Friday, March 7, 2014

Paging Doctor Asimov, Stat!

Andreas Eschbach, Lord of All Things

Growing up poor in the shadow of Tokyo’s glimmering prosperity, Hiroshi Kato has a vision. He foresees a world where technology banishes poverty forever. Humanity’s established order, including his best friend, a wealthy ambassador’s daughter, mock Hiroshi’s vision. But in an epic spanning decades and crisscrossing the globe, Hiroshi Kato stops at nothing to realize his dream. If that means remaking human civilization in Hiroshi’s image, so be it.

Award-winning German author Andreas Eschbach crafts a vision American science fiction readers will find numbingly familiar. Eschbach’s themes precisely mimic those in Isaac Asimov’s classic I, Robot, though at much greater length. Eschbach requires a cast of thousands, globetrotting narratives, and decades upon decades, to retell Asimov’s story. At least Asimov offset his talky, intellectually dense novels with rapid pace and action-driven scenes.

Like Doctor Asimov, Eschbach uses characters and situations to expound authorial principles. Character dialog resembles academic discourse, even from children’s mouths, because they’re less humans than personifications of the author’s message. Yet Asimov redeemed his story through concision, running about one-third Eschbach’s glacial Teutonic length. Eschbach might have saved this massive, brick-like book if, like Doctor Asimov, he excised everything that didn’t serve his story. Which is quite a lot.

Moreover, it’s hard to swallow Eschbach’s message when it contradicts everything an informed audience already knows. Technology isn’t morally neutral. Hiroshi, and perhaps Eschbach through him, lives in a world untouched by environmental catastrophe; a world free from Wendell Berry or James Howard Kunstler; a world where more technology can fix problems existing technology has created. In real life, as in casinos, doubling down is a stupid strategy.

Asimov published I, Robot in 1950, when technology’s potential seemed limitless. Machines would replace human labor, making every human necessity free, liberating us for lives of intellectual fulfillment. I, Robot is an excellent book (though a lousy movie). But sixty-four years later, our understanding of technology’s social impacts has evolved appropriately. Eshbach’s expectations nevertheless remain mired in Jet Age utopianism, making grandiose promises already three generations outdated.

Eschbach divides humanity into two groups: those who support Hiroshi’s dreams, and tragicomic straw men Hiroshi demolishes effortlessly. Besides a handful of close friends, every character has one or, at most, two character traits, and exist to enact allegorical roles in Hiroshi’s morality play. The ambassador’s migraine-prone wife, the MIT professor who can’t successfully debate an undergraduate, even Hiroshi’s own mother, all provide colorless background chatter while Hiroshi redeems humankind.

Meanwhile, as Hiroshi’s human community becomes increasingly one-dimensional, his technological dreams become increasingly detailed and specific as the book advances. What begins as a sweeping desire to eliminate poverty bogs down in abstruse descriptions of robotics, nanotechnology, and other sci-fi buzzwords. Technology, for Hiroshi, is a Platonic ideal, free from human interference. Hiroshi understands humans so vaguely, and technology so precisely, that I wonder, is Hiroshi perhaps autistic?

It’s dangerous to assume a character represents the author’s message. Authors sometimes foreground characters who exist to get demolished, or who represent societal failure; consider everything cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson ever wrote. But because Hiroshi’s vision brooks no argument, and every circumstance eventually breaks Hiroshi’s way, I suspect Eschbach at least doesn’t dispute Hiroshi’s technological romanticism. I work in a factory, so I’ll say, technology makes work harder, not easier.

When I reviewed Stephen Kiernan’s The Curiosity, which made similar attempts at scientific moralism without relying on empirical science, several people criticized my review, saying, “it’s just science fiction.” So I ask: when did science fiction become unmoored from science? We should evaluate this novel’s technological dictums based on what we know of science, including human psychology and technology’s social history. Doctor Asimov would have.

Essentially, this book has the same problem Patricia Cori had earlier this week. Our viewpoint protagonist, and presumably our author too, has an idea early, and life happily conspires to see this idea germinate. Hiroshi’s ideas don’t endure any tests, don’t get revised by life, and suffer only token resistance from opponents so trivial, he demolishes them effortlessly. In the final sale, our hero isn’t so much triumphant as vindicated.

Every time I set this book down, picking it up again became increasingly laborious. While I support Hiroshi’s economic egalitarian dreams, he bases his dreams on naive faith in eternal human progress, unencumbered by boring Newtonian physics in a finite world. This novel brooks no dissent, bends all characters to serve its protagonist’s themes, and plays to an inevitable end. You deserve a book that respects your valuable reading time.

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