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Review of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I, Robot smallI, Robot is, of course, one of the most famous science fiction works – so it was high time I read it, I suppose. It isn’t a novel, and it isn’t quite a short story collection; it’s a series of short stories written between 1941 and 1950 linked by recurring protagonists and by an overlaid first person narrative. This narrative (presented in italics) concerns a reporter interviewing an elderly version of one key protagonist about her life and important episodes in the history of robots.

The over-narrative isn’t really that interesting and could be done without, but it doesn’t really hurt, either. The stories themselves are very fine examples of sf: they’re quite well written, they’re readable, they describe conceivable technological developments and – most importantly – they’re deeply concerned with the moral implications of this technology, both for humans and for the robots themselves.

The first story is a little mawkish – it’s about a girl whose parents deprive her of her nanny robot because they’re afraid of their neighbours’ opinions (for most of this hypothetical future history, robots are outlawed on Earth (but not in space) because of the political sensitivity of using these potentially human-replacing beings). Many of the later stories revolve around the robopsychologist Susan Calvin, who is the subject of the interview conducted outside the stories. The other main actors are two argumentative troubleshooters, Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan.

In most of the stories, the protagonists must use the logic of the (now legendary) Three Laws of Robotics to solve some sort of problem with the behaviour of robots (or, in one case, a person who may or not be human):

1 – A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.

2 – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3 – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Handbook of Robotics,
56th Edition, 2058 A.D.

In ‘Reason’, Powell and Donovan try to persuade the robot Cutie (QT-1 – designed to supervise the operation of solar station that beams energy to Earth) that they are not inferior beings, that there is such a place as Earth, that the robot and the station were created by humans. Cutie, having no direct evidence of any of this, refuses to believe it and sets himself up as the high priest dedicated to the appeasement of the ‘Master’ – the beam director.

In ‘Little Lost Robot’, Calvin must design a trap to find a robot that was told – in very strong terms – to get lost. The obedient robot then hid himself in a batch of identical robots. He must be found because, in order to assist in dangerous research, his Laws have been weakened. (One of the amusing things about reading old sf is the outdatedness of facts and fgures. In ‘Little Lost Robot’, Calvin suggests destroying all sixty-three robots; this is rejected because each one costs the fantastic sum of $30,000. In 2052, the global population is 3.3 billion. Everyone smokes.)

In ‘The Evitable Conflict’ (a title I really like), Calvin has to advise on the apparent mistakes of supposedly infallible Machines – robot brains that are used to co-ordinate the world’s economy. The conclusion of this story is that the Machines have the First Law firmly in mind; by deliberately making ‘mistakes’ they discredit anti-robot leaders and industrialists – all for the good of the human race.

One of the great things about I, Robot is that despite the failures in predicting inflation and population trends it still seems very contemporary. This, I think, is because of the vitality of the moral picture it presents. With advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, the world of I, Robot is getting closer every year. Questions about the role, value and danger of such manmade beings can only get more important.

The writing of the stories may not be the best, nor is the characterisation terribly deep or challenging, but they are by no means bad, and the stories are all entertaining. One thing I quite liked was that the robots all possess ‘positronic brains’ – it gives me a little warm glow that the creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation used one for Data’s brain.

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