Catching up with Classics: I Robot
Posted February 19, 2011on:
Copyright 1950, my copy is circa 1970.
where I got it: have had it nearly forever
Written between 1940 and 1950 the short stories in Asimov’s I Robot came before Hal9000, before Terminator, or Dr. Soong’s Data and Lore, the uncanny valley or The Lifecycle of Software Objects. These were the days of Eniac, when the things that would be future computers took up entire rooms and required teams of programmers. Asimov envisioned a future were robots helped humanity do everything from everyday tasks to interstellar mining and solving the mysteries of the universe.
Although all the stories were written and published separately over the course of 8 or 9 years, the collection known as I Robot isn’t presented as a standard collection with a table of contents and breaks in between stories. A journalist is interviewing the now semi-retired Dr Susan Calvin, famous robo-psychologist about her lifetime working with robots. It’s the conversations between the journalist and Dr Calvin that weave the stories together. Asimov is no stranger to this trick, weaving together bits and pieces that were written over years or decades with a common thread or character.
The stories are presented in chronological order, from the non-speaking robots of Calvin’s youth, to robots who could talk, to robots that could learn and think and eventually lie and later pass for human. Like any programmable machine, a robot does exactly what we tell it to do, no more and no less.
So be careful what you tell ‘em to do!
As a robot psychologist, Susan Calvin and the troubleshooters Mike Donovan and Greg Powell are often brought in to figure out what is going wrong when Robots refuse to do what we tell them to do. They face robots who appear to lie, who seem to read minds or get confused or sad. Their jobs are to not only make these broken robots work again, but to understand what went wrong so the mistake can be avoided the next time.
A generation before killer rogue computers, Asimov knew he was writing about metal men, creatures that if given the power to think for themselves would quickly realize humans are pathetic inferior creatures (and that exact thing happens in Reason). Therefore, built into every robot is the now famous three laws of robotics. As common in scifi vernacular as lightsaber, these should sound familiar to any SF fan, even if you’ve never read an Asimov robot story or novel.
1. A robot may not injure a human being or allow a human to come to harm through inaction.
2. A robot must obey all orders given to it by a human, except where such orders would be in conflict of the first law.
3. a robot must protect it’s own existence, as long as such protection does not come into conflict with the first two laws.
(there is another law, but that’s a whole ‘nother story)
At under 200 pages, I Robot is a quick read that any SF worth their weight in books should read. The dialog is sometimes snappy and sometimes stilted. Susan Calvin isn’t the most likeable person in the world, nor did Asimov design her to be (and he was always awful at writing female characters). I Robot is not a piece of fine literature, but like reading some original Herbert after reading the new stuff, the new stuff gets a whole new dimension of what came before it.
It’s often a blast to read this “old stuff”, to see how authors envisioned the future that to me, right now, is either the past or the present. Susan Calvin was born in 1982. She would have been freshman in high school when I was a senior. By 2008 she had a PhD in Robotics and was working for US Robotics, the foremost manufacturer of robots on the planet. If she were a real person, I think maybe she’d be working on i-phones or kinectimals instead.
If you’re a fan of contemporary science fiction, and nothing in this article rang a bell, you owe it to yourself to spend a few hours with Asimov and Dr. Susan Calvin.
pop-quiz: how many sf pop culture references did you count?