Isaac Asimov,
Robot Dreams
(Byron Preiss, 1986;
Ace/Berkley, 2004)

Isaac Asimov's short stories are puzzle pieces that can be fitted together to form a larger picture of his imagined future. They are also puzzles in and of themselves, challenging the reader to follow the logic paths the author has laid out as an integral part of his science fictional plot.

But what we have in Robot Dreams are pieces from a scattering of Asimov puzzles, and not enough pieces from any jigsaw to form a complete picture. Despite the book's title and an introduction that focuses on Asimov's predictions about robotics, there are only three stories here that actually contain robots: "Little Lost Robot," "Robot Dreams" and "Light Verse." These tales do not combine to reveal anything more than a glimpse of Asimov's vision of where robotics could take us. And "Light Verse" is hardly one of the author's key robot fictions.

As this collection was compiled to take advantage of the media blitz accompanying the release of the Hollywood extravaganza I, Robot starring Will Smith, I find it a bit disappointing to have robots given such short shrift in Robot Dreams. Thankfully, there are several terrific non-robot stories in this collection including one of Asimov's all time best pieces, "The Ugly Little Boy." This story is one of the few examples I can recall in which Asimov had technology take a backseat to human emotions.

The ugly little boy of the title is a young Neanderthal, snatched out of history by the science team at Stasis Inc. But the core of the story isn't a time-travel paradox or the nature of the interplay between time and mass in Einsteinian relativity, it's the bond between the woman hired to care for the ugly little boy and her young charge.

Asimov really reached beyond himself with this story and proved that he could, in fact, construct three-dimensional characters whose purpose was more than enacting his clever plot twists. It's unfortunate for the science fiction genre that he didn't manage this feat with greater frequency. He has become synonymous with science fiction and his plot-centric, characterization-deficient style is too often what SF detractors imagine as the greatest heights science fiction can achieve.

In addition to "The Ugly Little Boy" the strongest stories featured in this collection are likely "The Martian Way," "Breeds There a Man...?" and "Franchise." None of these tales equals the character complexity of "The Ugly Little Boy," but unlike such minor works as "Jokester," "Eyes Do More Than See" or "Does a Bee Care?" each of these stories is worth the effort to read. "Breeds There a Man...?" in particular is a nicely balanced mix of character development and technophilia centered on the rush to build a defense system to protect American cities against the atomic bomb. Unfortunately the one man who can speed the project along has become mentally unstable, convinced that aliens do not want him to continue his work.

As a concluding note, one of the best aspects of Robot Dreams is the artwork that Ralph McQuarrie provided for the volume. I'm not generally a fan of SF art, but McQuarrie's illustrations here are atypical. They're quieter, more subtle, than much of what is produced for the genre. So, Robot Dreams is a nice-looking collection of decent, but mostly unexceptional stories with a couple of genuine highlights. Fans of Asimov's fiction will likely be pleased to see some lesser-known pieces included, but this is hardly a definitive or essential collection of the grandmaster's work.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
10 February 2007

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