“It’s not what you are that counts, but what you feel yourself to be.”
SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Robots and Empire is the book that provides the last links between Asimov’s copious robot stories and his Foundation saga. Essentially, it’s an origin story about the last decades of Earth and the struggles of robots Daneel and Giskard (who can read minds, of course) to prevent war between two branches of humanity: the expansionist, superstitious Settlers and the long-lived, stagnant, complacent Spacers. In one fell swoop, it explains practically everything that seemed anomalous about Foundation society: the lack of robots, the origins of the laws of psychohistory, the disappearance of Earth, the myth of the Spacers…
It’s also, however, strangely incoherent as a story, probably because the space into which it needed to fit to answer all these questions was so tight. While it is primarily the robots’ story, there’s also a lot of politics weaving around it, mostly focusing on Gladia the Spacer and her unwilling partner-in-crime Captain Baley as they traipse around the galaxy delivering a message of Peace To All. It’s a story that feels unfinished: there’s no kind of resolution to their mission, which simply trails off as our attention shifts to the showdown between the robots and Evil Prime Minister Amadiro (who wants to blow up Earth, because REVENGE. Sigh). And even the robots’ storyline feels singularly pointless: they, too, traipse round the galaxy with their owner Gladia, trying to Save the World, manipulating minds, making up new Laws of Robotics and generally whispering in corners – no wonder the Settlers don’t trust them – all, eventually, to no purpose. It’s like the whole plot is just filler written so that Asimov could link his worlds. There’s no significance to any of it.
Quite apart from that, it’s plagued by all the usual Asimovian weaknesses – info-dumpy dialogue, extended flashbacks that leave you confused as to where you are in time, a general misunderstanding of human psychology – but that’s what you expect from Asimov, so I’m not going to complain overmuch about it. I did enjoy the growing friendship between Daneel and Giskard, and the relationship between Gladia and Baley, while fairly predictable, was at least better written than those of the train-wreck that was Foundation and Earth. And, of course, ROBOTS IN SPACE.
I’m slightly disappointed, though, at how the general Foundation theme has trailed off somewhat. Does the Second Empire ever get formed? How? Does Galaxia triumph? Do the robots come back? It all seems a rather clumsily non-commital way of ending such an ambitious series. And we never did get to visit Trantor properly.