Every so often, I run across a book that has an intriguing idea, but is rather dull and dry for reading. Vinge’s Rainbows End and Flynn’s Eifelheim are two recent examples, and now Williamson’s The Humanoids can go on that list. I discovered the book through a Webcomic, of all things, but the description of the novel captured my imagination: In a distant future, the Humanoids, a race of robots with a prime directive to protect humans at all costs, effectively invades different planets and takes over. The Humanoids are so painstakingly dedicated to their directive that humans cannot cook (the heat is too dangerous), perform crafts (scissors can be dangerous), or even drive (cars are too dangerous). Once they begin their assimilation into society, the humans begin to feel imprisoned, and any signs of unhappiness on their part is met with a form of lobotomy so that humans no longer feel unhappy. It’s a frightening concept, and it made me uneasy during much of the novel.
The novel is actually a collection of a short story, “With Folded Hands,” that introduces the Humanoids, and the novel proper, which continues with the concept of their invasion. They were both published in the late 1940s, and aside from the usual sexist portrayals of women and men, it’s still a timely book. The writing style became obtuse in portions, as the author spent a great deal of the narrative discussing the science behind the rhodomagnetic science, but the story itself captured me. The story accounts several attempts by humans to stop the Humanoids, only to show them fail each time. I felt anxious for the characters to end the tyranny of the overprotective androids, and frustrated when they met with failure each time. The Humanoids were just too efficient to defeat.
Which brings me to the point of the novel that troubles me. It’s depressing, to me, to think of a rule such as this, and the novel doesn’t bring any clear resolution to the issue that makes me feel any better about it. There is a happy ending, of sorts, but it’s more a case of mutual existence between the Humanoids and the humans, and I almost felt betrayed by that conclusion. The story is told in such a way as to make the reader feel as outraged as the protagonists, but in the end, I felt cheated by the ending. Was I supposed to? Or was I supposed to be accepting of the final outcome between the humans and their captors?
I enjoyed the novel, because it contained some interesting social commentary, and elicited some genuine emotion from me. It was slow going, but ultimately satisfying. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to catch up on some of the more obscure classic science fiction, and would suggest that they email me about it when they finish it so I can see if I’m the only one who feels like I do about the conclusion.