trilogy
The Star Wars film franchise owes a lot to this novel, especially the concepts of a Galactic Empire, interstellar war and revolution and its capital planet, Trantor. This vision of a massive, technologically advanced city would go on to inspire the creation of Coruscant, the capital planet of the Galactic Republic and later the Galactic Empire.
Using his advanced calculation in psychohistory, Hari Seldon predicts the collapse of a galactic empire and the subsequent fall into a dark age. He also creates a plan to shorten the period of chaos that will follow. He creates a foundation, a group of scientists and scholars, to preserve human knowledge and rebuild civilization on Terminus.
The Mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, is virtually powerless due to the Board of Trustees but refuses to accept the status quo. He believes that Terminus is in danger of political exploitation by the neighbouring prefectures of the Empire, now called “The Four Kingdoms.” Hardin manages to avoid an attempt by the Kingdom of Anacreon to establish military bases on Terminus and furthers his goal of establishing a stable political system on Terminus.
Hardin is the long-standing and effective ruler of the Foundation as the mayor of Terminus City, but his power is challenged by a new political movement called the Actionist Party led by city councillor Sef Sermak. The Actionist Party encourages direct action against the Four Kingdoms and opposes the scientific fundamentalism promoted by Hardin’s administration. Despite Hardin’s efforts to appease them, the Actionist Party and its followers remain highly popular and refuse to respond to his overtures.
The Foundation has grown and sends Traders to exchange technology with neighbouring planets for political and economic power. Master Trader Eskel Gorov travels to Askone to trade atomics but is met with resistance by the governing Elders due to traditional taboos. Gorov is imprisoned and sentenced to death, and the Elders refuse Foundation requests for clemency.
The Merchant Princes
The Foundation has gained control over Four Kingdoms and is eager to extend its religious dominance, but dissent has arisen due to rumours of their activities. There are concerns that the disappearance of three Foundation ships near the Republic of Korell is linked to illicit technological advancements or the purchase of contraband. The responsibility of addressing these issues and locating the missing vessels falls upon Master Trader Hober Mallow, who must also delve into Korell’s technological progress. The mission’s assigners are apprehensive about a Seldon Crisis and the possibility of a nuclear confrontation involving the Foundation.
Foundation and Empire (1952)
An Imperial general, Bel Riose, orders an attack on the Foundation due to perceiving it as a threat, but the Emperor becomes suspicious of this general ambitions and recalls the fleet. The Foundation emerges as the victor despite being inferior in military terms, leading to the defeat of the Empire. Seldon’s hologram explains that the result was inevitable no matter what actions were taken due to the weakness of the Imperial Navy.
A hundred years later, The Mule, an unknown outsider, is taking over planets at a rapid pace and is not foreseen by Seldon’s plan. Toran and Bayta Darell, accompanied by Ebling Mis and a court jester named Magnifico, set out to find the Second Foundation to end the Mule’s reign. Mis discovers the Mule’s success stems from his ability to change the emotions of others. Bayta kills Mis before he reveals the Second Foundation’s location because she realizes Magnifico is the Mule and has been helping Mis. The Mule leaves Trantor to continue his search for the Second Foundation.
Second Foundation (1953)
The Second Foundation, which has been working on Seldon’s mathematics and mental abilities, comes out of hiding to confront the Mule. They use deception and mind control to return him to rule his kingdom peacefully without further thoughts of conquering the Second Foundation.
The First Foundation learns about the existence of the Second Foundation and begins to develop equipment to detect and block their mental influence, which puts the Seldon Plan at risk. The First Foundation also sees the Second Foundation as a rival and attempts to locate and eliminate them, believing they have succeeded in doing so.
Foundation and Adaptation
When Apple TV announced it would be adapting the books, an obvious attempt to cash in on Villeneuve’s Dune movie release, it seemed a safe bet that a garbage-tier serving of science fiction was about to be dished out. The CEO made it clear that he is the high priest of modern morality, much like how Disney execs do, so I didn’t expect much in terms of a faithful or competent adaptation.
What they delivered however was a mind-numbing dichotomy of television. Forget the blatant race and gender swapping. That really wasn’t the problem. It’s fifty thousand years in the future, human ethnicity and sexuality are bound to be different than our own.
