Robots and Empire is the fifth book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series that first began with his short story collection I, Robot published in 1950. It is the last novel that he ever did on the Robot series, and it signifies two important events both for the author and for the world he created: the bridge between two of his most iconic universes (Robots & Foundation) and the introduction of the Zeroth Law of Robotics.
PREFACE TO THE ACTUAL REVIEW
MY JOURNEY TO ASIMOV
Isaac Asimov is the first science fiction writer I ever read and the one that I’ve read the most from (this is my eleventh book of his). Asimov is also partially responsible for my love for literature and, when I think about it, it is somewhat bizarre how I first found out about him.
When I was little, around age eight or nine, on school day mornings all the kids that arrived before the doors opened would wait on the playgrounds. One of those mornings, out of the blue, a kid named Jaime just opened his backpack and pulled out this red hardback book with an image of a galaxy right in the middle. It was Asimov’s Introduction to Science. He said it was a gift for me.
Jaime was a classmate that I played with during recess but not really a close friend. I don’t have perfect recall on this but I believe he might have said something about his father not wanting the book or something like that.
To this day I still don’t know why he gave me that book. If I had to take a guess, I do remember going through a very weird phase when all I did was talk about archaeology and astronomy, and maybe he thought that I might like the book because it deals quite a bit with astronomy, but even that explanation is odd considering he was also my age. All I’m certain about is that I still have and treasure that book.
It was more than a decade later when my brother lent me the first three Foundation books and I discovered the brilliance of Asimov. They were the perfect books at the perfect time. In them, Asimov introduces the idea of “psychohistory” a science dedicated to predicting the evolution of future events by applying the laws of statistics to large amounts of people. I read all three on the underground and bus trips to my college classes where I was studying – and hating – game theory and statistics, and thanks to these books I began to appreciate numbers and the science behind it.
I didn’t get to the Robot series until much later. I had just begun working on a new job and I didn’t know anybody so I walked around a lot during lunch time. Thanks to those walks I found what would become my favourite used book store, and in it, hidden at the very bottom of one of the shelves and covered by other books piled against it, I found a paperback omnibus with the first three robot novels for just four euros. I still remember the old book smell that it had. How it made its way to the bookstore must have been quite a story considering it is an American edition.
TO THE ACTUAL BOOK REVIEW
I think the first thing to say is that the novel doesn’t really work as standalone book. Asimov’s main objective was to link both Foundation and Robot sagas, and it is very clear that this novels works towards that; so if you are looking for a self-contained story skip this and go to The Caves of Steel.
All the main characters (with the exception of D.G) have been introduced in previous novels and their motivations, personalities and actions are shaped by the events in those books. Although Asimov does a bit of catch-up within the novel I think that, to fully enjoy this book, you’d need to read the previous novels.
The Robot series is also known unofficially as the Baley series, taking the name of the main protagonist of the first three novels Elijah Baley. The events of Robots & Empire take place years after his death and follow Gladia, her two robots (Daneel and Giskard) and D.G (a descendant of Elijah). However, Elijah makes two stellar appearances in the book.
Asimov uses these appearances skilfully and, in one of the two occasions, when Daneel is remembering Elijah’s last words in his deathbed, he beautifully links and wraps with a nice speech his two main sagas. I’ll take the liberty of putting the text below because it is just such a wonderful message:
“My death, Daneel,” he said, “is not important. No individual death among human beings is important. Someone who dies leaves his work behind and that does not entirely die. It never entirely dies as long as humanity exists. – Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Daneel said, “Yes, Partner Elijah.”
“The work of each individual contributes to a totality and so becomes an undying part of the totality. That totality of human lives – past and present and to come – forms a tapestry that has been in existence now for many tens of thousands of years and has been growing more elaborate and, on the whole, more beautiful in all that time. Even the Spacers are an offshoot of the tapestry and they, too, add to the elaborateness and beauty of the pattern. An individual life is one thread in the tapestry and what is one thread compared to the whole?
“Daneel, keep your mind fixed firmly on the tapestry and do not let the trailing off of a single thread affect you. There are so many other threads, each valuable, each contributing – !”
The reason why Elijah’s last words are so good is because:
They are delivered by the protagonist of all the first three novels that we know and love right before his death. This makes the moment more poignant in Daneel’s memory (and the story), and it also feels like Asimov is talking to his faithful readers from the heart through a beloved character and telling us something important about his work.
“The totality of human lives forms a tapestry” is, in summary, what The Foundation is in charge of: the mapping of humanity pasts, present and future.
This moment plants the seed of the Zeroth Law of Robotics.
Thirty years after the creation of the Three Laws of Robotics Asimov adds one additional law that takes precedence over the three. The Zeroth Law of Robotics states that: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
One of the main drivers behind the narrative of this novel is the inception of this new law of robotics, and Asimov is skilled enough to weave an engaging story around it with good character arcs that develop the protagonists we already know and takes them in new directions.
There were a couple of loose threads that I think could have been finished a bit better: Gladia is kind of ignored once she has served her purpose, the Solarians disappearance is left for other works and the ending, although satisfying, was a bit abrupt. Without giving away anything, all I’ll say is that the fourth and fifth Foundation novels give some of the closure that this book lacked.
This was a great book to finish my “summer” reading and a fantastic addition to the Robot series. Note for future-me: Yes, I know that technically I finished it in Autumn but in case you forgot, September and the first half of October 2017 were really hot.
I finished reading this book the 1st of October 2017. Next on the list I’m visiting an old doctor with very peculiar appetites.