Newsletter issue #3 is now out! For this letter, I decided to focus on one thing that I’ve been thinking about lately: how Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics helped add to the conversation about robots and AI, why we need more fiction that is aimed at solving technological problems, and why more leaders really should read stories that are about that.
I got an interesting e-mail last night, which summed up to ‘Could Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein’s focus on computers and technology explain why Herbert's creations have fared better over time?’
It’s an interesting question, one that’s worth picking apart a bit. Certainly, Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein are still pretty popular. If you go to a bookstore, you’ll likely see their works on the shelves, alongside the newer bestsellers. But I kind of agree: while they’re popular, they’re static, and I don’t think that they’re entirely as relevant as they were when they were first published.
Certainly, the technology that they envisioned and championed in their works is a far cry from what’s available today. Asimov famously didn’t use a computer until the 1980s, but he also put together his “Three Laws of Robotics” that still gets airplay whenever we talk about AI and robotics today. Clarke and Heinlein also had their own impacts on how we conceptualize space travel and life elsewhere.
But my guess is that their (relative) decline from their heydays has less to do with the technology getting dated, and more about what those stories were actually about. The formative years of the modern genre are deeply rooted in conceptual electronics and technologies: Hugo Gernsback's earlier magazine efforts were electronics magazines, with science fiction coming in as a happy side effect that later came out in Amazing Stories. Later, John W. Campbell Jr. also started out by writing stories that focused heavily on technology, and brought that sensibility over to Astounding Science Fiction when he began editing it. Reading those stories today, and one thing is really glaring: they really didn’t put a lot of thought into how society and culture worked, and that extends into their characters.
That’s something that’s really changed for the genre as a whole. There were certainly authors who focused more heavily on characters and society and culture, but that just doesn’t seem like it was part of the marketplace, and I think that’s sort of why Dune has endured. Herbert’s book really isn't a technological science fiction novel; t's far more interested in court intrigue, dynastic politics, and society at large — all things that are still deeply interesting today. I can’t really speak to Herbert’s other works, but Dune always felt different in ways that the works of Clarke and Heinlein did. Dune concerns the rise and fall of dynasties across vast parts of space.
I’m making some very broad generalizations, and I’ll throw Asimov a bone: Foundation covers some of the same ground, and that book is still pretty popular. But compared to Dune, it never really felt as interesting. Larry Niven’s Ringworld saga also covers the vast rise and fall of civilizations, although he doesn’t exactly handle some of the cultural stuff all that well, particularly with the character Teela Brown.
But I think that there’s a bigger reason for why Dune feels like it’s sticking around: Frank Herbert might be dead, but his son Brian has been actively actively championing his works, and keeping the franchise around. I spoke with him and Kevin Anderson back in 2016, who have added books to the franchise over the years, and are now actively working to put together a new film adaptation, to be helmed by Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve. Their efforts are huge when it comes to Herbert’s work, because for better or for worse, they’re keeping the Dune franchise in the limelight. Dune is a good foundation for a bigger shared universe to begin with, but while Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke are still popular with readers, they really don't have a single person championing their respective visions, either an obsessed offspring, or devoted fan-author. Their estates are really just making sure that their works remain in print, and haven’t been adding to their respective bodies. You see the same thing with the world of J.R.R. Tolkien: his son Christopher has devoted his life to expanding his father's legacy, and has brought out a number of new books in the last couple of decades, and as recently as this year.
The publishing and entertainment industry as a whole is extremely focused not just on individual works, but on the intellectual property that an author generates. This isn’t anything new: Asimov, Heinlein, Ursula Le Guin, Niven, and others all wrote in massive “future histories” in which they wrote stories that shared a common story. While they were writing stories that earned them money per word, having a common universe to return to made generating new stories far easier than generating something from scratch each and every time. Authors are doing it today as well: Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence comes to mind, as does James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series, Martha Wells’ Murderbot novellas, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut stories, or Carrie Vaughn’s Harry and Marlowe stories. They’re telling a larger story spread out across varying mediums.
