Isaac Asimov is one of the most influential science fiction writers of all time. He was also a prolific writer of science books aimed at non-scientists, mysteries, and many other subjects. Few writers have been as productive as Asimov was throughout his 50-plus year career, but it’s his work in sci-fi that gets the most attention. Asimov effortlessly combined brilliant ideas, real science, and sturdy plot and character work into some of the most famous speculative fiction ever written.
Asimov’s approach to sci-fi can feel a bit quaint in the modern age; his stories invariably pivot on faith that humanity eventually gets it right and science eventually offers solutions. On the other hand, hope and awe in science’s potential never really go out of style, and the core concepts at the heart of his best work are evergreen. Here are the 10 best Isaac Asimov books.
Asimov’s first three Foundation novels (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) combine to tell an epic story that is remarkably clear in both its thematic goals and the scientific concepts underlying the story. Taken as a whole, this “mega-novel” is an incredible achievement in terms of scale and complexity.
The story has it all. It’s predicated on the development of psychohistory, a science that studies the movements of huge populations to identify patterns that can then predict the future with some accuracy. Asimov’s collapsing Galactic Empire is based on the Roman Empire and is on the verge of sliding into a dark age. A man named Hari Seldon creates a secretive foundation to use psychohistory to shorten that time of chaos from millennia to just a thousand years. The story takes detours into space opera, military sci-fi, and even mystery as it twists through its fictional centuries, and it’s these sci-fi novels from the era that still feel modern and fresh today. Asimov continued the story in several more novels (and eventually linked the Foundation series with his other work), but the first three are by far the best.
2. I, Robot
I, Robot is one of those classic novels that no longer seems particularly groundbreaking to newcomers because it’s ideas and innovations have been absorbed into the genre and have become standard. But Asimov’s clear, thoughtful writing means these stories are great fun even if you’re unaware of their groundbreaking nature.
I, Robot is a “fix-up” novel, created from short stories that Asimov published between 1940 and 1950. It’s essentially a short story collection; the interview framing device is an elegant way to link the stories together, but there’s no real overarching plot. It’s still a remarkable work, and its influence remains powerful. One reason it’s still so influential is The Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov introduces, which remain an elegant way to both control artificial intelligences while underscoring their lack of humanity. But another reason is subtler. Asimov infuses his stories about robots with human frailty and wonder, turning what are ostensibly stories about the future into stories about all of us, in whatever time we’re living.
Isaac Asimov loved the mystery genre almost as much as he loved science fiction, and in this classic early novel, he combined both to brilliant effect. While some of the writing here is a bit dated today (with 1950s-era attitudes towards women and some bold predictions for the future that didn’t pan out), the worldbuilding is first-rate, and the mystery itself is cleverly rendered.
In a future where tensions between the overcrowded Earth and the “Spacers” who have colonized the stars are running high, a robot detective is assigned to work a murder case with a human colleague. The robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, is the avatar of the victim and is bound by Asimov’s three classic laws of robotics. Asimov’s exploration of the nature of sentience, good, and evil remains both an absorbing mystery and a smart piece of science fiction.
Asimov’s first sci-fi novel Pebble in the Sky is a bit hokey by today’s standards, relying on sci-fi tropes that were cool in 1950, like the idea that a nuclear war would leave the Earth irreversibly radioactive, or that learning Earth was just a “pebble in the sky” and not the center of the universe would be shocking.
But the core story about a man named Schwartz who is mysteriously transported tens of thousands of years into the future is fantastic. Since Schwartz is understandably confused in the future, he’s assumed to be mentally challenged and is used as a test subject in an experiment that leaves him with psychic powers. This attracts the attention of the Galactic Empire and embroils Schwartz in a complex story of revolution and the dangers of technology. Asimov boldly declines to offer any sort of explanation for Schwartz’s arrival in the future. This adds a wonderful sense of mystery to the story and allows Asimov to focus on his themes of freedom and the indomitable spirit of mankind.
Short stories can sometimes be simultaneously terrific and frustrating reading experiences. Asimov published the original short story Nightfall in 1941 about a world that experiences continuous daylight preparing for an incredibly rare eclipse of its six suns. It’s a well-regarded story that still lands on best-of lists to this day. Nearly 50 years later, Asimov expanded it into a novel in collaboration with Robert Silverberg.