The first two episodes kept to Asimov’s Hari Seldon story and proved to be solid in terms of watchability. The challenge was always going to be how to incorporate the five standalone stories that make up the book, stories that are separated by decades. If this was a feature film, this would be a huge technical writing hurdle. But this is a television series with almost limitless time to tell this tale. The most logical method would have been to recount each storyline consecutively, intercut with each other. It would be like following five different subplots, each occurring on different dates.
But no, they went down the ‘merge every plotline’ path. It simply doesn’t work. The narrative is convoluted and the characters are all bland, with compressed personalities and forgettable cringe dialogue.
Speaking of cringe, the most bizarre aspect of this show is the race and gender swapping and insertion. Yes, all relevant characters are female and African-American, every single important character. Males are either villains or dopey sidekicks. But that is not the issue, it’s the fact that all these women are given extremely shallow plotlines and character development. It’s as if a bunch of thirteen-year-olds from Wattpad were hired to write this rubbish. It was embarrassing to sit through. Gaal Dornick, apart from the Trantor scene, does nothing for the rest of the show. The Salvor Hardin plot is amateur-level stuff, it’s basically every cheasefest TV show of the 90s smashed into one, like an inferior version of Stargate, Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5. The plot holes are amazing, the dialogue is bad, and the action is worse.
And yet, somehow, the white male patriarchy storyline is far superior and has an interesting sci-fi story arc, as if a different bunch of skilled writers who knew what they are doing had worked on it.
Brother Day, Brother Dusk, and Brother Dawn are fresh additions to the Foundation series. Cleon is mentioned in the later book but not as elaborate as this. Conceived as unique personalities, they are clones of varying ages in the “genetic dynasty” of Emperor Cleon I. The freshest clone, Dawn, is the youngest, while Day, the middle clone, is the reigning emperor, and Dusk, the emperor emeritus, holds the highest title.
These Cleon emperor clones and the drama they encapsulate are portrayed faultlessly and fit perfectly well into Asimov’s cosmos. It adds to the notion of how vast galactic civilisations form institutions to keep them from failing, allowing Psychohistory to challenge this architecture.
This concept alone is worth the price of admission, the rest is boring, which is unsurprising and a great shame.
The Extended series
Foundation’s Edge (1982)
Navy officer Golan Trevize is ordered to leave Terminus to search for the Second Foundation. Accompanying him is Janov Pelorat, a professor of Ancient History and a mythologist who is intrigued by the legendary birthplace of the human race, Earth’s whereabouts.
Trevize and Pelorat discover a planet called Gaia that is inhabited solely by Mentalics, where every organism and inanimate object shares a common mind ‘Gaia’. Gaia reveals that it wishes to do what is best for humanity but cannot be sure what is best. Trevize’s purpose is to be trusted to make the best decision among the three main alternatives for the future of the human race: the First Foundation’s path, the Second Foundation’s path, or Gaia’s path of absorption of the entire Galaxy into one shared, harmonious living entity.
Asimov ties this book to his 1955 novel ‘The End of Eternity’ by hinting that Eternity had existed but was destroyed by the Eternals, leading to an all-human galaxy later.
Foundation and Earth (1986)
Golan Trevize and Janov Pelorat, with a Gaian native, Bliss, continue on their quest to find the planet Earth in order to learn more about the origins of humanity. They eventually come across a sector using a set of ancient star coordinates.
The planet of Aurora and Melpomenia lay abandoned, but Solaria boasted a highly skilled populace in Mentalics. As their safety was compromised, Bliss utilized her powers, alongside Gaia’s collective intelligence, to vanquish the Solarian assailant. Their triumph, however, yielded a young orphan, condemned to death if abandoned. Despite the urgency of their escape, Bliss resolved to take the child with them.
After much searching, Trevize finally locates Earth, but once again, it fails to provide him with any fulfilling solutions as it has been abandoned for many years. Despite this, Trevize realizes that the key to his quest may not lie on Earth, but rather on its satellite, the Moon. As they approach, they find themselves inexplicably pulled into the Moon’s core, where they encounter a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw.
The Ultimate in Story Universes
What Asimov has written here is a remarkable achievement. His ability to merge these series into one coherent saga is a testament to his talent as a writer and his deep understanding of science fiction as a genre. The Robot, Foundation and even the Lucky Starr series, Asimov has seamlessly woven them together into one epic narrative that spans thousands of years and multiple planets. With this kind of skilful storytelling and world-building, Asimov has created a vast and complex universe that has captivated readers for generations.