Robots and Empire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The time is several thousand years in the future. The place is a small neighborhood of the Milky Way--the hundred or so planets near Earth that the human race has thus far managed to settle. The twenty billion or so people spread across these planets are split into two divergent cultures. One culture is more technologically advanced but dependent on robots that, by their very existence, seem to sap human boldness, initiative, and cooperativeness. The other culture is a more traditional one, with close ties to Earth and a determination to settle the Galaxy without the aid of robots. The two most advanced robots in all the worlds live, naturally enough, on one of the robot worlds, but they are increasingly troubled by their realization that the competing, nonrobot societies are healthier, and that they paradoxically need the robots’ help.

Such is the premise for Asimov’s latest robot novel, which picks up after the death of his famous detective, Elijah Baley, and follows a dozen key characters, including the robots, as they struggle to determine the course of human destiny. This novel is not the best in the series, partly because Asimov tries to cover such a broad panorama and partly because his plot is not as tightly focused as usual. It is also clear that Asimov is struggling to unite the version of “future history” described in the robot novels with those found in his equally well-known “Empire” and “Foundation” novels, and this leads him to arrange some rather implausible twists in the story.

Nevertheless, ROBOTS AND EMPIRE remains a classic Asimov novel, exploring the nature of human society under very different social conditions and speculating, under cover of a mystery story, about the ways the human enterprise evolves through the ebb and flow of history. Those who have followed the Asimov series will probably enjoy this book; those unacquainted with the author would be better advised to start with I, ROBOT, or FOUNDATION.