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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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.

 

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.