St. Johns, FL, United States | Member Since 2009
Originally posted at FanLit.
“..all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable”
Most science fiction fans know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
Robots must not hurt human beings or allow them to come to harm.
Robots must obey human beings so far as it doesn’t violate Law 1.
Robots must not harm themselves as long as this doesn’t violate Laws 1 and 2.
In I, Robot, Asimov presents nine stories within a frame story that explore the implications of these Three Laws of Robotics. The introduction presents the frame story, which introduces Dr. Susan Calvin, who has recently retired from a 50-year career as the world’s first robopsychologist. A reporter is attempting to interview the somewhat reclusive Dr. Calvin, who is reluctant to share her experiences. Through clever flattery, questions and prompts, he finally gets her talking, which gives Asimov a chance to reprint these nine stories which were originally published between 1940 and 1950 in the pulp magazines Astounding Science Fiction and Super Science Stories:
“Robbie” — (revised version of “Strange Playfellow,” Super Science Stories, 1940) A little girl named Gloria is given one of the world’s first robotic companions, but her mother worries about Gloria being raised by a machine, so she takes Robbie away. “Robbie” is Isaac Asimov’s first robot story. It’s sweet and simple, dealing with Law 1 in the most obvious way and portraying robots as tools made by man to help him with his work. Dr. Susan Calvin makes a cameo appearance in this story. She’s sitting in a museum studying the first talking robot when Gloria comes to ask the robot a question.
“Runaround” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1942) Engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, a couple of Asimov’s recurring characters, have been sent to Mercury to work on a mining station. When they send Speedy the robot out to fetch some selenium, he doesn’t come back and they have to go looking for him. When they find Speedy, he seems confused and Powell and Donovan discover that there’s a delicate balance between the three Laws of Robotics. They must figure out how to use the laws to get the robot back on track. This is Asimov’s first story that specifically explains the Three Laws and shows that they are not as clear as they seem.
“Reason” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1941) Powell and Donovan are working on a space station with a robot named QT1 (“Cutie”). When Cutie decides that humans do not exist and that he’s a prophet of The Master, the engineers, thinking that the Three Laws are in jeopardy, try to reason with him.
“Catch That Rabbit” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1944) Powell and Donovan are overseeing a mining operation on an asteroid and are accompanied by Dave, a new kind of robot that is still under development. Dave is in an overseer position over six subservient (“finger”) robots. Powell and Donovan notice that when humans are not around, Dave and his “fingers” sometimes quit working and begin marching aimlessly. When the engineers try to figure out what’s wrong, they end up in a dangerous position and need to figure out how to get Dave and his team working correctly so the robots can save them.
“Liar!” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1941) A robot named Herbie misapplies the First Law of Robotics (never hurt a human being) by telling people what he thinks they want to hear. However, Herbie’s lies end up embarrassing and hurting humans, including Dr. Susan Calvin. According to Wikipedia, which cites the Oxford English Dictionary, “Liar” contains the first published use of the word “robotics.”
“Little Lost Robot” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1947) When a human tells the robot named Nestor to “get lost,” he does, by hiding himself in a room full of identical robots. This is a problem for Dr. Susan Calvin and the other scientists because Nestor is an experimental robot that (for a good reason) was produced with a slightly different version of the First Law. While it can’t harm humans, it is not compelled to step in to stop them from being hurt. Dr. Calvin realizes that this programming could logically lead to a situation in which a robot could actually harm someone. They must find Nestor.
“Escape!” — (originally “Paradoxical Escape” in Astounding Science Fiction, 1945) In this weird story, an artificial intelligence called “The Brain” becomes a practical joker, using humor to deal with its cognitive dissonance. Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are the unfortunate victims and robopsychologist Susan Calvin must discover what’s gone wrong.
“Evidence” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1946) Stephen Byerley is running for mayor but his opponent claims Byerley is a robot because nobody sees him eat or sleep. Byerley, running on a civil rights platform, refuses to let his opponents examine him. When Dr. Susan Calvin tries to use the Three Laws to determine whether he’s human, she can’t tell if he’s a robot, or just a “very good man.” This makes her wonder if a robot might actually be a better leader than a man.
