An Audio-Book Review: Deus Ex Machina and By Real Machines

Robots and Empire

By Isaac Asimov

Published by Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Read by Pam Ward


The Book:

Most lists of Isaac Asimov’s works call this one the fourth of the Robot Novels and if you think of the others as stories about robots, I suppose it is. To me, however, the first three, The Caves of Steel, Then Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn are a trilogy of SF-murder mysteries in which the main character is hard-boiled detective Elijah (Lije) Bailey. In them his faithful assistant/sidekick is R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, but it is Bailey who solves the cases. This time Lije Bailey only has cameo appearances in a few flashbacks and the real protagonists are R. Daneel and the semi-telepathic robot R. Giskard both of whom are now owned by Gladia, who we previously saw as the damsel in distress in both The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn. However, the book definitely does not stand alone comfortably and it really would be best to read the earlier stories.

A lot about this book bothers me although it’s basically a good story. I just think it might have been better had Dr. Asimov not been trying so hard to pull all the threads of his Human Galactic Empire/Foundation future history together. To me, at least, I think he worked so hard that one sees the climax coming no later than about one third into the story although it is uncertain how it will come to be until the final quarter or so of the book.

Of course, it would only be obvious to long-time fans of Asimov. If you have read his earlier novels of the first Galactic Empire (especially The Stars Like Dust, The Currents of Space and Pebble in the Sky) you will know that Earth exists in that future as a world with a mostly radioactive crust and that humans can only live in relative safety in a few isolated or else well-shielded places. By then, also, very few humans remember that Earth was the original home-world for all mankind and when confronted with it, most scientists and historians doubt it since how could humans evolve under such conditions and a world so radioactive that it literally glows in the dark outside the habitable areas.

How Earth became radio-active was always kept vague in the earlier books. Usually, if I recall correctly, it is assumed the radioactivity is the legacy of an atomic war, a vast nuclear accident or else Earth was just naturally that way. Since it is not radioactive in the time of Lije Bailey a reader would have either had to assume that either it happened later or else the robot novels were not related to the Empire/Foundation novels until Dr. Asimov started formally tying them all up in a nice and sometimes neat bundle. Even then I always had a strong feeling that there was a lot of retroactive continuity (or retcon) going on. Retcon is much like a cat that attempts to jump from one piece of furniture to another and, after missing, pauses to lick itself for a few seconds as if to say, “I meant to do that.” Sometimes the retcon makes the leap successfully and sometimes the trip is a bit rocky. Conditions on the trip this time vary… a lot.

I won’t go on, because to demonstrate that would be to drop more spoilers than I like, but while a heavy-handed retcon, it could be a lot worse and helps to explain why Earth’s radioactivity seems to get progressively worse in the books that happen later. MY main complaint, however is that Giskard is constantly using his telepathic powers to change the minds of humans in order to pave the way for his and Daneel’s plans, which follow Daneel’s personal extension of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (I’ll explain that below). And while, perhaps, it is realistic that he might have to do so in a wide variety of situations, there are far too many cases in which Daneel asks him, “Did you change his (or her) mind just then?” to which Giskard usually says, “Yes, just a bit.” Just once or twice it might have been nice had he responded, “Actually not that time. That human was already firmly ready to assist us and it only took your request,” but, no, somehow everything forces Giskard to act telepathically, so by the time you reach the end it seems that nothing would happen if not for those meddling kids… uh, I mean robots.

For those unacquainted with the vast number of robots stories Dr. Asimov wrote over the years, I think most will still have heard of his Laws of Robotics because they are often referred to (sometimes incorrectly) in popular TV and movies, some of which are not even science fiction, but just in case, here they are;

  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 the orders given 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 Laws.

These laws were good enough for nearly all his robot stories and some other authors as well, although even he modified or found exceptions to the laws for the sake of a story. There are conflicting stories as to whether Asimov came up with the laws or if it was John W. Campbell, but it was Randall Garrett’s explanation that they both came up with them together that might be the closest to the truth.

