Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review - Robot Dreams by Isaac Asimov

Stories included:
 Little Lost Robot
Robot Dreams
"Breeds There a Man . . . ?"
The Machine That Won the War
Eyes Do More Than See
The Martian Way
The Last Question
Does a Bee Care?
Light Verse
The Feeling of Power
Spell My Name With an S
The Ugly Little Boy
The Billiard Ball
True Love
The Last Answer
Lest We Remember

Full review: The entire impetus for this collection was a piece of artwork by Ralph McQuarrie - which eventually became the cover painting for the book. Containing one new short story (Robot Dreams) and a bunch of reprints of Asimov's short fiction, the book is a very good compilation of his work. Oddly, despite the title, only a handful of the stories in the volume are related to robots, although that doesn't detract from the quality of the finished product.

The first story in the book is Little Lost Robot, a story recycled from I, Robot (read review) that focuses on the effect of modifying the First Law of Robotics. As with all of the other stories that explore the implications of the Three Laws of Robotics, it is an interesting story, both as an engineering puzzle, and as a means of exploring the implications of technology. The new story in the book concerns a robot that is dreaming somewhat disturbing dreams. It features a return of Susan Calvin, a figure who shows up in many of Asimov's robot stories, and, as typical of the robot stories, deals with the effects of the Three Laws of Robotics. While it isn't one of the best robot stories, it is still one of the better ones. The second story in the volume is another robot story, and the only new piece of fiction written for this collection: the Locus Award-winning Robot Dreams. Once again, Susan Calvin is called in to clean up somebody else's robot mess, in this case a young robot designer build a robot brain using fractal geometry resulting in a more human-like robot mind. The side effect of this human-like mind is that the robot says he is dreaming, and when he describes the dreams it seems that robots may have a more complex inner psychology than even Susan Calvin may have suspected. This is another story in which Asimov explores exactly how dangerous it would be for humanity to have a manufactured race of slaves constrained only by a brief set of programmed rules, although Susan Calvin's solution to the problem at the end of the story is somewhat anticlimactic.

Light Verse is robot story, but doesn't sit inside the Susan Calvin set of stories. Instead, this piece seems to lean more towards the Bicentennial Man investigations of what differentiates a robot from a human, and how a robot could bridge that gap. In this story Alvis Lardner, a wealthy widow of a man who died in space, is famous for her light sculptures and is also a murderess. The victim in this case is a robotics engineer from U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men who unwittingly destroys the source of Lardner's light sculptures when he adjusts what he believes is a malfunctioning robot. The question posed by the story is an interesting one: how much of aesthetic value might be destroyed in a quest for "normality"?

Another story that is more or less about robots is Sally, but the focus this time is on cars equipped with positronic brains so they don't need human drivers. The story itself is fairly straightforward, the protagonist runs a farm for retired cars, and an unscrupulous visitor suggests recycling the brains of the resident cars into new vehicles in order to turn a profit. After he is turned down, our unsavory businessman tries to take the car brains by force, but he didn't count on the cars themselves objecting to this. The story raises questions about the rights of machinery that may be sentient and the danger posed by technologies that may be smarter than we are. It is clear that the protagonist regards the cars as individuals, but that his antagonistic would-be business partner does not, and that lack of regard is what undoes the villain in the story. Noticeably lacking in the story is the concept of the First Law of Robotics that a robot may never harm a human being or by inaction allow a human to come to harm. One wonders why Asimov left it entirely out of the story when it is so omnipresent in his other robot stories. Perhaps Asimov himself was guilty of what he has his villain doing: not regarding the vehicle-robots as individuals in the same way he regards humaniform-robots in other stories. In a minor side note, at one point the protagonist in the story mentions that he keeps the cars constantly full of gas with their engines turning over. This was a throwaway line in the 1950s when the story was written and gas was plentiful and cheap. But now it seems almost ludicrous to think that someone would keep fifty-one cars constantly running.

