Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Is the world ready for Susan Calvin, Girl Genius?

If you do a Google search on "johnny pez", the first two hits you get are this blog. The third hit is something called Johnny Pez's Insanely Complete Fiction List, which is more formally known as "The Insanely Complete Robot/Foundation Fiction List". And thereby hangs a tale.

Back in 1989, the first edition of Martin H. Greenberg's Isaac Asimov Festschrift, Foundation's Friends, was published by Tor Books. A number of science fiction writers, including Hal Clement, Harry Turtledove, Poul Anderson, and Orson Scott Card, wrote stories involving Asimov. Connie Willis wrote a science fiction story about Asimov, and Frederik Pohl wrote an alternate history story about him, but most of the stories were set in Asimov's various fictional settings: the Black Widowers, Wendell Urth, and especially the Positronic Robot/Foundation setting. No less than five of the stories were set in the I, Robot era, with another set in the Spacer era and three more set in the Foundation era.

Asimov himself had begun to tie his Positronic Robot series and his Galactic Empire/Foundation series (which had been separate up until then) with his 1982 novel Foundation's Edge and its sequels and prequels, and the Robot City series of novels had begun appearing in 1987, so for my own amusement and edification I began to put together a chronology of the emerging Robot/Foundation universe, listing all the works by Asimov and others. I kept updating the list as additional works appeared, such as the Robots in Time series, the Second Foundation Trilogy, Roger MacBride Allen's Caliban Trilogy, Mark W. Tiedemann's Robot Mystery trilogy, and most recently Alexander R. Irvine's Have Robot, Will Travel.

I posted a then-current version of the list on the Usenet newsgroup alt.books.isaac-asimov in 1998, and Ed Seiler, webmaster of the Isaac Asimov Home Page website, was impressed enough to create a page for it. That page, suitably updated, is the third Google hit for "johnny pez".

Then last week, the Asimov estate announced another upcoming addition to the Positronic Robot corpus: a new trilogy by fantasy author Mickey Zucker Reichert depicting the life of Dr. Susan Calvin, the central figure from the 1950 collection I, Robot. This sent Alison Flood of the Guardian looking online for Asimov fans to query about the news. She found my list on the Asimov Home Page and emailed me on October 29 to get my reaction.

I was a bit tardy checking my email, though, so by the time I saw it her piece had already gone up on the paper's website. However, being a blogger allows me to get my own views online anyway, albeit for a rather smaller audience.

For those unfamiliar with the Positronic Robot series, Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist employed by the firm of United States Robots and Mechanical Men, Incorporated, first appeared in the pages of the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction in the story "Liar!" Dr. Calvin, a plain, spinsterish woman in her late 30s, has a yen for a handsome young co-worker named Milton Ashe. The story ends badly for Dr. Calvin, and for Herbie, a telepathic robot who is too eager to please for his own good. It was during a discussion of this story that Asimov and Astounding editor John W. Campbell first came up with the Three Laws of Robotics. Calvin appeared in four more stories between 1945 and 1950, and when Asimov gathered nine of his robot stories into the collection I, Robot, he used Calvin's retirement from U.S. Robots at the age of 75 to tie all the stories together. The collection ends by mentioning Calvin's death at the age of 82.

Asimov has described Calvin as "a forbidding creature", but says that he grew to love her, and following the publication of I, Robot he went on to publish six more stories about her, the last being the title story of the 1986 collection Robot Dreams. The 2004 film version of I, Robot of course depicted Calvin as a hot babe played by Bridget Moynahan, but if you want an idea of what Calvin is like in the original stories, imagine a less-sexy version of Dr. Lilith Sternin, the icy behavioral psychiatrist played by Bebe Neuwirth on Cheers. Although she's a brilliant scientist, Calvin has a low tolerance for stupidity, and compared to her most of the human race qualifies as stupid (which is why she prefers the company of robots). Apart from a brief glimpse of a sixteen-year-old Calvin in the story "Robbie", the Susan Calvin depicted in I, Robot ranges in age from 38 to 75, growing more distant as she grows older.

For generations of science fiction fans familiar with Susan Calvin as an elderly misanthrope, the idea of a young, perhaps even personable Susan Calvin is a startling one. Of course, the idea of a young Hari Seldon was once equally startling until Asimov himself showed him that way in Prelude to Foundation. If Reichert can make us believe in a Susan Calvin exhibiting actual human qualities, then three cheers for Reichert.

Besides, it's about time I had a chance to update that list again.


Will said...

When I first heard of the "Second foundation Trilogy" I considered it blasphemy, I was totally against people "stealing dead author's ideas"...until I realised that three of my favorite authors were signed up to write it.

I grudgingly gave it a go - expecting to hate it - and was blown away by an excellent tribute to the great Doctor and a worthy addition to the series I love.

Now I've never heard of Mickey Zucker Reichert and I must say my first reaction is one of serious misgivings, but I'm looking forward to giving her first novel a chance.

(Personally I have my fingers crossed for Vernor Vinge to write a novel based around 520FE...I can dream...)

Mark W. Tiedemann said...

It's a mixed bag since the first Robot City books were authorized in the early 80s, some better than others. But some of the quibbles, it seems, from various fans has more to do with interpretation than quality of work. (I've been raked over the coals for my allegedly "blasphemous" portrayal of a Solarian as an ambassador to Earth, the idea being that no Solarian would ever, etc. All I can say is "Gladia" and point out that in reality no cultural is 100% homogeneous, but reality doesn't matter much to acolytes...)

Mickey wrote several Big Fat Fantasies in the 80s and 90s. She's competent, hard-working, and she is a doctor by profession, which appears to be one of the selling points in her selection (a doctor writing about another doctor---have to say it's a clever notion, too, because Mickey's a pediatrician, and robots are in most ways very like children). I think she'll do fine.

I'm more curious about the arrangement with the Estate, because I was not allowed to do more in my series, so I was told, because the Estate didn't want any more. But that could just be the nature of the initial deal.

Mark W. Tiedemann

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Thanks a lot for the excellent work you're doing.

Unknown said...

Johnny, I am not really sure why but I've always (and I mean it: since the first time I read the first novel in which Susan Calvin appeared) matched Susan Calvin with Helena Russell / Barbara Bain.

To me, Susan will always have her face.