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The Robots of Dawn - Summer of Asimov I

Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.

The Robots of Dawn
These editions have the best covers

There was a twenty-six year gap between the publishing of the second and third of Asimov's robot series, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn. Asimov had intended for the series to be a trilogy (the later fourth book notwithstanding), but the third entry never came together for him until he'd reached the point in his career where he felt the need to connect some of his universes into one coherent narrative. As such, while The Robots of Dawn is a continuation of the first two novels, it also lays the groundwork for tying the stories of Elijah Baley with those of the Empire and the Foundation, containing to the best of my knowledge the first chronological references to "psychohistory" and "Galactic Empire," though both concepts are seen as futuristic dreams by the characters.

Those connections are at least a little contrived, moreso in the case of psychohistory, but they don't really detract from what is another well-constructed mystery story that holds up well against the previous entries in the series. This story has a very clearly defined endpoint that should be apparent to readers from the very beginning, and it involves the future of the human race, whether the galaxy is to be populated by Spacers or Earthmen, a throughline that threads through the entire Elijah Baley saga. Asimov invents another murder mystery at the center of events, but here, the stakes are higher than they've ever been, and it's impossible to understate how clever Asimov is in boiling down an enormous, generation-spanning conflict over the soul of humanity to a simple whodunit.

That said, the novel is not without flaws. The first half is entirely too wordy--at times, it's a slog to get through--that takes far too long to get to the point. Asimov also takes some questionable liberties with the Three Laws in order to keep the mystery from being too unweildy. Specifically, he handwaves an explanation that, on the world of Aurora, where the bulk of the story takes place, they've engineered robots such that the Third Law--robotic self-preservation--almost takes precedence over the Second Law--robotic obedience to humans. He must do this because the murder at issue is that of a robot.

The Robots of Dawn
I don't remember the scene with the sexy dancing robot, but it's kind of fitting

Even with this perverting of the Second and Third Laws, it's hard to believe that "roboticide" is such an unheard-of crime, that not even a rebellious and intelligent teenager hasn't once decided to make a robot destroy its own positronic brain, just for the fun of it. Robots are not thought of as equals to humans--Baley makes this point quite firmly multiple times--and it would seem a pretty straight-forward thing to get a robot to kill itself or kill another robot. There is no hard-wired law against a robot killing another robot, a fairly obvious point that is never raised in the story, even though--spoiler alert--that's exactly what has happened. It may sound to you as though I'm harping on a nitpicky point, but if there's one thing I've loved about Asimov's robot series up to this point (which I have already mentioned in previous reviews), it is his firmness in the unshakability of the Three Laws. This novel is the first time where it feels like his laws got in the way of the story he wanted to tell, and he should have adjusted his story around that obstacle rather than essentially reframing the Three Laws around his story.

Still, if you can look beyond this not insignificant fault, Asimov does deliver what fans of the series have come to expect, bringing back important characters from the first two novels, including, of course, the robot Daneel Olivaw. Daneel, in this novel, feels fully fleshed out, at times being almost indistinguishable from another fictional robot, Star Trek's Data, who is, in many ways, a direct rip-off of him (with Asimov's blessing). However, Daneel is not the only interesting robot, and he is at times overshadowed by an older, non-humaniform model, Giskard, who is paired with Daneel as Baley's bodyguard throughout the adventure.

It is disappointing, though, that Baley still feels like he is working alone. He and Daneel, despite refering to each other as partners, are never really partners in the investigation, and Daneel rarely contributes anything more than trivial information. I don't know if this is just a personal preference thing, but I wish Daneel played a bigger role than that, that the series had clung a little more to the idea of these two characters, the human and the robot, as being buddy-cop-style detectives. There's a lot of potential there that Asimov never chooses to exploit.

The Robots of Dawn
And this cover was made by somebody who didn't read the book

One change to Asimov's style worth mentioning is how much more "mature" the story is compared to its predecessors, in the sense that this book deals very heavily with sex. I'm certainly no prude--and I've enjoyed several sci-fi classics that deal in sexual matters--but Asimov and sex is a terrible combination. His characters drone on and on about sex in a clinical, reflective way that somehow makes the topic far more boring than it should be. Indeed, in The Robots of Dawn, Asimov brings back the character of Gladia from The Naked Sun as an almost one-woman commentary on the socio-political views of sex in different cultures and the sexual potential of robotics, and she seems single-mindedly obsessed in her own quest to achieve orgasm by any means necessary. Sex was mentioned in the previous books in passing, but here, Asimov spends pages upon pages on the matter, and he's really not very good at talking about the subject in a way that isn't inherently off-putting.

As mentioned, the book, despite higher stakes and a higher sense of urgency, has a much slower pace. There are constant digressions, bits of ancillary world-building that don't seem to serve much of a purpose, especially in the first half, where almost nothing happens for two hundred pages. As with The Naked Sun, many of the principal characters aren't even encountered until the story approaches its climax, and for a murder mystery, it's almost unforgivable not to have more than one or two suspects until two-thirds of the way in. The characters are memorable, too, despite their limited time on the page, characters like the robotocist's tortured daughter, Vasilia Aliena, the eccentric and perpetually horny stylist Santirix Gremionis, and the slippery politician you can't help but despise, Kelden Amadiro.

I daresay that, if this book were two hundred pages shorter and didn't try to weasel its way around the Second and Third Laws of Robotics, it might just be Asimov's best robot novel. When things really get going, a lot of my complaints fall away as I get caught up in the mystery and the excitement. For the first time in this series, when I experienced this book for the first time, I didn't solve the mystery before it was explained in the final chapters, even though Asimov, true to his style, offers more than enough clues for careful readers to figure it out well in advance. I'm genuinely torn, because I do adore the mystery and I think the characters are at their best, even Baley (despite his marital infidelity), but at the same time, there are things about The Robots of Dawn that don't just annoy me, they anger me. As a bridge between Asimov's other works and a conclusion to the arc of the series, it succeeds in its goals, but of course, time would prove that Asimov wasn't done with his robots just yet...

-e. magill 6/25/2020

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  • The Adventures of Lucky Starr
  • The Complete Robot
  • Bicentennial Man (film)
  • The Caves of Steel
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  • The Robots of Dawn
  • Robots and Empire
  • I, Robot (film)
  • Pebble in the Sky
  • The Stars, Like Dust
  • The Currents of Space
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