The Machine That Won the War is another quasi-robot story involving an interstellar was between Earth and Deneb in which the massive Multivac computer is credited with providing the edge that allowed Earth to win. As the story unfolds, each of the key individuals who dealt with the computer admit that they falsified their data, manipulated the results, or simply ignored Multivac's proscriptions. The story is quirky and humorous, especially the final scene in which the true "computer" that won the war is revealed. But the story does touch upon the important point that a machine is only as good as the people that use it. Also falling into the quasi-robot category is Franchise, a story about an election set in the far off future of 2008. Asimov imagines that the job of deciding how elections turn out has been handed over to Multivac, which is now not only used to predict the outcome of elections, but also to predict how people would have voted if they actually were allowed to vote. The process has been refined down to the point where Multivac only needs to consult a single voter that the machine designates as being the most "representative" voter. Franchise features one such voter, a confused and reluctant man named Muller, as he participates in the process. The story is funny, in a strange sort of way, but at the end, one realizes an odd thing: even though the story is called "franchise", and Muller has supposedly been selected as the "representative voter", her never actually casts a vote. Instead, Multivac simply decides the outcome of the election based upon an extended question and answer session with Muller. A somewhat unnerving strain of thought that runs through a fair amount of Asimov's work is that people would be better off if we were ruled by a technocracy of smart people, or better yet, smart computers or robots. And Franchise definitely reflects this thinking.

Possibly the most expansive of all the "Multivac" stories is The Last Question, a story that is told in successive jumps through time as increasingly advanced computers are all asked the same apparently insoluble question: Is it possible to stop the heat death of the Universe? The story is moderately interesting, but it doesn't really go anywhere for most of its length, after all, when your plot is essentially a single question, answering that question ends the story. So most of The Last Question is merely filler designed to delay the final resolution of the story without adding much of interest along the way. Jokester is another Multivac story, this time mixing Asimov's "Multivac" setting with his fondness for jokes. Meyerhof is a "grand master" who is feeding information into Multivac about jokes. The concept of a "grand master" is modestly interesting, apparently Asimov surmised that a machine as massive as Multivac would be impossible to deal with logically, so those few people who master working with the massive computer on an intuitive basis are called "grand masters", and pretty much have free reign when dealing with the computer. This is a kind of odd way of looking at computers which, by their very nature are nothing but logic based, but given that the story was published in 1956 when computers were in their infancy, it seems moderately excusable. Meyerhof is searching for the source of jokes and humor, and the answer he gets makes this one of the few Asimov stories to deal with extraterrestrials, as multivac concludes that the only possible source for jokes is nonhuman intelligence. The end of the story is bleakly humorous, and somewhat scary.

The final "Multivac" story in the volume is True Love, and it is both creepy on purpose and creepy unintentionally. The story is about a computer programmer named Milton working with a program in Multivac that he calls "Joe". Milton is using Joe illegally to try to find himself true love, by finding the perfect woman for him to marry. After some false starts, Milton begins uploading his personality profile into Joe so Joe will be able to match him psychologically with a woman and make sure that the "true love" he picks out will also love him in return. Milton and Joe become so closely identified with one another that Joe falls in love with the chosen woman, arranges to have Milton arrested and taken away, and plans to woo the woman himself. The intentionally creepy part of the story is the "computers replace us" theme that has Joe turning on and supplanting Milton. We are supposed to feel uneasy at the idea that a computer could become obsessed with a woman. But when stops and thinks about the story, one realizes that the computer is only reflecting Milton's obsession with "true love". And Milton is incredibly creepy. He has Joe select women almost entirely based upon their physical characteristics. He winnows the field down to two-hundred and thirty or so women, and then has Joe select from those based entirely upon which ones look most like beauty pageant winners. Milton has Joe then bring each woman to him so that he can clumsily ask them out on dates. So even at the outset he has reduced the woman he is allegedly looking for to a collection of body parts: height, weight, age, eye color, hair color, and so on. Then when this plan doesn't work, he hits on the idea (but only because Joe thinks of it) that maybe he would have better luck finding "true love" if he found a woman who might find him attractive, which is the point at which he starts loading in his psychological data, so that Joe can match it up with the two-hundred and thirtyish women who meet Milton's physical specifications. And to help him in his quest, he has Joe arrange to get all of the women psychologically tested so as to be able to compare their psychological profiles with Milton's. None of the women know why they are being psychologically tested, their consent to the courtship doesn't seem to matter much to Milton, Joe, or Asimov. This is, essentially, cyberstalking, and it is deeply creepy. And it is all the creepier because Asimov doesn't seem to realize it.

