Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Isaac Asimov's Caliban

Isaac Asimov's Caliban: A New Robot Novel
© 1993 Roger MacBride Allen
312 pages

The planet Inferno is slipping toward ecological disaster, and the only woman with the wisdom to save it has just been attacked and left lying in a pool of her own blood -- a pool disturbed by the tracks of robot feet,  tracks which lead outside to the capital city of Hades. The galaxy's first lawless robot, built without the safeguards of the Three Laws of Robotics, has been set loose on the city -- and there will be hell to pay.

Caliban is a three-threaded story: as Sheriff Kresh attempts to solve the case of this near-murder, the victim struggles to heal and resume her work of preparing Inferno to save itself from a permanent ice age,  and the lawless robot Caliban wanders through the city leaving a path of mayhem behind him. Caliban knows virtually nothing of robots, humans, and the relationship between then -- he must learn how to navigate the world on his own,  through the direct accumulation of experience.  The stories of all three persons merge in the end, and though it's a fitting end it still makes me itch to read the rest of this trilogy.

I did not purposely buy this book: when, two summers ago, I bought a box of Asimov books on eBay which contained the Foundation novels,  Caliban came with them. It has sat in my Asimov bookcase since,  but a few nights ago I decided to give it a try. Despite my starting off as a hostile reader ("'Isaac Asimov's Caliban? 'Where does he get off, using Asimov's name to draw in readers?!"), MacBride quickly won me over. Although the state of technology in 1993 creates a marked difference between MacBride's humans and Asimov's (Caliban has people using cellphones, and the robots functioning with HUDs), the central themes are definitely in line with what Asimov might have written. The societal consequences of over-reliance on robots is a source of conflict between the Spacers and Settlers -- who, together, are attempting to save the planet's status as a viable place for humans to live -- and motivation for the lead scientist whose battered head  introduced the story.  Caliban also takes on the Three Laws of Robotics, which Asimov invented in reaction to the early-SF use of robots as monstrous beings: he perceived robots as human-made tools, which would naturally have safeguards.  In Caliban, the use of those Laws -- a mainstay in all of Asimov's robot stories and novels -- is reevaluated while Caliban leads the Sheriff in a wild chase. The drama lasts until the last pages, ending on a high note and whetting my appetite for more.

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