July 25, 2004

Isaac Asimov - Robots, Foundation & Jokes

Mention 'Asimov' and I think of Robots, Foundation & Jokes. Lest you think I meant "Robots are the Foundation of all jokes", let me explain:

I discovered Asimov as a 14 year-old. Whenever I visited the library then, my routine was to rove the Fiction shelves labeled ASI. Much later, I discovered that he wrote non-fiction as well. Along the way, I also learnt he wrote Fantastic Voyage (an adventure involving miniaturised humans sent into a live human body).
I'm aware of three screen adaptations of Asimov's books - the first was 'Fantastic Voyage', which I watched as a child years ago (except that I didn't know it was called 'Fantastic Voyage'). The second was 'Bicentennial Man' (starring Robin Williams) and the latest 'I, Robot' (starring Will Smith).

Screen adaptations are never as good as the original stories in books (I thought LOTR was the exception but alas!). The disappointment stemmed from having read the book before watching the movie.  Naturally I was not happy with 'Bicentennial Man' and 'I, Robot' (this one, I only caught the trailer and disliked it instantly).

'Fantastic Voyage', on the other hand, was a different experience. I remembered watching the movie on TV when I was very young and only realised who the author was only much later. So when I read the book after the movie, the whole experience was much more enjoyable. Gee, could this explain why people are not reading as much nowadays?
American movies & books tend to have anti-robot themes & espouse robot-paranoia, while the Japanese have just the opposite views. Many years ago, I'd watched a TV documentary explaining that post-WWII Japan had to turn towards automation and robotics to meet productivity requirements. Recognising people's aversion to robots, the Japanese cleverly embarked on an ingenious PR campaign - namely, comics (Manga) and animation (Anime).
They portrayed robots and automation more as tools and complementary - even heroic - machines rather than potential usurpers of humanity. This made robots more acceptable to the masses. Even when later versions of Anime had robot-awakening themes (like Ghost in the shell), the robots were less destructive to human society than presented in American storylines (e.g. opening episodes of The Animatrix). In Japanese stories, if anyone or anything is to blame, it's humans.

The recent 'I, Robot' movie sparked off my early memories of Asimov's books. Here are some Asimov titles that I remember reading in my youth. Perhaps it'll explain the significance of the three points I mentioned earlier in the post.



  • Robot visions (1996)
  • The robots of dawn (1994)
  • Isaac Asimov's The ultimate robot (1993)
  • The positronic man (1993) - [This, I believe this was my very first introduction to the "Three Laws of Robotics". It was probably one of those books that sealed my interest in Sci-Fi. The appeal of the 3 Laws was in its logic, which I thought was extremely well thought out]
  • The caves of steel (1991)
  • Robot dreams (1988)
  • The robots of dawn (1984)
  • The bicentennial man (1978) - [One of the early Asimov book I read. The subsequent movie just did not do the book justice. This book made me question the whole idea of 'sentience' and what it meant to be human]
  • I, robot (1967)
  • The naked sun (1958)

Other science fiction

  • Gold: The final science fiction collection (1995)
  • Pebble in the sky (1992)
  • Nightfall (1991)
  • Foundation (1991) - [I didn't read the entire 'Foundation' series. Was intrigued by the notion of 'Psycho-history' - I understand it to be a system of mathematically charting the progress of human history and anticipating the probability of certain future outcomes. Which meant that one could take certain actions in the present to influence future outcomes with some degree of certainty. No wonder Sci-Fi appealed to me!]
  • The Mammoth book of classic science fiction (1988)
  • Fantastic voyage (1979) - [When I saw the screen version, I was much too young to understand what it was about, other than some story of people inside a human body. Later, I discovered it was Asimov and the book made much more sense]
  • The 13 crimes of science fiction (1979)


  • The Union Club mysteries (1983)
  • The best of Isaac Asimov : 1954-1972 (1977)


  • I. Asimov: A memoir (1995)
  • Isaac Asimov's book of facts (1992)
  • Isaac Asimov's treasury of humor: A lifetime collection of favorite jokes, anecdotes, and limericks with copious notes on how to tell them and why (1991) - [You'll better appreciate Asimov after reading this. Hence, the reason why I thought of 'Jokes' when I think of Asimov]

More on Isaac Asimov
I'm not aware of any "official" Asimov websites, but these are quite informative:

For NLB members, try searching the online catalogue using the following keywords & phrases:

  • "asimov" - works by or about Asimov. Includes fiction and non-fiction, as well as translations to Chinese and Malay.
  • "foundation asimov" - for the Foundation series

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