Monday, 3 December 2012

I, Robot - part 1: Introduction

NB: I do eventually get to I, Robot!

Don’t you ever ask yourself, ‘how did I get here from there?’ It’s one of my favourite trains of thought, lying awake when sleep seems far away and the dark is haunted by familiar things made weird by night. At those times, it’s hard to disagree with Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish. We’re killing each other and killing the planet all in the name of X-Factor, Vodafone, News International, amazon, Starbucks and Google.

Sci fi was supposed to be the bulwark against all of this. We had 1984 but we’ve still got China, North Korea and all those former Soviet states that cling to the an aging Stalin-lite in order to avoid civil war. We had The Handmaid’s Tale, but we still got Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. We had Mad Max and Robocop but still we got Putin’s Russia. We had The Space Merchants, but still got all this.

In the meantime, we also had The Martian Chronicles, but we got no mission to Mars. We had Rendezvous with Rama, but Rama never showed up. We had The Lensman, and Foundation and Dune and God knows how many more, but popular space travel seems unlikely to ever be possible.

And of course, we had I, Robot but we got no robots.

I was motivated to read I, Robot by an article I read recently (this one, maybe you know it?) that made a case for something I’ve secretly thought for a long time: SF is in what could be a terminal decline. I say ‘secretly thought’ because I have always blamed my lack of enthusiasm for the modern product on myself: I’m quite old, after all, and a lot of the old stories just don’t do it for me any more.

It’s obviously unfair to criticise books just on the basis of telling the same old story: the same was true of the books I revelled in, and still revel in from time-to-time just for the warm thrill of nostalgia. A lot of this pulpy stuff churns around and it’s always new for the next generation. It’s traditional for geezers to see this as a decline in quality, so I’ve always assumed it’s me entering geezerdom. No problem: I welcome it.

This feels like the natural answer, but I do wonder if there’s not something in it. I wonder if perhaps the noble ideal of sci fi was something that only existed for fifty years before falling over, exhausted. I guess we’re talking about the end of the 1930s or so to the beginning of the 90s. (That does conveniently coincide with the end of my own golden age by the traditional SF measure – aged 8 to 16 – so: geezer alert!)

Sci fi’s extended life – it’s golden, silver and bronze ages – coincided with a period of great change in the western world. Science and technology brought rapid changes to daily life and the there was great social change: women’s rights, workers’ rights, gay rights, the breakdown of segregation in the USA and apartheid in South Africa. It’s the same foment that gave rise to political ideologies that tried to change the world on ‘rational’ principles, which turned out to be not that rational at all.

In today’s world, change seems impossible. We feel stuck, and the literature of change has lost coherence with the spirit of the times. Science fiction’s warnings seem pointless and technocratic social engineering laughable. The imagery lingers, though in computer games and movies and TV: it appeals to too many of our well-established deeper drives and fundamental motivations to vanish just like that, the lure of exploration, the thrill of the unknown, the lure of the exotic and abstruse.

But we’ve lost our faith in the kind of big answers that used to drive SF. It’s not a matter of a loss of optimism and hope: a lot of classic sci fi is brutally pessimistic or dystopian, but there was a feeling that there were answers to be had, even if the world was headed for disaster. It seems we’ve run out of the easy answers in the last twenty years. Many people are soldiering on, and some fun books come out of it but it’s hard to have much faith in the second hacker generation typified by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, or the utopian visions of the likes of China Mielville, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

So, I’ve decided to head back and see if I can find what I’ve been missing. I have of course read I, Robot before, many times in my teens. Asimov was one of my favourite writers, and this was one of my favourite Asimovs. It’s been a long time since I read it, though, a quarter of a century and I’ve been curious about it for a while. I was waiting for it to come out on Kindle, but it’s never appeared. It actually appears to be out of print in the UK (according to amazon, at least) or so. Which is amazing to me! There’s a deluxe edition coming out from Harper next year, but aside from that it’s second hand only. Kid’s today! I finally ordered a copy from some amazon sellers, and was delighted to receive this old Panther edition I remember from my formative years – that cover’s a classic!

These stories were written between 1940 and 1950, when Asimov was in his 20s and the world must have seemed very young and full of promise. In the fictional introduction, he gives us some dates for his robot world: in 1982 the inventor of the positronic brain Lawrence Robertson forms U.S. Robots; by 1996 he’s selling non-talking robots sophisticated enough to look after a five year old girl; 2002 he demonstrates the first talking robot; in 2008 Susan Calvin, the main character in many of these stories, becomes the world’s first robot psychologist.

The timeline betrays a lot of the prejudices about artificial intelligence that took a look a long time to dislodge – that it was a matter of hardware, that human-like intelligence would evolve spontaneously, that we’d have to reverse engineer our way into the software with something so antiquated as robot psychologist – you might as well ask a witch doctor to program a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. The idea that artificial intelligence of the type depicted in this book is even possible seems increasingly unlikely – in fact, we’ll supposedly be sooner uploading our own personalities but who knows if that one will survive the next technobabbalogical paradigm shift.

But this is all just a framing device – a reporter has come to interview the famous Dr Calvin, and she relates the stories to him. It’s a bit trite, but it’s simple, effective, and sufficiently hand-wavy that I’m not bothered by all the problems presented by assumptions behind positronic brains and all that wotnot. Bring on the stories!

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