Sunday, October 12, 2014

Book Review: I Robot: To Obey, by Mickey Zucker Reichert

Reviewed by John Popham

Mickey Zucker Reichert's Isaac Asimov's I Robot: To Obey, published by Penguin Random's ROC imprint is a testament to the greed of publishers and the sad state of science fiction today.

It is a profoundly bad piece of writing in almost every respect.

Reichert's characters in To Obey are flat and uninteresting, the prose is turgid and shot through with information dumps, and the plot devices are both awkward and transparent. The action sequences in To Obey are, quite literally, the worst I have ever forced myself to read through.  The author has managed to write a tech thriller that is almost completely devoid of thrills or technology.  If that weren't sufficient, Reichert has managed to avoid even the faintest evocation of the eponymous Asimov Robot novels, and gets almost everything to do with Asimov's robots and Susan Calvin completely wrong.

The novel's central conflict involves the efforts of a crew of jack-booted government thugs to upend the three laws of robotics; laws central to the functioning of the robots' positronic brains that make them incapable, through action or inaction, of harming humans.  As written by Isaac Asimov, Susan Calvin was a leading mind in the early days of U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men, and would have been a reasonable target for evildoers seeking to bypass the three laws for their own nefarious ends.  However, Reichert's Susan Calvin possesses none of the original's cold passion for robotics.  In I, Robot: To Obey, Calvin is a second year Psychiatry resident (Asimov's Susan Calvin had a PhD in Psychology and was not an MD) with minimal insight into or interest in robots.  She is thus an unlikely target for evildoers with robotic mayhem on their minds.   To properly motivate the men in black hats, Reichert must provide Calvin with a father who is a famed robotics engineer at U. S. Robots.  The shadowy government conspirators believe Susan possesses a key developed by her father that will turn helpful and harmless robots into ruthless killing machines.

Unfortunately, these plot developments are back-loaded into the second half of the novel.  To arrive at them the reader must trudge through chapter after dreary chapter of back-story, explications, office politics, and infra-office banter with co-workers and side-kicks.  When the intrigue portion of the book finally gets underway, it clanks and grinds its way into motion in a manner more mechanical than even the most primitive of Asimov's robots.  Reichert's writing becomes ever more ungathered and her characters' actions ever less credible as the author attempts to force dramatic tension into the novel's flaccid story-line.  As the novel collapses across the finish-line, one has to wonder whether Reichert's heart was in the writing of I Robot, To Obey. 

In this book Reichert shows an utter lack of imagination when it comes to writing futurist fiction.  While the sole robot inhabiting I Robot: To Obey is so advanced it is indistinguishable from a human (sparing Reichert the toil of writing a credible robot character), her world of 2036 is otherwise 2013 with a few very cosmetic changes overlaid.  Medicine, for example, has not advanced at all and the futuristic medical resident Susan Calvin spends her days treating 2013 diseases with 2013 medical technology, and the residents are still wondering whether 'retarded' is an appropriate term to use with their patients.  (Perhaps all the research grants went to robotics.) A 'vox' subs in for a smart phone, a 'floater' stands in for the bus, and evil government employees bent on subverting Asimov's three laws hide guns in their underwear.  Otherwise, at least in Mickey Reichert's imagination, the trip between now and 2036 is going to be one hell of a dull ride. 

"I Robot: To Obey" has every hallmark of a cash grab by Reichert and her publishers at ROC.  Both they and Reichert should be ashamed, not only for inflicting this book on the SF market, but for the damage they have done to the Asimov name and brand as well. 

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