Tag Archives: asimov

“The Robots of Dawn” by Isaac Asimov

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Well, not even Babe Ruth hit a home run every at-bat.  I thought this novel was, unfortunately, a huge strikeout vs other Asimov novels.  The plot was 1) boring and 2) was much too focused on sex (even, but not limited to, robot sex!); in particular I really disagree with the degree to which Asimov (or his characters) equate sex with love.

It was hard to relate to Baley’s neurosis about being outdoors and being virtually crippled by a rainstorm.  Yes, I get that he and all Earthpeople have been changed by generations living in enclosed cities.  I got that during the last two books.  This time it just seemed to get hit over and over again though.

There’s almost a cheesy bit of linkage in the book between Robots and the Foundation series.  One character muses about learning so much about the human brain (via attempts to recreate it in robots) that it might be possible to predict human behavior.  “We could call it, uh I dunno, … psychohistory!   Yeah, I like the sound of that.”  There was another bit that made me groan, where the same character wonders if, after millenia of colonization and spread throughout the galaxy, if mankind will ever forget its origins on Earth.  (that was the focus of one of the Foundation books)

In the end, the big reveal is that at least one robot has inadvertently been programmed in such a way as to provide telepathic powers.  The robot, Giskard, can read minds and influence them to some extent.  I wonder if this might be a hint about the origins of the Second Foundation –  are they really a group of robots quieting monitoring humanity’s development, still obeying the Three Laws?

Relevant xkcd today.

“The Robot Novels” by Isaac Asimov

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I’ve written before about my affection for Asimov: entertaining stories that make you think; always clever and thought-provoking.  The Foundation series in particular is a favorite.  I don’t remember what led me to it, but I saw a post about the links between the Foundation series and the Robot series; quite a lot of Asimov’s SF novels are the same “universe” so to speak.  So, I thought I would fill in the gaps in my reading history per this post on suggested reading order.

This book is the first two “Robot novels,” first published in the 1950’s.  (The cover image is a bit puzzling – the big thing about Asimov’s robots in these stories is how human-like they are.)  Both are murder mysteries – one on Earth + a few thousand years, the other on a colony world called Solaria – and both are tied together by the same protagnist, NYPD detective Elijah Baley.

The Asimov cleverness as mentioned above is not in the somewhat-meh plots, nor is it really tied to robots.  Rather, it is in the interesting look at future human society.  On Earth, mankind has retreated from the open air into vast enclosed metal megacities – the titular “Caves of Steel.”  Crippling agoraphobia has become a universal trait and everyone is used to the lack of privacy and freedom that exists when close-in, communal living is the norm.  On the other end of the spectrum, Solaria (the planet that Baley visits in The Naked Sun) was colonized as a luxury world for the uber-elite class.  After taking exclusivity and ultra-consumption and pampering to the max for a few generations, Solaria has ended up with a society where everyone lives alone in vast mansions with armies of robots to tend to their every whim.  The physical presence of another human is unsettling and embarrassing at best and horrible/worse than death in other circumstances.

In seeing some of the absurdities present in Solarian society, Baley recognizes the weaknesses of his own Earth society and resolves to try to break the stagnation.  Thus represents the human drive and willpower which eventually leads to further out stars and Empire.

“The End of Eternity” by Isaac Asimov

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[I could only find this novel as part of a collection of short stories by Asimov called “The Far Ends of Time and Earth.”  The other stories were entertaining and clever, but not quite as thought-provoking as “The End of Eternity.”  The book cover was a featureless old library edition solid blue, so I just picked my favorite Asimov picture obtained via a minute of Googling.]

Sometime around the year 2700, the secrets of time travel are discovered and Eternity is established.  Eternity is a place existing somehow outside of normal Time; traveling through time is only possible when starting and ending from Eternity.  So, the Eternals can’t travel back prior to ~2700 (easily), but they can go forward.  Quickly a noble enterprise is established: Observers infiltrate various centuries and report their findings back to Computers (a person’s title), who calculate what Minimum Necessary Change is required to effect a maximum increase of security and stability and human happiness for the greatest number of generations.  The changes, put into effect by Technicians, are small, butterfly-effect style stuff — like making someone late for a meeting — but with large effects — like if the tardiness to a meeting prevents some couple from falling in love and avoiding them conceiving the next Hitler, for instance.

