In Which I Review a Book
I signed up to review books. And I've been putting off the first one. But, here it is. Thanks for reading it!
There are three things I really don’t like in a review – a statement of the reviewer’s philosophy, giving away the plot of a book or movie, and reviews that only state “good” or “bad” without why. I hope to only break one of those guidelines. (Obviously, the first one.)
I received a copy of I, robot by Howard S. Smith as an Advance Reading Copy by requesting it from an ad in Shelf Awareness. I was intrigued by the title and the idea of updating the Isaac Asimov books. It came with some advertising material.
I’m sorry to say that I believe Dr. Smith made a strategical error by setting himself up to be compared with Dr. Asimov. Whether or not he is a better scientist is I don’t know, but he is not as good a writer.
I would like to say that the book would have seemed better if he had not set up the comparison, but in truth I cannot. I’m sorry to say I couldn’t finish it. As a new reviewer, I really wanted to do the best possible job. But I could not force my way through it.
I find it’s generally a bad sign when a book is made up mostly a lot of short chapters. This book has 369 pages and 160 chapters. That is not a good ratio. I know that deciding where to break chapters is much like deciding where to begin and end paragraphs. A lot of it is according to the taste of the writer. The problem I have with short chapters is not just the waste of paper, but the fact that very little thought or work seems to go into short chapters. I’m having this problem with Robert B. Parker’s new books. I love his characters, but he almost never gives me the details that I used to love. That’s true in this book. The first 11 chapters, covering 29 pages, are devoid of interest and of animation. There was no explaining what was going on – yes, I picked up a lot of it in context, but there are good ways of giving background details without distracting the reader from the plot. I can make all kinds of guesses as to how the world got into the straits depicted, but I need to know what the author says lead up to what he’s writing about. If I don’t know where he’s coming from, how can I truly appreciate where he’s going?
This is not to say that there is no merit in the book. With better editing and some instruction, it might have been a much better fiction book. In fact, the book comes alive when details and minutia of the science is being described. Clearly Dr. Smith is interested in the science and technology that go and will go into making robots. One chapter, in which one of the robots is turned on and put to work and interacts with the protagonist, is especially good and well-written. It kept me reading for a good bit, hoping for more. But the characters went back to being cardboard and the writing went flat again.
One other mostly good thing that I noticed was that it became clear gradually that the protagonist has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. At first it was not subtle. In what seemed like three consecutive chapters the protagonist was called by a nickname we’re told is Japanese for “artificial human”. We’re told that in Japanese science fiction it is used to refer to androids and robots. When that’s just about the only thing you’re told about a character, it begins to feel like you’re being hit over the head with it.
But later in the book the protagonist displays OCD ritual behavior. It’s subtle at first; I wondered what that behavior was about. Eventually it became clear that this was his way of dealing with anxiety and helped explain his anxiety about everyone following the rules. He believes that when rules are followed, bad things won’t happen, even if the rule is nonsensical. That was well done.
There’s been a discussion in my house about what science fiction should be about. It’s my contention that all literature should be about people. Science fiction is especially good at illuminating the human condition by creating characters who are not human – robots, aliens, Vulcans, Time Lords, Cylons, and the like, help us understand ourselves. (Mysteries are also good at this, by showing up people placed in extreme circumstances and how they behave in those situations.) My husband, on the other hand, thinks science fiction should be about the science, not the people. If you agree with me, I don’t think you’ll appreciate I, robot. If you are more interested in the science than plot and characters and good writing, then you might enjoy it very much. Dr. Smith does make the science interesting. There are charts and graphs (as well as maps) to help him explain the technology behind his robots. Like most of us, he is more interesting when he is interested.