Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Robot Dreams

Robot Dreams
Isaac Asimov © 1986
Berkely Publishing, NY
349 pages

When I first started reading Asimov's fiction, I started with short story collections -- and this week I returned to that type of literature. Robot Dreams is a collection of short stories that deal with robots or computers. Some of these stories have appeared in collections I've read in weeks past, and so I re-read them -- and enjoyed them again, as much as I did the first time I read them. Asimov begins the book with an introduction, and it is his introductions and commentaries that first made me such a fan of him.

Although the collection is titled "Robot Dreams", the stories in the collection don't all have robots. Many of them are about the role of computers -- which for Asimov, writing in the forties and fifties, was real science fiction. A few of his stories feature Multivac, which is a character by itself. Multivac is always depicted as a massive computer that coordinates all of the other computers on the planet -- Asimov never predicted personal computers (although he did predict hand-held computers and personal consoles that could access the "real" computers). In Asimov's stories, computers are industrial and government tools, each section having a part of the globe to handle its problems. Asimov also depicts computers building better computers, to the extent that humanity forgets how to and becomes as dependent on the computers as -- well, there's no real anagram, I don't think.

A few stories from the collection, with comments:
  • "The Feeling of Power" is one of my favorites. People have completely forgotten how to do ordinary math, so dependent on computers are they. Earth is at war with the planet Deneb, which is similarly addicted to computers and is probably settled by humans. Then a lowly technician realizes he can do math in his head, which has implications for the war effort.
  • "Little Lost Robot" deals with robots at a hyperstation. It features Susan Calvin, Asimov's first female and one of his most memorable characters. One robot with a superiority complex is told to "get lost" and promptly does so -- compromising the security of Earth's hyperspace program and possibly the future of robotics.
  • In "Robot Dreams", an experimental robot brain leads to a robot that have subconscious thoughts and dream about them -- but its subconscious thoughts of those of it freeing robots from human servitude.
  • "Lest We Remember" is the story of a man whose life is changed when he takes part of a medical trial designed to increase the ability to recall stored memories -- and who learns that an infallible memory doesn't necessarily make one wise.
  • "The Ugly Little Boy" is always mentioned by Asimov as one of his personal favorites. I find it enjoyable, but it's not a favorite of mine. Still, I mention it because he likes it so much. The story is about a Neanderthal boy who is ripped from time and brought to Earth to be studied.
  • "Franchise" is one of the more interesting stories, because it predicts the importance of voting machines. Asimov wrote this in 1955, remember. In Asimov's future -- in our reality, November 2008 -- Multivac has come to control the elections by analyzing data and coming to a rational prediction about who the elecorate would vote for -- if they were in fact to vote. So complex has Multivac become by 2008 that it only needs to ask a few questions of one voter to come to its decision. This voter is apparantly chosen by Multivac to be the most represenative of all his citizens. He is informed thusly: "Mr. Norman Muller, it is necessary for me to inform you on the behalf of the President of the United States that you have been chosen to represent the American elecorate on Tuesday, November 4, 2008". Considering the week I happened to read this in, you can imagine what I found so interesting about it.
I enjoyed almost every story, even those I have read before. There are a couple of shorter stories that I didn't quite "get", but they were vastly outnumbered by the interesting ones. I enjoyed the collection immensely and reccommend it.

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