A good example of this is also the much larger franchise, like Star Trek or Star Wars. Back in 2015, I took a deep dive into the history of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and came away with an interesting revelation: the books were a key reason for why George Lucas rebooted Star Wars with the prequels: the continual release of new content from the series kept fans engaged. Otherwise, the Star Wars trilogy would likely have remained back in the 1970s and 1980s: favored classics that wouldn’t have as rich a world as it now has. It’s also why the franchise caught Disney’s attention, and why it’s arguably one of the biggest entertainment franchises in the world: it’s something fans can continually engage with, and it’s something that’s continually updated not only with new content, but with content that’s relevant to a far more diverse and global audience.
Dune, I think is in a similar boat, and has a leg up on Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein: the fans have remained engaged with the huge number of new books that have come out over the years, keeping interest alive in the franchise as whole. The same could likely be done with the works of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, provided the right person was at the helm, with the willingness to not merely re-release their books, but reinterpret and build on their worlds and IP for new audiences. Given the keen amount of attention that major studies and streaming platforms have placed on original content and new IP to develop, I’m a little surprised that the names of the “Big Three” don’t come up more often. But, there’s plenty of authors and properties that will take their place.
While I've written about books and magazines for this column, there's other mediums where science fiction lives: television and film. I haven't talked about that much for the column (given that Kirkus Reviews is primarily a book magazine), but there's some fascinating times when they've crossed over. One such case is one of the first science fiction television shows, which caught my interest based on the authors who wrote for it: Asimov, Clarke, Vance, and others. The show was Captain Video and his Video Rangers, and it's a neat program that forms a solid branch from the literature world to the television world, helping to bring about other major television shows that followed.
As a bonus, there's several episodes online:
[archiveorg id=captainvideo width=640 height=480] Go read Captain Video and his Science Fiction Authors over on Kirkus Reviews.
- The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976: The History of the Subculture, Lester Del Rey. Del Rey mentions this show in passing, and how it related to the early TV world at the time.
- The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World,
- Thomas M. Disch. Disch also mentions this in passing, and notes that it's a forerunner to some of the early TV shows.
- Arthur C. Clarke: The Authorized Biography, by Neil McAleer. There's some great quotes in here from Clarke's experience working on the show, as well as quotes from the producer, Druce.
- Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time, edited by Larry Steckler. This fannish (read, meh) biography of Gernsback provides some good context for SF as a technological phenomenon.
- The Forgotten Network: DuMont and the Birth of American Television, David Weinstein. This book has some fantastic information about the DuMont network and particularly, some great details about the TV show and the behind the scenes work, although not much about the authors.
- Captain Video and his Video Ranger, Museum of Broadcast Communications. This entry on the MBC's website is a nice overview of the Captain Video television show.
- Captain Video. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a solid entry on the show and its place in genre history.
- Captain Video and His Video Rangers. I hate to admit it, but Wikipedia was fairly helpful here, pointing me to several places and giving me some people to look up.
Looking over my bookshelves, I had a bit of a revelation: there are very few books that really use robots as characters in them. Taking a look, I only see Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and several additional collections of short stories, a collection of Ray Bradbury stories that contains 'There Will Come Soft Rains', a couple of Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ekaterina Sedia's Alchemy of Stone and maybe a couple of others that I passed over. An additional trio of books: Ambassadors from Earth, Edison's Eve and Wired For War all represent a significant figure when it comes to real - life robotic systems and theory. However, looking over the movies that I have on my shelves, robotic characters readily come to mind: C-3P0 and R2-D2 from Star Wars, The Terminator from that franchise, Robbie from Forbidden Planet, the replicants from Blade Runner, Ash from Alien, Andrew from Bicentennial Man, Sonny from I, Robot, and so forth.
