Saturday, December 31, 2011

Robots and Empire (SF Book)

An Impending Crisis. Descendants. Revenge. The Zeroth Law. An Abandoned World. The Fate of the Earth. Galactic Expansion. 

Isaac Asimov’s Robots and Empire is a sequel to The Robots of Dawn. It unites the Robot and the Foundations Series. We discover what ultimately happened to Elijah Baley and how Han Fastolfe’s victory affected the people of Earth and the Spacers. We learn about the origins of the Empire and the fate of the Earth. We continue to see the faint beginnings of psychohistory. Most of the storyline takes place two centuries after the events of The Robots of Dawn.

Briefly, the robots are the main characters of the story. After Fastolfe’s death, Gladia is bequeathed Daneel and Giskard. Daneel, a humaniform robot, continues to evolve, having learned many things from his former partner Elijah Baley. At one point Daneel refers to having programmed himself with the Zeroth Law. Giskard, a telepathic robot, can read the emotions of humans and can subtly nudge feelings according to what he interprets as being beneficial. Giskard senses an impending crisis. Using their skills, the two robots must determine what the crisis is and take whatever steps they believe will lead to the highest outcome.

The story includes a number of interesting supporting characters. Gladia grows into a woman who wants to bring peace to the Galaxy. —In The Naked Sun, she almost never saw a person. Now we see her speaking before thousands of people— D. G. Baley is a Settler Trader and a descendant of Elijah Baley. He talks Gladia into helping him visit Solaria, which has been abandoned, in hopes of selling robots to the other Spacer worlds. Mandamus, a descendant of Gladia, unites with Amadiro to orchestrate the destruction of Earth.

Reading Robots and Empire was especially rewarding for me. When I was reading the Foundation Series, I was disturbed by the sudden appearance of robots. After reading the Robot series —beginning with I. Robot—the storyline makes much more sense. To anyone who has not read the full Foundation Series yet, I highly recommend reading the Robot and the Foundation Series as one combined series according to the publication dates of the novels. Robots and Empire is also fun because of the way Daneel and Giskard work together to solve the mystery of the impending crisis. They both have such wonderful personalities and thought processes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I, Robot (Classic Science Fiction Book)

“And that is all,” said Dr. Calvin, rising. “I saw it from the beginning, when the poor robots couldn’t speak, to the end, when they stand between mankind and destruction...”
I, Robot consists of nine short stories (with some transitions to tie the stories together) about robots that were written by Isaac Asimov and published between 1940 and 1950. Each story deals with one or more of the Three Laws of Robotics in some way. The book reminds me of the boxes of small puzzles I often see sold at Christmas time. Each story is a small puzzle about robot behavior that the characters must solve. Most of the stories include the main characters of Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, who are robot engineers, or Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist. The complexity of robots within the book progresses from a very primitive robot that can’t speak in the first story to robotic machines that basically oversee the management of Earth in the last story.

While I found I, Robot enjoyable but not necessarily great science fiction, I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read Asimov’s major books. The stories provide background into the later Foundation Series and Robot Trilogy. When I was reading the Foundation Series, I was jarred when robots first appeared; they seemed so out of context. In retrospect, I wish that I had begun reading with I. Robot and then read the Foundation and Robot books in order of their publication date. Some things would have made more sense.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Alice Adams (Pulitzer Winning Novel)

Parents and Children. Social Climbing. Integrity. Pretense. Paternalism.

Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington won the 1922 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. I found the novel naïve and sweet, the product of a more innocent time. It has a bit of humor, a bit of morality, and a simple storyline. In 1935 Alice Adams was made into a romantic film that starred Katharine Hepburn.

Briefly, the story opens with Alice’s father recovering from an unknown illness. Alice goes to a dance given by Mildred, a young woman of a higher social class. Alice has learned to put on pretenses to compensate for her perceived deficiencies—in this day and age, we would say that she has low self-esteem. Alice’s well-meaning mother insists that Alice’s brother, Walter, accompany her. Walter, it turns out, is drawn to people of questionable reputation. At the party, Alice meets Arthur Russell, a distant cousin and alleged fiancé of Mildred. Much to Alice’s surprise, Russell takes an interest in Alice and begins visiting her on a regular basis. Alice tries to hide her lower social status from him. In the meantime, Alice’s mother convinces Alice’s father to leave the company he has been with all his adult life, striking out on his own and opening a glue factory. The problem is that the formula he will be using was created for his employer many years ago. The Adams clan eventually experiences a “rain of misfortune.” By the end of the story, both Alice and her father have grown in integrity.