“The Evitable Conflict” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1950) The world is now efficiently run by artificial intelligence. Supply and demand are perfectly balanced and humans thrive. When some of the machines start to make mistakes, Stephen Byerley and Susan Calvin want to know why. What they discover is an entirely new extension of the First Law and it might mean doom (or liberation) for the human race.
I, Robot is an excellent collection of some of Isaac Asimov’s best stories. Here we meet friendly robots, religious robots, prankster robots, robots with superiority complexes, robots that are confused by moral or logical dilemmas, and robots with cognitive dissonance. Asimov explores the implications and the limits of his Three Laws and leaves us with a lot to think about.
The order of the stories in I, Robot makes the collection especially effective; with “Robbie” we start with a simple and obvious application of the Three Laws and with “The Evitable Conflict” we end with a head-spinning potential interpretation of these very same laws. Though Isaac Asimov was optimistic about our future with artificial intelligence, he shows us that even though humans are programming robots, it may be difficult for us to understand and predict some of their behaviors because of the way they use logic to interpret the laws we give them.
I listened to Scott Brick narrate Random House Audio’s version of I, Robot. Scott Brick is always a great narrator and I highly recommend the audiobook.
Another endearing children’s fantasy by a woman who obviously knows what children like. You can’t go wrong with Edith Nesbit and most of her books are in the public domain so you can get the free ebook at Amazon and add the whispersync narration. Great deal.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Nobody remembers Tigana — a land bright with beauty, culture, and wealth — nobody but those who lived there before the land was cursed by the conqueror Brandin of Ygrath after the prince of Tigana killed Brandin’s son in battle. When the now-oppressed Tiganese try to tell outsiders about Tigana, the name just slips out of the listener’s mind. Only those born in the land are able to keep its beautiful name in memory.
But the prince of Tigana’s son still lives and he and his companions plan to restore their land’s name. But, not only must they kill Brandin of Ygrath, but also Alberico of Barbadior, who rules the other half of their peninsula. Otherwise, they will merely be consumed by a different tyrant.
I was entranced by Tigana right from the first page. What I noticed immediately was the passion — this is a story lovingly wrought by an author who loves language, loves his characters, and loves the world he’s created. Guy Gavriel Kay’s prose is heavy (sometimes too heavy) with imagery and emotion yet it reads, for the most part, easily (except for the occasional unexpected shift in point-of-view).
Kay’s characters are distinct, well-developed, and likable. The prince’s companions are a diverse group, each with his/her own personality, strengths, and weaknesses. The actions and motives of the villains are completely understandable — in fact, I felt sympathetic toward them.
The story of the struggle to free Tigana was fascinating. There were some slightly unbelievable or contrived plot devices, but the rest of the story was excellent enough that I was perfectly happy to overlook them. The end was surprising and bittersweet.
I listened to most of Tigana on audio (and read some it in print). Simon Vance is the reader, and he is one of the very best. If you’re an audiobook listener, I’d definitely suggest that format for Tigana. But, either way, Tigana is a must-read.
Originally published at Fantasy Literature.
Warning: Use only as directed. And with caution.
Written in 1969, Ubik is one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular science fiction novels. It’s set in a future 1992 where some humans have develop psi and anti-psi powers which they are willing to hire out to individuals or companies who want to spy (or block spying) on others. Also in this alternate 1992, if you’ve got the money, you can put your beloved recently-deceased relatives into “coldpac” where they can be stored in half-life and you can visit with them for years after their death.
As Ubik begins, Glen Runciter, the head of one of New York City’s top anti-psi organizations, discovers that all the operatives of the top psi organization (whose telepathic fields they like to keep track of) have disappeared. This means less work for Runciter’s employees and he’s concerned about how they’re going to get paid. When Runicter’s company is offered a big job on the moon, he figures they’ve found the missing telepaths and he’s eager to hire out as many of his inactive inertials as he can, including the new one who has a strange and disturbing power: she can nullify events before they happen. But when Runciter’s inertials get to the moon, disaster strikes, and when they return to Earth, they find that life is not how they left it. In fact, time seems to be going backward and something is killing them off one by one. The only thing that might help is Ubik — a mysterious product in an aerosol spray can… If only they can find it!
Ubik is a fast-paced SF thriller full of classic PKD themes such as an unreliable reality, time running backward, precognition, telepathy, paranoia, drug abuse, hallucinations, and spirituality. The story is quite funny in places and includes a bit of horror, too.
