the Little Red Reviewer

Catching up with Classics: I Robot

Posted on: February 19, 2011

I Robot, by Isaac Asimov

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 fan 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?

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17 Responses to "Catching up with Classics: I Robot"

This is one that I really want to read. Thanks for sharing a great review! Tasha @ A Trillian Books

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I bloody LOVE iRobot! Asimov was brilliant!

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I was just having an interchange in the comments on my blog about how much I like I, Robot. I loved reading it because it was almost like a puzzle, as each story went deeper into the fine details of the Laws. I like a lot of Asimov, especially his short stories.

Great Review!

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What is also cool about it is how those various stories make up the overall narrative, each one with further insight into the ways in which humans interact with said robots.

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I’m trying to come up with intelligent responses to the comments, but all I can think of to say is “yes to all”!!

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I’ve been meaning for a while now to try some Assimov but I still feel somewhat intimidated by him. I’m not sure if I’m prepared for the hardcore SF. But this book sounds like it might one I would enjoy. I’ll have to give it a try.

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iRobot is a great starter Asimov book.

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Just realized I wrote I, Robot like it’s an Apple product. Damn you Steve Jobs!

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There must be something in air…I just finished reading Asimov’s Foundation today. :) Funny you should mention his female characters, because one thing I did notice in Foundation was that the galaxy seemed to be entirely male in the future. Well, not quite, there was one very small female character, and we caught glimpses of two other unnamed women, but that was all!

I’ve read part of I, Robot, and really should go back to read the rest. Aside from the lack of women, I enjoyed Foundation so that seems like a good sign. I’ll have to find the battered paperback of I, Robot that I’m sure my dad has on a shelf somewhere…

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Great review. I haven’t had the pleasure of getting into Asimov, but I’m thinking I’ll have to dive into I Robot once I’m done with The Wise Man’s Fear in a few weeks!

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I was watching I, Robot on tv the other night, and found myself thinking, “What the heck does this have to do with Asimov’s stories?” Aside from the Susan Calvin character, the three laws, and US Robotics, it seemed unrelated.

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I know, right? uughh, could they have possibly made a crappier movie adaptation? what a peice of garbage.

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I love the I, Robot collection. Great stuff. That and the original Foundation trilogy are some of my favorite books. Very good stuff. I have to admit that I like the film as well. I don’t mind that it is only marginally based on what Asimov wrote (although if you read the short story Robot Dreams that he wrote in the 80’s, that story is pretty prominently featured in the film), I find it to be an interesting and entertaining action film. But I know I’m in the minority on this one.

The Powell and Donovan characters in the short stories are a hoot. They remind me somewhat of the Odd Couple in their interactions with each other at times. And Susan Calvin is a perfect character to examine humanity through, as she often seems less human than the robots in the stories (this again is particularly apparent in the story Robot Dreams). We got into a long, long discussion about the I, Robot stories on the Classic Science Fiction Book Club site a few weeks back and it was fun revisiting my thoughts on these stories during that discussion. Those who don’t take the time to visit the classics are really cheating themselves of some marvelous reading, and that is a real shame.

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Asimov was my first introduction to SF, so I was lucky that I got to read some of the classics first. and only some, as there are so many “classic SF” authors who I haven’t read. there is just too much that i want to read and not enough time!

Powell & Donovan are my favorite characters in I Robot!

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Have you ever read any of Robert Sheckley’s short fiction? He has a couple of guys who run the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service and those characters remind me of Powell and Donovan. Or actually vice versa since I read the Sheckley before reading Asimov. Fun stuff.

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[...] Catching Up with the Classics: I, Robot at the Little Red Reviewer (review of the original Asimov book) No comments yet [...]

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This little collection is one of my favorite Asimov books. The framing story is wonderful; any excuse for more Susan Calvin is a good one. (I have the new “authorized by…” robot novel on my to-read pile, and Susan is the lead character in that one.)

My favorite Susan Calvin moment in the book is a toss-up between two scenes:

In “Liar”, when Susan talks a robot into overloading with a logical paradox. Kirk would regularly talk computers to death in the 60’s, but this moment is different: The robot is trying to be good and protect human beings, but Susan coldly, chillingly assesses the dangers and decides that this robot must be terminated. Now.

In “Little Lost Robot”, there’s a moment when Susan makes clear just how critical it is for a robot to have the first law installed. Her explanation–that robots would be resentful and hateful slaves without a complete first law–makes the reader realize just how thin and dangerous a line humanity is walking with robots. This point will be brought up again (if indirectly) in later books.

There’s also a screenplay based on this book, written by Harlan Ellison and printed with gorgeous illustrations, that has nothing at all do with the movie that was later made. I highly recommend it.

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