Thursday, January 14, 2016

Silver Glow

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics 

I am pretty sure that most people who will see the cover of today's book will think of one particular robot. I for one really can't unsee it.

Robot series
The Caves of Steel (1954)
The Naked Sun (1956)
The Robots of Dawn (1983)

In the future, humankind has evolved into two different beings. The humans who remained on Earth all live packed in sealed-off cities of steel, that keep the big bad outside world and air outside. The Spacers on the other hand, who live in wealth and luxury thanks to their robot-supported economies, naturally look down on the primitive and short-lived humans of Earth and would like the humans to stay on their little Earth. But things are starting to change on Earth thanks to plainclothesman Elijah Baley, who has been succesful in solving two Spacer-related murder cases in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Under his guidance, a small group of humans are slowly, but surely learning to adapt to the Outside world and they hope to one day move out to new planets, like their ancestors once did before them. But one incident on the planet of Aurora, one of the mightiest of Spacer planets, is about to put a stop to their plans. Dr. Falstofe is accused of having destroyed a humanoid robot of his own invention with a mental block on purpose. Dr. Falstofe is a very promiment member of the pro-Earth movements on the planet and the 'roboticide' has put the political position of Dr. Falstofe in grave danger, and if Falstofe should fall, the humans on Earth will never get a chance to move out to new planets again. Dr. Falstofe denies the accusation, but also states that he is the only person with enough knowledge to create the mental block. Baley is called to Aurora to work together with his old buddy Robot Daneel Olivaw (also a creation of Dr. Falstofe) and solve the roboticide, not only to save Dr. Falstofe, but also the future of humankind in Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn (1983).

The Robots of Dawn is the last novel in Asimov's science fiction mystery Robot trilogy starring plainclothesman Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. The series would later merge with Asimov's Foundation series, but I think this is Asimov's last mystery novel in this particular setting. I loved the previous two books: The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun were fun mystery novels that had a good, fleshed-out science fiction background, which was actually of importance to the mystery plots: the Three Laws of Robotics in particular were set at the core of the plots of each of those novels and the books showed that it is perfectly possible to have fair play mystery plots even with non-realistic and highly advanced settings, as long as the reader is given a fair look at the world and the rules are clear. And the Three Laws is as clear as you can get.

But I have to say that I thought The Robots of Dawn was the weakest of the trilogy in terms of mystery plot. I think that is because of the nature of the "roboticide". The robot was taken out with a mental block; a conundrum its mind could not handle, resulting in Blue Screen of Death. The problem is thus about finding the one who could have the skills to force a mental block. We are told that Dr. Falstofe is the only one, but  "skill" is something vaguely defined and because we're also told that the Laws of Robotics don't work on an absolute scale, you are not given with a clear cut logical problem that could be solved by a close reading of the text, like in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. You have mystery that can be explained by "well, maybe X could be skilled enough in Y to do Z, but it's just a guess and not based on any evidence or anything verifiable at all". The final solution in particular contains elements that had hardly been established in the world of the Robot series and kinda came out of nowhere (the hints were quite weak too). "It's the future, it's possible" is the explanation, and that is not how a science fiction mystery novel should work. The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun were great examples of how to do SF mystery right, but The Robots of Dawn is a gigantic step backwards in showing the possibilities of the SF mystery novel.

I did think the novel was enjoyable as a conclusion to the trilogy though. Not only do we see a couple of familiar faces from the previous two novels, the worlds depicted in this series are always evolving and it's great to see how Elijah and humankind on Earth in general have grown in the last couple of years in regards to looking outside Earth for the future. It's also funny to see how the worlds react to each other in the course of the books: the murder on Solaria (The Naked Sun) which was solved by the mere human Elijah for example has been made into a succesful "TV" series for example and Elijah's exploits (and his more handsome actor-counterpart) are famous even outside Earth.

As always, there is also a good amount of philosphical talk about humankind, the man-machine interface and human society, which may or may not be to your liking. I find it very fun to read though and Asimov obviously had fun in creating the Spacer worlds, where Spacers act all high-and-mighty towards Earthlings, but you can still see the same old follies, the same old mistakes even in their exalted societies.

The Robots of Dawn is a rather disappointing end to an otherwise excellent trilogy of science fiction mysteries. As a science fiction novel, it's still good, but as a mystery story, it is simply not as well constructed as the previous two novels. The dangers of the science fiction -  mystery marriage were well evaded in the first two novels, but sadly showed their face a bit too clearly in this last novel. Still, I think that if you have enjoyed Elijah and Daneel's previous adventures, you really should read this last one too.

1 comment :

  1. I notice that The Robots of Dawn is longer than The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun combined. Like Heinlein, Asimov got very verbose in his old age, and it did not help his work.