Friday, July 23, 2004

This morning, I read an amusing revision of Asimov's three laws of robotics written by Mark Zimmermann after watching I, Robot. There was also an NPR segment on the same film earlier this week, and a review by Gary Westfahl at Locus Magazine. The review confirm what I'd guessed from the trailer: that I, Robot is an action movie more influenced by Will Smith than by Isaac Asimov. It seems a pity. But then, I enjoyed Independence Day; why should I be disappointed to hear that I, Robot is another movie in the same style?

In a talk given at BookExpo America, Ursala Le Guin commented on some assumptions about fantasy. Though none of her examples are drawn from science fiction, her points apply more generally. The third point she makes seems particularly apropos:

Assumption 3: Fantasy by definition concerns a Battle Between Good and Evil. This is the one where the cover copywriters shine. There are lots of fantasies about the Battle Between Good and Evil, the BBGE, sure. In them, you can tell the good guys from the evil guys by their white hats, or their white teeth, but not by what they do. They all behave exactly alike, with mindless and incessant violence, until the Problem of Evil is solved in a final orgy of savagery and a win for the good team.

Westfahl echoes Le Guin's sentiment in the first paragraph of his review:

Contrary to some published reports, the film I, Robot does in one respect powerfully recall the thoughts and writings of Isaac Asimov. Unfortunately, what came to my mind while watching the film had nothing to do with Asimov's robots, but was rather the statement that echoes through his early Foundation stories Violence ... is the last refuge of the incompetent which explains why Asimov's fans will regard this film as an appalling travesty.

Violence need not be the anathema of plot and character development; just look at the death toll in Hamlet, in which Shakespeare gives the final soliloquy to a secondary character for lack of any main characters left alive! And while Asimov created the character of Salvor Hardin, whose motto about violence is the source of Westfahl's quote, he also made Hari Seldon proficient in a judo-like martial art (twisting). Still, the point is made: a shoot-em-up cannot be fairly said to be based on Asimov's ideas if those ideas are displaced by mayhem.

A good screenplay based on an Asimov book could not be the same as the book. Books contain details which don't fit easily into the dialogue and scenery; and book authors can deliberately omit details in a way that would be hard for a screenwriter to manage. Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was successful in part because of the beauty of New Zealand's landscape and the power of Howard Shore's score, elements which were clearly not part of the books. Jackson paid respect to Tolkien's ideas and intentions where it was appropriate, and he interpreted, added, and elided elements as needed to craft a film. The result was a grand success, and, I think, faithful to the spirit of the book.

I think many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy books would be very difficult to adapt to the screen. Jackson managed better with Tolkien than I would have imagined, but attempts to interpret Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov have all fallen flat. I think the thing that separates the successful from the luckless is the skill with which the filmmaker sifts out the character, plot, and high-level ideas and makes them independent of the author's crafting of details. Tolkien was a linguist; Heinlein was an engineer; Asimov was trained in the physical sciences. Vernor Vinge was a professor of computer science for a time; Kim Stanley Robinson received a doctorate in English; Jerry Pournelle studied a variety of things before he turned to writing (and picked up two doctoral degrees along the way). Mary Doria Russell, whose books I enjoyed recently, has a day job as a researcher in paleoanthropology. Not all my favorite science fiction authors hold advanced degrees, but almost all of them have some area of intense interest and long study, and it shows in the way they write. Tolkien wouldn't be Tolkien without the created languages. Heinlein wouldn't have been nearly such fun if he didn't tell the details of the control systems on his rocket ships. Part of the fun of Vinge is reading about his interstellar version of Usenet, or about his vision of programming turning into archaeology as computer systems become too complicated and baroque for anyone to truly understand. David Weber's battle scenes would fall flat without his interest in military history and his thoughtful analysis of the ways in which different technologies would necessarily change tactics and strategy. But none of these detailed interests would translate well into a movie.

I'd say that's a good reason to keep reading... as if I needed an excuse.

  • Currently drinking: Oolong (which I now know means absent-minded in Cantonese)