I found the book pleasant. Those who like to watch classic movies will probably find it much more appealing. I did find one scene in the book especially memorable. Alice is trying to find a way to be more attractive for the dance, despite her family’s lack of money. So, she picks 300 violets, which she will carry and will pin to her dress. Tarkington goes on to describe the wonderful fragrance.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Robots of Dawn (SF Book)

Roboticide. Planetary Customs. Humaniform Robots. Sexual Mores. The Fate of the Earth. Intellectual Property. Galactic Expansion. Politics. 

The Robots of Dawn is the third book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series. Like the previous books, it is part science fiction and part detective novel. While there is some science, much of the book is focused on the cultural differences between Earth and Aurora, a Spacer world. What surprised me about the novel was how much of the story focused on a romantic relationship. I had not remembered that in the Foundation Series novels. I especially enjoyed the plot twist at the end of the novel.

Briefly, once again Elijah Baley is called upon to investigate a murder. One of only two humaniform robots ever created is found dead on Aurora. Allegedly, the only one who had the ability to commit the crime was Dr. Han Fastolfe, which has potentially catastrophic implications. Fastolfe is a supporter of allowing Earth to expand in the galaxy. His opponents want to keep Earth isolated and instead colonize the galaxy themselves using humaniform robots. Once again Baley partners with Daneel and encounters Gladia, who we first met in The Naked Sun. In order to solve the murder and save Earth, Baley must understand the culture of Aurora and overcome his own fears.

Asimov does a nice job of creating a world and then exploring the implications. I can easily get lost in Asimov’s books. The Robot series and the Foundation series tie together. While reading The Robots of Dawn, I found my mind wandering to different books in both series. The novel is a worthy addition to the combined series.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Universal Story Plot (Quotes)

In Musings and Meditations, Robert Silverberg describes “the essential story themes that underlie nearly all fiction:”
A sympathetic and engaging character(or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome the problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of he story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind.
Later in the book, Silverberg continues on this theme:
Joseph Campbell, in his classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, showed how all tales of heroic struggle fulfill the terms of what he called the “monomyth,” the basic story of stories: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are then encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Musings and Meditation: Reflections on Science Fiction, Science and Other Matters (Book)

Science Fiction Magazines. Cave Paintings. A Dinosaur Heart. Y2K. Golden Age. The New Wave. Writing Science Fiction. Language Translation. The End of the World. Awards. Conventions. Monomyth. Nostalgia. Great Writers. Calendars. Interesting Science. 

Musings and Meditation: Reflections on Science Fiction, Science and Other Matters by Robert Silverberg is a coffee break, bedtime read, waiting for the bus type of a book. Don’t expect to sit down and read it straight through. It consists of 75 essays that Silverberg wrote between 1995 and 2010 primarily for Asimov's Science Fiction magazine and, in a few cases, book introductions. Most of the essays are four pages long, and they are loosely grouped by topic, which helps the ole brain navigate a bit easier from essay to essay.

As I went from essay to essay, I had different reactions. Sometimes I was bored. Sometimes I was taking notes. Sometimes I wondered why the heck an essay was in a book that was aimed at Science Fiction readers. Sometimes I was practically yelling “Now this makes sense!” For example, when I was reading the Hugo winners, I confess, I just didn’t get some of the books. Now I understand that they were part of the New Wave writing movement. I found out a lot about Science Fiction magazines. One of my favorite pieces of information was that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics actually originated with the editor John Campbell. I scribbled a whole list of books, short stories, and authors to add to my reading list. I enjoyed the information for aspiring Science Fiction writers. I felt a little thrill when I saw references to some of my favorite authors. If I knew someone who liked Science Fiction as much as I do, I would definitely buy them the book for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Some Changes in My Blogging (Personal Notes)

I have a passion for reading books. I have been known to walk three miles in sub-zero weather, cancel a dinner date, and spend my last few precious dollars all for a book. My personality is transformed when I talk about books. I became animated and focused. Books have given me purpose, a reason for getting up in the morning and for dealing with all the inanity I too often see in the world. Books have been my teachers, my inspiration, and my life-lines when times were rough. Reading the Hugo winning novels changed my life in many ways. As much as I love books, I need to focus more attention on my professional life.