There are several plot twists in Ubik, including a big one at the end, which means that the reader is as unsure about what’s going on as the characters are until the big reveal and, still, there are some questions left unanswered. Mainly we’re left contemplating what PKD is suggesting about death, salvation, and God. Ubik is one of those books where, at the end, you have to review the plot in light of your new knowledge just so you can try to put it all together.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version read by Anthony Heald. Heald successfully handles a rather large cast of alive and dead humans, not to mention the talking appliances and doors. Thanks to Heald’s skills, Ubik on audio was thoroughly entertaining.
Ubik has been named by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 English-Language Novels From 1923 (list compiled by Lev Grossman). I can’t say that I agree with this accolade, but I can say that I enjoyed Ubik and can recommend it to anyone who likes science fiction. For Philip K. Dick fans, Ubik is an essential read.
Unputdownable. This is very dark for YA. The audio version narrated by Carolyn McMcormick is excellent.
Simon R. Green has created a cast of zany characters in a dark imaginative world that's fun to explore. The audio is very good. However, this series starts to go down-hill after the first few books. It gets extremely repetitive and I ended up not liking the series in the end.
This story is a pretty straight-up very long boy-with-a-destiny-and-friends-must-defend-the-keep-from-the-evil-enemy-horde kind of epic fantasy that doesn’t stand out. There are a lot of the usual tropes which made it impossible for me to forget I was reading an epic fantasy novel (rather than becoming absorbed in the story). At first it’s hard to really like any of the characters but by the end I liked them better and I thought the plot was heading in a more interesting direction (away from the evil enemy horde). The romances are very thin but the occasional dry humor is appealing. I’m willing to read the next book, but mostly because I already have it on my shelf.
Zombies aren’t my favorite thing, but I did enjoy the story and the non-zombie characters in Boneshaker. Interesting setting — a mist-filled walled-off portion of Seattle.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during World War II. He only survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden because the Germans housed the American prisoners in a meat-locker in a building they called Slaughterhouse-Five. For years afterward, Vonnegut attempted to write a book about his experiences, and in 1969 he eventually produced Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictional biography of one of his fellow soldiers who he calls Billy Pilgrim. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut explains that his novel will be short and “jumbled” and that it’s “a failure” because “people aren’t supposed to look back” and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Well, the book is short and jumbled, but it’s not a failure — it’s interesting, irreverent, and very funny (if you like bleak black humor).
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” — he seems to move up and down his own timeline, experiencing his life — his uneventful childhood, his inglorious experiences as a POW, his mundane marriage, his time in an insane asylum, his dull but lucrative career, and his death — out of order and repeatedly. Billy also believes that he was once abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where they put him in a zoo so they could observe human behavior. The Tralfamadorans, who experience four dimensions and are outside of time, have a fatalistic philosophy of life, war, and death, which Billy embraces.
Vonnegut’s non-linear narrative and his repetitive imagery and language evoke a feeling of bizarreness, disorientation and impotence, which mirrors Billy Pilgrim’s feelings about his life — especially his feelings about the war where he was a weak, ineffective soldier who did nothing but get caught by the Germans and witness the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Vonnegut keeps repeating the phrase “And so it goes” after any mention of death. The phrase is used over 100 times and, rather than becoming irritating, it lends a fatalistic air. It also gets funnier each time, in a gallows humor kind of way. (The phrase is even used after we’re told that the champagne is flat.)
Along with the jumping around in time, Billy’s delusions about Tralfamadore make us assume that he’s insane. Was he insane before he went to war, or does he have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder that, at that time, the military either didn’t recognize or didn’t acknowledge?
On the surface, Slaughterhouse-Five, though entertaining and funny all the way through, seems absurd and pointless. But that is the point: War is absurd and pointless. It’s illogical, irrational, and unstoppable. Vonnegut never overtly condemns war — the novel feels fatalistic instead; there is war, people die, and so it goes. If Slaughterhouse-Five is a condemnation of war, it’s a subtle condemnation, and maybe that’s why it works so well. Nobody likes to be hit over the head with a Message. Instead, Slaughterhouse-Five makes us consider the absurdity of war for human beings who, unlike the timeless Tralfamadorans, live in only three dimensions.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Slaughterhouse-Five. The narrator, Ethan Hawke, was amazing. This was one of the best audio productions I’ve listened to recently. Hawke, who sounds laid back and like he just smoked a couple of joints, speaks almost in a whisper. He sounds intimate and philosophical. Hawke’s narration greatly enhanced my enjoyment of Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s also an interview with Kurt Vonnegut at the end of this Harper Audio production.
