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Issac Asimov’s Caliban

November 17th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Issac Asimov's Caliban

Issac Asimov’s Caliban, by Roger MacBride Allen (Ace Books 1993).

In his later years Issac Asimov worked to merge his two great science fiction series, the Foundation and the Robot series. The problem he faced was that the events of the Foundation Series had to come after the Robot series, but robots were utterly unknown to the Foundation or the empire it replaced. That Asimov pulled this off was no mean feat, but not an incredible one for someone who figured out how Plutonium-186 could exist. In the process Asimov created an entirely new world with hundreds of thousands of years of history and countless stories to fill in Since Asimov’s death in 1992, his estate has granted a number of prominent science fiction writers to fill in those gaps. On reading a few of these stories (all dealing with the Foundation), I’ve come away disappointed. In some cases the plots are strong, the narratives plausible, but they don’t have Asimov’s muse. In other cases they take a single thesis or motif too doggedly—affecting Asimov’s style, but wearing it on the book-jacket. When my dear wife found Caliban at a used bookstore, I was prepared for disappointment.

To my surprise, Allen got it mostly right. Caliban reads like Asimov at his best but better. Allen even managed to turn one of the Asimov’s weaknesses as a writer into convincing story telling. There are times where the characters in an Asimov novel give themselves over to long lectures or the sort of Socratic “dialog” where the only point for more than one speaker is for the main character to catch her breath. These sequences tended to feel artificial, as if the characters are really talking to the reader and not each other. Many writers now trust the reader to figure out the science or quasi-science as story progresses. Such dialogs also felt misplaced for the pacing the same way an opera singer may go on with an extended aria after having been mortally wounded. Allen actually uses this technique in a couple of real lectures and a police integration, and does so in such a way as to move the plot and engage the reader, not just provided information that the action could not.

As with the early robot books featuring Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw, Caliban is a detective story. Like those early stories, the detectives are a human and robot team. In this case the human is the Sheriff, Alvar Kresh, and his robot Donald (minor curiosity, why is it not “Donaal,” since he was built several centuries after Daneel?).

As with any classic detective story, Caliban opens with a horrific crime that is also an intriguing puzzle. A woman—in this case a famous roboticist, Fredda Leving—is found in a pool of her own blood. There are two sets of footprints leading out and none leading in. The footprints are of a robot’s tread and gait, leading to the impossible conclusion that a robot committed this heinous crime. Why impossible? Because from the start Asimov’s robots are built with three laws:

  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.

Any robot coming into any conflict with any of these laws can suffer permanent and catastrophic brain damage and simply cease to function. Even so, it slowly dawns, first on Donald and then Kresh, that a robot might have been involved in such a horrific crime. That robot is Calaban, and Calaban would seem to be unique among robots in some very fundamental ways.

All the action takes place on the planet Hades (yes it is rather arid) in and around the city of Purgatory (and yes, these sort of place-names continue to crop up). Hades is in a life-or-death environment crisis that would make the worst predictions for terrestrial global warming look like a minor inconvenience. The inhabitants of Hades are members of a loose alliance of forty-nine (at one time fifty) planets known as “Spacers.” Spacers, initially being more advanced, left Earth early on as doomed and took their robots with them. The three laws are for Spacers all but sacred, and life without robots unthinkable. The Settlers left Earth later and had become more advanced in every area but one, robotics. Settlers have a righteous disdain for robots. Although neither side trust the other, the environmental crisis Hades finds itself in, has joined these two groups. The Spacers cannot be moved to avert their impending doom on their own, and Settlers are looking for new worlds to inhabit. There are also internal difficulties among the Spacers themselves, aggravated in large part to the intrusion of the Settlers. Players in each of these camps (including members of Leving’s own robotics lab) become suspects. As one might suppose, no crime scenario that Kresh spins out makes much sense.

Intertwined with the mystery is a serious critique of robots, or more specifically the Three Laws. The critique comes in two forms, in a couple of academic lectures. These lectures/essays are thought provoking and lively in and of themselves (and the ensuing riot the follows the second lecture is also entertaining). Part of the critique is that the three laws enslaves and degrades a class of intelligent beings (robots) in such a way that would not be tolerated in with anyone else. In so commodifying such beings, humans are themselves degraded. If you are hearing an essay on the evils of slavery for both slave and master, you would not be far off. The other line of argument is that dependence upon Three-Law robots is the cause for the decline of the Spacers. Here the lectures get into trouble. Asimov had several lines for the decline of the Spacers, robots being only a minor line of inquiry. Moreover, it is difficult to see why dependence as decline cannot equally be applied to the Settlers’ technology. Is an aircar piloted by a robot any more decedent than one that can practically fly itself?

More powerful than the lectures is how Allen portrays the society of Hades. It is a society where people do no work, can do nothing for themselves, create nothing of value, and where the citizens are so many monads, slowly spinning in their own windowless rooms; where robots not only do all the work, but do work for which there is no need and work that is beneath their dignity. Hades is a narcissistic society whose breeding ground is the absolute lack of anything that might impeded humans reaching their full potential.

As with any good detective story, Caliban has all the players racing for a final confrontation where the truth finally comes out, in this case by piercing deduction combined with a theatrical slight-of-hand on the part of Kresh and Donald. As one might hope, the solution to the crime dispenses with all the previous theories but still manages to fit the facts of the case. Allen provides everything the reader needs to finger the culprit, and the solution is both obvious and elegant in retrospect.

Since writing Caliban, Allen has gone on with two more books in this series, Hades and Utopia. It is perhaps for this reason that Allen ends Caliban with hopeful epilogue rather than one that presages the difficult and finally futile effort for Spacer society to survive.

Summing up: Recommend for those who have enjoyed the works of Issac Asimov and anyone who likes classic detective fiction, albeit in an Asimovian setting.