Why is There not More Football Fiction?

What are the best novels written about football? If you’ve got a contender in mind, odds are that it’s either a little-known book from a little-known author, a novel which doesn’t centre on football but only features it, or The Damned United.

Understandably a fair amount of what’s out there is football fiction books for boys – which makes sense given that it can be an all-consuming interest at that age. I read and enjoyed a few of Michael Hardcastle’s novels when I was growing up, lightweight novels centring around junior boys’ teams that I remember enjoying reading, but which left no lasting impact on me.
There also seems to be a market for football hooligan books, but realistically that’s centring around a subculture tangentially related to football rather than the game itself.

The football fiction that break into wider awareness tends to receive more ridicule than praise. For example the football manager Steve Bruce self-published a series of novel starring a football manager (Steve Barnes) who keeps getting dragged into murder investigations. The ridicule they’ve received is is a little unfair. Not because the books are good, which doesn’t seem to be the case, but because they seem to have been written for the fun of writing them, completing a trilogy during 1999.
Bruce isn’t alone as a footballer dipping his toe into the world of fiction. Theo Walcott, Jimmy Greaves and Terry Venables have also written novels about football – the latter being the fantastically titled They Used to Play on Grass.

Continue reading “Why is There not More Football Fiction?”


Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Like myself, I’d imagine most people will be aware of Gulliver’s Travels as the book where the little people tie down the hero. What I didn’t realise before reading it was that Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput are just one of four parts, as the hero visits a series of different lands.

Proof that corporations putting their grubby fingers on everything goes back to the 19th century, at least

Swift’s writing is very dry prose that demands the reader’s full attention. I was reading partially during my lunch break, and often not quite taking in what I was reading, having to go back and read it again.
According to the introduction, traveller’s diaries were a popular genre at the time, full of fantastical stories that modern readers would recognise as fantasy.
John Mandeville, an ‘explorer’ a few centuries before Gulliver, told a series of ludicrous lies which were apparently one of the motivating reasons for Columbus’ most famous voyage.
Gulliver, the narrator of his adventures, states near the beginning that he’s travelled to the places in other books, only to find they were much more mundane than the tales, and left him disillusioned, pretty much pointing out up front that the book is a deliberate exaggeration of this genre.

The original opening pages. Complete with ‘f’s where there should be an ‘s’, the silly man.

It’s probably not the most obvious description to apply to the book, but Gulliver’s Travels is fun and inventive, in a dry, understated, deadpan way. As a taste of the kind of thing I mean, in A Modest Proposal Swift put forward an argument for solving Ireland’s twin problems of overpopulation and lack of food…by eating their own babies. But by the tone of writing, many people at the time thought that Swift, an influential political figure in his day job, was putting this forward as a serious suggestion.
There’s nothing quite as radical in Gulliver’s Travels, but that kind of mad invention and deadpan tone are on display throughout Gulliver’s Travels.

Part I covers Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput. These aren’t laugh out loud hilarious, but pretty funny in an understated deadpan way. They’re written in a way you could believe that the extreme events really happened.
In Part II Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, a land of giants just north of California, and offers a semi-plausible reason why they had remained out of touch with the wider world, before, amongst other things, fencing with a giant fly.
It’s a bit hard to get into the mentality of a 17th century reader and understand their understanding of the world, at a time when many corners of the world weren’t fully mapped out. But the tone really sells these crazy stories.

Although I don’t imagine much of this has survived into modern TV and movie adaptations, there’s a fair bit of pretty silly contemporary satire. There is a major religious divide in Lilliput is over which end of the egg is the moral end to crack, and the people of Lilliput are buried vertically, and upside down, in the belief that Judgement Day will begin on the far side of the world.

