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Robots and Empire - 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.

Robots and Empire
"Hello there!"

Though he'd laid the groundwork for connecting his Robot, Empire, and Foundation series in The Robots of Dawn, Isaac Asimov still had a fairly daunting task ahead of him to bridge the gap between the seemingly complete Elijah Bailey trilogy and the later entries in his combined chronology. As such, the fourth and final core robot novel, Robots and Empire, isn't really structured like the other three and is hard to review as its own work. This is where it gets especially tricky with Asimov, as opposed to Clarke or Heinlein. Though Clarke and Heinlein would occasionally try to connect a few novels here and there, they are both pretty loose with continuity, whereas Asimov dreamed of keeping most of his novels--if not all of them--connected into a grand narrative.

I've taken the approach thus far of examining each book on its own merits, but at some point, one has to step back and examine the totality. Is Asimov's grand narrative just an exercize in fantasy world-building ("galaxy-building" would better apply here), or do all of its various themes, motifs, and ideas combine to create an overarching canon that has its own, separate meaning and value? The cynic in me wants to dismiss it as the former and to talk about the occasional continuity error across decades of his writing that prove his efforts to be folly, but at the same time, I do believe that Asimov's bigger picture is a remarkable achievement that might give each individual work even more merit than it already deserves.

Robots and Empire is actually the second book in Asimov's latter-year assembly of the grand narrative, after 1982's Foundation's Edge kicked things off. It takes place two hundred years after the events of The Robots of Dawn, following the Lady Gladia, the humaniform R. Daneel Olivaw, and the empathic R. Giskard Reventlov as they planet-hop along with D.G, a descendant of Elijah Baley. It's really two distinct, intertwined narratives: the first is about Gladia learning to embrace a newfound desire to unify the Spacers and the Settlers, and the second is about Daneel and Giskard slowly unraveling a conspiracy that threatens the Earth, with a side plot about Solaria that sets up huge revelations much later in the grand narrative.

Robots and Empire
This cover manages to be art deco and eighties at the same time

Let's get the first part out of the way first. Asimov paints a picture of Gladia as an impossibly old woman who still looks to be just shy of middle age, of someone who's grown impossibly bored with life, is trying to recover from the loss of her father figure (the recently deceased Han Fastolfe), and who finds her thoughts dwelling on her distant past on Solaria and with the long-dead Earthman, Elijah Baley. Charting her course from this rather somber place to where she winds up in the end--an excited woman with a new glint in her eye as she finds purpose in traveling the galaxy as an enthusiastic emissary for peace--is some of Asimov's best character work, and it's a shame that this half of the story climaxes relatively early in the book with her speech to an assembled throng on Baleyworld. Asimov does force a romance between Gladia and D.G. Baley that doesn't really work, but aside from that, Gladia is a compelling female protagonist who carries her portion of the story with ease.

The stuff on Solaria is relevant to the plot in that it gives Gladia a chance to show some heroics and it introduces us to the idea of a nuclear intensifier, which becomes incredibly important later. It sets up the mystery of the missing Solarians--a mystery that isn't resolved in this book (it's in Foundation and Earth, which I won't get to until next summer)--and it does offer some action and intrigue to get the story going, but on the whole, it does seem superfluous to the dual stories being told. The most important takeaway is the bombshell revelation about the Three Laws--that a robot can be programmed with different definitions for "human being" such that they can become killing machines with ease--that nobody appears as bothered by as they should. That revelation about redefining humanity is important in two ways: the first is thematic (the two factions--the Spacers and the Settlers--justify their animus towards one another by convincing themselves that their opposites are less than human), and the second is that it catalyzes Daneel's thoughts about what he eventually calls "The Zeroth Law."

The Zeroth Law is a new, fundamental law of robotics that supercedes even the almighty First Law. A logical progression of the philosophy of the Three Laws, it's where Asimov shows that he's still got more depths to plunder in his iconic robotic commandments. The name is admittedly a bit stupid, but the Zeroth Law posits that the good of humanity itself is more important than the good of any individual human being, that a robot can harm a human being if and only if the survival of humanity as a whole is threatened. Daneel and Giskard debate the value of this new law very well, arguing about its nebulousness and apparent subjectivity but nevertheless coming to appreciate its necessity.

Robots and Empire
This is how it would look if it were a poster in Tommorowland

This brings me to the second half of the story, Giskard and Daneel's almost buddy-cop-style investigation into Dr. Amadiro's blooming plan to destroy Earth and secure the Spacers' place as heirs to the coming Galactic Empire. Most of Giskard and Daneel's adventure takes place entirely through exposition as the two robots attempt to reason out what is happening and how they can possibly affect change while adhering to the Three Laws and maintaining their protection of Gladia, but don't let that give you the impression that these extended conversations are anything but the most interesting parts of the novel.

It's also great having Amadiro back as the main villain. He's just too endearingly awful to die between novels the way Baley and Fastolfe do. There are a few entirely unnecessary chapters leading up to the climax that are from his point of view, and even though they could be removed with little impact on the narrative, I wouldn't trade them in for anything. His burning passion, stoked by several decades of seemingly inexplicable failure, is utterly believable as it drives him to become more than just a megalomaniacal, power-hungry lunatic, but also a man who has justified to himself the slaughter of millions. He doesn't even think of Earthlings as being "true" humans, instead thinking of them as sub-human vermin to be eradicated. This is another riff, and the most extreme one, of the aforementioned theme: we justify our mistreatment of others by defining them as less than what they are.

It would be easy to dismiss Robots and Empire as a long-winded way of explaining why, in the Empire series, robots are practically extinct and the Earth is a radioactive wasteland, but there's a lot more to it than that. This is a deeply philosophical work disguised as an episodic sci-fi adventure, which is also a perfect way to describe Asimov's grand narrative. I'm sure I'll talk more about that next summer, though, when it all really comes together. In the meantime, let me just say that Robots and Empire is a novel that is hard to compare to the rest of the Robot series (it's not a murder mystery, and it's not as tightly focused as any of its predecessors, including the short stories) but which nevertheless pushes its ideas into new, more mature ground.

-e. magill 7/9/2020

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

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