After quite a while of this, these Changes have done great things like prevent world wars.  Humanity is pretty content across many millenia.   But as it turns out, by removing stressing stimuli the Eternals have also culled out mankind’s spirit of adventure and creativity.  Far in the future, the Eternal-modified timeline leads humanity into a dead end: we stay back at home while other races colonize the galaxy, and the triumph of humanity, the Galactic Empire (same one from the Foundation series – all Asimov’s stories are related) never happens.

In other words, the Eternals optimized themselves into a local maxima.  Shoulda taken that Discrete Optimization course!

“I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

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A pretty influential work for its time.  But I couldn’t help thinking how it was just a little bit silly.

The big deal with Asimov’s robots are the Three Laws.  These are “built-in” to the robot’s positronic brains somehow – except when they aren’t (Silly Thing #1).  There’s one story about just this possibility becoming reality, but after it we are back to assuming the Three Laws always hold.  Most of the short stories in this collection are about figuring out how the robot brain is interpreting the Laws and how that explains their seemingly odd behavior.  But if the Three Laws are not necessarily in place, then all of the logic in the other stories kind of breaks down in my mind.

Silly Thing #2 is that the robot’s positronic brain = magic.  Even the creators don’t understand why they work.  They do not really seem to be a continuation of today’s computing.  But in one story it mentions that some robots are tasked with designing better robots, and once this has gone on for a few generations you get a design unrecognizable to humans … I guess something like that may happen; compilers can be pretty obtuse sometimes.  But it seems to me that having a “debuggable” system is way more important (really knowing what’s going on in there) rather than imprinting Three Laws and hoping for the best.  Especially see Scary Thing below, after one more Silly Thing.

Silly Thing #3 – the story about the robot prophet starting a new religion.

Scary Thing, if only subtly so — the final story.  Advanced robots called simply Machines control the world economy, and do so quite well.  But it turns out they are also actively yet indirectly stamping out robotic opposition, since they interpret any challenges to their “rule” as a violation of the First Law.  Their logic is that they alone are the best able to ensure the safety of future humanity.

And in case anyone was wondering – I have not personally seen it, but per the Wikipedia synopsis, the Will Smith movie does not follow any of the original stories whatsoever.  Yet they slap a picture of it on the reprint/audiobook version.  Typical.

“Second Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Ah, yeah, this is it.  This is the part of the Foundation series that sticks in my memory.  This is “the good one” – the one that makes it worthy of the “best sci-fi series of all time” appellation.  The first two Foundation novels are but preludes to “Second Foundation.”

What is the S.F.?  Well, back when Hari Seldon set up the Foundation, which becomes the technological successor to the old Empire, he also set up a Second Foundation “at the other end of the galaxy” which focuses on the psychological sciences and is tasked with making sure the Seldon Plan of re-establishing galactic law and order is always on track.

First off we have the Mule, no longer disguising his identity nor his megalomania, hunting the galaxy for the Second Foundation – the last remnant of real opposition to his dominion.  Han Prichett, now Converted, has been searching for years for the location of the Second Foundation.  The Mule enlists a young (unConverted) upstart, Bail Channis, to assist in the search.  His logic is that Han’s Conversion is interfering with his ability to find the Second Foundation.  And they do find it!  No wait, they don’t!  A couple of plot twists later, the Mule is neutralized by via the psychic equivalent of Prozac.  He lives out his life in peace, without a care as regards the Second Foundation.

However, the Mule’s obsession with the S.F. has made a serious disruption in the Seldon Plan.  A few individuals from the (first) Foundation now know that the S.F. is real, and they have detected some of it’s meddling in the brain wave patterns of select influential leaders.  Being at the mercy of some mysterious psychic power is not a pleasant feeling.  And so the Foundationers strive to find the S.F. themselves.  The S.F. knows they are no match for the physically stronger first Foundation should they eventually be found; also the Seldon Plan relies on the free and natural response of the Foundation society, which is naturally degraded when they are paranoid about the S.F. or think that the S.F. will always step in to miraculously save them no matter what trouble they find themselves in.  The S.F. knows that the only way out is to convincingly allow the Foundation to “destroy” them, then lay low for a generation or so while the psychic panic passes away.  I won’t delve into the details of the story very much (many synopses/spoilers available online) but it is very good.  There are so many plot twists that come to fruition in the final chapter that it’s almost comical.