Personally, my favourite parts of the book were the less famous Parts III & IV.
In Part III Gulliver travels to Laputa, which, thanks to a mineral naturally occurring in its soil, floats in the sky. Laputa is a nation of incredibly talented mathematicians, who have very little understanding of any other subjects, but feel their mathematical genius qualifies them to be experts on everything. Interestingly, according to the notes (I read the 2001 Penguin edition) the people of this nation were based on Swift’s political opponent, Sir Isaac Newton. Yes, the same one.
Gulliver then visits the  projectors of Lagado, a nearby nation. Influenced by Laputa, they had embarked on a series of grand plans to utterly reinvent their society, very few of which work.

If you were a reader in the 17th century, why WOULDN’T you believe this really happened?

In Part IV Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of hyper-evolved horses so noble and idealistic that they have no understanding of the concept of lying. The Houyhnhnms are noble and logical, but contemptuous of the barbaric humans (the Yahoos) who live amongst them. The Houyhnhnms and the increasingly impressionable Gulliver put together a strong case against the barbarism of the wider world, while allowing their own love of reason to lead them down a quite horrific path. While I thought Part III was the cleverest of the stories, Part IV was the section that grabbed me most on an emotional, instinctive level.
I’ve no supportive evidence for this, but reading Part IV it struck me as a possible inspiration for Planet of the Apes, so deep are the similarities.

However, in spite of all that, Gulliver’s Travels is, to a large extent, defined by the time that produced it. Though the notes explained what a reader of the time would have been reminded of, the explanations understandably  interrupted the flow, and I’m sure many things would have struck a 17th century reader that didn’t occur to me.

Verdict: A drily written adventure, with a mixture of satire and silliness, that’s most entertaining and imaginative in the lesser known sections.


I Am The Secret Footballer

Since the horrors of Hillsborough and the rebranding of English football under the Premier League logo, the culture of the game has changed dramatically. Football has moved away from the gritty, working man’s game it once was, with players being required to be hyper-drilled athletes, smooth and inoffensive in front of the cameras, in case they accidentally say something that could affect one of the club’s sponsors. This has resulted in an interesting contradiction – there’s never been more ways to interact with players, and learn about their lives, but the truth is often hidden away behind a glass-sheet of superficial perfection.

Two respectable English chaps play the gentleman’s game, what what?

While of course the game itself is the main draw, getting inside the head of the players we admire, understanding how they push themselves to the levels they do, and what their lives away from the pitch are like, are also more than a little intriguing.

Around two years ago, a footballer began sharing stories of his playing career in a weekly column in The Guardian. To avoid repurcussions, not to mention offending his team-mates and family, this column was published anonymously, under the name of The Secret Footballer.

Last month saw the publication of the player’s autobiography, I Am The Secret Footballer.

I have reviewed the book for Born Offside.


The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

The Devil Rides Out is a story of Satanic worship in upper class 1930s Britain.
Wheatley was a very prolific writer, and Devil is drawn from his Modern Musketeers strand. The titular musketeers are 4 friends – the elderly French exile De Richelau, the American adventurer Rex van Ryn, family man Richard and supernaturally curious Simon.

The characters are colourful but not that complex. Going back to the original Three Musketeers, Aramis wasn’t that good a fighter, and was waiting for his opportunity to join the priesthood; one of the others had a secret past that was slowly unveiled. They’re surprising and contradictory in ways that draw you in, make you want to learn more about them. In addition, there’s not much in the way of inner desires – D’Artagnan wanted to prove himself, Aramis to reconcile his womanising and desire to become a priest, but there’s not much of that here.
Having said that, the characters are easy to tell apart, ‘iconic’  and recognisable in their own ways, but lack depth and interesting contradictions within their characters.
The Devil Rides Out has no real mystery, though clearly by design – within about three or four chapters
Action stories (film, television or prose) tend to have action and mystery, a chain of dramatic events, each leading to the next, but also a mystery. Who’s involved, what are they doing, how deep does it go. There’s none of that here – you can tell from early on roughly how it would end, and who’d be involved in the climax.

