Robots and Empire

Over the past week, I re-read the four original Robot greats by Isaac Asimov – “Caves of Steel”, “The Naked Sun”, “Robots of Dawn” and “Robots and Empire”.

A few years ago, someone once casually made a comment to me that “Asimov’s books aren’t really science fiction”.

I agree, and I disagree.

When Asimov first began writing, he wrote about things that he imagined. Today, things he described then are not so far fetched anymore – in fact, many of them (such as computers, space travel, etc.) aren’t even considered as anything extraordinary anymore. So in a manner of speaking, Asimov’s science fiction has largely become science fact today.

So why would one want to read Asimov’s books?

Simple, because they aren’t science fiction. In fact, they rarely deal with science and technology at all, except as trappings for a more elaborate scenario. Asimov’s books have almost exclusively been about society, social phenomenon, human interaction, etc.

But the most profound take-away you get by reading his books is watching a master writer at work – the way he managed, over a span of many decades, start storylines, and eventually bring it all together at some unexpected point.

The original four Robot novels I read over the past week set the stage for much, if not all, of Asimov’s Universe. If you read these books, you will *never* ever get rid of the feeling of Deja Vu when you read any of his other books. The cross references, the cameos and the artful tying of intricate knots in his storylines are unbelievable.

For example (warning – spoiler ahead!) – when you read “Foundation and Earth” (his conclusion to the amazing Foundation series about galactic empires and social engineering), right at the very end, you meet an old friend, who has been with you thoughout all the dozens of novels Asimov wrote, without you ever realising it. And as that old friend steps out to greet you, you suddenly, with a cold shiver running down your spine, watch entire story arcs fall into place – the end of “Robots and Empire”, the entire “Foundation” arc, etc.

And you also realise that Asimov’s characters often come up with some telling truths about humanity, for which you see parallels today.

For example – the discussions between Giskard and Daneel throughout “Robots of Dawn” and “Robots and Empire”, in which they realise that humanity isn’t guided by individuals, but more by mass reactions to events, and that future directions can be predicted using not single samples of humanity (i.e. individuals) but humanity on the whole. Single events, and individuals, play a minor role in the overall scheme of things, and often tend to be flashes in the pan, quickly forgotten, as time progresses. It is the *aftermath* of these events that is recorded, not the event itself.

You can see examples of this happen every day around us – yesterday’s heros and “earth-shaking events” are forgotten in today’s context. A sobering thought for anyone who seeks immortality through actions and words.

I wish President Bush and Prime Minister Blair would understand this.

The “Made for TV” war they are pushing for (whether justified or not) will, in the short term, provide newspaper fodder and exciting TV coverage, as well as an excellent showcase for America’s latest weaponry.

But in the long run, it will produce not the “glory”, “freedom” and the “peace” Bush and Blair promise us, but untold misery and agony for humanity for decades, even centuries to come.

Just like Daneel and Giskard predicted in Asimov’s books.

[24 hours after I wrote this, President Bush of the USA announced that they would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons against Iraq - even in a first strike situation].