In the Future, Everyone on Earth will be an A**hole

I first started reading Pebble in the Sky last fall, immediately after finishing Robots and Empire, but I got bored and, as stated in a previous post, moved on to other things. When I finally decided it was time to come back to the Empire series, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Asimov recommended saving Pebble in the Sky for last, as I hadn’t found the chapters I had already read all that engaging. In fact, I seem to have developed some sort of block about this book. It took me two weeks to finish a 256-page book! I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was that was effecting my desire to read Pebble in the Sky and I think it comes down to the fact that I didn’t like any single character in the book. I truly didn’t give a crap what happened to any of them.

This publication series found an artist who read the books and then chose the most mundane moments to put on the cover. They’re interesting.

Pebble in the Sky opens in Chicago during the late 1940s. The war is over and the Cold War is under way. Retired tailor Joseph Schwartz is walking past a nuclear research lab when they experience a minor (seriously, it’s extremely minor to the scientists involved) accident.  Schwartz is consequently transported tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of years into the future in the course of a footstep. He finds himself on an Earth that has experienced true nuclear disaster. The vast majority of Earth is uninhabitable and off-limits. That’s about as far as I can get providing any sort of cohesive summary. Like the rest of the Empire trilogy, Pebble in the Sky bounces from viewpoint to viewpoint, offering snippets of plot here and there that only come to a whole in the last few chapters of the book. What I can do, is give a basic rundown of each of the major characters we come across (and attempt to put into words just what I don’t like about each of them!)

I imagine this is the Mt. Everest stronghold of the Procurator. Not bad.

Joseph Schwartz: I have already mentioned. Obviously, you’re supposed to easily sympathize with him. A man pulled from (roughly) our own time into a strange world, through no fault of his own, where he can’t even speak the language. I honestly can’t say exactly when I stopped. I think it was around the time he attempted to escape from the Nuclear Research Institute to which he is brought shortly after his arrival. He seems to spend an awful lot of time feeling sorry for himself, and with all the other characters being even more obnoxious to my mind, his wallowing soon became the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back.

Loa, Arbin, and Grew: Their farmhouse is the first place Schwartz finds after his sudden displacement. They are terrified commoners who want both to make use of Schwartz (they haven’t told the government that Grew can no longer work so that 2 people are trying to do the work of 3) and to get rid of this seeming imbecile who babbles nonsense and grows hair out of his face. It is their fear, distrust, and lack of education that truly sets everything in motion. (I supposed it could be argued that it’s also the catalyst for the ultimate outcome which saves the human race (spoiler? You all know there are more books that take place after this right?).)

There were no floating cities in this book.

Dr. Bel Arvardan: A member of the Empire (not from Earth) and an archaeologist, Arvardan has recently made advances in the field showing that it is likely that all human life evolved from one planet, rather than the more accepted view that humanity evolved simultaneously across the galaxy. He has come to Earth believing it may well be the planet of origin for humanity. Due to the radiation levels of the planet and the subsequent genetic mutations of the people who live there, this is a very unpopular idea in the Empire at large. Arvardan is from the Sirius sector, known to be more anti-Earth than most of the galaxy and he actively fights against his prejudices. Again, this should be noble and ingratiating, however his innate sub-conscience bigotry often makes itself known and perhaps, strikes a little too close to home in our P.C. culture.


A bit boring maybe, but at least it makes sense!

Dr. Affret Shekt: A physicist who has developed the Synapsifier, a device to allow the treated to learn faster. The device works, however Shekt has been forced by the “Ancients” to make it seem to the public at large that it is risky and unpredictable. He has asked for human volunteers while the word has simultaneously spread that doing so is tantamount to suicide. In actuality it is only the chosen of the so-called “Ancients” (we’ll get there) who receive the enhancement. Until, that is, Arbin brings Schwartz in to “volunteer”. Shekt is obviously a dupe and remains rather wishy-washy and spineless through much of the book.

I think I know what this is supposed to be, but it’s certainly not anywhere close to what I imagined.

Pola Shekt: Dr. Shekt’s daughter is a student interning with her father. During Schwartz’s escape post-treatment she meets Dr. Arvardan. When she discovers Arvardan is not an Earthman her reaction is extreme. I suppose, given the society she has grown up in, it is not surprising that she should react strongly. I suppose my main objection to her is the way Asimov wrote women in general. Even when strong she shows weakness: “‘Oh, we’re all going to die, and I don’t care any more-but we could stop it, we could stop it-And instead we just sit here and-and-talk-‘ She burst into wild sobs.” (Kindle 4164) Just because I recognize that the book was written in the 1950s, doesn’t mean I can’t feel disheartened about her post-speech breakdown.