Rereading this novel this time through made me ponder the whole free will vs determinism idea.  How would you act if you knew that, no matter what you did or what went wrong, an all-powerful (at least to you) entity would bail you out (the Great 2008 Bailout, anyone?) and make sure you would “win” in the end?  I think 99% of people would say “lucky me!”, get lazy, become 50+ pounds overweight and play World of Warcraft for 18 hours a day.  Ok maybe that’s just me.  Why work hard for something if it’s going to be given to you anyway?

In the context of the Foundation story, the whole point of the Foundation is to evolve into the next Galactic Empire.  But by knowing the S.F. is always there to save them, the Foundation would never innovate and progress along that path.  The other response, that taken by the Foundation “conspirators,” is to question the control of the S.F. and to fight against it – fight for freedom.  Free will is more important than a free ride.

Unless we’re unknowingly getting the free ride but think we have free will… ahh, the mind games are too much for me!

“Foundation and Empire” by Isaac Asimov

Once again, the book is split up into pieces.  Probably published serially??  The first piece is pretty brief and forgettable.  An ambitious general from the remnants of the decaying Empire begins a campaign against the Foundation.  The Foundation is losing badly but at the last minute the Emperor recalls the general and ends hostilities.  It turns out they were saved by psychohistory…the latest in a series of weak Emperors would naturally feel threatened by a successful general and would work to keep him in line.  General’s with the ability to do so would focus their efforts on gaining and maintaining the imperial throne.  Therefore the Foundation is safe from outside intervention.  *Yawn!*

The second vignette about the Mule is the most memorable bit of the Foundation trilogy for me.  It’s kind a counterpoint to the first vignette – an outside force once again threatens and actually conquers the Foundation.  But how is this possible, since we’ve just been told how conquest by an outside force is impossible by the prevalent psychohistorical conditions?  The answer is that the Mule is a mutant, which breaks an assumption of good old Hari Seldon that human nature would remain constant.  The Mule has the ability to manipulate the emotions of others – he can make loyal followers in an instant as well as breaking down the fighting spirit of his enemies.  Luckily, the heros of the story prevent him from finding out the location of the Second Foundation.  And he’s infertile (like a mule; get it?) so once he passes, everything pretty much goes back to normal.


See my thoughts on the final book in the Foundation series, Second Foundation.

“The Stars, Like Dust” by Isaac Asimov

Hmmm.  Isaac, I really love the “Foundation” trilogy.  But some of your other stuff…

The setting is about 1000 years in the future; Earth is mostly irradiated and humanity has spread out among the stars thanks to hyperdrive extradimensional travel.  The hero, Biron, gets caught up in the deadly intrigue and political maneuvering going on between three schemers: the evil overlord Tyranni (see what he did there?), rulers over the 50+ colonized systems within the Horsehead Nebula; the “good guys” – the covert rebellion against the Tyranni; and the Autarch of Lingane who is playing each group off against the other.

As you would expect, Biron (and the reader at the same time) has no idea what’s going on and has to figure it all out.  Problem is, at several “reveals” when we find out why things are happening the way they are, it seemed to me like the plotting and scheming was much more complicated than it needed to be to satisfy the goals.  I guess it needed to be such so the reader wouldn’t “figure it out” too early?  Kind of sloppy I think.  Sorry, Isaac.

One incredibly cheesy bit: (minor spoiler – not plot centric at all though) several of the characters have been searching for a document from old Earth that is “the most powerful weapon ever known.”  In the end, the rebellion leader get it.  He says it will eliminate the Tyranni and all other despots from the galaxy.  What is it?  Why, the Constitution of the USA of course.  (Although apparently the Constitution wasn’t powerful enough to prevent most of the Earth’s surface from being hopelessly irradiated by nuclear bombs.)  This patriotic manifestation by Asimov (born in Russia; emigrated to USA at 3 years old) is very curious.  Did he truly feel so strongly about the Constitution and his adopted homeland, or was he trying to deflect actual or potential criticism in the time of the Red Scare?   The book was first published in 1951.

Another point about “The Stars, Like Dust” marks it as a product of its time.  In the book’s future of humanity, there are  no sophisticated computers (Biron calculates hyperspace jump coordinates by hand) or internet.  What they do have is a foundation built on atomic power.  There was a big excitement about the potential of atomic energy in the 1950’s.  Science fiction is an extrapolation of current science to the future.  Since the 1950’s were full of excitement about the potential of atomic power, science fiction from this era is full of atomic power.  In our day and age, we’re all about computers, the internet, biotech, DNA; consequently there is a lot of “singularity” science fiction where we’ll eventually upload our consciousness into computers, download them into new bodies, and become immortal.  I wonder if today’s science fiction will seem as quaint as that from the 1950’s does now.