Devil_Worship.                               Taken from Wikimedia Commons

The magic, black and white (or ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’ paths) feels real – it goes beyond the stereotypical trappings of magic – eye of newt and so on – and feels like a system of magic that could have grown up over time, that has it’s internal consistencies that make sense on their own terms.
The Devil Rides Out is a ‘smart’ action adventure – the antithesis of something Michael Bay would produce.

The characters share a love of food – there’s beautiful descriptions of various meals, and the four Modern Musketeers seem to regard taking a light evening meal free from meat (something to do with sharpening the mind for the use of white magic) as a kind of torture. At one point, two characters are searching through a mansion trying to rescue a third. They may or may not be alone, and magic has been performed recently, but stop to make themselves sandwiches  from the buffet they left. It threw me at first, but it’s the kind of strangeness that adds detail and quirk to the characters

There’s not enough tension or mystery to make the story as compelling as I’d like it to be. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on the problem – the action moves pretty fast, the ‘rules’ of magic are believable, and the characters were interesting enough to make me care about them. But I didn’t feel the kind of compulsion to race back to the book in the same way I did with Reacher and The Hunger Games – it’s almost a matter of being worried that the protagonists will be okay, but with Devil, I didn’t feel for them.

Writing this review made me think about rules particular to the action genre. I’m a fan of the Jack Reacher books, and I’ve this year read the first two Hunger Games books. In The Hunger Games, it’s obvious the main character isn’t going to die in the middle of the book (partially as she’s the narrator) but there’s always the belief that other, well-developed and likeable characters will die, and horrifically.
With the Modern Musketeers being in a series of books, it feels a little like when watching an ongoing TV programme – they won’t kill him, he’s a main character – and they won’t change dramatically over the course of the story either.
The Devil Rides Out is over-written compared to them, and slows the speed of the action. It’s fine for Dickens to spend time describing the appearance of a person or building, but in an action novel, the story needs to move more swiftly than Devil does.
Each chapter with a cliffhanger, and I think they were pretty much all interesting ones, there is still a lot to enjoy here. Despite how it may seem above, I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t totally gripped by it.
The Devil Rides Out is a derring do/boy’s own adventure, fantastical and escapist, and while darkness and the possibility of failure would go against the point of what the writer wanted to achieve, the lack of real danger stops it from being a page turner.

Verdict: A well-written, well thought out action adventure, but which lacks mystery or tension.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I’ve recently finished reading Heart of Darkness, Joseph Konrad’s novella set in late 19th century Africa, which inspired Apocalypse Now. I’m one of the few people who’ve not seen the film, so I won’t be able to make any comparisons – though there was a disappointingly low number of helicopter attacks.

Heart of Darkness in the Belgian Congo, where crews of various nationalities are working under the power of ‘the company’, who have established a more imperial than capitalist foothold.
The story begins with Charlie Marlowe on the banks of the Thames as night falls, telling the story that follows.
The blurb of my copy claims that Konrad inspired Orwell, Golding, Celine, Borges and Eliot. Being a bit of a philistine, Orwell is the only of those I’ve read, but the writers that came more to mind as I was reading were JG Ballard and Joseph Heller. Ballard’s novels use strange worlds and situations to look at what happens to seemingly civilised people when taken out of civilisation. Heart of Darkness reminded me in particular of The Drowned World, set in a London that’s became a post-apocalyptic swamp. As for the comparisons to Heller – the company appears to be a beauracratic mess. A specialist and highly skilled brickmaker is sent where there are no materials for him to work with, and when a ship runs aground and rivulets are needed to repair it, Marlowe is able to get his hands on everything but. The comedy (or it might be better to call it cynicism) is played deadpan, as opposed to the sometimes zany tone of Catch 22, but there were a few moments that were sharply funny in the same way.

The main idea running through the novel is the effect the environment (the heat, humidity, distance from home) has on people – are they driven slightly mad, or are their true selves coming out? There’s grand talk of civilising the natives, but most of the characters don’t seem to think much of them, and there’s regular use of the ‘n word’. (No, I don’t mean native.) There’s an interesting comparison with Roman soldiers travelling to primitive and remote Britannia, far from their loved ones and what they considered civilisation, so the author clearly knows what he’s doing, rather than having ‘outdated’ views himself.

