Thursday, September 01, 2011

Isaac Asimov - The Robots of Dawn

If I was in the habit of giving my posts titles, I think this one would be called "My Unhappy Return to Isaac Asimov". Sick in bed the other day and needing something light, I decided to re-read some Asimov. When I was 14 or so, Asimov was important to me. I lapped his short-stories up, and delighted in his scientific accuracy. I never liked the Foundation series, of which this novel is a peripheral part, as I found it clumsy and unbelievable.

I did like the Robots novels and short-stories. Asmiov was good at them, mainly I think because Robots needed no personality, and Asimov excelled at characters lacking in that - the dispassionate scientist, spaceman or detective.

The Robots of Dawn is a detective novel in space. The lead character, Elijah Baley, is summoned intergalactically once again, to a Spacer planet. Earth, in this future has been isolated, its overpopulated surface and attitudes of its inhabitants, being deemed unsuitable for expansion further into space. Descendants of those humans who did, live on a variety of (fairly boring) planets, in ways that are designed to make us reflect on our own lives, and what Earth has become. In this particular story, Baley visits the planet Aurora. One that is heavily populated by Spacer standards, but light from Earth's point of view. It is, however, dominated (teeming?) with Robots.

Note the capital R. Aurora sees Robots as equal with humans, even though they aren't really. One of them has had its life ended (Baley debates long and hard, and in exquisite detail, whether it is murder) and Baley is the only person who can work it out, and save the future of each, blah blah blah.

The problem is, that the setup seems manufactured, the ending is laughable, and the characters wooden. Asimov can't really write for toffee. In fact, much of the novel centres on sex. You kind of get the impression that he realised it was the 1980s and his readers probably knew about sex, so he injected it into a thin plot. He even uses the word masturbation. In the context of Robots. Nudge nudge. If you've read this, and the other Baley novels you'll remember there is a whole thing about toilets in them. It is like Asimov was trying to think about how he could capture the differences between human societies on different planets. "I know, I'll do a thing about toilet culture". Geeez.

He also tries hard at the who descriptive prose thing.

"Her gown, so simple as to be nothing more than a closely fitting sheath, was not black (as it would have been on Earth) but of a dull colour that showed no sparkle anywhere in it. Baley, no connoisseur of clothing, realized how well it represented mourning."

"A dull colour, that showed no sparkle" is a wonderful phrase and I may use soon.

The trouble is, that Asimov excelled on the whole scientific, logic conumdrum, which is why I think his short stories work so well. Take a longer novel and it gets out of control. Whole conversations are really just dialogues about the three laws of robotics. Fun occasionally, but not over and over. His realisation of the future is, decidedly flat. It reads like the 1950s that Asimov began in, not the mid-1980s. Today we are used to a particular sub-genre of SF going on and on about the detail of the technology, but Asimov did not even imagine personal communication devices. Star Trek had been doing that since the 1960s, but not in Asimov's far distant future. No, there you can ask if you might use your hosts land line.

Anyway, never re-visit your childhood heroes as they may disappoint. If you want to read Isaac Asimov, read his collections of short stories, particularly the three, "Early Asimov" books, which capture the delightful period of the late 1940s, early 50s when SF was about to go blockbuster and Asimov was a young kid with all the ideas.  He even had a bit of humour. And there was certainly no masturbation then.


Stephen said...

Sorry you didn't enjoy it: the first Robots novel is my favorite, as the Spacer planets ARE boring and that one began on Earth. I recently finished reading "Isaac Asimov's Caliban", which is a Robots level set on a world occupied by both Spacers and Settlers; it's apparently first in a trilogy. Mostly enjoyable.

Resolute Reader said...

If the Caliban books are "mostly enjoyable", which soulds like a lovely Douglas Adams style quote, that's likely because they're not written by Asimov isn't it?

Stephen said...

I count Asimov as my favorite author, so I wouldn't say that! ;)