This term I’m doing a directed reading course with a master’s candidate at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She’s taking a course at CUNY on feminism approaches to science fiction films and television, so our reading course is meant to offer a more traditional approach to science fiction or, more broadly, speculative fiction. Thus far we’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888), H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915). For this week we read two of Isaac Asimov’s robot novels from the 1950s, The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957).
The term “robot” had first appeared in 1921 in the play R.U.R. by the Czech playwright Karel ?apek. The word was coined by ?apek’s brother, Josef, and it comes from the Czech word robota, which means “forced labor” or “servitude.” R.U.R. stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” and ?apek’s allegorical play depicts a company whose founder, Rossum, (from the Czech rozum, meaning “reason”) has discovered how to make artificial persons. His nephew realizes that by simplifying the process and stripping these persons of feelings and other unnecessary attributes, he can create the perfect worker — the robot. These robots are much in demand; eventually they are used as mercenaries, with devastating results. And when the wife of the company’s director secretly has one of the scientists enable the robots to transcend some of their limitations because she feels sorry for them, disaster ensues. The robots revolt, and in the end all human beings but one — a worker — are killed. The play ends when two robots — one male, one female — develop emotions: it is they who will repopulate the earth with a new race of super beings.
Isaac Asimov’s robot novels consciously depart from the negative conception of robots that begins with R.U.R., because he steadfastly believes in the perfectionist possibilities of technological progress. Asimov’s robots have a built-in safety valve: the so-called “Three Laws of Robotics,” a set of instructions hardwired into all robots, which require them to put the interests and safety of human beings ahead of their own. In order of strict priority, the laws are: 1) Protect humans; 2) Obey humans; and 3) Protect yourself.
Asimov’s innovation is to imagine an earth that has evolved into a collection of vast cities that are essentially hives: he tests communist ideology from within by exploring it through that most individualistic of genres, the detective novel. And he ultimately finds that life in these hive-like cities is efficient but lacking in heart and soul. Its inhabitants cease to be individuals and become drones. At the same time, however, Asimov’s two novels teach the virtues of tolerance, pluralism, and democratic openness. For one of the other things that the detective Elijah Baley learns in these novels is respect for those who are different, whether they are humans or the robots. Rejecting both Communism and McCarthyism, Asimov’s robot novels advocate a return to Emersonian self-reliance and a more fully realized version of American liberalism.
What I’d forgotten about The Caves of Steel, however, is that it is set in New York. Here is What Baley sees when he looks at the window of the police commissioner’s office:
Even dimmed by the weather, the City was a tremendous thing to see. The Police Department was in the upper levels of City Hall, and City Hall reached high. From the Commissioner’s window, the neighboring towers fell short and the tops were visible. They were so many fingers, groping upward. Their walls were blank, featureless. They were the outer shells of human hives.
Later on we learn a little more about the new New York, as Baley, an amateur historian, thinks about the city’s past:
The City now! New York City in which he lived and had his being. Larger than any City but Los Angeles. More populous than any but Shanghai. It was only three centuries old.
To be sure, something had existed in the same geographic area before then that had been called New York City. That primitive gathering of population had existed for three thousand years, not three hundred, but it hadn’t been a City.
There were no Cities then. There were just huddles of dwelling places large and small, open to the air. . . . These huddles (the largest barely reached ten million in population and most never reached one million) were scattered all over Earth by the thousands. By modern standards, they had been completely inefficient economically.
Baley concludes that “the City was the culmination of man’s mastery over the environment. Not space travel, not the fifty colonized worlds that were now so haughtily independent, but the City.” Very few people live outside the Cities: “Outside was wilderness, the open sky that few men could face with anything like equanimity.”
It sounds like Robert Moses’s idea of paradise. What Baley discovers, of course, is that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
My student, Erika Nelson, has more to say about the novel on her blog, Confessions of an Aspiring Science Fiction Scholar.
This is the last week to see a new adaptation of R.U.R. here in the city. Universal Robots plays at Manhattan Theatre Source through March 7. Tickets are sold out but I’m considering bribery.