There isn’t a definite, clear narrative – the novel is more a series of things that happen. Whereas in Apocalypse Now, the hero is assigned to retrieve Kurtz near the start, the plot in Heart of Darkness develops in stages. It’s personal ambition, rather than orders, that take Charlie Marlowe to Congo. He spends time adapting to the environment (where he hears a series of whispers about the missing genius Mr Kurtz) before he is assigned to bring him back to Europe.

But the absence of a strong narrative works well for the book. The substance is  the taking apart of moral frameworks – imperial worldview of the company, Marlowe’s more subtle morality, and Kurtz’ grand ambitions.
All of this is told in prose that’s detailed and enveloping without being too rich, does a lot to build the feeling that Marlowe is feeling, of the Congo getting under the skin.

Verdict: A landmark and influential novella, with provocative ideas and a dash of cynical humour.


Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

I wasn’t optimistic about Veronika Decides to Die when I first picked it out. Paulo Coehlo is a name I’m aware of vaguely, but I’d never read anything of his before I noticed Veronika on the shelf of a charity shop.
The blurb also gave me pause for thought:

Veronika has everything in life she could wish for – young and pretty, with plenty of attractive boyfriends, a steady job, a loving family. Yet Veronika is not happy and one winter’s morning she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, only to wake up some time later in the local hospital. There she is told that her heart is now irreparably damaged and she has only a few days to live…
Through these intense days Veronika comes to realise that every second of existence is a choice we all make between living and dying. This is a moving and uplifting song to life, one that reminds us that every moment  in our lives is special and precious.

While others may disagree, to me that sounds like a routine, by the numbers, ‘heartwarming’ story, in which the hero discovers the joy of life, realises there are things worth experiencing, opens her heart, instantly embraces joy, skydives from a plane, blablabla.
It’s not that I disagree with that sort of outlook on life, but in my experience it’s usually handled badly – superficially and cleanly. If I am cynical about ‘heartwarming’ stories, it’s only because it’s a story format that’s hard to pull off in my experience. Its more likely to end up cheesy and sickly sweet, rather than upbeat and optimistic as they’re intended to be.
And Veronika Decides To Die does pull this off – it’s a genuinely sweet book, with the sharp edges – dealing with subjects like misery, mental illness, the difficulty of connecting with others – intact.

Paulo Coelho: You may remember him from such poses as ‘stroking his beard’ and ‘resting his head against his left hand’.

I really like ‘magical realism’ as a style of prose – the type of world that feels more real than reality, a bigger, quirkier and more colourful version of the real world, but still rooted in the complex and sometimes dark emotions of the world around us.
This is achieved partially by the colour and poetry of the prose, and partially with playful ideas – there’s Veronika’s suicide note, Coehlo writes himself into the novel, and one of the doctors believes he’s found a single cause of all madness (one that isn’t totally implausible).

The story begins with the main character, Veronika, deciding on suicide, not because she’s been worn down and is unable to cope with life, but because, on a more intellectual than emotional level feels her life is pointless. It’s an interesting choice for the writer to make, as is the whimsical way the scene plays out – considering placing the blame for her suicide on a magazine article that was mildly rude about Slovenia, her home country.
As mentioned in the blurb, Veronika’s suicide attempt fails, leaving her, weeks from an inevitable death, in a mental institute. But she doesn’t open up straight away – the opposite in fact, shutting down and withdrawing from those around her, so as few people are hurt by her death as possible.
The book takes a long time for the positivity I was expecting to kick in – not only is Veronika consistently negative, but it’s persuasive, logical negativity as well.