I have to wonder about this: there is a large gap in recognizable characters between the two mediums, film and literature. Film seems to contain far more in the way of robots, androids and mechs that come to mind, while I have a difficult time remembering the names of some of the characters from some of my absolute favorite science fiction books.
The first element in which film readily becomes the better medium is its visual nature, allowing for elaborate costumes, props and CGI'ed components of metal and plastics that make up what audiences really think about with robotic characters. Some of the most dramatic imagery from science fiction cinema includes robots: C-3P0 and R2 in the hallway of the Tanative IV, The Terminator coming out of the flames, Ash getting his head bashed in, and so forth. Simply put, robotics are more visual, allow for some differences between living characters and their mechanical servants.
The use of the term 'Robot' goes back to 1923 (1) with Karel Čapek's play, Rossum's Universal Robots, and according to genre historian Adam Roberts, came at a certain time of anti-machinery sentiment with science fiction at the time, with other books, such as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Olaf Stapledon's The Last and First Men look to the use of mechanical and scientific processes and as a result, a population that overly depends upon them as something wholly against nature and counter-productive to humanity as a whole: societies are generally dystopic and dehumanize their inhabitants. This somewhat fits with some modern science fiction films, such as the far futures of The Terminator and The Matrix, and even with Wall*E, where an overreliance of machines results in our destruction, or at least an enormous disruption of society. (2) Indeed, Robot comes from the Czech term robota, which translates to servitude.(3)
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that early views towards robotics weren't necessarily looked at in any sort of favorable light: throughout history, a constant struggle between leaders and those being led has come about, and one lesson that a history teacher (Mr. David Munford, thank you), imparted was the destruction of clocks and machines during one early worker uprising. The use of factories in particular lends itself well to machinery and associated dystopia images and themes. Henry Ford put to good use the assembly line, which relegated skilled labor to fastening single bolts day in and day out. It is particularly ironic that those human workers were in turn replaced by robots who do the same roles for them.
In literature, then, the use of robotics goes far beyond characters, but is typically used as part of a larger theme that a novel is trying to push across to the reader. The Three Laws of Robotics that are central to Isaac Asimov's robot books are particularly conscious of this fact, and represents some level of paranoia on the part of the human race that at some points, robots will eventually take over humanity because of their inherent strengths over human flesh: stronger, faster, smarter, etc. This makes Asimov’s novels somewhat different from the earlier books with mechanical imagery linked to dystopia: Asimov’s world shows where a fall of society has not occurred because of the indulgences by humans, but generally only because the robots that we’ve essentially created in our own image are just as screwed up as we are. Dystopia, in this case, may be in Asimov’s futures – we certainly see that in his Foundation stories – but for the time being, he views a world with robotics as one where robotics act as a natural counterpart for humanity, rather than a replacement, although the threat, held in place by his three laws, is still there.
In films, however, different elements are brought out: robots are the servants of humanity & associated sentient life in Star Wars, performing vital and specialized tasks while interfacing with their creators. The same goes for the robots in Blade Runner and Wall*E. At other points, they're used for war, such as in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, where they then turn on their human creators for a variety of reasons, or under the control of a vast, superhuman intellect, such as in the Terminator franchise. Here, these elements often, but not always, hearken back to a sort of dystopia, where robotics are part of a larger problem: it represents the failure of the human race to continue with its biological need to reproduce, and demonstrates some basic elements of life itself: Darwinism or survival of the fittest. Those that cannot keep up, will be destroyed, or at least overcome.
Within literature, the larger themes of dystopia and robotics are used, with the protagonist generally someone who overcomes the system/society/social norm to relearn what it means to be human, and there is a larger theme of the scientific, mechanical, logical order, represented by robotics, and a more organic, theological, chaos, represented by people. At points, this is represented with some very pointed examples: Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’, which shows a robotic house living diligently on long after its inhabitants have destroyed themselves. However, the reason that robots themselves seem to be fewer and farther between is because there is an inherent need for this dystopia theme to be present in the film: it represents the weakness of humanity, carries with it religious overtones and two extremely different styles of thinking all wrapped up into a single character, which oftentimes, seems to be difficult to work in or really justify as a regular character in a book that takes just part of the story, especially if they are not the central part of a story. Their existence represents so much in relation to their human counterparts, it would seem almost a waste to have a story with a side character as a robotic entity, rather than fleshing out everything that he/she/it represents.