(Listened to Audio CD)

“Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Ah, the Foundation series.  I’ve read the series (the original three books) a few times and recently decided it was time for a re-read.  It’s been probably five years or more.

Very cool idea.  Hari Seldon develops a new branch of science called psychohistory.  Drawing from knowledge of human nature, he is able to predict the future, at least as far as large societies go.  (Presumably, individuals’ irrationalities kind of all cancel out.)    He foresees that the great, galaxy-wide Empire will soon crumble.  But there is a way to minimize the length and severity of the intervening Dark Age.  The solution is to create the Foundation, a select group of scientists sequestered away on the far-off planet Terminus, ostensibly working on an Encyclopedia of All Knowledge.  (Wikipedia, anyone?)  It takes a few generations for people to realize the ruse of the Encyclopedia and their true purpose as a storehouse of knowledge and ingenuity that will eventually forge the next Empire.

(As I write this, this seems a bit like a metaphor for God.  He has a plan for the Earth.  Individuals have their freedom to follow or not, but one way or another that plan is going to come to fruition.  In “Foundation,” Seldon is kind of like God.)

Reading this time around, I thought a few things in the story were a bit hokey.  One is the creation of a science-worshiping (specifically, atomic science worshiping) religion to control the neighboring kingdoms.  I thought it was unlikely to develop as quickly as it did (within a few decades) and to have such a hold over the people.  For this reason, I liked the first two sections of the book (“The Psychohistorians” and “The Encyclopedists”) better than the others.

Second is the instantaneous travel between stars.  The very first story has a description of the Empire’s faster than light (more like blink of an eye) travel.  Ok, fine.  But later on, the Empire’s remnants don’t even have reliable atomic power anymore and all things technological are breaking down, and no one knows how they work or how to fix them.  But the Foundation’s enemies are still able to travel about between stars.  Maybe the Empire’s old propulsion systems were really, really robust?  In any case, it is necessary to the plot to have such a device, otherwise things would be way too boring…just the other day, mission specialists announced that Voyager 1 has left the solar system … after 33 years traveling 17 km/second.  That means it’s traveled something like 10 billion kilometers (probably slower at start than now) … and it will still take 40,000 years to reach the next star in its line of travel.


See my thoughts on the next book in the Foundation series, Foundation and Empire.

“The Gods Themselves” by Isaac Asimov

Sort of a yawner….usually I like Asimov…really like the Foundation series.  In this book, aliens in a parallel universe develop an “Electron Pump.”  By way of exchanging matter between their universe and ours, both sides are able to gain energy as the matter reacts to the new fundamental physical laws of the universe it has just entered.  Humanity rejoices at free, clean energy.  However, some scientists soon raise a voice of warning… they discover that the fundamental laws of our universe and the parallel universe are approaching equilibrium – kind of like when a hot object comes into contact with a cold one: the hot one gets colder, the cold one gets hotter.  Anyway, the consequence is that the strong electromagnetic force in our universe will change such that the Sun will explode.  Oh noes!  Humanity at large ignores and shuns the scientists who bring this up – they like their free energy, and the scientific community as a whole doesn’t want to disappoint them.  The smart scientists who understand what is going on are disbelieved and shunned.  Eventually, however, they save the day by figuring out how to open a channel from yet a third universe, which has the opposite set of laws from the first parallel universe.  By setting up a pump into this universe as well, the net effect on our universe is constancy and no exploding Sun.  Yay!

The bizarre middle part of the book is probably why it won a few sci-fi awards back in 1972 when it was published.  It’s a pretty involved description of the first parallel universe which starts the whole electron pump thing.  In this universe, the rational, emotional, and parental components of a single individual person are split into three separate entities.  Wouldn’t that make for a fun sitcom!

I read that Asimov got the idea from this book when another Sci-fi author mentioned “Plutonium-186” in a conversation.  Asimov, the trained physicist, thought, “That isotope can’t exist!” and then proceeded to imagine what physical laws would have to change for it to be able to exist.  Yeah, Asimov was a smart guy.