For some, the expansion robbed the story of the claustrophobic terror found in the original. But the novel increases tension and power by focusing on and developing the characters who have to survive the coming chaos. Instead of admiring a brilliant set-up and being left wondering about the specifics, Asimov and Silverberg offer up both. The ending remains one of the most haunting images in science fiction history as an entire race of people discovers just how important they really are.
The 1972 winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for Best Novel, The Gods Themselves is Asimov operating at the top of his powers. In the 21st century, humanity discovers a source of free energy, generated via a parallel universe. This breakthrough seems to solve a litany of problems for mankind, but not everyone is convinced the aliens in the parallel universe—which operates on different physics principles—are providing this energy for altruistic reasons.
The book in general is terrific, but what really sets it apart is the section where Asimov takes us to the parallel universe in question. Once again Asimov’s scientific background pays dividends. You simply won’t read another piece of sci-fi that so convincingly renders an alien universe. This is a place that doesn’t operate on the same fundamental rules as those we’re used to, and conveying that effectively is an astonishing achievement.
The third novel in Asimov’s Robots series once again teams robot detective R. Daneel Olivaw with his human counterpart. This time they travel to a remote planet where a robot—Daneel’s twin—has been “murdered.” Only one man has the technical knowledge to accomplish this with a robot—the man who built them, Dr. Han Fastolfe.
Of course, the case isn’t open and shut, and as Asimov dives into the political and cultural stresses that have resulted in the robot’s demise, the book becomes a fascinating exploration of a possible future. There was a 26-year gap between the previous Robot novel and this story, and Asimov’s writing improved in that time. The mystery is tightly plotted, and the whole story is infused with an almost palpable excitement about the possibilities that await mankind when we finally reach for the stars. This is also notable as the point where Asimov began to explicitly link his major novels to a single, unified fictional universe.
Like many writers, Isaac Asimov first found publishing success in short stories. Some of his best novels began as novellas, and some blur the lines between the two forms. Although he’s come to be best known for his epic Foundation and Robot series (later revealed to all be part of a single, enormous series spanning a mind-boggling amount of time in a single universe), he was a terrific short story writer as well. Nine Tomorrows collects some of his best early works.
The stories are exactly what the book’s title suggests: Nine stories concerned with potential futures. All were written between 1956 and 1959, so their wild predictions and confident assumptions didn’t all age well, but they’re still enjoyable. This collection contains what is probably Asimov’s best short story of all, The Last Question, in which humanity builds an immense supercomputer and asks it how they might avoid the death of the universe when all time and space will ultimately end. Another standout is Profession, a novella about a man named George in a future society where all learning is imprinted on the brain by a device. When the device fails to work on him, George is sent to a house for the Feeble-Minded where his frustration leads him to a remarkable discovery. If you need a short dip to determine if this Asimov guy is your cup of tea, this collection is the ideal choice.
For most modern readers, Fantastic Voyage is a quaint 1966 sci-fi film starring Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasance. If the pair was aware of the novel by Isaac Asimov, they might assume the film was based on his book, but it’s actually the other way around; Fantastic Voyage was written by Asimov based on the screenplay. His book was published before the film was released, which explains some of the confusion. His novelization is also vastly superior to the film, which is unsurprising.
A medical team is miniaturized and injected into the body of an important scientist to perform brain surgery from within. Interpersonal drama coincides with adventure as inner space turns out to be as alien and dangerous as outer space, and this is where Asimov and his science background shine. While his work with the melodramatic soap opera-style interactions of the characters isn’t particularly inspired, his descriptions of the body, from ominous white blood cells to the beautiful, airy regions of the lungs, are some of the best writing he’s ever done.
The End of Eternity is often overlooked when people consider Asimov’s legacy. It’s considered a minor novel, especially since it has no overt connections to his fiction set at various times in the development of the Galactic Empire. As both a time travel story and a character study, it’s one of Asimov’s best and deserves more attention (though it is plagued by some unfortunate gender politics).
Andrew Harlan is a technician working for Eternity, a group of people living “outside of time” who nudge events over 70,000 centuries or so of human history. These nudges are designed to be as non-disruptive as possible while keeping human events marching in a generally positive direction, but they do sometimes alter individuals in a sort of “butterfly effect.” After their calculation, it’s Harlan’s job to implement the changes. Harlan was recruited from a relatively conservative and repressed time in history, and when he meets a woman from a more liberated and adventurous era, he falls in love—and begins breaking the rules to ensure she isn’t changed by the adjustments. It’s a smart, warm-hearted story that still holds up nearly 70 years after publication.