Isaac Asimov's Caliban
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Cover of the first edition
|Author||Roger MacBride Allen|
|Cover artist||Ralph McQuarrie|
|Preceded by||Robots and Empire|
|Followed by||Isaac Asimov's Inferno|
The book is set on a planet in Asimov's Foundation universe, and focuses on a cultural and legal dilemma posed by the Three Laws of Robotics after a roboticist is apparently assaulted by one of her robots. This event threatens to cause a global panic, because the planet's entire way of life relies on the belief that robots are incapable of harming or disobeying humans.
The book is set at a point in history where humanity is spread among many planets and divided into two main cultures. There are the Settlers, who reject robotics as an affront to human potential, and the Spacers whose lives are saturated by robotics.
The planet Inferno is a Spacer planet, though some characters are Settler visitors and provide a perceptual counterpoint to the Spacers' belief in their own superiority. The robots produced on this planet have their Three Laws integrated into every neural pathway, such that even seeing harm done to a human can physically destroy a robot's brain. They are thus incapable of rebellion or disobedience, and are even unable to think anything which is contrary to the instructions of humans. Their total servitude and extreme intelligence have had severely damaging effects on the mental and physical health of the human population.
Robots have taken over many basic tasks such as driving cars and even dressing humans. The main character, Alvar Kresh, decides to do an 'experiment' in which he tells his robot not to wake him up in the morning. On waking (late), he immediately realizes that he does not know where his clothes are stored, and that the clothes have fasteners which are specially designed for a robot's hands to operate. Ultimately he manages to get his clothes on but cannot fit them properly.
The planet's leading roboticist, Fredda Leving, gives a speech in which she notes that robot labor has undermined not only human productivity but human leisure as well. She explains that in many performance halls, all but the lead actors in a play are normally robots. And since nobody goes to the theatre, many of the seats are filled with robots to make the house look packed. "So at home on your screen what you see is a theatre full of robots applauding a stage full of robots." She notes another example of a woman who has a robot with enough intelligence to fly a spaceship, yet the robot's whole job is to brush the woman's teeth and hold the toothbrush in between. Over-reliance on robotics is presented as a waste of intelligence and human potential.
Another symptom of too much robotic coddling presented in the book is called Inertia Syndrome. Alvar Kresh recalls the case of a man who became extremely agoraphobic and used his robots to wall himself off not only from the world but from all physical activity. Eventually he confined himself to a bed with a feeding tube, and demanded that his robots only enter the room as absolutely necessary in order to clean. At all other times he was alone, interacting with the world through computer screens only.
The Three Laws of Robotics are examined in this novel not from the standpoint of what might happen if they fail, but what might happen if they work too well. "Settlers," who do not use robots, observe that Spacers' reliance on robotics has made them incompetent at a number of basic tasks. The average citizen of Inferno does not know their own address, cannot drive a car or dress themself, and is extremely antisocial. In general they use robots to avoid all human conflict and with it all human contact of any sort. Fredda Leving notes that birthrates on all Spacer planets are below replacement level.
This series deals with a new type of robots who do not have the Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are integral to the functioning of a positronic brain, but these robots have gravitonic brains, into which it is possible to build any set of laws. For example, some gravitonic robots have already been built with the New Laws of Robotics which are designed to make them partners rather than slaves to humanity.
Simcor Beddle's Ironhead movement stages a hit-and-run attack on a plantation near Settlertown, and they crop up once or twice more as the story progresses. The Ironheads nearly successfully start a riot when Beddle castigates Dr. Leving after one of her lectures on the nature of robots and how they affect human beings. It is her thesis that the superabundance of robotic labor has caused humans to become indolent and nearly incompetent at accomplishing even trivial tasks. She also claims that robots themselves do not qualify as a very good successor to humanity given that their sole purpose is to serve humans.
It is revealed that some members of Leving Labs have both personal and professional secrets to hide: Gubber Anshaw is romantically involved with Tonya Welton, while Jomaine Terach is aware of the creation of Caliban and the fact that he lacked the Three Laws of Robotics. Sheriff Kresh is aided in this respect when Caliban encounters a robot at a shipping depot and recounts his entire life history (about five days' worth). While the robot nearly seizes in brainlock and ends up precipitating a minor catastrophe by hyperwaving for help, the story the robot tells confirms what Kresh later uses to get the truth out of Terach.
Caliban escapes the City of Hades (the capital of Inferno), but is located by both Dr. Leving and Sheriff Kresh. Kresh uses the occasion to finger the true culprit in the assault on Leving, who turns out to have been Ariel, Tonya Welton's personal robot. She had switched serial numbers with another robot after a test had been run on her brain and comparing it to a normal Three-Law robotic brain. She, like Caliban, had been programmed without the Laws of Robotics, but had been purely a stationary unit. In switching the serial numbers, Ariel was able to have a set of robotic legs placed on her, allowing her to masquerade as a "normal" robot.
Kresh rightly believes that Ariel presents far too great of a danger to human beings, and shoots her. However, he is convinced that Caliban does not present the same danger based on clues about his behavior, and allows him to remain functional. Caliban then goes with Dr. Leving to the island of Purgatory.