I haven’t the foggiest.

Lord Ennius: Ennius is the Procurator of Earth, the Emperor’s representative. Ostensibly in charge, he spends most of his time worrying about a rebellion and then fails to act when confronted with crisis. There’s really nothing much to like about a man more worried about his diplomatic future than the good of the human race.

Secretary Balkis (and the High Minister): The High Minister is the elected head of Earth. A member of the Society of the Ancients, the current ruling party of radical zealots believing not only the Earth is the origin planet for all human life, but that it should and would be again – through force of course (otherwise there would be no plot). Balkis, however, is the true power. It is he who makes the plans that will destroy all life not native to Earth and he who has despotic intentions to rule. He is the most obviously unlikable  character but more than his melodramatic villainy it was his truly insane leaps of logic that rubbed at me.

This whole post seems very complainy doesn’t it? It’s not often that I spend so much of a book detesting all of the characters and though some come through in the end, it was the distaste that stayed with me when I finished the last page. As a whole, it wasn’t much different from the other Empire books, a small group of people put their cultural differences aside and come together to best the true societal threat. Perhaps because this was Asimov’s first novel he hadn’t quite gotten the hang of prolonged characterization yet. I do know that if I reread his books in the future, I will likely skip this one.

I totally saw that coming – and I totally teared up anyway

Whether I read in publication order or Asimov’s preferred order, the middle book of the Empire “trilogy” is the middle book. I can’t screw it up! The Stars, Like Dust is that book. It’s weird.

As is usual with Asimov, the focus is on political and social injustice and the need for change. However, the message is somehow simultaneously more on-the-nose and less prevalent than usual.

The book opens as the sleeping Biron Firrell is wakened from a deep sleep by a call. (The first couple of paragraphs are amazingly true to life today, basically he put his phone on vibrate, but he’s woken up anyway when someone tries to Skype him with a terrible connection.) Once awake, Biron realizes that his lights aren’t working, his “visiplate” will receive but not send, his ventilation system is off, and he can’t get out the door. As a college student ready to graduate in a few short days, he naturally assumes this is a prank, until he discovers the radiation bomb in his closet. He is saved by Sander Jonti, who had realized his peril just in time.

Jonti, it turns out, knows Biron’s father, the Rancher of Widemos, who has just been arrested and is likely to be executed shortly. Jonti suggests to Biron he needs to get off planet and head to the Director of Rhodia for assistance. That’s the first 1 and 1/2 chapters and the names and places are already difficult to keep track of, aren’t they? Things get even more convoluted from there, so I’ll boil it down to this. There are a group of planets on the other side of the Horsehead Nebula called the Nebular Kingdoms. They have been taken over by Tyranni who are (surprise!) tyrannical. Each world maintains a semblance of their former government (Rancher and Director are examples) but are, in fact, ruled by the Khan or Tyran. Their seems to be a group of rebels planning to fight against their rule and Biron’s father is one of them. It’s never clear just how much of this Biron knew, but he had been tasked by his father to find a certain document on Earth before he leaves, which he fails to do. This document will supposedly destroy the Tyranni rule but it is rarely mentioned through the story.

Of course, no one is as they seem. There are so many twists and turns, double- and triple-crossing, lying and spying, it all gets a bit boring after a while. There’s also a surprising amount of violence, most of it hand-to-hand, and a seemingly out-of-place love story. This is not to say The Stars, Like Dust is not worth reading. The first 9 chapters are riveting (and the first, down right scary) and the last 5 chapters create a surprisingly satisfying (the obvious) close.

I’ve now reached a point where I’m both out of things to say and brimming with thoughts I want to express. It seems a fitting way to end my review of a dichotomous novel.

There is no good title for this post – much as there apparently wasn’t a good title for the book itself!

Remember way back when I first started reading the Asimov books and I had that whole post about reading them in the wrong order? I almost did it again. I bought and started Pebble in the Sky ages ago because it was the first of the Empire books written. Luckily, before going back to it, I reread my past posts and saw that Asimov’s suggested reading order is to read the three Empire books in reverse order, starting with The Currents of Space (1952) and ending with Pebble in the Sky (1950). I quickly purchased and downloaded Currents of Space and finished it in short order. That was almost a week ago. Originally I was going to wait a day, as I usually do, before posting, give my thoughts time to settle. Life got in the way and here I am struggling to remember anything I wanted to say!

