Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Bicentennial Man

© 1976 by Isaac Asimov

What a great read!

I was a little hesitant about revisiting Asimov. If you’ve stopped by here with any regularity, you know that I grew up reading his works. One Christmas I got a five-pack of his novels, which included this one. After I broke my arm a year later, my mom bought me I, Robot. I read each novel at least twice. Of the collections, each short story three or four times. By age 12 I probably read 300,000 words of Dr. Asimov’s.

Fond memories, some of my first reading science fiction, and no doubt highly instrumental in growing that massive neuro-physiological neural network that gives me enjoyment to this day. I reread The Gods Themselves, Pebble in the Sky, and The Caves of Steel sometime in the mid-nineties, but of the classic short story collections, I was a little leery.

Why? Probably the fear of being let down. Give me the name of an Asimovian short story and I can supply a visual memory – a scene, a character, a name, something – that still lasts in my mind, three decades later. Often I remember the hook, the literary punch-line – and there’s one at the conclusion of every one of the master’s tales. So over the years the possibility that these fond memories of mine might be a little exaggerated by the distance of time and the inexperience or innocence of youth weighed heavily on me.

Brave reader that I am, I had no choice but to plunge straight ahead. That, plus the fact that I think I’m re-reading all these potent books from my youth as a weird sort of mid-life crisis. I’m still working that one out.

Anyway, The Bicentennial Man floored me. Absolutely floored me. A+ overall, with stories ranging from A-double-pluses to high B’s, if I may be so bold as to assign grades to Dr. Asimov’s transcendental tales.

About half the collection are his classic robot stories. In my memories these stories did not leave as strong an impression, but upon re-reading, they are the more powerful. Perhaps because as an adult I am very well-read in the question, What does it mean to be a man?, a question that Asimov’s robots often ponder themselves. Indeed, the eponymous story, especially the closing paragraph, with Andrew’s final thoughts, brings chills to me even now, a full week later.

The other tales are classic SF adventure. An underwater city facing extermination. Two astronauts fighting a black hole. A man struggling against the tyranny of a global computer dictator. A scientist with morals facing a demanding military political complex with none. Some action, but most of the adventure comes in considering impossible alternatives, and the mental gymnastics of overcoming the enemy, much better and much much more interesting that the physical gymnastics you see on the big and small screens, conceived by even smaller minds.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. If you consider yourself a science fiction aficionado and have not read it, you are at best ill-informed, at worst a liar. Read it! Don’t let the Robin Williams bastardization of the title story dissuade you. Each story can be read in a day (or two a day, even), if your schedule is tight like mine. And each passed the Hellish Reality test, meaning it made me completely forget about the Hellish Reality of my existence (okay, I’m being a tad bit dramatic here). Two months in to 2012 I’ve read nine books; so far this is the best, and probably will be a candidate for Best Read at the end of December.

For those who know the book by heart, here are my “grades” –

“Feminine Intuition” – A
“Waterclap” – A+
“That Thou Art Mindful of Him” – A
“Stranger in Paradise” – B+
“The Life and Times of Multivac” – A++
“The Winnowing” – A
“The Bicentennial Man” – A++
“Marching In” – B
“Old-fashioned” – B+
“The Tercentenary Incident” – B
“Birth of a Notion” – B+

Because of my experience reading this book, I’m currently reading Prelude to Foundation by Asimov. Never read his “Foundation” series, though I do recall starting it in the late-80s, but partying and music and whatnot kept my focus elsewhere and I gave up. I also picked up The Robots of Dawn for a few dollars today during errands. Call this my Asimovian phase, as I’ll probably be reading the good doctor way into springtime.

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