I am in the midst of (well, almost finished, actually) Isaac Asimov, The Complete Stories Vol. 2, comprised mainly of stories from the 1950s and including the famous stories ‘The Ugly Little Boy’ and ‘Nightfall’. This is the third Asimov book I’ve read in the past year after a time when I went far too long without reading any! The other two were the novel The Caves of Steel which is the first novel of the Robot series starring Lijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw and The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories which is a collection of stories from the 1970s.
What makes an Asimov story great isn’t the science. Certainly, it helps that Asimov was a scientist with a PhD who could communicate scientific principles to the lay reader. That alone, however, does not make a great story. In fact, I’m sure I’ve read some short stories in Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction where the authors have spent so much time setting forth science and engineering that I really didn’t care, wondering whether those guys were in it for the story or the science.
Asimov gives us both, but the story is what drives us through it all. In some cases, such as The Stars, Like Dust, this is because what drives him is something more along the lines of the adventure or a sociological/philosophical concept. Yet even in ‘Nightfall’, which is driven by an astronomical, scientific idea, what keeps you reading is not a description of the star system where the characters live or any of the (few) conversations about astronomy. No, it is the characters, the people, their social interactions. This is what keeps you hooked as ‘Nightfall’ pulls you inexorably along.
He also produces snappy dialogue. In some of the Foundation novels, I felt like the dialogue was propelling almost the whole story through space. Different characters and narrators have different voices. As in real life. Asimov’s characters read like people you could meet on the street.
Or he has a brilliant, little nugget of an idea that he ties to the undergirding of the whole story. This is reflected in a small amount of exposition and dialogue. But the characters keep you going. We explore what a germophobe society might be like with transporter-style Doors in ‘It’s Such a Beautiful Day.’ We are given a vision of a world where cars have positronic brains in ‘Sally’, where the appeal of the tale is not solely in what is said but what is left unsaid. Sometimes, the satisfaction of a story is the implications the action of the ideas give us, not in the detailed crafting of every possible event or moment in a particular timeline, world, or series of events.
Since Asimov is so story- and character-driven in his narration, even if you don’t like science fiction, I think you might like Isaac Asimov. Give him a try! The original Foundation trilogy is a good place to start, Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, or a collection of short stories such as The Bicentennial Man or Nine Tomorrows.