Robots and Empire

by Isaac Asimov

A Review

Gladia’s life until now has not been without excitement: two husbands, two lovers, two children and two murders, solved against the odds by Earthman Elijah Baley. However, all these things have happened during her first three or four decades and then, for the last two centuries – nothing. Her life seems to have no purpose, no meaning. Gladia is a Spacer, born on the planet Solaria but exiled now to Aurora, where she lives in decadent comfort with her two robots, Daneel and Giskard. Even after nearly two hundred years, she hasn’t managed to cast off the derogatory ‘the Solarian Woman’.

robots empire

At the beginning of Robots and Empire, she is contemplating the stars – and the future – when she receives two visitors. Mandamus is a young man from the Robotics Institute, her genetic descendant, about four generations removed; D.G. Baley is a trader in planetary artifacts, a relatively short-living human Settler, a genetic descendant of Elijah to the umpteenth generation.

Mandamus has made an alliance with Kelden Amadiro, head of the Institute, in a plan to humiliate and destroy Earth. Mandamus’ motives are political. Amadiro’s are personal. He despises Settlers, he hates Earthmen and Elijah Baley, already dead for a century and a half, he still hates with a passion.

D.G. persuades Gladia to go with him back to Solaria and help solve the mystery of why the Solarians have left their planet. [Have they?] Immediately, things start to happen. The party is attacked by robots who, in apparent defiance of First Law, try to kill them. Gladia’s Solarian background saves them. Two other Settler ships and one Auroran warship are not so fortunate and are destroyed.

Gladia becomes a hero. She accompanies D.G. back to his planet, Baleyworld, and there makes an impassioned speech to the crowds, convincing them that a good, eventful life of eighty years is to be preferred to four hundred of emptiness. She now sees her mission to be the uniting of Spacers and Settlers in expanding human settlement throughout the Galaxy.

Robots and Empire [1985] is the first of Asimov’s novels where he truly begins to unite his big themes and inventions: the Galactic Empire of the future; the Three Laws of Robotics; the positonic robot brain; Psychohistory; and mind-adjusting abilities. It is the fourth story [*] to feature Daneel, the third to feature Gladia, the second Giskard and Amadiro. And it is Daneel and Giskard who play the crucial roles in developing the plot and opening the road to the Foundation series of novels, four of which were earlier publications.

Asimov’s skill – he is a great storyteller of course, but apart from that – lies in his clever use of question-and-answer, almost Socratean dialogue, and it is used with good effect here to explore the human mind. Why is it, he asks more than once, are crowds easier to influence than single human beings? Gladia discovers her talent for swaying an audience and she accepts the fact. It is the two robots who want to know the why  and the how, and by the end of Robots and Empire they have the answer. Or do they?

Daneel, who thinks like a human, believes something transcends First Law, and he tries to figure it out. Giskard, his empathetic, mind-influencing ‘friend’, would like to believe in this Zeroth Law but the very idea puts him into panic mode. The action now moves to Earth where the two artificial intelligences  must discover and thwart the plans of the two expert robotocists bent on harming the planet. At the same time they must protect Gladia and D.G. as they pursue the path of peaceful relations between Settlers and Spacers.

Prophesying in sci-fi is a risky business because so often the prophecies turn out to be wrong. It turns out that Isaac Asimove was rather good at it. Many scientists believe that with current medical knowledge, and given the right environment, human lifespan might be extended, if not indefinitely, at least to a couple of centuries or so.

A.I. has advanced since 1985 to the point where fantasy then has become reality now. Daneel and Giskard may still be decades or even centuries away. However, they are not the total fiction they once were. And while hyperspacial travel remains improbable, many scientists – the late Stephen Hawking was one – see future human expansion to the stars as a real possibility.

Asimov’s Robots and Empire is a book for fans of his robot novels and his Foundation series, and for anyone who enjoys good science fiction. It is a story for readers who dream, who believe, like Arthur C. Clarke – another great sci-fi writer – that the only impediments to scientific progress are ‘the failure of nerve and the failure of imagination’.

[*] in order of publication

*****

 

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