Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

Surreality – The Caves Of Steel

We’re in week two of the campaign for Surreality, and I need your help more than ever.You can read the first two chapters (which includes the introduction to the character profiled in this post), and nominate at the link below. Help keep Surreality a “hot and trending” book on Kindle Scout. If Kindle Press decides to publish my book, you get a free copy and the satisfaction of helping an independent author. Thanks so much 🙂

https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/2VSHAGFXNJ50T

Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors. He wasn’t exactly a master of prose, but he was definitely a master of ideas. He got more mileage out of three laws of robotics than most authors get out of a whole notebook full of ideas. His later fiction strays into some weird territory (not a big fan of the Gaia sections of the Foundation series or of the direction he takes some of the later robot novels), but one of his early works, The Caves of Steel, is one of my favorite books and an indirect inspiration for one of the characters in Surreality.

TheCavesOfSteel

The Caves of Steel is a science-fiction mystery. The earth of this world is densely populated, with most of the population living in vast underground cities. Some colonization of outer worlds has begun, but the population of those planets is kept deliberately low to allow for increased wealth and extended lifespans. Robots are all but banned on Earth, whereas for the Spacers (the outer colonists) robots are an essential part of maintaining their lifestyle, and are advanced enough as to have a human-like appearance.

When a Spacer ambassador to Earth is murdered, Elijah Bailey is partnered with spacer robot, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve the case. Olivaw serves as a guide to Spacer culture and robots for Bailey, who’s a bit of a curmudgeon (his catch phrase is “Jehosophat!”), and doesn’t trust that the three laws are enough to keep a robot from being responsible for the murder. He also doubts R. Daneel’s capabilities as an investigator, since he is merely a program without the instinct or understanding of human emotions of a true detective.

Surreality is what I call a technological-mystery, though one of its characters, an advanced artificial intelligence, borders on science-fiction. Synthia, short for “Synthetic Intelligence-Algorithm”, is assigned to Detective Keenan when he is tasked with investigating a murder in the virtual world of Surreality. She serves as his guide and partner, since Keenan is a man not familiar with computers, or with this game world in particular. Keenan has some of the same doubts about Synthia’s abilities, and building their partnership through the book presented some of the same challenges, ups and downs.

In the world of Surreality we’re presented with three kinds of in-game characters, avatars, or characters controlled by real-life players, NPC’s “non-player characters” that serve as background ornamentation to the game’s environments, and artificial intelligences like Synthia, who live in the game world, but are more than just a few programmed responses.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Are you real?”

“Of course I’m real. I’m as real as everything you see here,” she laughed. “I’m not real in the sense you mean, as in a human controlling a puppet in here, but I am real. My full name is Synthetic Intelligence Algorithm, or Synthia for short. Pleased to meet you.” She gave a little mock salute.

“So . . . you’re a program?”

“Not my preferred term but essentially accurate, though that’s a little like reducing your whole existence down to how you think. I have a body and interact with my environment just like you do. Yes, my thought patterns are determined by complex mathematical algorithms, but yours might be too. After all, you are a detective. Your thought process has to be ordered or you’d never solve a case, right?”

Synthia’s a little feistier than Daneel, and doesn’t have the same explicit restrictions. Truthfully she’s fun to write, and probably one of my favorite characters of the whole book (probably why she made the cover). There are things we’ll trust to computers, journals, blogs, that we might never say to the people in our lives. And characters like Synthia give voice to perspectives outside of the patterns our characters are used to operating in.

PS. Thanks to my mom who suggested I read The Caves of Steel back in the day.

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My Pop-Culture Myopia

Pop Culture Happy Hour (or PCHH) is a regular Friday afternoon pastime of mine. This past Friday they were discussing “Pop Culture Myopias” or areas of pop culture that you love despite any evidence to the contrary, otherwise known as the “Billy Joel” line.

For myself this myopia is pretty obvious: Isaac Asimov.

In the words of Professor Frink: “So many books, not too many good.”

