Isaac Asimov: I, Robot
Disclaimer: This is an unusual book, and quite difficult to write about, so this is a strange review…
If you come to Asimov’s I, Robot expecting a tale similar to that found in the 2004 Will Smith vehicle of the same name, then you will be both dissapointed and utterly blown away. Dissapointed because the only similarities between the book and the movie are a few character names and the fact that both contain robots. Blown away because, as a Will Smith fan, you have probably never experienced the scope and power of a true science fictional novel. (In the interests of transparency, I have never forgiven Smith and Hollywood for taking a big steaming dump on the chest of Richard Matheson’s stone-cold classic I am Legend, and never will). Asimov’s 1950 I Robot is a collection of short stories featuring a cast of recurring characters cunningly wrought into the form of a novel.
Whilst ostensibly about robots (and disregarding the rather impressive fact that it was Asimov who unknowingly coined the term ‘robotics’), the series is actually examining Asimov’s famous 3 laws from a variety of angles, basically trying to destruction test the theory. For those of you who have been living under a stone in the caldera of Olympus Mons for the last 62 years, Asimov’s 3 laws are as follows;
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 it’s own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.
Clever stuff. However, what Asimov is really analysing is artificial intelligence. The fact that these AI’s reside in vaguely humanoid bodies is, really, neither here nor there. In fact, in my opinion, the movie tie-in Animatrix does a better job of analysing the integration of humanoid robots with a human population rather better in a far shorter space of time. However, this is diverging from the point. The point is that, despite Asimov’s ‘positronic fields’ (what we would now call a severe case of ‘hand-wavium’ technology), he basically invented the concept of AI from first principles, invented a set of rules to govern it, and then, like a good scientist, set out to break his theory.
The first story, Robbie is a rather sentimental and mawkish piece about a young girl who loses the robot nanny that she has become emotionally attached to. Frankly, the robot could be replaced with a black woman and the story would make sense as social commentary on 1950’s America. Entertaining, and interesting as the genesis for the rest of the book, but ultimately light weight.
After that, we meet two robot repairmen who keep being posted to various places in the solar system (robots are outlawed on Earth) where new model robots are being used in an effort to troubleshoot problems with them regarding the laws. These two characters are probably the most sympathetic in the book as they are both humorous and likeable. The later characters, such as the top brass of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Inc are rather serious mathematicians, psychologists, and politicians who are given emotions merely to illustrate one of Asimov’s points.
So, lacking any real discussion of robotics, or any kind of character driven arc, where is a reader to find the hook in I, Robot? I would argue that it lies in Asimov’s world building. By analysing his 3 laws in a variety of situations, and imagining the real world effects that the dawn of AI would have, Asimov almost accidentally builds a basis for his later work; interplanetary heavy industry, intergalactic travel, and a society slowly becoming used to the fact that they have already, almost accidentally, relinquished control of their lives over to a race of benign super-beings. As a piece of traditional literature, I, Robot fails in a spectacular variety of ways, but to say this is to use an unfair yardstick for its success. The book is successful as a quasi-scientific document, a way to test a theory in the absence of the correct technology. The fiction is almost secondary and a purely literary reading would fail to give the work the credit it deserves. I, Robot is unique, seminal, and brilliant. A true tour-de-force of imagination that sets up a massive, galaxy spanning fictive world almost as a side-line. Asimov’s work here is nothing short of jaw-dropping