The legendary Asimov is well-known for writing books by the hundreds, each brimming with ideas. More often than not, though, character takes a back seat to the hard science fiction topics, particularly in his “Foundation” and “Robot” series. But “Robot Dreams,” one of his short story collections, shows another side of Asimov. Yes, it’s filled with his brilliant ideas, but there’s also room for character and feeling.
There’s plenty to like in this anthology. Despite its title it’s not all about robots: you’ll find several stories about computers, mathematics, time travel and such. It also has many of the Asimov greats in it, such as two of his favorite stories, “The Last Question,” about how humanity copes with the end of the universe, and “The Ugly Little Boy,” a story about motherhood and time travel. It also contains “The Last Answer,” which is a great partner to “The Last Question” as both discuss Man’s relationship with eternity a higher power. The book is still slanted towards hard sci-fi, but there is also the breathtakingly emotional piece, “Eyes Do More Than See”, which focuses on who will remember humanity eons after we’re all dead and gone.
As for the flagship story, Asimov specifically wrote the short story “Robot Dreams” for this compilation. It features Dr. Susan Calvin from his previous robot stories, but centers mostly on Elvex, an android developed with a brain that was capable of mimicking human brain waves. Because of this, Elvex could dream. Unfortunately, his subconscious thoughts did not necessarily bode well for humanity, and Dr. Calvin must decide the fate of the only second sentient life form to evolve on this planet.
“Robot Dreams” reminds us that a master storyteller like Asimov is not just good in the realm of ideas but also in stirring emotion. By nature, short stories only have enough space for one specific idea, one distilled emotion, and Asimov carefully constructs the ones in his anthology to call to hearts as well as minds. He also criticizes human weakness, our pride, our mistrust of people not of our race, our deep seated fear of being subverted by our own creations. His theme seems to be that humanity can only be saved by the things that make him human— caring, empathy, belief in our own physical and mental capabilities, rather than relying on machines.