Book Review: The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

Robo Reads

Title: I, Robot
Author: Isaac Asimov
First Published: 1967

Just as its title suggests, this is another collection of (mostly) “Three Laws” robot stories from the creator of that seminal concept.  The most famous collection of Asimov’s robot stories is, of course, I, Robot (which I review here), so you’d be forgiven for thinking of this anthology as very much the Mechanical Men B-Team. There’s some truth to that. The first tale here, “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” is an early work and does feel less polished than later tales, while another inclusion, “First Law,” is so brief that it’s really more of a sketch than a fully-formed short. But The Rest of The Robots is still well worth a look, not merely because it features a few tales that could sit happily alongside the finest I, Robot has to offer, but also for the way in which this collection provides fascinating background information about Asimov’s inspiration for writing and how the Three Laws notion evolved, as well as some insight into the author’s feelings on how his robots have been received.

Each of the eight stories featured in The Rest of the Robots is prefaced by an authorial commentary which adds greatly to the experience of reading them.  Although there are plenty of highly enjoyable and engaging “robopocalypse” type cautionary tales out there, as a big robot fan (you might have noticed), I always find it refreshing when writers take a more positive approach to artificial intelligence. In his main introduction, Asimov signals directly his frustration with what he calls ”the purely Faustian interpretation of science” – that is, the idea that advanced science, including the creation of artificial beings, is a kind forbidden fruit that can be enjoyed only briefly before an extremely high price must be paid for it. Asimov then sets out his own, far more pragmatic, attitude towards robots:

Knives are manufactured with hilts so that they may be grasped safely, stairs possess banisters, electric wiring is insulated… in every artifact, thought is put into minimizing danger. Sometimes the safety achieved is insufficient because of limitations imposed by the universe or the nature of the human mind. However, the effort is there.

Consider a robot, then as simply another artifact.

It sounds so simple doesn’t it? A knife is not going to turn on its creator. Though, of course, to those around him or her, that blade is only as safe as the person wielding it. The question of control is one that crops up in several of Asimov’s tales, both here and in I, Robot. The interplay of the Three Laws ought to prevent robots from hurting humans, even in response to another human’s orders. These stories show that things usually go wrong when humans attempt to override or tamper with that core programming, or when a human interpreter’s own prejudices make them misconstrue a robot’s intentions, the results of which can be sinister, comedic, or occasionally both. It’s surely significant that the story that imagines robots most straightforwardly as representing a direct threat to human life, Cold War continuation tale “Let’s Get Together,” is also one of the few stories to feature humanoid robots who can pass among regular humans.

Cover from the 1997 HarperCollins edition

Cover from the 1997 HarperCollins edition

One of the interesting aspects of Asimov’s Three Law world is that, in most tales, while robots are routinely used for extra-planetary mining and exploration; on Earth, their use is prohibited outside of the factories that create and test them. Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” explores what might happen if a mining robot, designed for space, should, well, “go astray.” Although, as I noted above, this early tale feels quite rough round the edges, it’s notable for dealing with some pretty weighty themes in a lighthearted way. I enjoyed observing the level of catastrophising (on one hand) and greed induced scheming (on the other) from the various human elements of the story while robot AL, the confused epicentre of the storm, is just trying to do his job.

Most robot books and films don’t tend to get too far before referencing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Asimov’s main introduction to The Rest of The Robots features a succinct introduction to the “science as forbidden knowledge” trope, which highlights  Mary Shelley’s place in the cultural history of robots. Asimov notes how Shelley’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, is celebrated as a literary heavyweight, yet none of his works have attained the enduring pop-cultural legacy of Frankenstein. Having emphasised a woman’s role in popularising a negative interpretation of artificial beings, it seems noteworthy that many of Asimov’s more robot-positive tales also feature women in key roles.  Most obviously, of course, there is his robopsychologist Susan Calvin. Asimov’s affection for this famously “cold-hearted” character is clear enough from the content of  I, Robot but his introductory comments in this collection make it even more clear: ”as time went on, I fell in love with Dr. Calvin.” Asimov also explains how he was drawn to return to “dear Susan” and write more tales of her earlier life even after he had imagined her death at the end of I, Robot.

Some of the best stories in The Rest of The Robots are Susan Calvin stories.  I particularly enjoyed “Galley Slave”: the longest tale here and one which you’ll enjoy more fully, if like me, you work or have worked in higher education; and “Risk” in which Calvin has to weigh directly human life against robot life, with an outcome that is more complexly calculated than her initial, somewhat predictable, orders suggest. Another notable Susan Calvin story in this collection is “Lenny,” which reveals a more vulnerable and – can we say – human side to her personality.

But, though by far the most interesting, Calvin isn’t the only female protagonist in Asimov’s robot tales. There are even a “female” robots in “First Law”: the “MA” serial order. But while “Emma’s” existence raises some intriguing ideas, I felt that these could have been handled more satisfyingly in a longer story. To say exactly what annoyed me about this story would ruin the ending, but, though I enjoyed how this tale challenges the Three Law relationship, suffice to say I think there are more nuances to female identity than Asimov posits here. There’s also another female human who comes to find interactions with robots to be very meaningful, this is Claire Belmont in “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Claire is a typical 50s housewife, rather neglected by her career obsessed husband, except her husband Larry, just so happens to have a career with a certain robotics company. Although she is terrified of the idea, Claire’s fears are overruled and she is forced to help test a new robot TN-3, or “Tony,” who will be her home companion while her husband is away.

Though very much a product of its time (it was first published in 1951), “Satisfaction Guaranteed” is a great story, one that I reread several times. In many ways,  this tale does in miniature what Asimov’s robot stories as a collection does on a larger scale. I enjoyed the way in which Claire’s anxieties and prejudices about robots are gradually stripped away, and  – just as Shira does with Yod in Marge Piercy’s brilliant He, She and It – she finds herself gradually thinking of Tony as “he” and not as “the robot.” While other stories deal with the threat of war and greed, this story uses a robot to expose human tensions of a more social nature and at the end of the tale it’s interesting to see the different ways in which the United States Robots and Mechanical Men employees – including a certain doctor Calvin – react to and interpret the results of the experiment of which Claire has been a part.

Overall, then, The Rest of The Robots is nowhere near as consistent a collection of robot tales as I, Robot. But Asimov’s personalised introductions to each story really do add to the reader’s enjoyment – both of the tales in this book and in that other renowned collection. Certainly one to borrow, if not to buy.

Robo Reads

Next time on Robo Reads:  R reviews The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia.

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