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.

 

 

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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.

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!