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.

 

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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.