No actual giant floating heads will be found in this book. Also no green men.

The plot is built around a mystery of sorts. The book opens with two unknown men in conversation. One has information of the utmost importance he is desperate to get to the people who need it, the other is intent on keeping the information out of circulation entirely and therefore drugs and uses a “psychic probe” on the unfortunate man. After the psychic probing, the man’s brain reverts practically to infancy. He not only loses his memory, but also the ability to walk, talk, and process the world around him. “It was a grown human being, nearly naked, chin wet with drool, whimpering and crying feebly, arms and legs moving about aimlessly. Faded blue eyes shifted in random fashion out of a face that was covered with a grown stubble.” (Kindle Location 427) He is dropped in a small village on the planet Florina and adopted by Valona March.

There are spaceships though! Not a lot, but some!

When the story resumes, Rik, as he has come to be called, has begun to retrieve memories from before the psychic probe. He remembers that he analyzed “Nothing”, meaning he was a Spatio-analyst, and that he had important information that constituted a danger to Florina and its inhabitants, though he had no idea what that information may be. The remainder of the novel is the mad dash by multiple characters to find Rik and what he knows, for good or evil depends on the character.

No naked red women or devils in Samurai armor either, but someone should write that book.

As with all Asimov’s works, it’s the socioeconomic elements that are of real interest to me. Florina is a world controlled by the people of Sark. The City consists of two levels, the lower level where native Florinians live and the Upper City, where Sarkites, known as Squires, live. The Florinians of the Lower City literally live in the Squires’ shadow. Some Florinians are chosen at a youngish age, to go to Sark and train to work in Civil Service, some remaining on Sark and others being sent back to Florina as Townmen. This may seem reasonable on the surface, but there is something more sinister behind this policy:

“Further, neither the Townmen nor Sark’s clerical assistants may breed without losing their position. Even with female Florinians, that is. Interbreeding with Sarkites is, of course, out of the question. In this way the best of the Florinian genes are being continually withdrawn from circulation, so that gradually Florina will be composed only of hewers of wood and drawers of water.” (Kindle Location 1048)

This Hebrew edition looks great! Somebody read the book.

This inequality is the crux of the entire conflict through The Currents of Space. Florina is the only planet in the galaxy able to produce kyrt, a cellulose capable of producing the most luxurious fabrics known to man. It is the native Florinians who work the fields and mills, producing the kyrt and performing the necessary steps to transform it into workable material. It is the people of Sark however, five men in particular, who reap all the benefits.

Each character we meet is affected by the Sark/Florina social system in some way or another from Squire Fife, the greatest (richest) of all the men of Sark to Dr. Selim Junz, who has been looking for Rik since his disappearance to Myrlyn Terens, the Townman of the village in which Rik is found. Each character has a unique vision of the social disparity based on their own situation and experience and Asimov’s real accomplishment in this novel is that, whether you agree with them or not, you can truly understand each character’s motivations throughout the story even as you try to unravel the complicated whodunnit within the plot.

I found this story eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable.



Robots Make the World Go Round

Well, that took a lot longer than it should have! It’s weird to me that Robots and Empire isn’t available as an e-book. It’s one of the more recent novels in the grand series, and it’s pretty important in the scheme of things.

Oh good, there’s another one!

When the book opens, we learn that Solaria has been abandoned by its human inhabitants, Elijah Baley has been dead for nearly 200 years, and Daneel and Giskard have passed into the ownership of Gladia Solaria, the last known Solarian. Two trader ships from the Settler worlds have attempted to land on Solaria in order to collect some of the robots left behind and were promptly destroyed, bringing Elijah’s seven times great-grandson, D.G. (Daneel Giskard) Baley to Aurora looking for Gladia’s assistance in uncovering the mystery of what happened to the ships. Gladia (with Giskard’s quiet help) ends up saving the lives of D.G. and his crew, leading to her becoming a hero to the people of Earth and the Settler worlds. She finds that this agrees with her and chooses to devote the remaining decades of her life to working for peace between the Settlers and the Spacers.

This is the copy I read. It doesn’t make much sense either.