As Veronika embraces her loneliness, the scope of the story expands, showing us the patients of the institute, with conditions ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia, and the characters are well drawn, sympathetic and believable.
Having said that, none of the characters are given mental illnesses that place them into an unwinnable situation, and I’m not sure schizophrenia works the way it’s depicted here.
There’s also an event towards the end of the story I found hard to buy, but by the time I reached it, the book had built up enough goodwill, through its tenderness, humour and depth, that I was willing to set my objection aside.

Verdict: A genuinely inspiring and empathic novel, with tenderness and sympathy for it’s flawed characters.


52 Weeks Catch-Up

If you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve fallen behind on book reviews.
At the turn of the year, I started a commitment on another website, to read at least 52 books over the course of the year. The idea is that, with so many easy distractions – televisions that can record entire series to watch at the viewer’s convenience; a whole internet full of articles on every subject, written in sizes that can be digested in ten minutes – sometimes it’s important to arrange the time to read, as a little more effort is required.
In addition, I’ve been intending to review all of the books I read, partially in order to keep in the habit of writing, partially in order to think about why I like or dislike the stories I read, partially in order to advertise my reviewing abilities to anyone who’s interested.

However, I’ve fallen a little behind the schedule of a book a week in reading, and quite far behind in reviewing. I’ve reviewed six books so far, (one of them reviewed on another site) and am currently reading my fourteenth book. (I know, way behind schedule…)

I have made notes on each book after reading, and I intend to catch up soon, in addition to other things here on the blog and elsewhere. For the moment, here are the books I’ve read this year, with links to those reviewed:

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Ghost by Robert Harris

Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov

Up Pohnpei by Paul Watson

Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Catching Fire (Hunger Games 2) by Suzanne Collins

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

I intend to get back into the groove of reviewing as I read, so I can do so while thoughts are fresh in my mind. There will be exceptions – obviously some of the thoughts I’ve had on the two Paulo Coelho books are interlinked, so I’ll review Veronika first, to pass on the thoughts I had in the order that I had them.

Hopefully by the end of June I’ll be up to date, provided other things don’t get in my way.

Comedy, FootballOpinion, Review

Things What I Have Wrote

I’m now catching upon links to my articles elsewhere.

I’ve reviewed Paul Watson’s Up Pohnpei for BornOffside. He was a freelance football journalist, working for Football Italia amongst others, when he decided to apply for the manager’s position at the small Micronesian nation of Pohnpei, where the organisation was roughly at Sunday League level.
It’s a really interesting story, and you can read my review of his Micronesian adventure here.

Due to commitments elsewhere, I missed a week of The Lower League Week on BornOffside. Instead, last week I submitted a double dose, The Lower League Fortnight.
The Lower League Fortnight – The Up and Down Edition

I also wrote for The Leaky Wiki about Robin Gibb’s recovery from illness, and the potential it provides for puns:
Robin Gibb Staying Alive

I’ve fell behind with my blogging in recent weeks, but I intend to blog more regularly in the coming weeks – this should keep you going for now.


This is What Happens When Things Get Into the Public Domain

Sherlock Holmes is one of the classic characters of literature, and as such, has had his adventures turned into TV and movies, so people can share his adventures without all that pesky reading.

In fact, he’s suddenly so popular, that several franchises have taken advantage of Holmes being a public domain figure and produced alternate versions. There’s Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ BBC TV version, Guy Ritchie’s films, and now a CBS TV series starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu.
Yes, really, that is an actual thing.

Over at The Leaky Wiki, I’ve uncovered the long term plans for the character:
Every Actor in The World to Play Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson


05: Robot Dreams

I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly the Foundation trilogy, and though I’ve read a fair few of his other books as well there’s a lot I haven’t (he’s one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, having written over 500 books). Although best known for his fiction, he also wrote numerous textbooks on subjects such as biochemistry, physics and astronomy.
The sheer number of stories he wrote means that there’s obviously a variation in quality – I remember reading one of the further books in the Foundation saga, that felt like a bland tie-in to an interesting universe – a bit like a mediocre writer being given access to write in the Star Wars or Star Trek official tie-ins. Not as low as fan fiction, but not what you’d expect from one of the giants of his genre, either.

