Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Androids to Asteroids

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

From Androids to Asteroids

Article excerpt

Good science fiction is, ultimately, good literature. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Poul Anderson have been responsible for a large share of the genre's best. These three novels continue the tradition of offering stunning visions of our common future - with varying degrees of literary success.

THE POSITRONIC MAN, by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (Doubleday, 259 pp., $22.50). Decades ago, the late Isaac Asimov laid down the law - the laws that govern all robots who serve humanity. Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics formed the groundwork for a series of novels featuring robot characters and the strange situations into which they calculated themselves. "The Positronic Man," an expansion of a 1976 Nebula award-winning short story, "The Bicentennial Man," raises some sticky questions about the distinction between man and sophisticated machine.

Robot NDR-113, a.k.a. Andrew Martin, is a fuzzy-logic-based expert system on steroids. As the Martin family's all-purpose assistant, the robot is capable of doing most anything its masters ask. But when Andrew develops a talent for art, the shrewd business sense to profit from his creations, and an unusual desire for self-improvement, it becomes clear that "he" is no ordinary droid. "The Positronic Man" becomes a mediation on what the term human implies as Andrew lobbies the World Legislature for civil rights amid irrational robophobia - irrational because of the unshakability of his programmed constraints - and aspires, ultimately, for a slot in the human race. Although Andrew often displays a force of will that the authors never convincingly reconcile with the Three Laws, and while a rather rushed plot makes this read, in spots, more like a thought experiment than a novel, Asimov and Silverberg treat us to a moral discourse with implications that anyone from a teenage science-fiction initiate to a professor of philosophy will appreciate.

HARVEST OF STARS, by Poul Anderson (Tor Books, 395 pp., $22.95). Aiming for the imaginative sweep of Asmiov's Foundation series, the intellectual edge of Philip K. Dick, and the political intrigue of Frank Herbert, Poul Anderson never quite manages to find his voice in this slow, directionless novel about the struggle for hegemony between two futuristic factions, the Avantists, an inscrutable society of social engineers, and Fireball, a giant transportation, mining, and scientific concern whose tentacles reach into most every corner of society.

The novel hinges around the idea of individual identity. The Avantists manage to download onto a computer the mind of their principal nemesis, Fireball's legendary director Anson Guthrie, and strive to use it against him. But instead of allowing Guthrie and his simulacrum to square off directly, Anderson wheels out talking head after talking head to discuss obliquely the various conspiratorial machinations at work and solemnly recount the history of their rivalry. …

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