With movies, these themes are there occasionally, but generally, explosions and violence comes first and foremost in the eyes of paying audience members.
1 - Jeff Prucher, Editor. Brave New Worlds: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2007, 164 2 - Adam Roberts. The History of Science Fiction. Palgrave Press, 2005, 159 3 - Ibid, 168
So, this year, I read a total of 21 books, far below the total number that I was shooting for - around 40 or so. There are some large gaps - February, March, May, and much of the fall, which coincides nicely with the numerous writing projects that I had going on throughout the year. With this coming year, I'm hoping to read quite a lot more as my schedule allows, and I've got quite an extensive list, as I've been steadily expanding my own personal library - I'm up to 748 books now. That number is sure to grow in the next 12 months.
1 - Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, Matthew Stover (1-2) This was probably the last Star Wars book that's come out that I've really liked. Stover is always an interesting writer, and here, he takes cues from some of the earliest Star Wars books and plays up the pulp factor. This one is fast, engaging and entertaining. In a nutshell, it harkened back to the Bantam Spectra days of Star Wars literature, and that's a good thing. I've got a huge backlog of books from the series that I just haven't gotten around to reading, simply because I'm not all that interested anymore.
2 - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Suzanna Clarke (1-11) Jonathan Strange is by far one of my favorite books of the decade, and one of the greatest fantasy books since J.R.R. Tolkien. Elegantly written, plotted and conceptualized, Clarke has put together a masterpiece. It took me several years to get through the first half of this book, but when I finally sat down to read it, I absolutely couldn't put it down. I can't wait to read it again.
3 - The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, Thomas Disch (1-25) I completely forgot about this book, and had to look it up - it's a history of Science Fiction. It was interesting, but I took some issue with some of the things that he brought up at times. I can't for the life of me remember what, but I preferred Adam Robert's history of SF. I picked up the book because I was thinking that I was going to be reading and writing more about the origins of Science Fiction, but that never really panned out. Still, it wasn't a total loss of a read, and it did make some good points about the genre.
4 - Firearms: A Global History to 1700, Kenneth Chase (1-25) This was the only school book that I've actually gone back to, to read over again (although there's one other one that I'm planning on reading again), and that's the history of firearms. This book does a bit more than go through the motions of firearms - it examines the impact on tactics and the makeup of armies (it was revolutionary) and how the technology travelled from Asia to Europe. I used for a couple of my classes and it's highly engaging, interesting and informative.
5 - Wired for War, PW Singer (3-19) PW Singer's book on Robots in Warfare was a fantastic book, easily one of my favorites and something that I'll read in the future. Exceptionally thought out and researched, it not only looks at robotics, but the military command structure and environment, which to me, is far more interesting, and gives the book a significant party piece when it comes to talking about the future of the military. I got to see Mr. Singer talk, and he signed my book, and had a blast doing it.
6 - It's Been A Good Life, Isaac Asimov (4-1) Asimov's shorter biography, this was a quick reread that I'd wanted to do for a while. His life is pretty interesting, from his experience with the military to his start as a writer. Asimov is one of my absolute favorite Science Fiction writers, and it's interesting to see some of the behind the scenes elements to his works. It's a little self-indulgent, I think, but worth reading all the same.
7 - The Catch, Archer Mayor (4-7) Archer Mayor's book from last year, this was another fun book from him. This one introduced a couple new characters and themes, but I liked this year's better - this one was ultimately forgettable, until this year's Price of Malice, and the plot fell pretty flat for me. I think that the two of them could have been combined to become one novel, and it would have worked much better. It's a good reminder that I really need to read some of the older ones again.
