Title: I, Robot
Author: Isaac Asimov
First Published: 1950
It would just be wrong if I progressed very far with this Robo Reads feature – discussing books that deal with robots, AI and humanity’s relationship with technology – before reviewing this absolute classic of the genre. Over the years, certain highly influential stories generate tremendous cultural resonance: they get quoted and misquoted, and they inspire other books, films and games in all hues of homage, critique, pastiche and plagiarism. The best known tales of H.P. Lovecraft would be one example of this phenomenon, and I, Robot is certainly another. In both cases it’s easy to feel like you know the story even if you’ve never picked up the book. So finally reading the original texts can actually be quite an odd experience, simultaneously foreign and familiar, rather like meeting a long-lost relative for the first time: you may be instantly connected by a shared history, even a strong physical resemblance, but at the same time you’re also facing a complete stranger.
I, Robot is less a novel than a collection of interconnected short stories. Arranged chronologically across a (then futuristic) time period beginning in 1996 and ending in the mid-21st century, each story examines a different robot in created by the company US Robot and Mechanical Men, Inc. The earliest is a mute nursemaid, the last a hyper-intelligent global power. The stories and their diverse robotic subjects are unified by two threads. The first is the involvement of Dr Susan Calvin, the “robopsychologist” who is recalling these scenes from her life in an interview with a journalist. The second thread is what has become Asimov’s greatest cultural legacy, the Three Laws of Robotics. Deceptive in their simplicity, you probably know them already but I’ll quote them here anyway since all the book’s action hinges upon them.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The robots imagined here are built to obey these laws but most appear defective in some way: one endlessly circles the resources he is meant to collect rather than completing the mission (“Runaround”), another appears to be telling deliberate untruths (“Liar!”) The puzzle for Asimov’s characters – and for the reader along with them – is working out why. In this respect, the stories resemble logic puzzle problems, encouraging the reader to assess the scenario and think about how the different clauses of adherence to the Laws may conflict with the instructions the robots have been given.
It can be extremely satisfying to follow along as the problem with each robot’s behaviour is slowly diagnosed and understood. But in places Asimov’s logic heavy tone can lead to a rather dry reading experience, especially in the stories that focus on the robot testers, Powell and Donovan, who are both inclined to spout a lot of technical specifications and jargon. Fortunately, this dryness is tempered by the stories’ insightful focus on the human psyche, revealing how the prejudices and assumptions of the the human characters colour their interactions with the mechanical men they have created, sometimes with dangerous consequences.
Although I, Robot was the originator of many tropes that have since become sci-fi staples, Asimov’s work also responds to a much older literary theme: namely that of a scientist who distrusts, even regrets, the thinking life form they have created – as in the tragic narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Robots are not quite the same as the “Monster” Dr Frankenstein creates and then rejects, but they are often treated as similar sources of fear in literature and film. Think “Robot” and words like ”uprising” or “rebellion” often aren’t far behind. In recognising and critiquing this tendency, Asimov’s book feels simultaneously timeless and extremely contemporary.
It’s always interesting to engage with visions of the future that are now firmly part of the past. “Robbie,” the earliest tale chronologically, is set in 1996. Asimov gets a lot wrong -we don’t have robot-staffed space mining operations yet for a start – but his stories demonstrate much foresight when it comes to the psychology of human / robot interactions. Indeed, it felt remarkably pertinent for me to be reading I, Robot at the same time as a UN conference was taking place at which delegates discussed the use of autonomous weapons systems, and the recent call for a treaty to ban “killer robots” before they can be properly developed. As a species humans seem simultaneously to yearn for advanced robots and to be terrified of their arrival. This is exactly the dichotomy that is at the heart of I, Robot and it’s established in the very first story. “Robbie,” the nurse-bot, is initially valued as a labour-saving device but the more he becomes an individual, displaying his own character and bonding with Gloria, the little girl he is tasked to mind, the less he is trusted by Gloria’s mother, who soon begins to fixate on his damaging influence and yearn to be rid of “that terrible machine.” Asimov’s timeline may be a little off but his insight into our uneasy relationship with artificial intelligence is absolutely bang on.
Like Gloria’s mother, many of the human characters in Asimov’s stories seem to dislike the robots even as they acknowledge their usefulness. Donovan and Powell, the robot testers, often seem initially to suspect “sinister” motivations to robotic failures that are usually revealed as flaws in the logic of the orders the robots have been given. Asimov seems to suggest this prejudice is partly caused by characters’ tendency to ascribe human motivations to the mechanical men, since humans are often erratic and selfish. This perspective is vocalised most often by Asimov’s most iconic character, Dr. Susan Calvin. Frequently described as “cold hearted,” Calvin is depicted as quite emotionally repressed – rather like a robot herself (or the stereotype of a robot anyway, Asimov’s robots often seem remarkably warm) but she is shown to be much less prejudiced against the robots than most of her colleagues. In ”Evidence” she comments that men and robots are “worlds different. Robots are essentially decent.” Her world view may be misanthropic but it is this that makes her such an accomplished robopsychologist: she is able to engage with the robots as they really are, rather than subscribing blindly to the notion that lacking humanity is necessarily a sinister flaw.
Occasionally the dialogue in this book can feel a little flat and stilted – and not just when it’s loaded with technicalities. I’m sure Susan Calvin would appreciate the irony that it’s the conversations between humans that sometimes read unconvincingly, whereas the human-robot conversations consistently delight and intrigue. Could that even be deliberate? I’m afraid I haven’t read enough of Asimov’s other works to be able to comment. Still, this is a minor quibble against what is other a fascinating and genuinely thought-provoking read.
If you’ve never picked up I, Robot, it’s well worth a look. Even if you already feel you know its content there’s a real pleasure and sense of freshness to be enjoyed by returning to the text that generated so much robotic cultural resonance. And if you’ve only seen the 2004 I, Robot movie with Will Smith then you definitely need to read the book so you can see just how little that film had to do with the original short story collection. Beyond the title, the invocation of the Three Laws, the presence of a character called Susan Calvin, and the fact that some other characters seem irrationally prejudiced against robots, there is basically no resemblance. I did think that the robots in that film were quite well designed and convincingly articulated, which is perhaps more than could be said for Will Smith, but that’s a quibble for another day. Hey, did I just imply I preferred the robots to the human actors? Asimov states that Calvin was born in the same year that I was too….
Next time on Robo Reads: R reviews He, She and It by Marge Piercy.