Meanwhile, Giskard and Daneel have uncovered a grand scheme by a few Spacers to end the Earth’s galactic expansion. As Giskard reads the emotions of those around him, and Daneel uses the gift of deduction he learned from Elijah, the two robots slowly unravel the dastardly plan to end Earth and its inhabitants. During this time, Daneel comes up with what he terms “The Zeroth Law”, that a robot’s first true loyalty must be to protect humanity. That, in fact, the good of the whole is greater than the good of the one. I suppose that’s what this book boils down to There are many conversations between the two robots as they work toward this realization.

I suppose this makes the most sense, though its a bit generic. All around some pretty disappointing covers.

Unlike the rest of the books I’ve read so far in this series, this book felt quite a bit like filler, which I suppose it is in a way. It’s Asimov’s attempt to connect the Robot and Empire stories (with a bit of a nod to the Foundation series as well) but the theme behind this particular novel feels quite a bit weaker than in previous books. Perhaps because it’s not focusing so much on a quirk of humanity we need to be wary of. Perhaps it’s because the humans all end up feeling completely superfluous. For whatever the reason, Robots and Empire didn’t leave me thinking great thoughts the way great sci-fi should.

Interim Post – Making Lame Excuses

It’s been a long time since I posted, so this is that inevitable post about why I’m not posting. My reasons are twofold:

1. The next book in Asimov’s series, Robots and Empire is NOT available as an ebook. This means that I had to either order it or hunt it down somewhere. I did manage to find it in my library system, and I’m about halfway through now. I also have a harder time reading regular books now. I suppose because it’s not just sitting there on my computer/tablet/smartphone for me to pick up wherever I left off when a have time. Instead, I have to remember to bring the physical book with me to places, which is much harder.

2. I have a job and September is a busy time. By the time I get home from work, I’m not in the mood to do much of anything but veg in front of the television. The thought required to process a book you intend to review is just not there.

So, that’s why there hasn’t been a post in a couple of weeks. I promise I haven’t forgotten you and I am working on it. The book is due back at the library in a week and I’d hate to have to renew it, so a review should be up sometime soon.


Sex, Lies, and Robotic Recording Equipment

First things first, The Robots of Dawn is by far the best mystery of the Elijah Baley trilogy. I had absolutely no idea “whodunnit” until about 3 pages before it was officially revealed, (and that only with a gigantic clue that would be hard for anyone to miss) and no idea of the HOW until it was explained to me. Not only that, looking back, all the clues were there in the text to be found, which is always my favorite kind of mystery. Well done, Asimov! However, it is, as always, the political and social implications of the story that provide the real interest.

Imagined statement by this cover artist: “Read the book? Why?! Everything I need to know is in the title. There’s a robot (I made him giant, everyone loves a giant robot!) and Dawn, which told me the background should be yellow. I don’t need to read the book to figure that out.”

I suppose, having said that, I should actually describe the mystery! The Robots of Dawn picks up a couple of years after the events of The Naked Sun. Baley has a small group of people (including his son) interested in colonizing space who spend time Outside, tilling soil and doing the things that robots normally do on Earth. He’s been trying to get permission to go to Aurora and petition the government there for assistance in their colonization plans, specifically they need spaceships. He’s been repeatedly denied this opportunity, and then his old acquaintance Fastolfe, the Auroran roboticist and Daneel’s creator, whom Baley first met in Caves of Steel, requests his assistance with a problem. Jander, Fastolfe’s second humaniform robot, has ceased operation (he’s been killed) and the political implications could destroy Fastolfe, Earth, and Baley himself.

Fastolfe is a supporter of Baley’s ideals. He believes (as we know from Caves of Steel) that it is Earthmen who should populate the galaxy. With their short lives and overcrowded planet, they will bring about an age of Galactic Empire. Fastolfe’s opponents, the Globalist Party, believe that Aurorans should settle the galaxy, using humaniform robots as a kind of advanced guard, to build a civilization the settlers will be able to move into without doing any of the hard work. However, Fastolfe, the only man who knows the secret to building humaniform robots, has refused to share his knowledge, putting a significant wrench into the plans of the Globalists. Jander’s destruction comes into play as a political pawn because Fastolfe is the only man who would know how to cause the positronic problems that killed him, yet insists he didn’t do it and it must have been a spontaneous event. Regardless of whether he’s guilty or not, the Globalists will use his implicit guilt to undermine his position, intimating that he killed his own robot in order to prevent them from learning and turning the Auroran legislature to the Globalist point of view. If they succeed and Earth is denied its opportunity to colonize, it will be only a matter of time before the stagnant Earth falls to inevitable entropy. Almost as a side note, Baley’s superior has made it clear that if he does not succeed, he will be decommissioned and lose all status. In short, the stakes have never been higher.