In a similar vein, although lacking the Multivac angle, is the the psychological thriller "Breeds There a Man . . . ?" in which a bizarrely gifted scientist inexplicably starts wanting to kill himself. It turns out that the scientist in question doesn't so much do any science but rather just seems to magically come up with solutions when presented with problems, and he he has used this magical science ability to determine that humans are actually an experiment being performed by some long-lived and unseen intelligence, with cultural and technological advancement taking place in spurts followed by cleansing destruction. Since humanity has invented the atomic weapon, he foresees that humans will be wiped from the Earth by this process and is therefore under a compulsion to kill himself because the unseen intelligence wipes out all the smart people who could solve all the problems and avert the cleansing destruction. The story ends on both an up note and a down note, but it isn't a very convincing ending either way, mostly because the protagonists magical science ability just pops out of thin air, and his conclusions seem just as unsupported by anything of substance. The third of the "alien interference" stories in the volume is titled Does a Bee Care? although this time the alien interferes with human development not as part of some sort of experiment, but rather in order to facilitate its own departure from the Earth. The central character uses humanity almost unconsciously, and is ultimately indifferent to our concerns, much as a bee uses a flower. And like a bee cares not at all for the concerns of the flower he uses, the central figure in this story simply doesn't care about humanity, giving the story its title. The question raised when one considers this story in relation to the other "alien interference" stories in this volume is whether it is better for an alien power manipulating you to be interested in the consequence to you or simply be indifferent to whatever might happen to you.

Getting somewhat away from the Multivac stories, but still somewhat related to them is The Feeling of Power, which imagines a future in which computers have become so ubiquitous in human society that no one remembers how to do mathematics for themselves. An undistinguished technician named Myron Aub rediscovers how to do computations by hand, a discovery that is quickly taken up by those in power, named "graphitics", and turned to the war effort against Deneb, with the enticing ability to create computer-free star ships and missiles manned with human operators looming in the future. Myron, distraught at his discovery being turned to violence and war, kills himself, but at his funeral, a general reflects upon the feeling of power that it gives him to be able to multiply seven times nine. Hostess is a quirky little story that at first seems like a tale about a hysterical policeman who is concerned about a imaginary alien threat to Earth from an extraterrestrial centaur. The policeman's biologist wife narrates the story and she tries to figure out what is going on when he displays a strange hostility towards a social visit from a denizen of another planet. Her investigations lead to a showdown between the three and a and somewhat unexpected strange resolution. The story is a display of Asimov's mystery writing skills, although he does kind of hide the ball until the very end. The only flaw in the story is the somewhat sexist nature of the society that Asimov imagines will flourish in Earth's future, but that's common to a lot of Golden Age science fiction, so it is more or less excusable.

I have read Strikebreaker several times, and every time I find myself angry at the end of the story, even though by now I know exactly how it will end. The story takes place on a small colony that is housed on a hollowed out asteroid. An anthropologist named Lamorak is studying the caste system that has arisen on the colony and learns that the one individual who is ostracized is the sewage treatment specialist named Ragusnik. The asteroid inhabitants have a strict taboo against dealing with Ragusnik, and no one talks to him. Female babies are selected from mothers who have died in childbirth and given to the Ragusnik family to raise and then marry. The Ragusnik children are isolated from the rest of the colony and required to take over their fathers' jobs. This has led the current Ragusnik to go on strike, which Lamorak finds completely justifiable. But Lamorak decides to side against Ragusnik and agrees to work as a strikebreaker, a job that no member of the colony would touch for fear of becoming socially tainted in the same way. Defeated, Ragusnik ends his strike, at which point Lamorak finds out that he is now required to leave the colony and never return. The manifest injustice of the colony's arrangement is bad enough, but when Lamorak helps to perpetuate it on a fairly flimsy rationalization the reader will seethe. But an interesting note, never mentioned in the story, is that Ragusnik is only trapped because he allows himself to be: he presumably could simply leave the colony, just as Lamorak does. Neither he nor his son have any connection with anyone on the colony, and he seems to have skills that would be useful in place where he wouldn't be a social pariah for plying his trade. But that thought never crosses his mind, nor does it cross Lamorak's mind to suggest it to Ragusnik. In a way, they are both as confined by the expectations of the caste system in the story as anyone else.

