From Forbes.com: Isaac Asimov's Five Best Short Stories
by Alex Knapp
My colleague Erik Kain reminds us that today is Isaac Asimov’s birthday – and I’m wholly on board with renaming January 2nd Asimov Day. Isaac Asimov is one of my all-time favorite writers. I love his science-fiction , his mysteries, and above all, his science writing. I’m personally of the opinion that he’s the greatest writer about science who has ever lived. My copy of Asimov on Science, which collects his best essays on science, is what I read to teach myself how to make my own writing accessible and clear. He was a master at it.
When it comes to his fame, however, I daresay that most people think of Asimov as a science-fiction writer. And while I love his novels, even better are his short stories. So in honor of Asimov Day, let me present the Good Doctor’s five best short stories. (And one honorable mention.) Asimov mystery fans may note that these are all sci-fi stories – and that’s true. I’m a huge Black Widowers fan, but his mysteries are clever, not powerful. I just couldn’t think of one that made the cut.
At any rate, without further ado, here are the stories.
Honorable Mention – “A Feeling of Power”
“A Feeling of Power” isn’t nearly as well-written as some great stories that didn’t make this list, but it’s near and dear to my heart for its central conceit. “A Feeling of Power” takes place in a future where pocket calculators are so handy that people don’t even bother to learn basic math skills anymore because the calculator does just fine. So when someone “reverse engineers” math so he can do it with a pencil and paper, it’s a revelation. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve generally preferred to do most of my math in my head. (And I’ve amused students in the past by solving problems more quickly than they could type them into their calculators.) I think having a solid grasp of math is essential for understanding the world, and so this story has always appealed to me.
5. “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”
Okay, so this isn’t a short story so much as it is a fake scientific research paper. But it’s awesome. In this journal article, Asimov discusses the the chemical properties of thiotimoline, a water soluble organic molecule that actually dissolves one second before it makes contact with water. The tone, discussion of the research, and everything else is dead on. It reads just like any other journal article of the period. But it discusses, in an interesting way, something about the physics and chemistry of time, which makes it worth reading.
One of the classics, and for good reason. The conceit is terrific – taking place on a world orbiting six suns, it turns out that once every 2,049 years, none of the suns appear in the sky at all. And so people see darkness and the stars for the first time in their lives. The result? They go mad, of course. But it’s the getting there that’s fascinating. And the religious antagonists themselves are fascinating – not the single-minded ignoramuses you so often encounter in this type of story.
It would be a cardinal sin to not include one of Asimov’s robot stories in this list, but I didn’t have to think hard about which one to include. “Evidence” is by far my favorite of them all, which is the story of a political candidate who’s desperate to prove that his opponent is not human, but is rather a humanoid robot. The problem with proving this, of course, is Asimov’s great Susan Calvin points out, it’s hard to tell the difference between a robot who follows the Three Laws and an exceptionally ethical human being…
2. “The Last Question”
The titular question, of course, being ”How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” Or in other words, how can we stop the universe from ending? How can we conquer death? I get a kick out of the ending every single time.
1. “The Dead Past”
Personally, I think that this is Asimov’s best piece of writing, period. Not only does it feature some great characterization, the conceit is sheer genius. Here are our intrepid heroes, working to strike a blow against the oppressive government which dares to inhibit scientific progress! Except that in the end, we realize that the government was doing its best to make sure civilization itself didn’t collapse… And failed. I love this story.
So that’s my personal ranking of best Asimov short stories. What’s yours?