This book looks BO-RING!

Over the course of two and a half days, Baley infuriates various Aurorans. Further confronts his own fears. Cements his relationship with Daneel. Makes strange, incomprehensible leaps of logic. Complains about everything that is different from Earth. And solves a couple of crimish type things. It’s official, Baley bugs the crap out of me. He’s inconsistent and just generally annoying. Thankfully, his character is not essential to enjoyment of these books!

Within the first few paragraphs of The Robots of Dawn (1983), it’s evident that it was written decades after Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957). There’s an obvious stylistic difference to the prose as well as a lack of inane ’50s slang from Bentley Baley who’s “Gee!’s” and “Golly!s”  nearly ruined Caves of Steel for me. More than that though, the social content of this book exemplified the decades of change that had occurred in America and the world since the previous stories.

Say, that robot looks like it’s obeying the First Law!

Each of the books has explored the societal differences of the planets they take place on, in addition to exploring the possible directions our society has open to us. In Caves of Steel we saw a world where privacy was non-existent, and therefore prized above almost everything; while at the same time being eschewed for the comfort of ever-present people in the Cities of Earth. For instance, in the communal Men’s Personals (bathrooms) speech of any kind was taboo, and it was customary to ignore your fellows to offer the illusion of privacy, and yet, when Baley gained the right to have running water in his home, he felt odd performing his ablutions away from his community.

What is that robot looking at? If I read the book will I find out? (Answer: No)

The Naked Sun explores Earth’s societal opposite. A sparsely populated world has evolved to the point that personal contact, even between husband and wife, is something to be avoided whenever possible. Marital relations are scheduled (seemingly by the government) and perfunctory. The mere threat of meeting in person, being Seen, is enough to drive one man to suicide!

Perhaps, the societal more most explored in The Robots of Dawn is a natural extension of the two from the previous books, but I have a difficult time believing it would have been nearly as frank or explicit had it been written in the late 1950s or early 1960s. It is, in a word, sex. Aurora turns out to be a society where sex is a simple part of one’s daily interactions with others. While marriage exists, it is short-term and is an expression of two people’s intention to have children together more than a result of love or mutual affection. Meanwhile, Aurorans have ritualized the act of sex to be more like an activity two people might choose to do together to pass the time, much like watching a movie or having a drink. Gladia, the Solarian woman we first met in The Naked Sun has been living on Aurora since the end of that story and speaks frankly of the sexual differences and disappointments she’s experienced on both worlds. While it is an integral part of the plot, would it have been possible prior to the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s? I’m not so sure.

The last chapter also shows the 25 year gap between books as it seeks to set up the events of the Empire and Foundation books, further proving that I made the right decision to go back to the beginning after my reading of Prelude to Foundation showed me just how interwoven the series are.


Robot See, Human View

Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw are together again in The Naked Sun. It’s a few months after the events of Caves of Steel, and Baley, now promoted to a “C-6” has been called to Washington DC, to meet with Undersecretary Albert Minnim. There has been a murder on the planet of Solaria, the first murder in the planet’s history, and Baley’s deductive presence has been specifically requested. Earth’s government sees this as a wonderful opportunity to actually have an Earthman receive first-hand knowledge of Spacer’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than relying on rumor and conjecture. Baley sees this as a terrifying, panic-inducing development. It is made clear that Baley is not being given a choice. In fact, an interstellar craft is waiting to convey him to Solaria immediately. (This is probably for the best, as it doesn’t give Baley time to dread the trip itself!)

Upon his arrival, Baley is surprised by his old partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, whose presence during the investigation was a pre-requisite for the planet Aurora’s assistance in having Baley sent in. On the journey to their temporary residence, Daneel is able to share some information about the planet with Baley, though he knows as little as Baley about the crime they have been called to investigate. Solaria’s population is rigidly controlled. Their 20,000 humans and 200,000,000 robots. (That’s right – two hundred million robots!) The people are scattered on

Same scene a few minutes later!

large (hundreds of acres) estates throughout the planet. Being so spread out necessitated the building of truly spectacular communication technology. You can “view” anyone else on the planet at any time and it’s like being in the same room with them. To an extent. In fact, the ever more brilliant and impressive viewing abilities created a taboo among the people of Solaria to personal presence, or “seeing” as they call it.  Baley believes himself to be meeting with their host, Head of Security Gruer, in person and is shocked when he seemingly disappears after providing them with specifics of the murder.

