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Ossus Library Index Science Fiction Index

ROBOTS AND EMPIRE

A novel by Isaac Asimov (1985, Del Rey Books)
Book 4 of the Robot Novels

Daneel and Giskard attempts to discern and stop a crisis between Earth and the Spacers, for the good of humanity.

 

 

3 stars

Read October 3rd to 11th, 2002 for the second time  
    A fun romp through Asimov's robot universe, this story still goes on about topics until the characters are thoroughly finished with them; by then, the readers had been finished long ago.

Like its predecessor, The Robots of Dawn, this book deals more with connecting this universe with the Foundation one, than anything else. A plot to slowly (or quickly) destroy Earth, so that it is no longer a key player in galactic supremacy, is merely a sideline. What is key here is the way the two robots, Daneel and Giskard, move around and observe humanity.

The main problem with this book is the same one that plagued the previous book: Giskard. I liked Giskard as a robot. I even like him as a mind-reading robot. But I don't like the idea of a mind-altering robot. I don't think it is necessary for the plot to work, and I think it removes the greatness behind people like Fastolfe, and, in later books, Hari Seldon. After all, it is Giskard who discovers the first law of psychohistory. It is Daneel who decides that humanity takes precedence over an individual human being.

The concept of these robots shaping humanity into something desirable is distasteful. It leads us towards destiny, instead of allowing human ingenuity take control. Everything that happens in the book, and everything that happened in the twenty decades before the setting in this book, could have easily happened without manipulation by Giskard. Maybe it would have required a few more robot books, because it would be more complicated, perhaps, as the Spacers might send out colonizing robots, but leave the worlds abandoned, or something like that. After all, Asimov added several books to his Foundation saga.

Who is to say that allowing Giskard to be no more than a mind-reading robot would not give him the advantage, with a human as advisor and political manipulator, to bring humanity to where it is at this stage? In any case, I disliked it, even when he simply removed some hesitation.

Another complaint that I have remains from Robots of Dawn, and exists in just about all of Asimov's later novels. He is very wordy. Several chapters contain almost nothing but dialog. People don't do anything, and we don't even get facial expressions or movements. Two robots discussing philosophy is not very interesting except if the philosophy is outstanding. Daneel and Giskard discuss every nuance of everything in a topic, until there is literally nothing left to discuss. Aggravating that aspect of the discussion is the absolute politeness of the two robots. Why, when talking to each other, must they call each other "friend Daneel, friend Giskard"? It really stilted the conversations.

The style of writing that Asimov uses in this sense needs getting used to. His characters don't really do much. Most of the book is reasoning things out, either discussing it with somebody or interrogating somebody. This is in place of an internal monologue, really, which would normally give us a person's thoughts.

This style also allows Asimov to give us information in a circuitous route, instead of simple exposition. I don't think there is any exposition in this book that feels like simple back-story. I love that. The characters circle their point until we have enough information to assimilate what they are about to say -and then a chapter break usually appears!

Most of this discussion and reasoning occurs in the two sections that take place on Aurora. That section gives us more information about Elijah Baley, and together with later chapter, his fate. When I first read this book, years and years ago, I remember thinking that it felt like another book had been started and abandoned. Now I disagree. The three sections are simply flash-backs, to give us insight into the end of Baley's life. Once he and Gladia made love on his spaceship as he went to settle the galaxy. Another time, Giskard visited Earth and helped manipulate some of the officials there. Finally, Daneel was the last of the "living" to see Baley alive, as he dies on Baleyworld.

This really helps us understand why Gladia is not very reluctant to help the new Captain DG Baley on his quest. Two hundred years have passed since Robots of Dawn, and Solaria has been abandoned. Two Settler ships were destroyed after they attempted to salvage some of the robots there, and Baley wants her help to find out how and why.

The other section that deals with Aurora takes place from the point of view of Baley's enemy from Robots of Dawn, Dr. Amadiro, who wants to see Spacers move through the galaxy, and the Settlers and Earth destroyed. In this, he has the help of Dr. Mandamus, who knows enough about Earth history to give him an idea of how to destroy the planet without making it look like the fault of the Spacers.

We also get another visit from Vasilia, the woman who disowned Fastolfe as her father. She comes back from a tour of the Spacer worlds (waiting for her father to die), with some interesting information. One of those pieces allows her to recall some modifications that she made to Giskard when she was a teenager. While some people, like Gladia, mention a fading memory, Vasilia seems to remember every detail of her life. She relates the modification to telepathy, and realizes that all of Amadiro's failures are because of Giskard. This I don't believe, as I mentioned above.

It is here that I have another concern, which seems more like the author's method of getting on with the story rather than dealing realistically with the plot. It seems that both Vasilia and Daneel are incredibly intelligent and wise. Both can reason through the subtlest hints and make the right conclusion, even based on simple conjecture. How often is it possible for enemies to follow the same logical path to the same conclusions, based on different evidence? I find Vasilia's reasoning to be as absurd as Amadiro did, yet she was right, because she had access to the author's mind. Daneel was never so absurd, but his logic was rather thin, as well.

The meatiest and best part of the book occurs on Solaria, the now-abandoned world. The loss of the world of her birth and youth is what triggers Gladia's sense that she has lived for too long without doing anything worthwhile. It is a sense that most people can relate to, at some point in their lives, I think, and is what makes the rest of her actions in the book believable.

