Two Books: ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Watership Down’
‘I, Robot’ is Isaac Asimov’s go-to book about the future history of robots. ‘Watership Down’ is Richard Adams’ epic tale of how a brace of rabbits escaped the destruction of their warren, and hopped a few fields to start over. Both books show animals and machines with qualities similar to our own, and in that strange mirror that reflects them back on us, we are forced to reexamine our own humanness. What makes us more human, and what makes that important? Both books also effuse imagination; ‘Watership Down’ does it by building up and taking down obstacles for an intricate rabbit society to overcome, while ‘I, Robot’ features a number of mysteries, some curious, some deadly, all featuring humans as they learn to adapt to robopsychology. What the two books do not have in common, however, is faith in the reader. ‘Watership Down’ has it, and ‘I, Robot’ does not.
Perhaps that statement is unfair. ‘I, Robot’, after all, was written in the 1940s as a collection of short stories strung together through the premise of a robopsychologist relating her life experience of working with robots to a young reporter. These nine stories were intended for pulp sci-fi magazines, and needed to use clear language that appealed to the greater audience of a new generation of science fiction readers. I can’t fault Asimov for picking to pieces The Three Laws of Robotics. Those rules may be old news for the modern nerd, but the story ‘Roundabout’ in ‘I, Robot’ was the first time the world was introduced to Asimov’s unifying robotics theme. I also can’t blame Asimov for the retreading similar ground in multiple stories. If his intention was to present the stories without alteration from Super Science Stories and Amazing Science Fiction, then this would be unavoidable Besides, if a story is told right, it doesn’t matter how many times the premise is repeated. Each time presented, that premise will be seen from a unique angle, and, itself, feel new.
But still, I can’t help feel that Asimov could leave some mystery in his writing. He tries to explain everything, and, since he only has so many words to work with, he can’t get very far. Characters are limited by archetypes, problems are presented early in stories, and are explained at the end like a formulaic Sherlock Holmes mystery, and easy to grasp ideas take up multiple lines of dialogue to stumble over.
Compare this to Watership Down. Here, Adams has established a social structure, mythology and culture for his rabbit population. The rabbits go on a quest to create a new burrow, and increase their ranks, while avoiding the dangers presented by men, the wilderness, and of other rabbits. Rabbits have their own language, Lapine, which consists of words that are sometimes explained, and sometimes not. Often Adams will involve himself in long passages explaining rabbit culture, to help the reader grasp why rabbits do what they do, and what they think of it. Other times, Adams trusts his reader will understand the self-sacrificing decisions that Hazel makes, or that a rabbit’s view of sexual relations doesn’t follow the same rules that (most) humans follow. This willingness to examine some things in great detail, and leave other things for the reader to ponder is immersive, and leaves the reader with an impression that the world is vast and wonderful and meant to be explored.
At what point, then, are we allowed to take a book to task for not being the type of book we would like to read? ‘I, Robot’ reads dangerously close to a police procedural. Non-robots are often indistinguishable from each other, except for their names. Descriptions of locations are kept brief, or ignored. We don’t smell or touch anything, unless it’s important to the story. Readers are kept at a distance from the robots so that they may evaluate the new problem, coolly, and follow the author’s thread of logic as it unwinds from start to end. As a mystery writer, Asimov does not shirk his duties; you either know where he’s going with his story, or you’re confident that he will lead you out of the forest, and explain everything to you by story’s end.
What is wrong with that? How come the only stories in ‘I, Robot’ that I felt were really great were ‘Robbie’ a story of a robot caretaker separated from a young child, and ‘Evidence’ the story of a prosecutor who may, or may not be, the world’s first robot mayor? Both of those stories featured easy to identify characters, struggling with difficult questions. In the stories which featured Powell and Donovan, robot test engineers commissioned to handle new, and potentially buggy robots, I couldn’t help but be angry with the dialogue. I’m pretty sure that one was the boorish one, and one was the not-so-quick-on-the-uptake one, but their personalities blended into a Ma and Pa Kettle routine: Indistinguishable and always complaining about those confounded robots, without seeming to understand that an engineer should be happy, or at least engrossed, when something goes wrong. Powell and Donovan aren’t characters, so much, as a way to present the complications of the plot to the reader in a form of dialogue.
In Watership Down, however, the characters are numerous, and easy to recognize, without being simple. Even very minor characters, like Hawkbit, a rabbit destined only to spend a few sentences of dialogue complaining, and one apologizing for complaining earlier, are individuals with easy to identify aspirations and quirks. Hawkbit feels alive, and when Adams says that ‘Hawkbit, Buckthorn and Dandelion ran down the hill and did such and such a thing,’ you imagine Hawkbit, Buckthorn and Dandelion doing that thing, because you identify them as different rabbits.
Perhaps the real problem here, though, isn’t that Asimov did a bad job, but that Adams wrote such an enchanting tale that most good fiction would pale in comparison to it. Or maybe Asimov really could have injected some more personality into a stock of characters that felt like the sort of men Isaac would have recognized and associated with during his military career in World War II: Sometimes intense, sometimes cynical and never letting you into their personal lives. I don’t know.
I’d be hard pressed to say that Asimov wrote his story wrong. ‘I, Robot’ is the more famous of the two books, after all. But I can say that the book could be improved upon to suit my tastes. I suppose that’s all any of us can ever say. I also know that I have to pick up more of Adams’ work. Watership Down was his first novel out of twenty-two? Oh, I’ve got reading to do.