He may be looking into the camera, but his hand is writing out his latest book.

I’m a bit unsure on how to classify and review a short story collection. A novel is a story, which has an arc, characters, emotional and story rises and falls. A collection works in a slightly different way – it’s a series of smaller, micro-stories, which may make it tempting to create groupings around the story that don’t properly fit. So apologies in advance if I do that.

It might be an odd thing to say, but while Asimov is widely thought of as one science fiction’s all time greats, in some ways he’s very underrated.
Generally its acknowledged that Asimov’s characters aren’t his strongest point – while compelling, they tend to lack the complexity and internal conflict of truly outstanding characters. While this is a weakness I agree with, I find myself tempted to associate this with an overall lack of imagination. When I’ve not read any Asimov for a while, I tend to fall into the trap of thinking of his stories that I have liked as childish enjoyments, that I’ve now outgrown – enjoyments like Thunderbirds or Power Rangers.
But Isaac Asimov does have a wild and varied imagination, and Robot Dreams is a strong sampling of his work – 21 stories first published between 1947 and 1989, across 42 years, on a range of subjects and themes.

One of the things that’s striking about the collection as a whole is a 50s sensibility. It’s hard to pin down what I mean by this, but it’s a sensation I felt for most of the stories… Think of a world of picket fences, of neatly mowed lawns, and straightforward characters who are relatively self-aware and not overly deceptive. Everything I’ve read of Philip K. Dick’s has been messy, complicated – Asimov, here in particular, feels straightforward.
Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a sensation I felt across stories. In particular,  Lest We Remember revolves around a young couple, the female of the pair referring to themselves as ‘The firm of Jonny and Sue’, which has a particularly ‘gee whizz’ feel to it.

Most of the stories are set ‘ten minutes in the future’ – dealing with developments and trends that, for all we know, could be beginning now.
The Billiard Ball is a story of two scientists, rivals since university, one a Nobel prize-winning theoretician, the other a practical engineer who’s became very rich by putting the former’s ideas into practice.
Multivac, an advanced computer used by Asimov across many of his stories, is used to decide an election in Franchise, as a dating machine in True Love, and to create new jokes in Jokester.
And Breeds There A Man? follows Ralson, a scientist working on a missile defence system during the Cold War who suffers from as a strange delusion.
All of these appear to be set either in the twenty-first century or an imagined time between Asimov’s present and ours – these stories have the feel of being both familiar and fanciful, rooted in the present, but looking out to the future.

And there are other stories that are wildly imaginative – there’s a story set on an isolated asteroid, which has its own strange society; the story of the struggles to set up an independent Mars Colony; post-humanism; a time-travelling Neanderthal; life after death; and a few stories about life that’s advanced beyond our understanding.

Despite access to a time machine, Bob the Neanderthal still wears traditional Neanderthal clothing. He's keeping it real.

Of all the stories, there’s only Eyes Do More Than See that I’d consider a bad story – because of a twist that’s heavy handedly emotional. And even that story has the virtue of being short.
The remainder of the stories are all compelling, for a variety of reasons – mystery, concern for characters, a sense of adventure.

My favourite of the stories is The Martian Way. Set in the early days of the Mars Colony, where Humans have started to settle on Mars with the cost being borne mainly by Earth and subsidised by ‘Scavengers’ who capture the debris left by various  spaceships over the years between now and then.
A charismatic politician wants to cut back on the costs of the space programme, a programme that is unlikely to break into profit during his lifetime or that of any of his voters. So, seemingly faced with no option but to return to Earth, one of the Scavengers comes up with a bold plan, that will require pushing technology further than anyone considers possible, in order to ensure Martian independence.
I don’t want to say what the action involves, as I was struck by the sense of audacity and I wouldn’t want to spoil this. But the story has a similar feel to stories about the Apollo programme – astronauts going out on highly dangerous missions, pushing back the boundaries of engineering and of known science, the boundaries of what can be done. It’s the kind of subject that I find really stirring and inspiring when done well, and it’s done really well here.
Remarkably, despite it’s similarities in feel to the Apollo programme, this story was written in 1952, five years before Sputnik was put into orbit, and nine before Yuri Gagarin became the first Human in space.

