Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Three Laws of Robotics and why they matter

I Recently I blogged about the new Dune movie coming out soon, which the NYT’s Paul Krugman wrote about enthusiastically. Krugman also commented about Apple TV’s upcoming SF film version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy. He’s a bit concerned that the original “gripping tale” will not be cinematic enough—i.e., lack action—which trailers suggest will be supplied by other writers.

Be that as it may, Foundation has a story line with contemporary relevance we can ill afford to ignore. It’s “about the collapse of a galactic civilization, but nobody knows it except a handful of mathematical social scientists—the psychohistorians.

Led by a guy named Hari Seldon, they devise a plan to limit the damage. Civilization, their math tells them, can’t be saved, but they can limit the duration of the dark age that will follow. The “Foundation” novels trace the progress of their plan across the centuries.”

As the writer of a literary novel (Journeyman, 2020) myself, I am keenly aware that characterization is the foundation of all literary and dramatic art. However, as the author of a murder mystery novel (Hotwalker, out Oct. 1), I am equally aware of the value of plot, which provides the chain of cause-and-effect holding a story together and making sense of it.

I love well-crafted stories that concern themselves with big ideas, especially if they have current meaning. This is where SF has made such a lasting contribution from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, cautionary tales with huge popularity.

Another example of Asimov’s genius is “I, Robot,” his linked short story collection published in 1950 long before linked story collection were in vogue. The nine stories in the book are generally acknowledged as having forever changed the world's perception of artificial intelligence.

Three of the short stories from I, Robot have been adapted for television. And the film I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was released in 2004. While incorporating some elements of Asimov's creation, the movie’s screenplay radically changes the storyline. (Another writerly pitfall: your original source material may be changed to the point of unrecognizability. But that's a blog for another day.)  

To me, the most important feature of the I, Robot stories is the “Three Laws of Robotics.” First Law: A robot may not harm a human being or through inaction allow a human being to be harmed. Second Law: A robot must obey commands of human beings unless doing so violates the first law. Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence except when doing so would conflict with the first two laws.

This is brilliant not only for the collection, which dramatizes conflicts between the three laws as robots grow more complex, but for real life, as well. Think of drones, for example. If they were programmed with the three laws, we wouldn’t be threatened by them, as we most assuredly are today.


The New Reacher Books and TV Show


Been having fun talking with others about Lee Childs and Jack Reacher online lately. I initiated the discussion by posting “Bad and Good News About Reacher.”

 According to the Manchester Guardian, Lee Child (aka James Grant), the mega-popular bestselling author, has turned his iconic hero over to his younger brother Andrew (Grant) Child. I bought Andrew’s first Reacher novel, The Sentinel, and I must say I was very disappointed. Andrew, alas, is no Lee.

 Better news, though—a new Reacher TV series NOT starring Tom Cruise (too tiny for Reacher) is forth coming on Amazon. And follow-up seasons would feature different ensembles to match a one-book-per-season adaptation plan (Lee Child's debut Reacher novel, 1997’s Killing Floor).

 Cast as Reacher is Alan Ritchson, who is 6’4” and about 235 pounds. His acting creidts include Blue Mountain State and the ongoing DC’s Titans, neither of which I have seen. But I can’t wait to see the new TV series whenever it starts (tba).

 Someone else felt The Sentinel was great and asked what were my problems with it.

 So, I replied:

 Andrew apes Lee's style—short punchy sentences, lots of detailed interiority, some decent description, and of course action. But the plot of this one is clunky and complicated and after a while I just couldn't care about what happened to these characters anymore. Reacher storylines usually are clear and clean. It may take a while to get the whole picture, but I always feel comfortable on the journey with the POV in Lee's books. Voice is really important in mystery and suspense fiction and it just isn't there in The Sentinel. It's not easy to do what Lee Child did over and over.

The discussion branched out in a more general but still satisfying way. Someone mentioned being dissatisfied with a mystery novel written by Jonathan Kellerman in collaboration with his son. Why couldn’t these writers exit with grace and dignity, my correspondent wondered?

M-O-N-E-Y, I suspect, is the answer, though I didn’t say that.

What I did say was that I totally get the disappointment when this happens. I had high hopes for daughter successors to Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke, too, but so far had been disappointed by their books. I said I was reminded of what happened to Doyle when he tried to kill off Holmes. Fortunately, HE was the one picking up where the stories had previously left off.

Someone else brought the discussion back around to the new Reacher book. They, too, were disappointed with it. They also worried that the upcoming TV series would ruin the franchise. And here is where we disagreed because this respondent felt that the Bosch TV series was not even close to be as good as the books.

To which I replied that while I agreed that the TV Bosch is different than in the novels in some ways, I still think it's great stuff. So does Connelly, who has had quite a hand in writing it. I never would have envisioned Titus Welliver as Bosch but after watching the show I can't think of Harry any other way.

The great thing about writing a blog about writing is that you can always have the last word, which I just did.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

John Le Carre and Len Deighton's Great Spymasters

 I very much enjoyed a recent piece on George Smiley and the character’s influence on another writer’s work. I’m a big Le Carre fan and have read all his espionage novels, beginning with dThe Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I especially loved his trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People.

Let me call your attention to another great spy novelist, Len Deighton, whose character Bernard Samson—a tough, cynical and disrespectful MI6 intelligence officer—resembles Smiley in important ways.

Deighton's successful first novel, The Ipcress File, was about the same central character as others which followed: a working class intelligence officer, cynical and tough. My favorite Deighton novels are his three trilogies: Berlin Game (1983), Mexico Set (1984) and London Match (1985); Spy Hook (1988), Spy Line (1989) and Spy Sinker (1990); and Faith (1994), Hope (1995) and Charity (1996). Winter was a companion novel. I recommend all of them without reservation.

Deighton also was a book and magazine illustrator who designed the cover for first UK edition of Kerouac's On the Road.