Tuesday, April 19, 2011

#8: I, Robot , #37 The Day of the Triffids

I, Robot:

“You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason---if you pick the proper postulates.” 
“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say 'It's as plain as the nose on your face.' But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?” 
“The Three Laws of Robotics:
1: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm;
2: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law;
3: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law;
The Zeroth Law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

“The Master created humans first as the lowest type, most easily formed. Gradually, he replaced them by robots, the next higher step, and finally he created me, to take the place of the last humans.” 
Unlike Jurassic Park, I, Robot is nothing like the movie based on it. Generally considered one of Isaac Asimov's masterpieces, I, Robot is actually a collection of nine interlinked short stories about the rise of robots on planet Earth. The robots must adhere to three basic laws: don't harm humans, obey humans, and preserve themselves, (in order of importance).
 Each short story is like a riddle that the reader must solve, all concerning problems that arise concerning robots and the Three Laws throughout this future history. Humans create robots, at first, to be nursemaids that aren't as intelligent as humans --as documented in Robbie--and by the collection's end, robots control Earth, but not in the usual  "take over and destroy all humans" way. Rather, the robots are running Earth, and only they stand between humanity and destruction, a grim and stagnant future nonetheless. The stories are are "told" by one Susan Calvin, an old robotics scientist who informs the narrator about the evolution of robots. Particularly interesting stories abound in this volume, but I would especially recommend Runaround, the story of a robot that has its second Law weakly enforced, and its Third Law of Robots strongly enforced, thus causing it to malfunction, running around in a circle; not sure whether to protect itself or obey the human commands it has been given.
Also of interest is Reason, a short piece which dismisses the need for religion, while providing us with another interesting, riddle-like plot. In these two stories, as well as several others, two men named Powell and Donovan are prominently featured. These guys aren't the brightest, but they make for reasonably likeable protagonists who are on the front lines (at all times, it seems) when it comes to new developments in the minds of robots. They remind the reader of a vitally important facet of I, Robot: the evolution of the robotic mind gains pace throughout this work, while the human mind stays stagnant. Powell and Donovan, symbols of humanity, remain relatively static characters, changing slightly due to the experiences and challenges they face, but not evolving at the exponential pace the robots do.
Yet another interesting story in this anthology is Liar! the story of a robot that has been programmed to be able to read minds, but does not tell its human masters what it has truly learned in some cases, because such knowledge would hurt the human masters emotionally, and thus constitute a breaking of the First Law. The robot seems to be even more intelligent than humans at this point --it knows what is good for the characters in the story better than the humans do themselves.
Finally, The Evitable Conflict is a grim, Brave New World-esque finish to this collection, in which human society has stagnated, its "flame has gone out" and only robots keep humanity from destruction. All conflicts now are evitable, only the robots from now on, are inevitable, we are told. Robots are at this point, more powerful than humans, but they keep humanity afloat. This future is perhaps more ominous than the commonly imagined one in which the robots rise up, rebel, and kill humans.
 Those stories and the rest make I, Robot a really interesting read. Don't get me wrong, every story is excellent in its own way --but these four constitute the very best of the anthology. Very logical, entertaining, and not too heavy-handed, I, Robot is yet another recommended read for someone starting out reading SF. And if you're an SF fan, and you haven't read it, what are you waiting for?!! Classic Sci-Fi with some very clever twists.

The Day of the Triffids:

“It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that "it can't happen here" -- that one's own time and place is beyond cataclysm.” 
“I don't think it had ever occurred to me that man's supremacy is not primarily due to his brain, as most of the books would have one think. It is due to the brain's capacity to make use of the information conveyed to it by a narrow band of visible light rays. His civilization, all that he had achieved or might achieve, hung upon his ability to perceive that range of vibrations from red to violet. Without that, he was lost.”  
“Until then I had always thought of loneliness as something negative—an absence of company, and, of course, something temporary... That day I had learned that it was much more. It was something which could press and oppress, could distort the ordinary and play tricks with the mind. Something which lurked inimically all around, stretching the nerves and twanging them with alarms, never letting one forget that there was no one to help, no one to care. It showed one as an atom adrift in vastness, and it waited all the time its chance to frighten and frighten horribly—that was what loneliness was really trying to do; and that was what one must never let it do...” 

“It's humiliating to be dependent, anyway, but it's still a poorer pass to have no one to depend on.” 
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham's masterpiece, is undoubtedly one of the greats of modern SF. "The Greatest SF Masterpiece of our time", though? A bit of a stretch, when you consider, say, Dune, Foundation, Childhood's End, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and the like, but The Day of the Triffids is certainly up there in the upper tier of SF novels.
The Day of the Triffids is one of the great disaster/post-apocalyptic novels, and it's certainly one of the originals. On Earth, giant, seven-foot tall plants known as Triffids appear, seemingly out of nowhere. These plants can uproot their roots from the ground, and "walk". In addition, the plants also sport a killer, venomous stinger that they can shoot out of their flower "head" at the top of their bodies. The Triffids remain relatively a curiosity, but nothing more, until one night, a monumental meteor shower occurs, and the next morning, everyone wakes up blind...
 ...Except for our protagonist, Bill Masen, who has bandages over his eyes that night, and Josella, a woman he meets later on. With essentially the entire population blind, the Triffids strike. Some people attempt to carve out a living in this new world, while others simply commit suicide. The Triffids are not really actually the main focus of the story, although they do play a pivotal role. They prey on the blind people wandering the city of London, where the novel takes place, and pick off and eat humans. Bill and Josella must learn to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, in which, it becomes dreadfully obvious as the novel progresses, most humans will die off, and adapting to this blindness is almost impossible, when everyone else is blind as well.
The Day of the Triffids is the novel that disaster novels should attempt to emulate, and is in every way an SF masterwork. I won't give much more away, but this is certainly an entertaining read about two people who must learn how to deal with a society that is in shambles. The Triffids themselves are the major creative twist to the plot, and at the time, creatures like the Triffids were original like no other fantastical creature before them.
This novel is a fascinating study of survival in a post-apocalyptic world roamed by carnivorous plants. It's enjoyable, interesting, and certainly influential, spawning many other post-apocalyptic, disaster novels and movies. It's also a smart book, with enough intellectual discourse on the whole matter to make the reader think a little. Would you kill yourself in this situation?, is one of the most simple, yet poignant questions the book asks. I might add that The Day of the Triffids is a great title, as well --even the title of this book has spawned countless imitators and parodies of those imitators. This novel is, plain and short, an SF classic that remains engrossing and thought-provoking. It has action as well, but it focuses on more than just violence and bloodshed like many of its predecessors did. A great read and another justifiably popular, fan-favorite, mainstream, science fiction classic.

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