Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Don't Be Afraid of the Robot

In my SF book club a couple of months back we read Isaac Asimov's Foundation. I found it good and bad. I liked its enormo scale and its attempt to base the story on ideas from the social sciences. I also found that the book cracked along, with Asimov having a writing style that made his book hard to put down. On the downside, the characterisation was pretty hopeless – it seemed like the same character kept showing up with different names. Some of the social science ideas deployed also seemed a bit clumsy. Everything seemed rather telescoped, with societies forgetting technology or adopting crazy new religions more or less over night.

For all the problems with Foundation, I liked it enough to want to read more Asimov. The library did not seem to have any copies of its sequel, Foundation and Earth, but it did have The Naked Sun, one of Asimov's books about robots. I read it today, and my initial impression is that it is total genius. It has the readability of Foundation, but a far more coherent plot and much more convincing characters. The story follows a detective from Earth (where everyone lives in crowded underground cities) who is for mysterious reasons called in to investigate a murder on one of the outer worlds, where a small human people live on the surface with millions and millions of robots doing all their work for them. The book plays on the detective's agoraphobic reaction to the openness of the colony planet, and his gradual understanding of just how odd the human society on it is, with the robots an all-pervasive and generally creepy presence. I helped this by imagining them all as looking like the ones in Doctor Who classic Robots of Death.

There was a thread* on ILX once where people were invited to think up offensive terms that in the future will be used for robots. After a series of posts threw out such classics as skin-jobs, metal mickeys, tin dicks, and many more, some people became very offended (as is the way of ILX). This was not because they were robots themselves, but because they reckoned that in SF robots are basically analogues for black Americans; in coming up with offensive terms for robots, people were basically engaging in a safe form of racist dialogue.

At the time, I considered such thoughts to be the usual kind of ILX taking-everything-a-bit-too-seriously mentalism. Actually reading one of Asimov's robot books, I am not so sure. It is noticeable that the detective keeps addressing robots as "boy", while they call him "master". The society on the robot planet is reminiscent of the antebellum South, with a lazy elite living in rustic mansions while slaves (in this case, obviously, robot slaves) work away for them, and the humans keep underestimating the robots, just as whitey underestimates black Americans. Whether it is actually racist to come up with slang terms for robots is something I will leave to you, but it is hard not to think that Asimov had race in mind to at least some extent here.

*I can find no trace of this thread. If you know where it is, post a link.


Ray said...

It's a sequel to The Caves of Steel, which you should probably also read. It's set on an extremely crowded Earth.

ian said...

The book does a great job of mentioning R. Daneel and the human having worked together before, without making it a big deal that you do not have the intricate details of their previous case.