Culture

I Discover Isaac Asimov

By Bernie Bell

I don’t know how came to be that I hadn’t read Isaac Asimov before now.  In my late teens/early twenties I read a lot of Science Fiction –  Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, J.G. Ballard, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury – but not Isaac Asimov.

As usual, it was a book from a charity shop (pre lock-down!), which had sat on the shelf for some time.  It’s a collection of his short stories, called ‘The Complete Robot’, and it is what it says on the cover!

Asimov The Complete Robot pic Bell

The first story ‘A Boy’s Best Friend’, is a beauty. The boy, who lives on the Moon, has a robotic dog, called Robutt – a cross between a robot, and a mutt – who is his friend, and who he feels safe with. The boy’s father, as a great treat, gets him a real dog. But, as Jimmy says…..”I love Robutt and that’s what counts.”

Isaac Asimov is a good writer – the stories are well written, well put together, full of ideas – and surprises in places.  I’d read a few of them, when I happened to see an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’, entitled ‘The Offspring’, in which Data produces an android like himself – who he considers to be his daughter.  It’s a fascinating story.  Data’s explanation of why he chose to produce Lal  (Lal is  a Hindi word, one of the meanings of which is ‘beloved’), is what many people would say is why they want to produce children.  If he is destroyed, he will continue, in Lal.

When Wesley Crusher suggests that Lal should go to school, Data points out that she already has the sum total of all the knowledge of  humanity. Wes replies that a person learns more than just information, at school.  Later, Data explains to Lal, the difference between knowledge and experience, which reminded me of a poem by friend Philip, given to me, years ago………

“What I have given,

And what you have taken

Learn from it.

*

The wise cannot teach experience,

For that which was given

From the mind alone

Cannot be broken,

And shall remain like a star

In the heavens.”

I won’t go on and on about the ideas in this episode of Star Trek, I suggest that you watch it for yourselves, if you’re interested.

I was watching this episode, in the middle of reading Isaac Asimov’s short stories, and I thought “Strange, I’m immersed in robotics.” Strange, for me, as I am very much flesh and blood, very much a fallible human, and one who is not particularly pleased to see the rise of human reliance on the machine in today’s world.

But, that’s what a lot of the stories in ‘The Complete Robot’, and this Star Trek episode, consider, and investigate. What is it that matters?  The nuts, bolts and circuits/the flesh and blood, or is it…..how an entity…feels?  Whether that entity is made from nuts, bolts and circuits, or flesh and blood.

Jimmy and Robutt know what matters. Data knows what matters.

Love.

He is not prepared to let Star Fleet Command take Lal away for analysis – she isn’t just a ‘specimen’, a thing – she’s his ….offspring.

And what do humans often do, when they encounter something new?  The inquisitive monkeys take it to pieces to see how it works, and thereby destroy it. The tale of The Goose That Laid The Golden Egg.

Another interesting line of thought to explore – what happens when a child out-strips a parent in ability – well, tell me – what often happens, in that situation?

Data is pleased to see that Lal becomes more ‘advanced’ than him. Data can feel an attachment to Lal, but is not capable of resenting her advanced abilities.  If only……

What do you make of the way the episode ends? What happens to Lal? I’d say she ‘had a breakdown’ – it was all a bit too much, too soon. And, what happens to her ‘soul’, what happens to the Chi in the machine?

What happens to us?

I’ll be reading more of Isaac Asimov’s work. I think I would like to have met him, and….talked.

3 replies »

  1. I would have loved to have met him too. I am fortunate in that my dad was a big Asimov so there were always loads of his books around the house. His non-fiction is also worth a read, he had a real skill for explaining things.

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