This blog was originally intended to be my professional blog, where I shared bits of wisdom that I thought might help other people. Over the years, it has become more and more a blog about what I am reading. That is okay. Change is healthy. I enjoy sharing my passion for reading with other people. But, I no longer feel comfortable posting essays about change, learning, and similar topics in this blog. The demographics are different. The expectations of the readers are different. So, I am beginning a new blog. Who know how that will evolve over time? Right now it consists of a title and a subtitle.

I certainly am not giving up reading books and writing up my reactions in this blog. Based on the reading list that I have been creating while reading Robert Silverberg’s book of essays, there is a lot of science fiction out there calling for me to read it. Also, I certainly can’t stop reading the Pulitzer Prize winning novels, which I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with. On the other hand, I have read over 120 books so far this year, and I can’t continue that pace and make a living. My goal for the next year is to read a novel a week, more or less.

I love small, semi-structured change. Right now I am going through a far less subtle change in my life. Sidney Harris so wonderfully illustrated that type of change in a cartoon in which a scientist points to a gap in a formula that reads, “And then a miracle happens.” Who know how my blogging life will evolve? I like the structure it gives me and I enjoy sharing my ideas with other people.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Making a Living Without a Job (Non-fiction Book)

Being Joyfully Jobless. Making Self-Esteem a Priority. Looking at Assets. Creating Ideas. Dealing With Obstacles. Implementing Ideas. Developing Multiple Profit Centers. 

Making a Living Without a Job by Barbara J. Winter is changing the way I look at my life and how I fit into the world. Many of us feel like victims in the current economy. Many of us are looking for the next big thing in our lives. Making a Living Without a Job is for those of us who need a major paradigm shift. Winter offers a non-traditional approach to making a living that has worked well for many people. It provides us with ways to be proactive. This is a book that should be read with your notebook or computer beside you so that you can begin to brainstorm how you can implement the ideas.

The main idea of the book is how to be joyfully jobless. In some ways this is similar to being an entrepreneur or being self-employed. It involves being in the world differently: always being aware of your assets, constantly being aware of opportunities and unmet needs, and continuously being willing to grow and evolve.

The book is not new— the copy I read was revised in 2009 —but it is relevant. The book does not cover everything a person needs to know. Certainly many people will need to do more research on their particular interests. But the book is a good starting point, highlights the major practical issues involved in going out on ones own, and has a good bibliography. I have been happily exploring websites and signing up for newsletters. I am reminded of the adage “the proof is in the pudding.” I suppose the final proof is how well the ideas in the book standup to the testing ground of the real lives of those of us who read the book.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Naked Sun (Classic SF Book)

A Murder. A Fetologist. Robots. Robotics. Obscenities. Seeing vs. Viewing. Sociology. Galactic Conquest.

The Naked Sun, the second book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Series, is another Science Fiction/Mystery hybrid. Asimov uses the Laws of Robotics and the sociology of Solaria, the planet where a murder takes place, as clues to help point to the who, how, and why of the murder. The book has a bit of the feel of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. It also takes an interesting look at how a culture evolves.

Briefly, Earth detective Elijah Baley is once again called on to solve a murder, this time on the Outer World of Solaria, a planet that has not had a murder in recent times. Lije is to be the first Earthman to go to an Outer World in centuries. The government on Earth wants him to bring back any information—weaknesses—that might help it gain an advantage over the Outer Worlds. R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot, is once again sent as Lije’s partner. The government of Aurora, who sent Daneel, appears to have its own political agenda. Solaria is a sparsely populated planet, filled with robots. The human inhabitants live most of their lives without having any contact with another human being. In order to solve the murder, Lije must understand the culture as well as overcome his own prejudices and fears. As the story unfolds, Lije learns that there may be more at stake than what he was first led to believe.

Like The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun has a simple storyline compared with today’s standards. The story is still enjoyable. One of the things that I found especially interesting is what people find obscene or repulsive. On Solaria having direct contact with another human being is obscene but having direct contact with the soil is not. Lije is repulsed by nature and by the idea of keeping time based on where the sun is in the sky. What disappointed me about the book was the relative lack of camaraderie between Lije and Daneel, which seemed to be blossoming in the earlier book.