What I’m reading now: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
This is an oldie-but-goodie. It’s a “novel-in-stories,” or, if you prefer, a volume of linked short stories. All were previously published (most in Astounding Science Fiction from 1941-1950, one in Super Science Stories in 1941.) The original hardcover edition came out in 1950. My paperback edition was printed in 1970.
The epigraph in the front of the book gives us the famous 3 Laws of Robotics:
A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Most of the stories show human beings solving technical glitches in robot behavior. The hinge upon which the solution turns is always a paradoxical and insoluble dilemma brought on by conflicts among the 3 Laws. The robot goes haywire, and it’s up to the human beings to reason out the answer.
The main character, Dr. Susan Calvin, is a robopsychologist: she knows how robots think. On more than one occasion, she outwits a robot and makes it self-destruct under a withering blast of circular, self-contradictory, inescapable logic. (No doubt she was the inspiration for Captain Kirk’s many similar head-to-head combats with computers and androids.)
Authors of linked stories construct a framing device to link the stories together. The framing device of I, Robot is a series of interviews conducted by an unnamed narrator. He interviews Dr. Susan Calvin and, offscreen presumably, two other characters, field technicians Powell and Donovan.
The stories span ten years in Asimov’s development as a writer and thinker, and they are presented chronologically in order of publication. They increase in complexity and sophistication, from a rather basic yet ground-breaking story of a robot babysitter to a vision of a future world run by “thinking machines.”
Examples of other excellent “linked stories:”
1001 Arabian Nights — A despotic prince marries a different woman every night and has her executed in the morning. His latest bride, Scheherazade, saves her life by captivating her new husband with a story. The story is so good that he puts off her execution until the next day just so he can hear another story. This goes on for 1000 more nights, and by the end of it, the prince realizes that he loves Scheherazade and decides not to execute her after all.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer — Various medieval characters travel together on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Along the way, each one tells his or her “tale.”
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, and The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor — The framing device is time and place: all the stories take place one summer in the life of a 12-year old Midwestern boy in the 1920s (Dandelion Wine), in the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio in 1919 (Winesburg, Ohio), and in the same decaying urban neighborhood (The Women of Brewster Place).
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien — The stories are linked by the same situation — the Vietnam War — and are told mostly from the point-of-view of a first person narrator named “Tim.”
The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson — Chronicles 30 years in the life of the same Iowa family. The stories are told from the points-of-view of the various members of the family.
The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) by Rudyard Kipling — Stories about animals and people in India. Many of them are about Mowgli: one of, if not the original, boy raised by wolves.
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank — The framing device is the main character, Jane, who chronicles episodes in her life coming-of-age as a woman in the modern world.
The Watson Chronicles by Ann Margaret Lewis — This book contains a double framing device: a series of mysteries solved by Sherlock Holmes and his companions, and a blossoming romance between Dr. Watson and a young woman.
James Herriot’s autobiographical veterinary stories — All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All. As novels, each of the books is thinly plotted, serving as a frame for the entertaining anecdotes of Herriot’s life as a country animal doctor in northern England of the 30s and 40s. Most of the chapters stand alone as stories. Indeed, special collections of Herriot’s stories have been released: Dog Stories, Cat Stories, and various children’s picture books, later compiled as James Herriot’s Treasury for Children.
 “Robbie.” First published as “Strange Playfellow” in Super Science Stories. 1940.
 “The Evitable Conflict.” Astounding Science Fiction. 1950.
Post a comment below if you can think of any other “novels-in-stories” or volumes of “linked stories” that I missed!