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The Robots of Dawn – Book Review

The Robots of Dawn - Isaac Asimov

The Robots of Dawn is one of three Robot Detective novels by Isaac Asimov.  The books follow the adventures of Plainclothesman Elijah Bailey from Earth as he tries to solve some fairly difficult and politically charged crimes on Earth and on two other planets.  They are the Robot Detective Novels because the crimes always have something to do with robots, and Elijah always has the help of robots.  His most common robot partner is a humaniform robot (a robot made to look indistinguishable from human beings) named R. Daneel Olivaw – The R is for Robot, obviously!  Chronologically, this is the third book, following The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.

In the near future depicted in these robot crime novels, humanity on Earth has collapsed into several massive cities, all completely enclosed.  There is nothing wrong with the world outside the cities, but the population has just grown inward.  They are claustrophobic, noisy … and comfortable.  The people who live in the cities (or the “caves of steel”) are accustomed to it and comforted by the proximity to other people.  Boundaries mean comfort.

Humanity has also expanded to the stars, colonizing several other planets in other star systems, thanks to the advent of faster-than-light travel.  The colonized worlds don’t have nearly the population of Earth, it’s a completely different order of magnitude as far as density.  On some Spacer (as Earth people refer to the colonists) worlds, there are more robots than there are humans.

Earth people and spacers are culturally very different.  Most Earth people can’t stand the thought of being in open spaces – most never even leave their own cities to see the open sky.  A space that open is so uncomfortable and unprotected, that it overwhelms them to the point of fainting with fear – a crippling agoraphobia.  It’s not that they are suspicious and fearful in general, it’s just that the entire population of the Earth has been conditioned to living in well-protected and enclosed cities with very controlled  and predictable environments and dangers, leaving the populations with little to worry about.  If an Earthling should find the need to travel from one city to another, it will be done in as windowless and as gentle a vehicle as possible, so as to never be exposed to an unprotected space.

Spacers are very different, with their worlds having much smaller populations.  For example, on Solaria – one planet that Elijah Bailey visits to solve a crime in “The Naked Sun” – the population is intentionally limited to twenty thousand.  They are not afraid of open spaces and love to inhabit them, but they are not without their own problems.  With a population so small, the people are spread out evenly over the planet individually.  Solarians rarely come into contact with one another, and it is even considered repulsive, unsafe or even frightening to do so.  Procreation is both licensed and is actually a duty… it’s not something any decent Solarian would want to engage in voluntarily.  Most Solarians don’t know who their children are, and will only find out for the purpose of genetic diversity when the need to procreate arises.  The need doesn’t arise very often, however, as Solarians live several hundred years because of age-suppressing therapies and perfect health (believed to be maintained by non-contact).  Robots outnumber humans 10,000 to 1, and a Solarian rarely has to lift a finger to do anything.

The cultural differences are predictably significant, and the topic of robots is another interesting one.  On Earth, robots are the target of indifference, mistrust, and even hate and violence.  The paranoia and intolerance exists, even thhough the robots are bound by Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The laws are fairly simple:  people first, robots second.  Like any law, however, they are open to interpretation by both robots and people.  Expert roboticists in the future are actually expert psychologists, as it turns out; it’s not all about mechanics.  Understanding the nature of the laws and how a robot with a positronic brain might interpret them is the order of the day.

“Robots of Dawn” takes place on the planet of Aurora, a spacer world not quite as extreme as Solaria.  A planet of natural beauty, Aurora has been engineered to have everything on it fit with the natural environment.  Cities are hard to identify as such, because of how well they fit in with the environment.  The population is so low as compared to Earth cities, as well, that the comparison between Earth and Auroran cities might even be senseless.

The population of Aurora is extremely open and free, and while procreation is still done out of necessity, human contact is extremely important (unlike Solaria).  Even between spacer worlds, cultural diversity exists in plenty.

Aurora is also the seat of some of the most talented roboticists in the galaxy.  It is where humaniform robots were developed, and it is also likely where the last humaniform robot will be built.  Only one man has the theory and expertise to create the humaniform robot, and he is at the center of a criminal and political investigation into the destruction of one of only two of his humaniform robots.  Dr. Han Fastolfe denies destroying his robot, but readily admits the he is the only person with the expertise to lock up his humaniform robot, rendering him unresponsive.  He also refuses to build any more humaniform robots, which is seen to be the bigger crime.  The political agendas end up speaking louder than the damage to the robot.

The political intrigue surrounds the competing views of two spacer factions on a particularly troubling problem:  the human race is stagnating.  The solution is seen to be having the human race push out further and colonize the galaxy.  People on Earth are looking more and more inward and are very quickly reaching a point where they will be unable to look out anymore, but they are also extremely populous.  One faction of spacers thinks this is a good thing, because they are afraid of earth people.  Short-lived, temperamental, and with much higher numbers, Earth is seen as a threat.  If Earth is completely willing to contain itself, that is seen as a good thing.  Spacers will be the ones to colonize the galaxy, and they will do it by sending out humaniform robots to make new worlds perfectly hospitable to new colonies of spacers.  The other spacer faction – to which Fastolfe belongs – believes that Earth is just the partner spacers need in colonizing the galaxy because of their numbers.

Fastolfe has an even more complicated analysis.  If the spacers ignore Earth and press out by sending robots out into the galaxy, they will doom themselves.  They will move from one perfect world to another, stagnated in development and growth by their own limited ability to solve their own problems:  robots will have done it all.  Additionally, they will doom the Earth.  The population density of the Earth can only grow so high, and the people of the Earth can only grow so paranoid about the galaxy outside until a point is reached where the Earth essentially consumes itself.

The way he sees it (and Elijah agrees), should his faction lose power and the Earth is abandoned, the human race is doomed.  The only way to prevent this from happening is to find out what really happened to Fastolfe’s other robot.  That’s where Elijah comes in.  In a world with no real crime, you need to bring in the contract detective to solve the case.  This time, however, it’s not just a person’s reputation and life on the line, it’s the survival of the human race.

So, Elijah invents a new term – “roboticide” – to describe the crime, and sets to work proving that the only person capable of disabling a humaniform robot didn’t actually do it, saving his reputation, his political standing on Aurora, and ultimately the fate of the human race.

I really enjoyed this book.  It was part detective novel, part romance, part psychological discussion, and part adventure.  A real pleasure to read.  It was particularly satisfying to see Elijah evolve over the three books from “just another Earthling” in “The Caves of Steel,” with all the Earthling stereotypes and fears, to someone who can walk under the open sky and work with and even respect robots.  I found these books all very optimistic, looking forward rather than trying to fix something that has gone wrong.  Asimov’s writing is straightforward and caring, and his characters are well thought out and complex.  While this was a report on “The Robots of Dawn,” it really ended up being more of a report on the three robot detective novels.  I’d definitely recommend reading them all!

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2 responses to “The Robots of Dawn – Book Review

  1. The Golden Crapwriter July 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I’ve read “Robots and Empire” and found it pretty amazing. This bbok here is on my wishlist, and I shall get it soon. Nice review, btw.

  2. Pingback: Leviathan Wakes – Book Review | azzurriffopubijix

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