Robot novels usually deal with murder, since that is the best way to test the Three Laws of Robotics. In this book, there is no murder, but Gladia is assaulted on the surface of Solaria, by a small group of Settler men. I don't believe DG's explanation of why the Settler ship was all-male, which seems more medieval than today's values, but since Asimov believes that women do not like danger, we have to forgive the slant in his novels. I suppose it provides continuity with Foundation novels, since he wrote them when he was young, and before he had any female relationships. But I've gone off on a tangent... The real reason the crew is all male is because Asimov wanted to have a chance for Daneel to show off, and to remind us that robots could indeed be dangerous.

Even better than Daneel handling the Settler man and hurting him to save Gladia from harm, was the way Gladia handled the overseer robot. Even if she ultimately failed to stop the overseer, I loved the way she was able to manipulate that humaniform robot, whose definition of humanity had been narrowed so far as to make any non-Solarian non-human -and order the robots to destroy them! That was a very disturbing aspect of this section, and is what helped make it so great.

So the ultimate question, which does not get answered in this book, is where have the Solarians gone? Everybody, including Vasilia, think they have left the planet, but where have they gone? And why leave humaniform (possibly telepathic) robots behind to guard the surface? I don't remember, but I'm pretty sure we have to wait until Foundation and Earth to find out, since the main character visits that planet at that time. It's going to be a heck of a wait!

After leaving Solaria, we go to Baleyworld, mainly because DG wants to turn over the nuclear intensifier that the robots were going to use to destroy his ship over to his authorities. Gladia, who has never faced more than half a dozen people together in her life, delivers a rousing speech in front of a crowd of hundreds, during which she decides to dedicate her life to making peace between all worlds, regardless of "race". She is a heroine because of her ability to save the crew on Solaria, and her ability to sway the crowd allows Giskard to develop the dominant law of psychohistory: humanity can be predicted only in large groups, and can be manipulated that way by their emotions.

Is Gladia really such a good debater? I doubt it, but Asimov's characters are always larger than life, are never ever stupid, and always have undiscovered abilities. And they are always good debaters. They never stammer for words, or discover the proper witty response long after the conversation has ended!

After Gladia reports the events on Solaria and Baleyworld to Amadiro and the Auroran council, Vasilia tries to kidnap Giskard. Fortunately, by then Daneel has formulated his Zeroth Law, which allows Giskard to harm Vasilia in the cause of protecting humanity. They flee to Earth, where Gladia is again hailed as a heroine.

Amadiro and Mandamus are also on Earth, where they plan to accelerate the nuclear reactions in the mantle of the planet, slowly irradiating it to the point where it can no longer be habitable. This is necessary to provide continuity with Pebble in the Sky, but also serves another very important point. The reason Giskard doesn't stop the two men when he gets the chance, is because although Spacers have their own crutches (robots and longevity), the Settlers also have a massive crutch: Earth as the inviolate, where nothing can go wrong. If humanity is to have a successful and prolific eternity in a Galactic Empire (a term used shamelessly often in this book), Earth must not stand in the way. And by the time of the Foundation novels, it will not even be in any historical records!

So Daneel's Zeroth Law becomes the basis for Giskard's actions, and his insistence that Daneel must shape humanity towards the most desirable -what is that, anyway? He erases the memories of the events from Amadiro and Mandamus, alters Daneel's brain to have his telepathic ability, and then dies because he cannot handle the Zeroth Law.

In a way, this book seems more like a Foundation novel than a Robot novel. Only Solaria and the duel between Giskard and Vasilia (and Daneel, which makes it a duel of three) really dealt with the three laws, though the two robots discussed the laws all the time. It is a fun story, because it is very interesting to see how the Spacers and Settlers deal with each other, and DG was really charismatic.

Unfortunately, the story is wordy, and it lacks the passion that Elijah Baley brought to the earlier novels. Everything progressed very logically, with great debates and discussions (even if they went on for too long), but it might have been a little too logical, too scientific. Everything is explained in exacting detail, as if Asimov saw a potential problem in what he was saying, and so decided to reason it out for his audience. Every time something looks wrong, it turns out it was made that way on purpose. The prime examples of this are the exact number of times Daneel saw Elijah, which is not explained until much later, and the exact number of times Gladia has been on a spacecraft, which also doesn't add up until they get to Baleyworld and we learn that she went at Elijah's death, as well. It almost seems thought through too well! Humanity is about passion and expression, something the robots necessarily are missing. Since the book is told mainly from the point of view of the robots, the story is lacking a little of it, too.

Looking through the table of contents, I have always loved the way Asimov makes little games or stories with his chapter titles. The best use is probably in the Galactic Empire novels, but the four robot novels are also well written, and give a sense of urgency in all the right places!

Finally, I remember writing a letter to Asimov discussing the use of the word "mile" in this book. In one chapter, before they go to Three Mile Island (Asimov later wrote wondering why he didn't predict Chernobyl!), they discuss the forgotten term "mile", and what it could mean. But only a few pages later, the minister of energy points up a hill and says "just a few miles..." Earlier, Gladia even fell "a few inches" to her seat in the spacecraft. I never received a response, and I know this is hardly likely to be a result of my achievement, but Asimov never used the Imperial system again in a novel that I read afterwards!

By no means a letdown, this book is a great story featuring Asimov's robots. It just seems a little "obvious" to me in what it tries to achieve, and I still maintain that it is not necessary for Giskard to be able to manipulate minds to arrive where they are.

 
   

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