In this story, Daneel postulates an over-riding law which he calls the “Zeroth Law” (btw, that name for it grates on my nerves, but…) which is “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” There are problems with that but the discussion could fill books. Some of the problems do come up in this book, such as the definition of human, and humanity for that matter, such as when they encounter robots whose definition of human only includes humans who speak the right dialect. A lot of that went against previous assertions that the three laws were so hard-coded into the basic positronic brain, that it was virtually impossible to give them such major modifications. Still that was said by a roboticist in one book and this is being done by different roboticists in a later one.

I was far more annoyed that, at the end, Giskard, who must sacrifice himself to save humanity, first makes sure Daneel can read minds so that Daneel can go on to influence the future of mankind. Oy! I was even more annoyed by later appearances by Daneel that prove he went on to meddle (with the help of other secret robots – by then there are no working robots known to humans left) in the course of man’s future for thousands of years. To me this felt like, “Humans are too stupid to keep from killing themselves off if they don’t have keepers.” Looking at current-day politics that might be partially believable, but I like to have a more positive outlook than that.

The most annoying feature of the book, however, is the ending. It just stops. There is no denouement or epilogue. We don’t really know what happens to Gladia and Deegee (a descendant of Lije Bailey) other than they plan to stay together. Giskard dies… or stops functioning, and leaves Daneel to protect the Galaxy. It all happens very suddenly and I cannot help but think Asimov had at least one or two more stories in mind that he just did not write, because this one ended far too abruptly. The next story in this Chronology is The Stars Like Dust which takes place thousands of years later during the period before the formation of the Galactic Empire. Other authors have attempted to fill in stories about the end of the Empire and the start of the Foundation, which I’ll admit I have not read, but to me having a robot or a bunch of robots directing from in secret (as occurs in at least some of them) does not make for a satisfying story to me. This one, however, is better than most even for all the annoyances.


The Audiobook:

I had not listened to anything read by Pam Ward before and my first reaction was a bit flat, neither greatly favorable nor unfavorable, but as I listened she grew on me. Many readers go out of their way to delineate characters and sometimes go too far using funny and/or annoying voices. Others try too hard to put their own mark on the story somehow verbally reminding us at all times that it is they who are reading the story as though this performance is more important than the fact that a talented author wrote it first and, I think that without that author they would not have had a performance to give. It takes a really good reader to use funny voices effectively or to make a truly unique performance that does not distract from the story. I can only think of a small handful of readers who have accomplished that in all the audiobooks I have listened to.

Ms. Ward does none of that. She never attempts to overshadow the story itself with her reading but she does manage to subtly delineate the characters in a comfortable and natural manner that once I stopped listening to her as a reader and instead merely heard the story as she read it (the difference being that is I hear the reader it is a distraction from the story and a good reader never distracts from the story) I was able to just sit back and enjoy the journey and any annoyances were due to the story, not the reader, which, I think is all anyone should ask of a reader.

I did notice that the tracks I listened to were uneven in regard to sound quality. Some were harshly treble or else had the bass turned up. I doubt that was due to the reader or to the publisher. A lot of the books I listen to come from friends (I honestly cannot afford to buy all the books I have reviewed so I borrow frequently) and just where they get them from I cannot always say. This particular audiobook (I learned on looking it up) originally came on cassette tapes. My copy was digital so sometime in the past, someone transferred the tacks from tape to disk and probably were not overly careful about keeping audio quality consistent. It’s also possible this was a compilation of tracks from several copies. I am certain that Ms. Ward only recorded it once since she had far too many other recorded books in her resume to have gone back and redone this one.

So, all told, if you are a fan of Asimov and his robot stories, this one is one to check off the bucket list, but if you have not yet had the pleasure I recommend starting with The Caves of Steel, since too much in this book relies on situations that are set up in the previous three. And if you want to listen, I think you can do much worse than Pam Ward’s recording. In fact, I look forward to listening to her read again.

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