In contrast to The Martian Way, Little Lost Robot and Robot Dreams are small-scale stories, a combination of mystery and moral discussion. In the former, Susan Calvin, a leading robopsychologist and one of Asimov’s recurring characters, is called to a remote scientific base to find the whereabouts of a missing robot. The robot has had its programming, it’s Three Laws altered in such a way that would make it dangerous if it manages to stowaway back to Earth.
Robot Dreams features Calvin again, and a robot that has developed the capacity to dream.
The use of robots as a metaphor for slavery is an old idea, in fact dating back as far as the origin of the word robot.
What’s unusual is that the story would normally feature a kind, caring protagonist, one who argues for the robots’ right to be considered equals. In both of these stories the characters are hard-headed. In fact when the missing robot in Little Lost Robot hides amongst 63 physically identical machines, Calvin immediately recommends destroying all of them, and is talked out of it on economic, not moral grounds. This is despite the fact that she herself believes the robots have developed a limited form of sentience.
It’s an interesting approach – but I think by not explicitly stating the ‘moral’ of the story it’s made more powerful, and prompts more thoughts as to whether these machines genuinely are sophisticated enough to be considered worthy of equality. It also means that these two stories remain powerful and fresh – despite the former being written over half a century ago, and being made familiar by numerous imitations.

On the whole, these are stories that are positive and forward-looking – not ‘Frankenstein stories’ about humanity going too far, ‘playing God’ and being smacked down for it, but stories about the positive results of scientific advancement.

We'd all be optimistic if we had a throne as badass as his.

But there are a number of satirical and cynical stories. The Machine That Won The War, tells of a meeting in the aftermath of a victorious war, and discussion of the brilliant machine that helped them achieve victory;  Franchise is set in a world where presidential elections are decided by one vote, of a man chosen by Multivac as the ultimate average American; and Lest We Remember is the story of how gaining new, almost supernatural skills brings out the worst impulses in its hero.

One major flaw struck me was the gender politics of some of the stories. Though I get the feeling that Asimov would consider himself a feminist from the stories, I counted six significant female characters across the twenty-one stories (Susan Calvin appearing twice). Two of these six are defined to a large extent by their spouse, one works as a nanny, a stereotypically feminine role, and one is an extremely meek scientist whose husband explicitly states that there aren’t many career women like her on Earth.
The Machine That Won The War; The Last Question and The Feeling Of Power all have a number of male scientists and soldiers whose personalities aren’t important to the story, and could be changed to women by a simple change of name and pronoun, so it makes me a little uncomfortable that the characters are so overwhelmingly male.
Having said that, Susan Calvin is probably the most interesting character in the book, so Asimov is clearly capable of writing women..I think maybe he just underestimated how quickly society would move towards female equality in the workplace.
I’m honestly not sure whether to include this paragraph or not, because it feels like I’m picking on Asimov for a flaw he couldn’t realistically be expected to see as a flaw, a manner of thinking he was conditioned into by his experiences. But it was something I felt as a flaw when reading, so I think probably worth mentioning.

I really enjoyed the collection – despite being a fan, I’ve not read either I, Robot, his definitive book, (which Little Lost Robot is taken from) or The Gods Themselves and Gold, both Hugo award winners, but I am definitely more motivated to seek them out now.
Given the sheer amount of stories Asimov has written, not all of them will be worth reading – but I’d say that twenty of the twenty-one in this collection are.

Verdict:  While characters aren’t his strongest point, Robot Dreams is a collection of idea-based scifi from a master of the genre.