The Nebula-nominated Eyes Do More Than See tells about a pair of immortal energy beings who painfully rediscover their humanity. Amidst their eternal boredom, one, who begins to call itself Ames, considers the idea of working with matter as an interesting diversion. Ames' companion Brock considers this a waste of time and tries to dissuade her. Ames creates a head, and as the story progresses, adds features to it, each time uncovering the memory of what the two were like when they had flesh. Though the story is quite brief, it contemplates whether the cost of immortality may be too high if it were to require us to give up our ability to touch, to hear, to see, to love, and to feel enough to shed tears. Another story that deals with energy beings is Spell My Name With an S, although it doesn't appear to at first. In the story an undistinguished physicist named Marshall Zebintsky consults a numerologist at the behest of his wife in an effort to change his own personal fortunes. After consultation, the numerologist advises Zebintsky to change the first letter of his name to "S", which raises the suspicions of the security apparatus in his Cold War era workplace. Investigations lead to the discovery that the Eastern bloc physicists are working on a project that might change the nuclear balance of power, and the U.S. decides to focus its efforts into this new area of physics. But Zebintsky, now Sebintsky, is now considered to be a potential but unproven security threat, so the powers that be arrange for him to be offered a position at Princeton to quietly get him out of the way. It is only after Sebintsky's personal fortunes have been brightened in this way that the reader is let in on the twist of the book: the numerologist was actually an alien energy being who whose actions were directed towards winning a wager against one of his own kind, with the stakes being whether or not humankind annihilated itself. As with all of the other "alien interference" stories, the question that comes to mind is whether alien experimentation of indifference to humanity is worse. In this case, the aliens are indifferent to our concerns in any respect other than whether our actions can help them win a wager, which is a fairly chilling prospect when one realizes the stakes they are playing are essentially meaningless for them, but threaten our very existence.

I've read The Martian Way several times because it appears in numerous short story collections, and every time it feels as inspiring as the first time I read it. The story itself is fairly simple: Hilder, a thinly disguised analogue for Adolf Hitler, has taken to blaming space flight in general, and the human inhabitants of Mars specifically, for "wasting" Earth's water resources. Water, it seems, is used as propulsion fuel by the interplanetary space craft, and Hilder has built an entire political movement based upon decrying this "waste". In response, a philosophically minded Martian named Ted Long secretly organizes a trip to Saturn to obtain a supply of water for Mars from the chunks that are free-floating in the planet's rings. As an aside, the era in which the story was written is clearly displayed by the all male crew of the expedition. Apparently women on Mars are only suitable for housekeeping, and are regarded as something of an annoyance by the grizzled space hands who populate the story. Further, given advances in our knowledge of the Solar System over the last thirty or so years the necessity of traveling all the way to Saturn would be obviated - after all we now know that Jupiter has its own rings that are presumably as filled with ice chunks as Saturn's are. But the key insight of the story is unchanged: the idea that it will be Martians, used to living in an artificial environment their whole lives, who will lead humanity's push to becoming a truly space-faring race. This story also touches on the fact that most of the resources of our Solar System are not on Earth, and to think only in terms of what is available on this minute orb is to engage in a severe myopia that disguises the truth: mankind will never be truly wealthy until we are able to tap into the vast wealth of resources that are out there. And with a story that features technology that we could mostly build today if we desired to, The Martian Way shows how this could be possible.

The Ugly Little Boy is a time travel story in which there is very little time travel. Instead, the story raises questions about who is human, what duty do we owe to our fellow humans, and the ugliness of prejudice. Ms. Fellowes is a nurse who is recruited by Mr. Hoskins to work on a project that he will only say "involves children". Ms. Fellowes quickly learns that the project is "Stasis" a time travel technology that allows people to reach into the distant past and bring objects forward into the present - and this time they have brought forward a neanderthal child. The catch, as Hoskins explains to Fellowes, is that objects brought forward gain potential energy from their displacement, and cannot be removed from the relatively limited stasis field that is brought with them. As a result, the child, which Fellowes soon names Timmie, can never leave the tiny set of rooms they have prepared for him. Through the story, Timmie is referred to as "ape-boy' in the media, even though Hoskins asserts (and Fellowes comes to believe) that Timmie is simply human, albeit a variant subspecies. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that Hoskins doesn't really see Timmie as human, but rather merely a means to his goals. In the end, to save Timmie's life, Fellowes must make a drastic decision involving no small personal sacrifice. Although there are multiple references to Timmie's unattractive physical appearance in the story, one is left wondering if the title might instead refer to Hoskins' mean-spirited son Jerry, or possibly to the callously cruel Hoskins himself.

