Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Awfulness of 'The Robots of Dawn'

The Awfulness of 'The Robots of Dawn'
I recently was looking through the November, 1983 issue of Penthouse magazine, which features an excerpt of the Isaac Asimov novel 'The Robots of Dawn', which was published in hardback in October, 1983 (and in paperback a year later).
In 1983, Penthouse was a major periodical, and to have a novel excerpted in its pages was a big deal. Asimov's book got star treatment, with a double-page spread featuring an illustration (very reminiscent of H. R. Giger) by the French artist Gerard Di-Maccio. 
Reading the excerpt brought home to me just how awful mainstream sci-fi was in the early 1980s, and just how mediocre the major authors in the field were at writing prose. Here's a paragraph from 'Robots':

Baley said, in a low voice. "If you mean as far as being Outside is concerned, I am not even aware of it. If you mean as far as our dilemma is concerned, I think I am as close to giving up as I can possibly be without putting myself into an ultrasonic brain-dissolving chamber." Then, passionately, he cried, "Why did you send for me, Dr. Fastole ? Why have you given me this impossible job ? What have I ever done to you, to be treated so ?"

Ultrasonic brain-dissolving chamber ? Holy shit, this is bad. It's pulp prose, that actually is  popping up in a 1983 novel that was published by Doubleday, distributed in chain bookstores like Waldenbooks, and a New York Times bestseller, to boot !

Here's another gem of Asimovian dialogue:

"Then let me answer your questions connectedly, Elijah, and don't bark them at me as though you expected to surprise me into telling you something I would otherwise keep secret." She said it without noticeable anger. It was almost as though she were amused.

First time in my life I've ever seen the adverb 'connectedly'. And didn't Asimov realize that by 1983, characters in novels no longer could get away with 'barking' ?

And here's a cringeworthy discourse on human - robot sex, which underlies the plot of the novel:

"He did so, and it was only when he was completely unclothed that I quite realized how close to human he was. Nothing was lacking and those portions which might be expected to be erectile were, indeed, erectile. Indeed, they were under what, in a human, would be called conscious control. Jander could tumesce and detumesce on order. He told me so when I asked him if his penis was functional in that respect. I was curious, and he demonstrated."

The entire six-page excerpt published in Penthouse is nothing but dialogue: stilted, wooden, contrived, Asimov trying to show us what a capable writer he was. And yet as awful as 'Robots' was, the novel was considered a major example of science fiction's emancipation into the realm of high-profile hardbound publishing. In 1984 was nominated for Hugo and Nebula awards.

I'm very glad that back in 1983, I didn't buy into the hype, and stayed away from 'The Robots'. I was well aware that sci-fi at that time was quite moribund. 

But things were starting to change, subtly, back in 1983. Change in the form of short stories by newer writers named Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear, and William Gibson, among others. 

I'm currently reading 'Crystal Express', a collection of Sterling stories published the 1980s, the same era of 'The Robots of Dawn'. His prose markedly is superior to Asimov's, even though Sterling was then in the early stages of his authorial career.

In issue 4 (1983) of his 1980s zine Cheap Truth, Sterling (writing as 'Vincent Omniaveritas'), had this to say about 'The Robots of Dawn':
I started with the intention of writing something about Isaac Asimov's ROBOTS OF DAWN.  And then I thought, why do you want to do that? That old hack isn't the problem. Just another guy resurrecting the decaying flesh of ideas, plots, and characters dead thirty years now, pumping in a little '80's topicality (lame sex), and grabbing himself a whole bunch of money and a chrome rocket.  What the hell?  You give a guy a license to steal, you've got to expect him to use it.

But who gave him the license?  That's better, much more to the point.
First, though, look further.  An endless stream of Dune books, leper books, Riverworld books, 2010-and-counting books, Majipoor books, magic blue horse books....help me, Jesus, I can't do it by myself.

It can't be the books.  Most are unreadable, some merely boring, and a few achieve the exalted status of a well-prepared cheeseburger.

Sterling was on target.

No one knew it at the time, but 1984 would see the publication of 'Neuromancer' and 'Dr. Adder', and the advent of cyberpunk and its authors, one of which was Sterling. Nowadays, when someone thinks of 1980s science fiction, they think of 'Neuromancer' and not 'The Robots of Dawn'. And that's right and proper............


Dr. Jerrold Coe said...

Wow, what a snapshot of mediocrity, and a genre running on fumes.

Andy said...

I've never much liked Asimov's work, even in his prime. That he's considered a Big 3 Author for the genre more indicts the genre, or at least whoever comes up with those designations, than makes Asimov look good.