Friday, March 16, 2012

The Robot Novels by Isaac Asimov

I've been of fan of Isaac Asimov’s fiction for quite some time, probably starting around the time I was in sixth or seventh grade when my brother gave me the last (chronologically) of the Foundation novels, Foundation and Earth. I loved that book and sought out more, even Asimov's short fiction - I'm not usually a fan of short fiction. Sure, I found some of the older stuff quite dated - even quaint. But even the outdated material often had a great story and interesting characters (not all the time, nobody's perfect). But as a whole, Asimov's fiction pretty much started me on the path to my love of written science fiction.

Recently finding myself with nothing new I wanted to read, plus a desire to not sit in front of computer in my down-time as I often find myself doing, I went looking on my bookshelves for something to re-read. Spotting my shelf of Asimov books, I considered for a moment, then decided to start "at the beginning" of the future history with the Robot novels.

The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn, and Robots and Empire are the four books that make up a series detailing the declining days of the Spacers and their original fifty worlds and the birth of the Settler movement of colonists from Earth. More specifically, the first three books are mystery novels; the main characters are Elijah "Lije" Baley and his partner R. Daneel Olivaw, a humaniform positronic robot beholden by the all-important Three Laws of Robotics.

The Three Laws that govern all robots in Asimov’s fiction are:
1: A robot may not harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm.
2: A robot must follow the orders given it by a human, unless doing so conflicts with the first law.
3: A robot must protect its own existence, unless doing so conflicts with the first or second laws.

In the series, we're introduced to an overcrowded Earth where no one lives above ground in the open, but everyone is crowded together into massive Cities: Earth's Caves of Steel that contain hundreds of millions of people that eat in communal kitchens, use shared Personals (that do your laundry while you shower and take care of other necessities), and where intelligent robots are hated. The inhabitants of Earth are, from the Spacer point of view, disease ridden, short-lived (a century at most), and quite expendable. And we're introduced to the Spacer worlds, free from Earth's ills and massive population. The Spacers are disease free and quite afraid of catching anything from Earthmen and can live close to 40 decades; as a result there are far fewer Spacers than Earthmen. Spacers rely on robots for practically everything.

The Caves of Steel, the first book in the series, details a murdered Spacer on Earth, and Plainclothesman Elijah Bailey, rank C-5, is called-in to investigate. He’s forced to partner not only with a Spacer, not only with a robot, but with a Spacer Robot that looks like a human. R. Daneel Olivaw is a prototype Humaniform Robot, his looks are designed to be as close to human as possible - skin, hair, eyes, breathing, eating - and his positronic brain is programmed to interact better with humans than other robots. Baley mistrusts this Robot Daneel from the start, either by trying to call him out as, in fact, human pretending to be a robot, or as the murderer, or as complicit... but eventually he learns to work with the robot and solves the murder, which has the political benefit of removing Spacer influence and oppression from Earth altogether.

The robot Daneel was designed and built by Spacer Roboticist Han Fastolfe, who is trying to design a science of predicting and guiding the overall future of humanity by finding the laws of humanics - similar to the laws of robotics. Fastolfe inadvertently convinces Baley that future colonization of space should be initiated by the people of Earth, not the Spacers, as Spacer society is stagnating and may even be starting to decline due to their longevity. But the Spacers feel Earth should be repressed and future colonization be done by robots paving the way for Spacers to move into ready-made, comfortable worlds.

The Naked Sun calls Baley, now rank C-6, to the Spacer planet of Solaria where another murder has been discovered. Only on Solaria, humans - unless married - live one person per a thousand square miles, and they have about ten thousand robots per person. Solaria is the worst extreme of Spacer society in their isolationism and robot-dependency. The prime suspect in the murder is the victim's wife, Gladia Delmarre, only she remembers nothing but finding the body. Baley and Daneel investigate, and uncover more unrest not only between Spacers and Earth, but distrust between Spacers as well. Baley is surprised at the growth of his friendship and trust of a robot, even one that looks like a human.

