Every time I see a short story collection by Isaac Asimov in audio format, I pick it up because I love his short stories more than I love his novels. Last year Recorded Books released Robot Dreams, which was originally published in print form in 1986. The audiobook is 14.5 hours long and narrated by the wonderful George Guidall.
Robot Dreams contains these 21 excellent stories. All but the titular story were originally published in periodicals (noted here):
- “Little Lost Robot” — (originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, 1947) When a human tells the robot named Nestor to “get lost,” he does, by hiding himself in a room full of identical robots. This is a problem for Dr. Susan Calvin and the other scientists because Nestor is an experimental robot that (for a good reason) was produced with a slightly different version of the First Law. While it can’t harm humans, it is not compelled to step in to stop them from being hurt. Dr. Calvin realizes that this programming could logically lead to a situation in which a robot could actually harm someone. They must find Nestor.
- “Robot Dreams” — This titular story was first published in this collection (1986). A colleague of Dr. Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist, has created a robot brain that can dream. After questioning the robot about his dreams, Dr. Calvin must decide whether he is too dangerous to live. I appreciate that Asimov created the character of Dr. Susan Calvin because few of his stories have powerful women (or any women, actually) in them.
- “Breeds There a Man…?” — (Astounding, 1951) Elwood Ralson, a brilliant nuclear scientist, is having an existential crisis and has become suicidal. He’s under the delusion that humans are just a genetic experiment gone awry and that they are about to be wiped out by their creators by an atomic bomb. Ralson’s colleagues are also worried about the threat of an atomic bomb and they desperately want him back because he’s the only person who’s intuitive enough to build a force field that can stop it.
- “Hostess” — (Galaxy Science Fiction, 1951) When a biologist tells her new husband, a policeman, that they’ll be hosting a visiting alien, he gets upset. When she begins investigating the reason for his attitude, she makes unsettling discoveries about him, his job, their marriage, and even her own existence. This is another story with an intelligent educated woman, a rarity for Asimov. I also like the title’s dual meaning.
- “Sally” — (Fantastic, 1953) An old man runs a home for retired “automatic” cars (think: sentient Google car). When some bad guys try to steal their engines, the cars react. This story has a similar theme to many of Asimov’s stories about artificial intelligence, but it has quite a different tone. It’s a strange mix of the silly and the macabre.
- “Strikebreaker” — (The Original Science Fiction Stories, 1957) A sociologist visits the humans who live on a small planet so he can study their culture. When the man who runs the waste management equipment goes on strike, the sociologist gets caught up in the negotiations. This story is about taboos, class warfare, and social injustice.
- “The Machine that Won the War” — (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1961) Earth has just won a major war against aliens, thanks to Multivac, a computer that analyzed data and told them what to do. But the engineers who ran the machine have confessions to make to each other. Short and amusing.
- “Eyes Do More Than See” — (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1965) A couple of post-human beings suddenly recall when they had bodies, a trillion years ago. This poignant story celebrates the beauty of the human body. It was originally written for a special issue of Playboy, but was rejected.
- “The Martian Way” — (Galaxy Science Fiction, 1952) Tensions between Earth and its Martian colony rise when an Earth politician starts blaming Mars for using up Earth’s resources. So the Martians set out on a quest to find another source of water. This novella reminded me of something Heinlein could have written.
- “Franchise” — (If: Worlds of Science Fiction, 1955) It’s 2008, a Presidential election year. For decades Multivac has analyzed American voting patterns and is able to predict elections. It’s gotten so good at this process that only one American needs to vote. Everyone is waiting to see who Multivac will choose this year to represent American opinion. I love that this ironic story — which is about artificial intelligence, the importance of voting, and the problem of diffusion of responsibility — takes place in Bloomington, Indiana, where I went to grad school.
- “Jokester” — (Infinity Science Fiction, 1956) One of the grand masters, the scientists who run the Multivac computer, keeps telling it jokes to try to analyze human humor. He discovers some interesting things about humor, and then he wonders who the real jokester is. This is amusing.
- “The Last Question” — (Science Fiction Quarterly, 1956) I loved this story, which my 19 year old son has been asking me to read for over a year. It’s Asimov’s favorite story that he wrote. A couple of drunk computer engineers, wondering what will happen to humans when the stars die, ask Multivac how humans can reverse entropy. The answer is that there’s “insufficient data.” For 10 trillion more years, humans keep asking the same question and Multivac keeps giving the same answer…. until finally it figures it out.
- “Does a Bee Care?” — (If: Worlds of Science Fiction, 1957) Kane is an alien who has been on Earth since before humans arrived. He’s been influencing their technological progress all this time, with the goal of getting them to create a spaceship that will take him home. This story may be what influenced Wesley Chu’s stories about Tao.
- “Light Verse” — (The Saturday Evening Post, 1973) Mrs. Lardner, the widow of an astronaut, is artistic, wealthy, generous and popular. She is well known for her beautiful light sculptures which she refuses to sell for profit, and her love for the robots who run her household. When a roboticist and aspiring light artist visits her home, he accidentally destroys the source of her creativity. This story is about the possible connection between abnormality and creativity.
- “The Feeling of Power” — (If: Worlds of Science Fiction, 1958) In this hilarious story, a group of futuristic humans are amazed to discover that they can do some things without computers. This gives them an immense sense of self-efficacy, but some are worried about what humans may do with this new power. I love the irony!
- “Spell My Name with an S” — (Star Science Fiction, 1958) After his wife badgers him, an unsuccessful nuclear physicist reluctantly visits a numerologist for some career advice. This story, which was originally titled “S as in Zebatinsky,” reminded me of the psychohistory in Asimov’s FOUNDATION
- “The Ugly Little Boy” — (Galaxy Science Fiction, 1958) A nurse is hired to take care of a 3 year old Neanderthal boy that scientists have fetched from the past. Despite how ugly he is, eventually she loves him and is distraught to learn that he needs to be sent back. This is another of Asimov’s personal favorites. It was original published with the title “Lastborn” and inspired Robert Silverberg’s 1992 novel Child of Time.
- “The Billiard Ball” — (If: Worlds of Science Fiction, 1967) This is a hard science fiction murder mystery involving two scientists who have been arguing about the possibility of creating an anti-gravity device. It has a nice explanation of general relativity theory.
- “True Love” — (American Way, 1977) In this short and funny story, a man asks his computer to help him find the perfect woman. It backfires, of course.
- “The Last Answer” — (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, 1980) A physicist dies and meets his maker. After questioning him at some length, he discovers the surprising reason that humans were created. This story, which is related to “The Last Question,” is clever and thought-provoking.
- “Lest We Remember” — (Asimov’s Science Fiction, 1982) Wishing he was as smart as his fiancé, an average Joe allows a couple of scientists to test their new memory drug on him. This exciting story is about the difference between intelligence and wisdom.
I have to say that I enjoyed every one of these stories, which rarely happens with a story collection. They are smart, thought-provoking, and entertaining. My only complaint is the usual one I have when reading Asimov: the lack of diversity in his characters. Almost all of Asimov’s characters are white middle-aged male scientists. I suppose Asimov took to heart the advice to write what you know, and I have to admit that it works for him, but the setting of these stories is the far future and I find it sad that Asimov must have assumed that in the future almost all scientists would still be white men. I’m glad he was wrong about that.