Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Boy, Take Down This Blog Post."

A couple weeks without a post.  On either blog.  Just not much going on that's blog-worthy, I guess.  Summertime and all.

Well, here's one--continuing in the vein of that distant last post.  I'm just finished with Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn.

I don't read much fiction.  I guess I'd rather be informed than entertained, though I was certainly profoundly moved by Virginia Woolf's writing, and I went through an Iris Murdoch fetish some years back; and I still pick up a novel every now and then as a palate-cleanser.  My fiction reading of the last few years has been the noir writings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.

When I was in high school I found the writings of Arthur C. Clarke to be eye-opening (Rendezvous with Rama was particularly thrilling to my teenage mind), though I came to find his tabloid style highly irritating--especially after reading Hemingway or Woolf, who were masters of the language.  Clarke's plotting often felt clumsy and contrived, and people interacted in patently stupid ways to facilitate some necessary plot twist.  But he had a brilliant imagination to envision what the future may hold in store for us, and that was his selling point, rather than a deft portrayal of relationships or virtuoso use of language.  This strategy was legitimized and strengthened by movies like Star Wars, which were brilliant in their presentation and sweeping vision even when they seemed like their dialog was written in a junior high school literature workshop. Special leeway was given because, well, it was fantasy.

Isaac Asimov's renown is as a science fiction writer, and he is considered, along with Clarke and Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert, perhaps, to be one of the rarified best of the genre. But Asimov seems more versatile than the label would suggest; he would have made a living as a writer in any of a number of genres.  He wrote in many styles of fiction, and was a prolific non-fiction writer as well.  In any case, he seems better able to construct a living story around the scientific principles to which he is trying to give light, though there is still the rather irritating tendency to end each little five-page chapter with a cliff-hanging ellipsis.

The Robots of Dawn (1983) is one of Asimov's so-called Robot Series novels--which include The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957) and Robots and Empire (1985).   This is the only one of this series I've read, but it seems that all these books follow the trials of plainclothes Earth police detective Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw.

I'll leave the plot summary to the Wikipedia page linked above.  For my part, I'm fascinated by the penetration and nuance he finds as he looks into the future, and by the difficulties he foresees with the ongoing and ever-increasing automation in our lives.  This particular book deals with the "death" of a "humani-form" (virtually-human) robot and the ethical concerns raised by the event.  At what point does the destruction of a machine cause us more than material / monetary concern?  When does it become a moral question?  And what is incumbent upon us in our interactions with these robots?  There's a mirror held up to certain things in our nature as we struggle with when to stop barking orders to a servant and begin behaving with consideration toward another sentient being.  When the beings have been created by us, and tailored to our needs and wants, there's not so much right and wrong in all of this as an exposure of our tendencies and inclinations; it's a little study in psychology.

Asimov was also prescient, I think, about the direction human society might move as our world becomes more automated.  In this book, people on Earth live their whole lives within the confines of massive, climate-controlled cities, almost never being exposed to the outside world--to sunshine and natural wind and rain and storms.  And inadvertent exposure to these natural phenomena constitutes certainly a crisis and possibly an emergency.  It's an angle I would not have thought of, but it's a rational extrapolation when we think, for example, that air conditioning--which didn't exist a mere hundred years ago--is considered a necessity now (I couldn't help noting that even in a situation of dire need it was considered a required item for the FEMA trailers provided after Hurricane Katrina).

I read the book (or "read" it) on CD, narrated by William Dufris.  And he did a really remarkable job giving subtle distinction to the whole host of characters, male and female.  One could scarcely do better in imagination.  There is no music or sound effects, but Dufris really makes the characters come vividly to life, which helps when the subject matter is fanciful and unfamiliar.

I bought another book in the series in paperback, but now I see that my library has the others in the Robot Series on CD.  So I think I'll sample those next.


Dzesika said...

...even when they seemed like their dialog was written in a junior high school literature workshop. Special leeway was given because, well, it was fantasy.

You said this out loud! Geeks are going to come after you - watch out! :)

dbackdad said...

Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein and Clarke were the meat and potatoes of my teenage years. I'm pretty sure I've read all the Robot series books but honestly can't remember.

wunelle said...

But those geeks will have to be pretty tech-ey to find me since I'm in hiding! ;-)

shrimplate said...

I wonder what the music of the future will sound like?

CyberKitten said...

dbackdad said: Asimov, Herbert, Heinlein and Clarke were the meat and potatoes of my teenage years.

Ditto. Asimov & the other Greats where the Foundation [grin] of my love of SF. I think I've pretty much read everything Asimov wrote - including his non-Fiction stuff.

I liked it but did actually find it all too 'clean' if you know what I mean. I like my fiction messy - just like the real world actually is - and I know that defeats the whole object of 'fantasy' [laughs]

wunelle said...

The music of the future is an intriguing thought. I'm always aware of from what a narrow little band of sonic possibility the music I love comes. I think that triad-based tonal music is not a random occurrence, and yet even the atonal music which I have trouble warming to is obviously planned and crafted. When so much of musical taste is learned, it becomes almost impossible to speculate.

Karlo said...

Virginia Woolf's writing has always been a favorite. Her book The Waves is probably one of my favorite all-time reads.