8 - It Happened In Vermont, Mark Bushnell (4-16) This is a book of historical thumbnails on Vermont. Lots of fun information on a variety of topics throughout the state's history, but it misses some crucial ones that will be historically relevant in the coming years. The earlier elements provide quite a bit of detail, and some good stories about this state, but honestly, how does one not include something like Civil Unions?
9 - The Soloist, Steve Lopez (4-27) There was a movie based off of this, which looked good, and the book was only a couple of dollars in the bargain pile. It is the story of a reporter for the LA Times and a Schizophrenic man who was a musical prodigy and provides an interesting look at the homeless and LA.
10 - The Book of Lost Things, John Connolley (5-28) I really enjoyed this fantasy book by John Connolley - It's quite a dark book, but I like that. It takes a number of fantasy fairy tales, such as the knight in shining armor, the seven dwarves and a couple others, and puts a new, modern twist on them in a way that reminded me of Pan's Labyrinth.
11 - Rocket Men, Craig Nelson (6-13) This book was instrumental in my capstone and my thinking about space. This is the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and talks a lot about the mission beforehand. I gather that there are some inaccuracies, but I'm willing to let that slide because of some of the concepts that he brings up - the economics of a space program, for example.
12 - The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (6-15) Neil Gaiman's latest book was a delight to read - a wonderfully dark young adult novel that's been nominated for a number of awards, about a boy who grows up in a graveyard. I wonder when a movie will be made of this one.
13 - Explorer's House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Robert Poole (7-29) This is the type of history that I really like - looking at the world through a much smaller thing, and what is more influential than the National Geographic? This book traces the magazine and society's history from the beginning to the present day, and gives a very interesting insight to both.
14 - The Magicians, Lev Grossman (8-19) I loved this book, a modern, dark, brooding and realistic fantasy tale that takes points from the best of Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia. Grossman has put forth an interesting entry into the Fantasy genre, and it's become one of my favorites.
15 - Old Man's War, John Scalzi (9-8) I've rapidly become a fan of John Scalzi because of this book, and his blog, Whatever. This is a pretty ordinary take on the super soldier/ military SF theme, but it's a fun one, and I've already picked up the sequels for some time that I'm in the mood for military Sci Fi.
16 - Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks (9-17) Banks came highly recommended to me, and this book was a fun one to read. Exceptional world building - the pacing was a bit off - and interesting characters. It's an epic space opera and adventure, and I'm looking forward to the next couple books in the series.
17 - The Windup Girl, Paolo Bachaglupi (10-6) If this book doesn't win a Hugo Award, I'm going to be very, very annoyed. This has to be the best SF book in years, with a brilliant future imagined for the planet, with multiple storylines, politics and motives from the characters. It’s an exceptional book.
18 - The Price of Malice, Archer Mayor (10-11) Archer Mayor's latest, and one that I really enjoyed, more so than The Catch, and it took on a bit from his earlier books, in my mind. I can’t wait for next year’s book.
19 - The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, George Friedman (10-19) Ugh. I didn't like this book that much, but it had some interesting points. I found Friedman's book to be an infuriating read, simply because of the assumptions and things that he missed over. Not highly recommended, but there are some good points that he makes - how to think about history and historical events, for example.
20 - Clone Wars: No Prisoners, Karen Traviss (10-20) One of Karen Traviss's last Star Wars books, it's an okay entry, nowhere as good as her Commando books. It’s a fun, throwaway reading for an afternoon. I read it in a day.
21 - Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt (11-1) The last book that I read last year was back in November, although I have a bunch started that I'm working on getting through. This book is a fantastic one to read - reminded me a lot of Wired for War, in that it's well researched and interesting, and in my mind, essential for anybody who wants to get behind the steering wheel. Already, it's helped me to understand why we drive the way we do, and it's affected how I percieve traffic problems, and how I drive.
That's what I read last year. I've already got quite a list for the coming year, and I'm excited to see how many I get through.