Book Review: Emperor, by William F. Wu (not Isaac Asimov)
Repeat after me, nerds:
The First Law:
A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
The Second Law:
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
The Third Law:
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Those are Asimov’s Laws of Robotics- guidelines Isaac Asimov made up in the 1940’s, and then used as the basis for a whole mess of stories and novels (some of which I’ll review later). He initially made them up as a direct response to the “killer robot” tropes that were already cliché even then. (It’s a trope that can arguably be traced back to Frankenstein, if not further, but I digress).
At a glance, The Three Laws are pretty straightforward, but Asimov found all kinds of ways to monkey around with them in order to create logic puzzles and other conundrums. That sort of thing was his specialty.
But this … isn’t an Asimov novel.
Isaac Asimov’s Robots in Time: Emperor is the fifth in a series of novels by William F. Wu. Wu was the first writer to play in Asimov’s sandbox after Asimov’s death in 1992. The premise of the series is Saturday-Morning Cartoon Show Simple. A sextet of linked-together robots called the ‘Master Controller’ series hear they’re supposed to be shut down, so the Master Controllers are forced by the Third Law to prevent that from happening. Their solution? Time travel. Naturally.
So you have these six robots scattered through history … only the problem is, once the hiding-out robots get to the present day, they blow up in a nuclear explosion. Because, uh, reasons. I haven’t actually read the first book in the series to explain why this happens. Seems like a bit of a design flaw. “Let the crazy robots have access to a time machine” would be another design flaw.
The important part is that in order to stop inevitable nuclear disaster, a TIME TEAM (my term, not the book’s) must be assembled to go have adventures in various time periods, ranging from the Cretaceous Period to the Nazi invasion of Moscow in 1941. Oh, and the guy who created the Master Controller robots is bouncing around time with a robot of his own, trying to get the Master Controllers too, because the books need an antagonist.
Wikipedia says Wu wrote this as a Young Adult series, so I guess it’s educational, or something! I actually read the second book in this series as a kid; it was set in the Caribbean in the 1600’s. Pirates and robots! What’s not to love? As an added bonus, there are a couple of 90’s-tastic illustrations in the middle of the book. Only the best vector graphics will do.
Based on the vague memory of reading the pirate one, I snagged Issac Asimov’s Robots in Time: Emperor when I saw it on a clearance shelf. There’s something entirely too gratifying about picking up a novel for a buck or less (even if it means I’ve got like 20+ books in my to-read pile).
In Issac Asimov’s Robots in Time: Emperor, the TIME TEAM must go to Kublai Khan era China. The team assembled consists of: R. Hunter, a robot, Steve Chang, a dude who’s along for the ride, Marcia Lew, an expert in Chinese History, and Jane Maynard, who’s primary skill seems to be getting kidnapped. Also, as a sidenote, only Steve and Marcia are Asian. Wu kiiiind of makes nods to how weird it’d be to have white people who aren’t Marco Polo roaming around 13th Century China, but it’s really kind of glossed over.
On paper, ‘Robots and Mongols!’ is an awesome idea. Unfortunately, Wu doesn’t quite deliver on that premise. I think part of this comes from the fact that Asimov’s Laws of Robotics don’t lend themselves well to a rollicking adventure. I mean, what’s an Asimov-compliant robot going to do if he gets caught in the middle of a famous battle? (Which is actually a question that was probably addressed in the book where they’re caught in the Battle of Moscow, but I didn’t read that one).
So yeah. R. Hunter and his TIME TEAM plunk down in Khanbaliq- the precursor to what’s now Beijing, with Antagonist Guy hot on their proverbial heels. They then spend a good chunk of the book faffing about- and not even in a ‘oh hey, let’s witness some historical events!’ sense. Basically, R. Hunter and the TIME TEAM decide they need to talk to Marco Polo in order to find the time-displaced Robot. Based on a false lead planted by Antagonist Guy, they set off north towards the Great Wall of China. Along they way, there’s a couple of kidnappings, a couple of escapes, and the occasional debate on just what constitutes First Law priorities. Like, apparently, Antagonist Guy convinced his Robot to follow him, by arguing that his career would be harmed, therefore HE would be harmed if he didn’t get his hands on an MC robot, and … uh, yeah. Kind of a stretch, but I’m not a robot either.
So yeah. The TIME TEAM (I’m never gonna get tired of typing that) meander back and forth on the road to the Great Wall for a couple of days. Steve makes friends with a Mongol named Timur (not that Timur, unfortunately), and Marcia spouts of educational exposition on the time period on a regular basis. Steve gets annoyed by this, but I couldn’t help but think “that’s what you brought her along for.” Meanwhile, R. Hunter does robot stuff and Jane gets kidnapped.
Side note, since this is the fifth book in the series, everyone is chasing after Master Controller #5- or MC 5, for short. Naturally, this kind of makes it sound like they’re all chasing a garage band, which would be hilarious.
About a hundred and ninety pages into this two hundred and twenty five page book, Hunter & Co. finally make contact with Marco Polo, who is more than happy to bring them to Kublai Khan’s palace. Once they make it there, they see MC 5 (the robot, not the band) running around. Of course, for all the trouble everyone went through in kidnapping and stalling each other (while remaining First Law Compliant), Antagonist Guy shows up at JUST the same time. He doesn’t get his hands on MC 5, but he still has Jane in his clutches when he time-jumps out. Things are wrapped up fairly pat soon thereafter, as Marcia basically tells Kublai Khan and Marco Polo “we’re wizards! Don’t tell anyone you saw us!” and then the good guys poof back to the modern day, where they immediately start getting ready to zip off to Saxon-invasion era England to chase the last robot.
It’s unfair to compare Wu to Asimov. Then again, it’s unfair to compare a lot of writers to Asimov. I can appreciate what Wu’s doing, jumbling up the Robot rules and exploring new and exotic time periods. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be said about the characters, the plot, or even the technology they’re using. Time Travel is one of those technologies that one has to be careful with in a story- unfortunately, Wu never really establishes what ‘rules’ time travel has in the series. Honestly, you could probably swap out R. Hunter with a shouty man in a blue box, and this book could work as a sub par episode of Dr. Who. (So, y’know, a Moffat-era ep. ZING!)
Even still, while I found parts of the book to be kind of dull, I wouldn’t say it was necessarily bad, or even offensive. And heck, I find myself mildly curious enough that I’d at least read the last one in the series, just to see how things end up. That’s certainly more than I can say for a lot of the cheesy SF/F I read these days. Here’s to hoping I can find Issac Asimov’s Robots in Time: Invader in the dollar bin sometime.