Sunday, April 18, 2010

Revisiting The Robot Novels

I recently took an enjoyable trip back in time into the future of the human race at the dawn of the Galactic Empire. I re-read Isaac Asimov's Robot novels over the course of a few days.

I've been of fan of 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 it 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 Sure, I found some of the older stuff quite dated - quaint even, but even the outdated material often had a great story and interesting characters (not all the time, nobody's perfect).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.

Finding myself with a lull in reading material this past week, plus a desire to not sit in front of computer in my down-time as I often find myself doing, I perused 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 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 a 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.

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), 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, 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 details a murdered Spacer on Earth, and Plainclothesman Elijah Bailey, rank C-5, is called-in to investigate, but is 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 designed to be as close to human as possibly - skin, hairs, eye, breathing, eating - and his positronic brain 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 a human, as the murderer, 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 inadvertantly convinces Baley that future colonization of space should be initiated by the people of Earth, as the Spacer society is stagnating and may even 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, 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, 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'spositronic 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. Again, Gladia takes the stage, at the request of one of Baley's descendents, 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 the ability to read and influence minds; and then Giskard dies.

Daneel's new ability to read minds, 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 like visiting old friends. I had vague recollections of plot points, characters, scenes and such, but found so much I had completely forgotton 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 investigate 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, 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.

Disclaimer of Disclaiming: Sometimes publishers or authors give me their book or product free so I can review it. When they do, I'll mention it in the review. Sometimes I get books I want to read for my own enjoyment from PaperBackSwap. The product links in the reviews take you to, where if you buy the linked item I get a very small percentage of the purchase price (because I like cash). These particular books I've had on my own shelf for 15 years or more.


  1. (I'm CatBar, and not really Anonymous, just can't get that Google identity thingie to ever work for me!)

    LOVED them all! Even the 'dated' technology (which I find oddly appealing, and characteristic of 50's sci-fi). I feel I was born 1000 years too soon when I see what I'm missing out on (Daneel and Giskard in particular!).
    Though I'd want to live on the beautiful planet Aurora under the Naked Sun and NOT in the stinking fuggy Caves of Steel.

  2. Thanks for commenting CatBar! I think I'd like both, living in the Caves of Steel and running the moving sidewalks (or whatever they were called), and then taking a ship to Aurora for some fresh air!


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