The Robots of Dawn finds Gladia now living on the Spacer world of Aurora, the first and most important of the Spacer planets, and she is again involved in a murder. Only this time it's the murder of one of her robots, Jander - a humaniform robot similar to Daneel. Baley, now rank C-7, and Daneel are called to investigate. They are aided by Dr. Fastolfe's robot majordomo, R. Giskard Reventlov.

Baley interviews anyone remotely connected to anyone else and uncovers much political tension between Fastolfe and the head of the Auroran Robotics Institute, Dr. Amadiro. Amadiro wants the science behind Fastolfe's Humaniform Robots and wants to use humaniforms to explore and colonize the galaxy for Spacers. Fastolfe still believes Earthmen should lead the colonization effort. Daneel and Giskard get moments alone where they discuss Fastolfe's plans and ambitions, and discover that in order to make his plans work, they need something that trumps the Three Laws of Robotics, but they can't yet figure out what that is without destroying their own positronic brains. Again, Baley solves the murder, and in the process discovers a secret the robot Giskard has been hiding.

And the series wraps up with Robots and Empire some two hundred years later, with flashbacks to different short events with Elijah Baley as he ages and dies and, on his deathbed, gives Daneel the knowledge he and Giskard need in order to advance Fastolfe's plans for the science of predicting and guiding the future of humanity (and tying this series in with the Foundation series that takes place thousands of years later). Again in this book, Gladia takes the stage, at the request of one of Baley's descendants, D. G. Baley, a Settler going to find out what happened on the world of Solaria because it seems abandoned. Gladia takes Daneel and Giskard, now her trusted robot companions after Fastolfe willed them to her upon his death. Gladia, D.G., Daneel, and Giskard investigate Solaria, but Daneel and Giskard feel their investigation has far reaching implications, possibly even the destruction of Earth!

Eventually the secret Giskard carries starts to come out and he becomes a target, and must take steps beyond the limits of the Three Laws of Robotics, as must Daneel. Daneel, having a positronic brain designed to function closer to that of a human brain, has a very slightly easier time surpassing his Three Laws programming. He forms a Law of Robotics that transcends the Three Laws, trumping them all: a Zeroth Law of Robotics. Giskard, his robot brain not quite able to adapt to that, still must eventually do things his programming can't cope with, and has to share his secret ability with Daneel to let their plans continue. Giskard programs Daneel's brain with his own ability; and then Giskard dies.

Daneel's newfound ability, along with his new Zeroth Law of Robotics placing the future safety of humanity in-general above the well-being of any single human specifically, allows Daneel to continue with the plans of Dr. Fastolfe to create the science of predicting and guiding the future of humanity and the forging of a Galactic Empire (and, maybe, a Foundation or two).

I enjoyed re-reading these novels, as it's been several years. It was indeed like visiting old friends. I had vague recollections of plot points, characters, scenes and such, but found so much I had completely forgotten about - especially the last book in the series. I only remembered the very ending of the book and not much else about it. I didn't remember Gladia or Amadiro being back, I didn't remember D.G. Baley being in it, or the visit to Baleyworld. I just remembered the robots investigating the threat to Earth, Giskard giving Daneel his abilities, the Zeroth Law, and Giskard's death.

Yes, the books are dated in their technology; with tickertape readouts, single-purpose computers, and long inter-city flights even thousands of years in the future! That anachronistic quality is reduced in the latter half of the series as those were written in a more technologically advanced decade than the first two, but not completely.

I highly recommend any fan of science fiction read and re-read Asimov. It's worth it.


tanita✿davis said...

Other people take "beach reads" on vacation; I tend to take my Asimov's, because I KNOW they're good, and the writing is re-readable over and over and over again, at least once a year.

As a matter of fact, this post totally makes me want to do that now.

kevbayer said...

I totally agree Tanita. Asimov's stuff makes great stand-bys, or grab-and-reads when you need a science fiction fix.