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I read most of the Asimov canon sometime between Middle School and the end of High School. I have read all seven of the Foundation books, the four robot novels, and hundreds of short stories and lesser novels. My bookshelves downstairs are lined with back issues of his science-fiction magazine, back when he wrote the editorial column.

Now don’t get me wrong, Asimov is one of the best science (fiction or otherwise) thinkers of all time. The three laws of robotics formed the basis of countless stories, and are even adopted as general principles by many researching AI.

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

(Source: Wikipedia)

The Powell and Donovan robot stories in particular are probably one of the reasons why I’m an engineer, and have influenced some of my writing including Atlantia.

The Foundation series introduced the idea of using mathematics for societal change. And even the detective stories like The Caves of Steel, or the Black Widowers stories offered intellectual puzzles, or noir-esque mysteries that were stylistically formative to a young writer.

But the man can’t write women to save his life, a flaw which is by no means unique among authors of his time, but nonetheless damning. His later books are probably twice as long as they need to be, and riddled with bizarre philosophies of Gaia, or the following:

 A breakfast pastry, kind of like a croissant or baklava, filled with a warm honey like filling that is so messy it must be eaten naked.

And let’s not forget the chops:

isaac-asimov2

Granted, if you shaved out the middle of my beard at the moment, I’d be rockin’ chops of equal magnitude, but still.

His prose can be painful. It certainly doesn’t have the poetic quality of Bradbury (though at least he’s not as dull as Clarke).

And yet I love him. An Asimov book that I do not own is probably one of the few physical books I buy without even thinking twice. Sometimes even duplicate copies. My paperbacks of Asimov are all dog-eared and well loved from multiple readings. I listen to audiobooks, and I even love the two Asimov movies, even though I, Robot is nothing like the book, and Bicentennial Man suffers a serious case of Robin Williams.

And his essays are hilarious, even ones on science topics that are long out of date. He tells funny dirty jokes and his voice is a unique one to say the least. And he’s responsible for this guy and his positronic brain:

Celebrity City

I know that I will be introducing Asimov to my children, probably one of the first books my mom suggested to me, the aforementioned Caves of Steel. And I’ll be reading him for years to come, no matter what anyone says.

What are your pop-culture myopias?

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Doctor, Doctor, Cut my throat!

No, this isn’t a cry for help, merely proof that Isaac Asimov has written about everything.

While browsing through the labyrinth of stacks at the Acorn Bookshop last Friday, I came upon a collection of Asimov’s science essays from about 40 years ago. Typically, Asimov afficiando though I am, I don’t tend to pick up out of date science articles from the 70s. But this collection had an interesting title, The tragedy of the moon, and one article in particular with the unfortunate title I repurposed for today’s post.

Seems Asimov and I both had thyroid trouble, though his tumor was benign and only required the removal of half his thyroid. Here’s the difference forty years makes, apparently his Doctor cut an incision ear to ear, and was poking around for four hours! Asimov’s response to this, largely under the influence of anaesthetic, was the following:

Doctor, Doctor, with green coat,
Doctor, Doctor, cut my throat
And when you’ve cut it, Doctor, then,
Won’t you sew it up again?

Suffice it to say my original reaction, under less dire circumstances (namely a 3 inch cut), was not quite so sanguine.

Asimov continues the article with a fascinating historical tale of the discovery of hormones in the early 20th century, and how they came from research on nerves.

A few tidbits you might enjoy:

– Pavlov, known for his salivating dogs and conditioned responses, got his start, and his Nobel, from nerve research on dogs. These dogs did not make out quite as well as the ones in his later research.

– Thyroid pills, in Asimov’s time anyway, are made from the thyroid glands of slaughtered livestock. If this is still true, I don’t want to know.

– Thyroid means ‘shield-like’.

– Asimov did not care much for Doctors, and Doctors seemed bemused with him.

You can read the rest of the article in the aforementioned book, or the August 1972 issue of F&SF, or possibly on the web. Anyone dug up any good books lately, particulary ones that are personally relevant?

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