Scott Lynch has created a unique and fascinating world full of wonderful creations such as a crime boss who rules his empire from a houseboat, his little daughter who sits on his lap drinking ale and kicking subordinates with her steel-toed boots, a blind priest who begs for alms and eats gourmet meals off fine plates in his luxurious cellar, noblemen who live in glowing glass towers, a blood-sucking rose garden, alcoholic oranges, and women who fight jumping man-eating sharks for sport. This is truly entertaining stuff!
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
The Mote in God’s Eye, co-written by frequent collaborators Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a classic First Contact science fiction story which Robert A. Heinlein called “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” The story takes place in 3017 AD in the future of Jerry Pournelle’s CODOMINION universe (though it’s not necessary to have read any of those books to enjoy The Mote in God’s Eye). Humans have developed the Alderson Drive which allows them to immediately jump to certain points in space. Thus they’ve been able to colonize many planets which are ruled by a single government similar to the British monarchy.
Up to this point humans have assumed they’re the only intelligent species in the universe, but an alien spaceship has just been detected near the Mote system. The spaceship MacArthur, captained by Lord Roderick Blaine, is dispatched to intercept the alien. Besides its regular crew, MacArthur has a couple of civilian passengers temporarily on board: Horace Bury, a trader and political prisoner, and Sally Fowler, a cultural anthropologist (how fortuitous) and senator’s niece.
It turns out that the alien in the probe ship is dead, but the humans figure out where the home planet must be, so Roderick Blaine, Sally Fowler, Horace Bury, a priest, the crew of MacArthur and a team of scientists are sent on a diplomatic mission to the planet they call Mote Prime. The ship Lenin is sent for back up. It’s captained by Admiral Kutuzov, a ruthless but effective man whose job is to not let the Moties learn anything that could help them build an Alderson Drive and escape the bounds of their own solar system.
Upon arrival at Mote Prime the diplomats find that the Moties are friendly and want to be allies. An alliance and trade agreement with the Moties would be beneficial to the human empire because, except for the lack of an Alderson Drive, the Moties are far more technologically advanced. But that means they’re also a threat. The diplomatic mission must discover all they can about the Motie society so it can make a recommendation to the empire about how to deal with this species they’re sharing the universe with. This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Do the Moties really have pure intentions toward the humans, or are they deceiving them for some reason?
The Mote in God’s Eye, published in 1974, is a nice change of pace from most of the human vs. alien science fiction that had been previously published. Niven and Pournelle create a truly alien society and explore its evolution, history, sociology, and motivations. The story is compelling because Niven and Pournelle capitalize on the mystery, leaving the reader as much in the dark about the Moties’ true intentions as the human characters are. The truth is surprising (though, I thought, not completely believable).
Niven and Pournelle write unique stories but they’re not superior stylists; I read their books for the plot and ideas — not to admire their use of structure or language. This particular story is interesting, has a few great characters (Blaine, Kutuzov, the priest, and the Brownie aliens), and has an occasional nice touch of humor, but it sometimes suffers from shallow characterization, excessive dialogue, and an old-fashioned feel. The action is exciting, but limited. There is a lot of the normal “hard SF” explanation of drives, fields, stars, ships, etc, but there are also a lot of meetings in which the humans (or aliens) are trying to figure out what the aliens (or humans) know, assume, intend, and plan. Some of this was amusing (for example when the aliens are trying to figure out some aspects of human behavior) but many of the discussions just go on too long. Also, for a story set in 3017, ideas about birth control, sex, and women’s roles in society feel rather quaint.
The Mote in God’s Eye was published in 1974 and nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Nearly 20 years later Niven and Pournelle published a sequel called The Gripping Hand. It was not well received so, in 2010, Jerry Pournelle’s daughter J.R. Pournelle wrote and published another sequel called Outies.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of The Mote in God’s Eye. L.J. Ganser does a great job with the narration. This title has recently been released in CD format by Brilliance Audio.
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