Of Robots, Empires and Pencils: The Worlds of Isaac Asimov ReconsideredReviewed by Sally MoremHuman society is the most astonishing and perplexing of all the universe's life-forming, self-organizing processes in its ability to transform the creative and mundane acts of thinking beings into systems that span the globe and stretch out into space.Isaac Asimov, as a writer and a man, was vitally concerned with the workings of human societies. He dreamed of far-flung interstellar empires run by fragile and misguided humans, with robots made in their image, guiding them away from destruction. But, for all their imaginative world building, Asimov's Foundation and Robots series of stories and novels must be considered magnificent failures."Magnificent" in the sense of the boldness with which Asimov describedgalactic civilization without all the hackneyed, Buck Rogers slam-bang space fighting against bug-eyed aliens. "Failures" in the sense that a centralized galactic empire run by a planet-bound bureaucracy and a future Earth wholly controlled by robotic minds stretch believability to the breaking point and beyond. But, to be fair, let's try to understand the literary strictures Asimov had to face as a young writer in the SF genre of the 1940s.Let's return to the time when pulp fiction and space opera ruled the magazine and bookstore racks, when daring spacemen didn't hesitate toreach for their blasters when facing strangers--either aliens or humans--and never failed to avoid the use of subtlety in any given opportunity, a time when enormous galactic battles raged on unabated for no apparentreason.
Doc Smith's Lensmen series was only the most famous of the "thud and blunder" school of SF writing. Interstellar war was seen as an enlarged version of pirate battles on the high seas. War as fun and games, and notas the desperate struggle for the survival of a people and a culture that it really is.Instead of the Empire of Force, held together by death rays and Lensmen, Asimov was attempting to craft an Empire of Reason. And notjust that, but an Empire guided by a Plan--which was, in fact, an elegantmathematical equation, one which could accurately predict what trillions of human beings would be doing for centuries. These stories were later collected in "Foundation," "Foundation and Empire," and "Second Foundation"--The Foundation Trilogy. And at the same time, in a different series of stories, Asimov was bucking the hoary stereotype of the malevolent robot. Susan Calvin, Robo-psychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., describes the development of robots in the 21st century in "I, Robot," a collection of these stories. Each robot has its own personality and faces its own rather unusual challenge. Robbie, devoted nursemaid to a little girl; Speedy, torn between self-preservation and obedience to a lawful order given by a human being; Cutie, a would-be theologian with a truly unique view of the universe and his place in it; Dave, who can't control his "fingers"