The Billard Ball is another non-robot story, this time featuring two brilliant minds at odds with one another. Priss is a highly decorated theoretical physicist, while Bloom is a mostly self-educated practical engineer who is famous for taking Priss' theoretical insights and making them into useful inventions. The two were apparently friends when they were students together before Bloom dropped out of school, and they are ostensibly friends, but actually seem to loathe one another with a seething and barely concealed hatred. The story is a mystery story of sorts, told from the perspective of a reporter following Bloom's attempt to transform Priss' latest theoretical insight into a practical anti-gravity device. In an interview with the narrator, Priss dismisses the idea as being impossible, and in a separate interview Bloom bristles at Priss' assertions. Everything wends towards a showdown involving a billiard table that results in Bloom's death. The story isn't quite a murder mystery, since there is no evidence that Priss did anything purposeful, and is more like an engineering puzzle as the circumstances that led to the fatal turn of events, but since Priss just sits down and explains what happened in the final interview of the story, it isn't much of a puzzle, as the characters don't really spend much time figuring the answer out. The story is interesting, but it isn't particularly memorable.

In The Last Answer Asimov steps into the realm of eternity and does something that few religions that promise eternity seem to ever actually do: actually contemplate what forever really means. A physicist named Murray dies and as he is an atheist is surprised to find himself entering into something of an afterlife. He discovers that he is to contemplate questions and come up with answers for an entity that only identifies itself as existing and eternal. But when Murray asks him what his purpose is, the entity says he has none, and that there will never be an end to this process. Murray thrashes about trying to foil the entity, but in the end unwittingly gives it exactly what it wants: a decision to try to come up with a way to end the entity's existence. The story confronts what the infinite really means, in a way that makes it clear that eternity would, in itself, be a nightmarish existence that would destroy any possibility of purpose and any possibility of meaning. It is because we are finite that we can choose purpose and it is because we are mortal that our lives can have meaning.

Lest We Remember is one of the earliest Asimov stories that I read, as part of an anthology of short stories assigned in Ms. Hubin's middle-school English class that also included stories by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Ray Bradbury. At the time, I'm not even sure if I recognized Asimov as the author, although I'm certain that by then I had already read the original Foundation trilogy. As a side note, living in Zaire, there were few opportunities for me to read science fiction, and Ms. Hubin had a nice collection that she made available to all of the students at TASOK to read. For being willing to nurture the minds of young science fiction fans in the heart of Africa, I thank you Ms. Hubin. The story itself is more or less a cautionary tale: a man participates in an experiment designed to improve memory, and winds up with perfect recall. This proves to be a tremendous advantage, but it proves to also be a somewhat dangerous blessing, as his new skill transforms him into a tremendous pain in the ass to all around him. He becomes an insufferable megalomaniac and offends everyone around him until he is reined in by his fiancee and presumably lives happily ever after. The story brings up something that has always bothered me about science fiction: whenever someone becomes much smarter than they were before by some science fiction method, they always either become much nicer or much nastier than they were before. Just once, I'd like to see a science fiction story where a character becomes a lot smarter via some super-science device and his personality stays more or less the same. That aside, it is a fun little story that demonstrates that having perfect recall is not the same as having good judgment, or even the ability to act intelligently.

The remaining stories are drawn from some of the most famous works by Asimov: Does a Bee Care?, The Ugly Little Boy, Spell My Name With an S, and other stories pull from Asimov's consistently well-written body of short fiction. Unlike his later attempts to link up all his novels in a somewhat unsatisfying manner, Asimov's short fiction never seemed to suffer, and remained strong throughout his career. This collection of short fiction is no exception.

1986 Locus Winner for Best Short Story: With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole by Harlan Ellison
1988 Locus Winner for Best Short Story: Angel by Pat Cadigan

Locus Best Short Story Reviews

1987 Hugo Award Nominees
1987 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. Hey, Aaron!

    I read this collection once long ago. I used to own a copy. I am much more familiar with Asimov's I, ROBOT and THE REST OF THE ROBOTS, both of which I have read many times. Asimov's VICTORY UNINTENTIONAL is my all-time favorite short story, all genres.

    But I will happily ready any Asimov short story.


  2. @Harv Griffin: If you've read more than one or two Asimov collections, then you've probably read some of the stories in Robot Dreams. If you haven't, then Robot Dreams would be a good collection to pick up, because the stories are more or less culled from a broad spectrum of his work.