We get an excellent example of the Solarian ideas of “viewing” and “seeing” when Baley and Olivaw interview the victim’s wife, Gladia. When first contacted, Gladia is in the shower, drying off. When she gets out of the shower, she thinks nothing of Baley and Olivaw “viewing” her nude. Later in the conversation, however, she has this to say about her relationship with her husband:

“We were married. But I had my quarters and he had his. He had a very important career which took much of his time and I have my own work. We viewed each other whenever necessary.” (Kindle location 1192)

A different scene, but again from the book!

In Solarian society, it turns out, marriages are arranged, appointments are made for “seeing”, and ‘children’ is a dirty word. As you can imagine, this creates an interesting sociological conundrum for Baley, used to the overcrowded cities of Earth. This taboo about seeing also makes the mystery of the murder far more complex. Everyone is in agreement that the victim was “a good Solarian” and would never consent to SEE anyone but his wife, therefore she must be the killer. However, she was found unconscious near the body (by robots) mere minutes after the crime and there was no weapon to be found. Who then, could the killer be and how did he or she accomplish it?

Once again, the mystery itself is not all that complicated. The seasoned mystery buff will have at least an inkling of the means fairly quickly, if motive takes a bit longer. It is the unique cultural quirks of the Solarians, and their effect on Baley, that are the real interests in The Naked Sun. After all, Solaria is practically the exact opposite of Earth. Where Elijah’s Earth cities are enclosed underground, Solarian homes glory in expansive space. Where Baley regularly comes into direct contact with family, friends, and strangers on a daily basis, Solarian have trouble

Uhhh….I don’t even….I have no idea.

being in the same room with their spouses. The people of Earth gather for their meals in community kitchens with hundreds of others while Solarians eat their robot-prepared meals in solitude (though they may VIEW with others while dining). The people of Earth fight against robot intrusion on their homes and livelihoods while Solarians revel in the leisure their 10,000 to one robot society. These polar differences don’t go unnoticed by Baley, who realizes that Solaria and Earth share the same fate due to their relative excesses.

Throughout the book Baley challenges his own agoraphobia while he challenges his hosts’ anthropophobia. When he finally insists on being allowed to SEE his witnesses, it forces him to travel in the open. I’m hoping to see the result of his subsequent epiphany realized in the next book, Robots of Dawn. Which, if you’ll excuse me for ending a bit abruptly, I think I’ll get started on now!

Spelunking NYC

I started reading Caves of Steel with a sense of excitement. I’d thoroughly enjoyed I, Robot, after all, and I’m a huge fan of the turn-of-the-century mysteries of which Asimov was fond, so the idea of a good old-fashioned detective story set in the Robot universe was extremely appealing.

Okay cover, doesn’t have much to do with the story.

Detective Elijah Baley is a New York City cop some thousand plus years into the future from I, Robot. The city now exists entirely indoors, though I honestly never was quite clear on whether it was all underground or if the cities were somehow enclosed, and sprawls over 2,000 square miles (the state of Delaware is 1,948 square miles) including much of New Jersey. Connected by a single entry point to the city proper lies Spacetown, a domed open-area where people from the Outer Planets live. The Spacers are descendants of Earth Colonists who headed out to the stars a thousand years before. They have long-since gained independence from Earth and created their own societies and norms, which include the ubiquitous use of robots. Earthmen have never lost their fear and discomfort with robots so evident in Asimov’s short stories, and resent the Spacer’s attempts to introduce robots into their way of life. When a prominent Spacer is murdered, Baley is assigned the case and a new Spacer partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. The R. stands for Robot.

I have no idea what this thing is supposed to be!

Much of the first half of the book deals with Baley’s discomfort with his new assignment and partner. He repeatedly attempts to find ways to get out of both the case and the partnership. He also flatly refuses to consider that possibility that an Earthman may be the culprit, concocting wild speculations as to his partner’s guilt several times which are easily taken apart. Baley never visits the scene of the crime and takes the word of Daneel (his suspect!) and his boss as to the fact that there’s nothing worth bothering with there. Sherlock Holmes he is not. The real murderer is painfully obvious almost from the start, though the method and motive take some time for the reader to figure out. The “mystery” part of this story ended up a disappointment for me.

