Sci-Fi Month: Robot vs. Robot

When I was planning out the books to read and review for Sci-Fi Month, I originally chose The Caves of Steel and Rendezvous with Rama. However, as Sci-Fi Month came closer, I realized that it would be more in keeping with my theme of robots if I were to review Madeline Ashby’s vN instead. Reviews of vN had compared Madeline Ashby to Asimov before, largely, I think simply because they both wrote about robots. I decided to read the two books and explore this comparison more fully.

These two books and their authors form a counterpoint to each other in several ways. One author from the print-driven Golden Age of science fiction, and one author from the digital age of the 21st century. One book that looks at the future of robots from the human side, and one book that looks at the same subject from the robots’ perspective. Comparing The Caves of Steel and vN reveals not only Asimov’s and Ashby’s very different writing styles, but also two vastly different ways of depicting humanoid robots.

In The Caves of Steel, the robot Daneel is physically precision-crafted to reflect an adult human appearance – so human, in fact, that Daneel’s true robotic nature is nearly impossible to tell at glance – but he is created with a hard, mechanical structure; under “a thin layer of flesh-like material, was the dull blue-gray of stainless steel rods, cords, and joints.” (pg 109). The machine-like nature of Asimov’s robots is apparent in a rather unsettling scene midway through the book after Daneel and Baley have returned from dinner – which, surprisingly, Daneel was able to eat. It is then revealed that the food has been safely stored away, undigested and intact, inside a compartment in Daneel’s stomach, which he casually disposes of.

This mechanical nature extends to Daneel’s mental construction as well. Daneel, like all of Asimov’s robots, is mentally constructed according to the Asimov’s Three Laws, preventing him from harming a human being or through inaction, allowing a human to come into harm, as well as ensuring he obeys human orders. Throughout the story, there is no question that Daneel is incapable of diverting from his programming and that he is mentally no more than the sum of his parts:

A robot’s brain must be finite or it can’t be built. It must be calculated to the final decimal place so that it has an end… a robot can look like Daneel, he can look like a god, and be no more human than a lump of wood is.”

Both physically and mentally, these aspects of Daneel’s character contribute to the impression of him, and Asimov’s robots in general, as simply complex, unapproachable human-like machines.

Ashby’s robots, by contrast, are more biological in their construction. While vN are machines as well, composed of silicon and other metals, they are able to consume metals and plastics and absorb them at a molecular level into their bodies. Unlike Asimov’s robots, the vN can grow from childhood to adulthood, and have the ability to regenerate damaged body parts, parts which are described in the book as being and feeling as realistic as human body parts. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of vN is that Ashby has described the vN structure realistically enough that when vN are damaged, you can’t help but cringe. Here’s some of the scene describing the vN Amy’s consumption of her grandmother:

Amy’s grandmother sank to her knees. Amy dug her fingers into the older woman’s skin and pulled. Flesh flensed away from the ribs; aerogel piped out in a smoke-stack. It coated Amy’s hair and hands and face. The ribcage shuddered and trembled in her grip before finally giving way with a groan. It was not hunger Jack witnessed, now. It was vengeance.”

Remember, this is a fight between two robots. And yet the biological nature of the vN is such that this description is as disturbing as violence done to human beings.

The realistic, biological nature of the vN is not only shown physically, but mentally. Since Amy is the protagonist of vN, we are shown the story from her perspective. We hear her thoughts, witness her mental struggle against her grandmother’s destructive mental influence. Because Amy has a defective failsafe – unlike other vN and Asimov’s robots programmed to serve and avoid harming humans – we see her become more than the sum of her programmed parts. We see her grow, physically and mentally. We see her change as a character. We feel for her and want her to succeed.

In contrast, Daneel’s mechanical nature doesn’t provide anything for the reader to feel. He doesn’t grow, doesn’t change; he’s only there to serve the purposes of the plot. He appears to the reader as a sort of black box; we only see what is provided to him in the form of dialog and what he provides as output in response. Because Asimov does not write the book using Daneel’s perspective, and because Daneel is not programmed to respond with anything resembling emotions, it is hard to identify with Daneel as anything other than a machine.

Looking at the difference between two authors’ treatment of the same subject can reveal things you wouldn’t have seen reading either author in isolation. Both examine the same subject, but end up with characters that are completely different. The take-away that I got from these books: once you’ve finished reading both The Caves of Steel and vN, you realize that Ashby gets more emotional depth out of her robots than Asimov gets out of his humans.

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One thought on “Sci-Fi Month: Robot vs. Robot

  1. Brian

    Well, yes, but that final dramatic point is a bit of a straw man in that I am not at all sure Asimov was interested in the emotional depth of his characters. Not really sure it’s fair to criticize a writer for not doing something they never intended to do.

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