I and some fellow writers (and reviewers, some may pick nits, but isn’t reviewing also creative writing? Yes, it is.) are getting together at The Scary Reviews comment section on Wednesday the 16th at 7 pm to discuss I, Robot. The idea is we’re to review the book on our own sites to kick things off. If you’d like to read a proper review, Lilyn G. over at SciFi and Scary wrote one.
I, however, rarely review anything in the traditional sense. In fact, I have avoided reviewing anything by a living author for years after seeing some of the one-star brigading of indie and self-published authors over personal conflicts and butthurt over receiving critical reviews (I’m going to avoid linking to any accounts of these incidents, as I don’t want to wake up any ill-tempered sleeping dogs).
I’m still thinking the above over — should I say “screw it” and jump in anyhow? Am I being a wimp? Lilyn isn’t afraid to throw a one-star review along with a reasoned explanation of why it wasn’t more. Feel free to chime in with a comment on my possible cowardice. But, onward:
When I do review these days, it’s a dead author.
Well, Asimov is dead, you say. So what’s the problem?
There’s no problem. I enjoyed reading I, Robot in high school 25+ years ago oh crap I’m getting old who could have predicted this indignity and I enjoyed reading it short story by short story over the course of the end of last month and the beginning of this. Good stuff, if you’ve ever only seen the movie you should read the stories because the movie, as usual, missed and skewed A TON. In fact, more than usual. The stories were really just inspiration for the movie, not much more.
But reviews, as I suggested just a bit earlier, aren’t really my thing.
So I’m going to talk about old-school science fiction, what it isn’t, and what it is, using I, Robot as context.
Asimov wrote this collection in the spirit of Gernsback, a bedrock figure in the US science fiction scene. A scene that some of the right-wing Sad Rabid Puppies movement in current US science fiction hold up as a halcyon age where the genre was all about fun adventure reading that maintained neutrality in contemporary political and social movements.
But as I wrote in an earlier post about Gernsback and his work, that’s bullshit. Gernsback wrote about technocracy and world government — which, if you think about it, continue to be political and social movements across both political wings and anywhere between or beyond the wings today.
Gernsback was a pretty clumsy writer. He wrote the kind of stories that are rejected from slush piles today, because they were all about worldbuilding — describing potential technological advances and their potential ramifications — and had very little actual story in the story.
Asimov writes in much the same way, except he does it much better. He gives you a bit more humanity, and his writing, while equally lean and unflourished, is just plain better at drawing you into what is going on. He’s not very descriptive, but the little he describes sticks in your mind. His characters are sort of cardboard, but the drawing on the cardboard, at least, is interesting. The human story isn’t deep, but the technological story he tells is deep and engaging. The technology-driven story doesn’t hook on to the characters’ humanity — it hooks on to the reader’s humanity by speaking to elemental philosophical and social questions.
Asimov, in I, Robot and elsewhere, writes the epitome of old-school science fiction: technological, revolving around puzzles to solve and difficulties to overcome, basically hopeful of humanity, and inescapably linked to the social and political questions of the day.
A few examples from the collection:
Robbie speaks to the 1940s fear that advertising and television — technology — will warp and subvert the minds of our children as they are raised immersed in it. But Robbie the robot shows the reader that such needn’t be the case. Robbie risks his robotic life to save his young charge’s life and inspires the little girl to value love and loyalty — humanistic values encouraged by using technology in constructive and mindful fashion.
Reason grasps the irrationality and logic-rejection of religion and the easy handle it presents for manipulating the faithful through the presentation of a robot prophet who organizes a robots-only cult (the profession of robot faith, uncomfortably, mirrors the Islamic profession of faith, giving the Christian reader an out to avoid applying the story personally — but the principles apply equally to any zealous subset within any religion who reject sound science and observation on the theory it must automatically be incompatible with faith). The story’s resolution leaves faith unconquered — but unquestionably wrong, wrong, WRONG.
The Evitable Conflict is utterly, totally politically charged. Place it in its proper context, the United States at the close of the 1940s, and the global political situation. The story revolves around the tendency for technology to rule humanity, in the familiar trope of artificial intelligence attempting to control human events — or dare I say, take over the world? But the story itself is critical of nationalism and Western powers dominating and controlling world affairs, suggesting what is practically political heresy now and was definitely heresy then, that the wheel of history may yet turn and political dominance may pass into hands that are not Western at all. The story suggests that the reader consider that deliberately managed peaceful globalism may be the solution to humanity’s most destructive problem, war, and that humans have never been so in control of affiars as politicians like to imagine, but instead at the mercy of economic and sociological forces.
How’s that for “good old fashioned apolitical science fiction”?