But I don’t think that the deductive process was Asimov’s main concern. Much of the story revolves around the conflict between the “Medievalists” and the Spacers.  The Medievalists yearn for a return to “simpler times”; to soil and open air, though the very idea of open air terrifies them to their core. The Spacers want to see more colonization, believing that the people of Earth need to move out to the stars and begin anew. On the face of things, it would seem these goals would complement each other. Where else is there open space and soil to tend than on other planets? But the Medievalists want to reform Earth, without the help of robots, while the Spacers want to see new societies born that combine the best of their technology and economics with the best of Earth’s. It turns out that the Spacers have been pushing Robots on the people of Earth in the hopes that enough people will lose their jobs to the machines that they will want to leave Earth. Instead, they create a backlash against themselves and their technology that threatens both sects’ ideologies.

This one at least tried.

The ideas presented are intriguing, though the storytelling was uneven at best. It’s hard to understand the apparent love the Earthmen have for their cities; the lack of fresh air, the homogenized culture (everyone speaks English and the cuisine of the world is flavored yeast), the lack of privacy or autonomy, it sounds like a nightmare to me. At the same time, the Spacers have eradicated disease and live for hundreds of years which has caused them to become hyper-vigilant when it comes to population control; long-since closing their borders to new colonists, who might bring disease with them, and euthanizing children born with congenital or mental defects. If you could only choose one of these ways of life, which would it be? If you were suddenly confronted with a 3rd option, one that combined the best of both, would you take it? These are the real questions Caves of Steel seeks to unwind. Me? I’d be the first one on the colony ship!

When I Get Home, I’m Going to Give my Roomba a Hug!

Hot damn, that was a good book!

As most good nerds know (even those who haven’t gotten around to reading it themselves) I, Robot, the Will Smith movie, has little to do with I, Robot, the book by Isaac Asimov, except for a few character names and the Laws of Robotics. The book is actually a collection of short stories originally published between 1940 and 1950 that have been interwoven with interstitial narrative of the world’s first robopsychologist being interviewed upon her retirement; in my opinion, a brilliant conceit.

And how refreshing it was to read a series of stories where it is the inability of the robot to see harm come to a human (the first Law of Robotics; I’m not going to print them all here, everyone knows them, and if you don’t Wikipedia will tell you) that provides the impetus and often conclusion to the story after being bombarded by SkyNet, The Matrix, ARIA, Decepticons, HAL, etc.!

Moreover, Asimov managed to create a cohesive narrative through a group of stories that vary drastically in tone, largely to the theme running through them all of the primacy of the Laws of Robotics. There were stories to make you laugh (‘Escape!’), cry (‘Liar!’), and rage (‘Robbie’, that horrible mother!), but two stories stood out as particularly apropos of our time.

There’s something of a disconnect for me when I read books written in the future of now, by which I mean these stories are all supposed to have taken place in the first half of the 21st century, a somewhat distant future in 1940 but obviously now it’s – uh – now.  There’s an interesting dichotomy to see what leaps in technology seemed feasible at the time (interstellar travel! mining on mercury! functional humanoid robots!) and the stagnation of social mores within those achievements (everyone smokes! – indoors! men won’t curse in the presence of a lady!) Perhaps my favorite example of the strange backwards technology that occurs in the story is a description of a “‘visor-phone” which is basically a videophone, Skype, FaceTime, whatever you want to call it, whose display is black and white (or at least that’s the implication in the description of a “light and dark image”)! A videophone seemed perfectly conceivable, that it might actually be able to project color, not so much.

I mention these things, because it made the two stories at the end of the book stand out all the more. Both concern politics and a man by the name of Stephen Byerley. In “Evidence”, Byerley is an A.D.A. preparing to run for mayor of New York City. Francis Quinn, who seems to work for the opposition, believes Byerley may actually be a robot, as he has never been seen to eat or sleep in front of others. He, of course, releases this information to the public resulting in the following:

“The political campaign, of course, lost all other issues, and resembled a campaign only in that it was something filling the hiatus between nomination and election.” (Kindle Location 2884)

