Thursday, May 5, 2016
The Robots of Dawn, by Isaac Asimov
Once again Earthman Elijah Baley is being called upon to help solve an almost impossible mystery with the help of his friend, the robot Daneel Olivlaw. In this case Baley is being sent to Aurora, the greatest, most populous, and most powerful of the Spacer worlds, however the case is rather unusual. In this instance another humaniform robot like Daneel, Jander, has been rendered inoperative with mental freezeout, making him dead for all intents and purposes. However it's incredibly unlikely this happened at random so Jander's creator, Dr. Fastolfe, is accused of deliberately destroying one of his greatest creations. Tied to the outcome of this case is not only Dr. Fastolfe and Baley's careers, however, but the fate of Earth and the settlement of the galaxy as well.
The Robots of Dawn isn't exactly a direct sequel to its predecessors, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. It was written nearly thirty years later and in a way serves more as a means for Asimov to bridge all of his stories together into one cohesive universe. And I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that Asimov didn't exactly plan for most of his novels to end up part of one cohesive universe so it does feel a little odd to me. How Asimov does this is make references to several other of his works which, as someone who's read them I understand instantly and get the wink and nudge that he's making, even if it isn't terribly subtle. I'm left with the feeling, though, that readers who aren't familiar with his other stories may end up a little confused. And again, it does feel odd. The references to Susan Calvin, the patron saint of robotics and prominent figure in several of Asimov's robot short stories certainly makes sense, even if she's a figure of the distant past by Baley's time. The references, however, to a Galactic Empire and the field of psychohistory which may one day develop to understand the human mind are just downright weird. At least it's weird for me because I know, that's what's going to happen. I've read Foundation after all so the rise and eventual fall of the Galactic Empire, coupled with Seldon's development of psychohistory are absolute certainties. But for the characters in Robots of Dawn to speak of such things as absolute certainties, when ostensibly the fate of humanity's expansion into the stars is still uncertain, feels like they've read ahead in the timeline and they're just going through the motions of protesting.
On some level, I do like the references. They specifically mention the stories Liar! and Bicentennial Man, (the latter of which is probably my favorite Asimov story of all time) not by name of course, but in a general sort of sense and it's good to see that even if they're seen as little more than legend, people remember these stories which touch something fundamentally human in us. And of course, I rather enjoyed at least the very early Foundation novels, before things started getting weird. But as I said, it kind of removes the dramatic tension from the book because we know what happens. The result is the book feels like a device to connect other stories into a larger universe, rather than an important story in its own right.
Now that I've sort of poked around talking about the more general issues I have with the book, I'm going to come to the really big one which makes me really wish I hadn't read it. To make it really short: there are characters who act like incest is no big deal. To provide some context, on Aurora people only get married for the purpose of having children and once the children are born they're usually raised in a communal nursery so the marriage, having no other purpose, is dissolved. Otherwise, people are free to have sex with whomever they want and it's no big deal. However, we're presented with a very specific instance where Dr. Fastolfe, in what on Aurora is a somewhat eccentric act, decided to raise one of his daughters from a baby on his own, living in the same house. So a very traditional father/daughter relationship. However, once his daughter comes of age she decides to make an offer of sex to her father. Now fortunately, Dr. Fastolfe has the very good presence of mind to refuse such an offer but everyone except our "prudish Earthman" Baley thinks Dr. Falstofe acted absolutely abhorrently by doing so and is blamed for stunting his daughter for life because of his behavior.
...I don't even know how to begin to explain how utterly messed up that is.
Like, I understand that this is a small thing, a really, really small thing in a book about robots and spaceships and galactic empires and psychohistory and a robot murder mystery. And I understand that while an author might write certain things in their books they may not in any way, shape, or form support the ideas suggested or supported by what they write. I get it. I really do.
I just could not focus on the book after that point. Everything else was getting crowded out by the fact people acted like incest was no big thing. "Without procreation, sex is only a social activity." Well yes, that's technically correct, but still no! There is just something inherently and utterly wrong in people acting like it's perfectly natural for a daughter to want to have sex with her father, a man who has literally raised her from a baby. And this is only made worse by how little a deal it is. It'd at least be something if Baley spent pages and pages arguing about how utterly messed up this is and how degenerate Spacer society has become as a result but no, it's kind of "Haha, stupid Earthman. You and your prudish, monogamous ways! We Spacers have long outgrown such silly superstitions!''
No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
If this wasn't an e-book on my kindle I probably would have thrown this book across the room and contemplated setting it on fire to purge what was wrong with it. And this is why I really can't give an objective review of this book because of that one thing that is wrong on so many levels and is just...ugh.
So I'm sorry, everyone, I really am. Emperor knows I wanted this book to be good like so many of the other robot stories I've read. But unfortunately in this case there's just one thing that I cannot ignore and so I cannot in good conscious tell people to read this book. Without the messed-up bit this would have just been a lackluster book, but with it? Ugh.