Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Robot Mystery Hour! - #11

STORY: "Catch That Rabbit" by Isaac Asimov


BASICALLY: From their outpost on an ore-rich asteroid, two guys working for US Robots had better figure out why the team of mining robots they're testing keeps returning empty-handed. JOBS are at STAKE.

I would now quite delightedly like to present you, dear Reader, with a story about ROBOTS. Cool, right? (YES. The answer is YES. Robots are cool.) I've never read an Asimov novel, but his short stories, with their rules and their scientists and their "Dammit, Jim!"-style ejaculations just delight me. But the whys and wherefores of this phenomenon are elusive. Everyone knows Asimov is basically a hack. I read real literature, you know. I know what's good, and, spoiler, it's not Asimov. So what on earth explains this affinity?

It's not the characterization or the dialogue. One of the guys in "Catch That Rabbit" is named Mike Donovan and the other is Gregory Powell. (Ho-hum.) The narrator (limited third-person) refers to each one by his last name, while the characters refer to each other by their first names. Combine this with the fact that, although one is apparently the disdainful supervisor of the other, they talk and act and think in almost identical ways, and then add a distinct paucity of dialogue tags—and basically I had very little idea of who was actually talking at any given point. But Asimov doesn't use conversation to tell you anything about the characters, silly goose. Characters serve to verbalize the competing sides of a given conflict. A problem is volleyed back and forth in a series of exchanges, thus communicating the precise nature of the issue to the reader and hashing out the rules which happen to govern it.

Aloud he said, "You're as lucid as Euclid with everything except the facts. You've watched that robot group for three shifts, you redhead, and they did their work perfectly. You said so yourself. What else can we do?"

"Find out what's wrong, that's what we can do. So they did work perfectly when I watched them. But on three different occasions when I didn't watch them, they didn't bring in any ore. They didn't even come back on schedule. I had to go after them.

"And was anything wrong?"

"Not a thing. Not a thing. Everything was perfect. Smooth and perfect as the luminiferous ether. Only one little insignificant detail disturbed me – there was no ore."

Oh, and check out the pointless sarcasm! It's a classic, really. A reliable go-to. If you want your characters to seem clever, but you wouldn't know clever if it hit you over the head, just have them exchange sarcastic barbs. Now, obviously, I'm a big fan of sarcasm (helloooo, are you reading this?), but when it's coming out of a character's mouth, it really ought to give you a better idea of who that character is, and it especially ought to distinguish one character from another. In Asimov's fumbly mitts, it does neither.

It's not the plot, either. I mean, there are Asimov plots that are more interesting than this one, which has the emotional resonance of an accountant being unable to get her copy of Quickbooks to load, but the main issue is that for Asimov, plot construction seems to involve going down a checklist. Problem – new-model ore-mining robots won't mine ore – check. Stakes/Motivation/Ticking Clock – if engineers can't get the robots to pass performance tests, they'll lose their jobs – check. Complication – problem only happens when no one is watching, and the robots themselves have no helpful information – check. Asimov sets them up and knocks them down with a completely transparent consistency. This story was written pretty early in Asimov's career, and he got better with age, but I can still never get away from the feeling that Asimov approached writing a story like constructing an electric circuit—as a fundamentally mechanical undertaking that allows for some creativity and reshuffling within a very strict set of known parameters.

It all sounds like a big mess, right? So why do I even like this crap? (But come on, I'm being coy. I don't just like Asimov's robot short stories, I adore them.) The reasons aren't always logical or widely-applicable, but hey, they are my reasons:

1. Technical gobbledygook YUM!
Asimov often populates his stories with people who not only interact with robots, but who actually understand how they work. Here it's engineers, elsewhere it's roboticists, and sometimes it's just suspiciously tech-savvy plebians. These people always have a mouthful to say about how robots are designed and constructed and why they do what they do. Either Mike or Greg, for example, it really doesn't matter which, says,

"Don't rush me. Let me work this out. There's still the possibility of a mechanical breakdown in the body. That leaves about fifteen hundred condensers, twenty thousand individual electric circuits, five hundred vacuum cells, a thousand relays, and upty-ump thousand other individual pieces of complexity that can be wrong. And these mysterious positronic fields no one knows anything about."
This story was first published in 1944. Lots of Asimov's jargon has an absolutely delicious retro-futuristic vibe to it, combining vacuum tubes with "the Multivac-complex" with a "definite mathematical relationship that governs such things and failure to conform would indicate marked abnormality in the positronic brain" across all his stories. And what's so interesting to me is that it doesn't matter when the vocabulary becomes outdated, because language like this functions essentially as a magical incantation. What's important is not what the words themselves say, but the power they have to invoke the particularly non-human mindset of manmade non-men.

2. Delirious, irrational confidence. This is harder to pin down to any one thing. Asimov just seems so sure of himself. His stories are replete with mediocre technique and uninspiring prose, but they have a relentless forward momentum. You always know that he's going somewhere with all of this, and so you overlook the imperfections. I'll take Asimov's verve and nerve over artful, poetic prose that fails to tell me something worth knowing, any day.

3. ROBOTS. Hells yeah! Robots are just the best. Doesn't everybody feel this way about them? If not, they should. Robots are the great, mysterious Other onto which we project our own fears and dreams. They are the technology that seemed right around the corner, about to change everything, on the very cusp of bringing humanity into the glittering future, and yet somehow they remain out of our grasp. Even with all the really cool advances being made in robotics, they remain at their heart a fantasy. Isaac Asimov's robot stories are all about humanity's ragged edges, our trembling grasp on what it means to live in a disheveled clockwork universe.

And now, enjoy some robots dancing.