A one-issue election. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

The final story, “The Evitable Conflict”, again features Byerley, this time as World Co-ordinator. Benevolent Machines now, essentially, run the world. They calculate data, probabilities, statistics,  on everything from food production to mining to infrastructure needs. In this story, something seems to have gone wrong with the Machines and Byerley travels to meet with his four Regional Vice-Co-ordinators to discuss the problem. He eventually comes to the conclusion that members of the group the Society for Humanity are intentionally ignoring the Machine’s instructions so as to create doubt as to the Machine’s usefulness. Byerley’s proposed solution to this possibility is eerily familiar:

“‘There is obviously no time to lose. I am going to have the Society outlawed, every member removed from any responsible post. And all executive and technical positions, henceforward, can be filled only by applicants signing a non-Society oath. It will mean a certain surrender of basic civil liberties, but I am sure the Congress -‘” (Emphasis mine) (Kindle Location 3405)

This is a marked difference to the story of his first campaign:

“It’s rather symbolic of our two campaigns, isn’t it? You have little concern with the rights of the individual citizen. I have great concern. I will not submit to X-ray analysis, because I wish to maintain my Rights on principle. Just as I’ll maintain the rights of others when elected.” (Kindle Location, 2935)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m not going to tell you how either of these stories turn out, they’re worth reading for yourself to find out, as is the entire collection. If I, Robot is any indication, I can’t wait to get into the Robot novels!

Bechdel Score: 1 out of 3. ‘Robbie’, the first story does have a conversation between mother and daughter, but I don’t feel like that really falls into the spirit of the Bechdel Test.

A Fine Kettle of Fish!

I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a mess. You see, when I conceived this project I knew that I’d be likely to find books that are part of a series on the list and that those books may not be the first in said series. This was confirmed almost immediately when the 1946 Retro winner turned out to be “The Mule” which is actually part 2 of Foundation and Empire, which is itself either the 2nd or 4th in the Foundation series, depending on whether you’re looking at things in publication order or chronologically. Obviously I’d need to do some reading before I got around to actually reading “The Mule”.

It just so happened that I’ve had Prelude to Foundation, Forward the Foundation, and Foundation all sitting on my shelves for at least a year. I pulled out Prelude to Foundation and read Asimov’s Forward. In it, I found out that the Foundation series follows the Robot series and the Empire series. In fact, Asimov very helpfully laid out the order he’d prefer they be read in.

  1. The Complete Robot: A collection of stories published between 1940 and 1976.*
  2. The Caves of Steel
  3. The Naked Sun
  4. The Robots of Dawn
  5. Robots of Empire
  6. The Currents of Space
  7. The Stars, Like Dust
  8. Pebble in the Sky
  9. Prelude to Foundation
  10. Foundation*
  11. Foundation and Empire
  12. Second Foundation
  13. Foundation’s Edge
  14. Foundation and Earth

Now I had a bit of a conundrum. I’m the type of person who likes to read things from beginning to front. If I buy a magazine because I’m interested in the cover article, I will still read that magazine cover to cover without skipping around. Did I then need to start with I, Robot? Would starting with Prelude to Foundation suffice? Should I ignore Asimov’s suggestion to read chronologically and instead start with Foundation? After some thought, I decided that the fact that Asimov made a distinction between the three series meant that I wouldn’t be missing anything by jumping straight to the Foundation series. I also decided that I’d respect the author’s suggestion and start with Prelude to Foundation.

I was stupid.

Turns out that, while knowledge of previous series is not necessary for the enjoyment of understanding of Prelude to Foundation, it most certainly would have helped. There’s quite a bit of discussion about pre-Galactic history, myths and legends about robots that quickly become an integral part of the story. At the same time, I had the constant impression of foreshadowing. The idea that those who read the series as they were published would have gotten a bit more out of some of the conversations and snippets from the “Encyclopedia Galactica” was pervasive. By the time I finished reading, I knew that I should have started with I, Robot in order to get the most out of Prelude to Foundation.

To that end, I’m going to wait on publishing my full account/review of Prelude to Foundation until I’ve gotten through the Robot and Empire books. I intend to write a draft that will include my original thoughts on Prelude and then perhaps add to that after reading the books leading up to it. At this point, I’m not sure if this will help or not, but I’m hopeful.

Has anyone out there encountered this problem themselves? Any suggestions on the proper reading order? Help me internet!

*The entire collection is not easily available in eFormat, but I, Robot is, so I’m starting with that. I’ll hunt down the rest on AbeBooks, but I, Robot’s got to be better to get me started than nothing!

**Forward the Foundation had not yet been written or published at the time Asimov wrote this list, but I’ll be reading it before Foundation.