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I, Robot

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Originally published in book form in 1950, this is sometimes referred to as a novel, but it is a collection of short stories written over a ten-year period, all but one having appeared in Astounding magazine. There are several characters that do appear in most of the stories, and Asimov had also written connecting passages in order for them to have a more cohesive and episodic flow. The book tells the history of U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men.

The main characters include the company's principal officers Alfred Lanning and Peter Bogert, the "robo-psychologist" Susan Calvin, and field operatives Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan, who test and implement the usage of a series of robots in various interplanetary situations. The connecting passages are the notes and commentaries of a reporter investigating the life of Susan Calvin on the occasion of her retirement from the company.

The term robot had been introduced into the language some years earlier, in Czech playwright Karel Capek's R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), but Asimov did coin the term "robotics," and he created the term "positronic" to describe the controlling brain of his robots. Of course this was a pure fabrication, inspired by the recent (at that time) discovery of the elemental particles positrons. He also very nearly established a monopoly on the depiction of robots in fiction with his unique creation of The Three Laws of Robotics. These laws had been presented originally by Asimov in the third robot story he wrote - "Liar!" - but it is the fifth story in the book's order.

 

The Three Laws of Robotics are:
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 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.

 

Although Asimov refused to allow other authors to use these laws in any specific way in their works, it is obvious they were a direct influence on many depictions of robots. Even Gene Roddenberry sought permission from Asimov to be allowed to refer to the The Next Generation character of Data as a positronic robot.

The first story in the sequence, "Robbie," was also the first of the robot stories written by Asimov, but the order of the others in the book are in several cases not the same as their written order. "Robbie" was originally titled "Strange Playfellow," and it appeared in Super Science Stories in 1940. Robbie is a domestic robot in the employ of George Weston, and is used primarily as a nanny and playmate to his daughter Gloria. She grows extremely fond of Robbie and rarely plays with anyone else, in spite of her mother's insistence that she make friends with the other children in the neighborhood. Mrs. Weston's anxiety over the situation is heightened as a result of increasing hostility by the general population towards robots, and she eventually is able to convice her husband to return Robbie to the company. Gloria of course is upset by this and insists on finding her best friend. Many months pass without any change in her despondency. Her mother plans an extended vacation in New York as a way to take Gloria's mind off the situation, not knowing that her husband has arranged for a chance meeting with Robbie. He convinces her that Gloria thinks of Robbie as a person rather than a mechanical device, and that a tour of a robot manufacturing plant will alter her perception. During the course of the tour they are taken to an assembly area where scores of robots are busily constructing other mechanical men. Gloria is convinced that one of them is her beloved playmate and calls out to him, at the same time running toward him. Robbie responds to her call and is successful in rescuing her from the path of a tractor transporting component parts to the assembly area. Mrs. Weston, unable to ignore the obvious attachment and devotion of the robot towards Gloria, agrees to his return to their home.

Gloria's triumph is short-lived however, for in the developing chronology of robot history the antagonism toward more human-like robots grows to the extent that their use is banned from Earth by all major nations. U. S. Robots goes through a transition period until they are able to develop the next generation of positronic robots for use on spaceships and in the exploration of the other planets in the solar system. The next three stories of the book - "Runaround," "Reason," and "Catch That Rabbit" - detail the exploits of Powell and Donovan as they try to solve the dilemmas presented by different malfunctioning robots. The men's reasoning powers are stretched to the limit as they try to reconcile the actions of the robots in relation to the Three Laws. The stories present situations that initially seem to indicate the robots are violating one or more of these laws. It is a testament to Asimov's skill as a writer that each scenario is developed in such a way that the reader feels compelled to solve the puzzle along with the stories' characters. Just when we reach the conclusion that Asimov himself has made a mistake, he is able to open our eyes to a solution that seems quite obvious in retrospect.

In another of the stories, "Little Lost Robot," it is Susan Calvin who is called upon to find the solution. In her first venture away from Earth she travels to HyperBase, where robots and human engineers are endeavoring to create a "hyperatomic" propulsion system in an effort to launch the first interstellar voyages. Due to hazardous radiation conditions necessary for the project the robots' adherance to the Three Laws have been supressed, since before they had been compelled to rescue the human engineers from certain experimental conditions. One engineer, in a fit of pique against a troublesome robot, tells the machine to "Get lost!" Uncapable of doing anything but take the human order literally, the robot "loses" himself among sixty-two other robots of identical manufacture. The possibility of the news of robots who do not conform to the Three Laws reaching Earth makes the discovery of the lost robot of utmost importance.

In the majority of the stories the robots described are mechanical constructs of different designs, with various improvements and innovations incorporated into each successive generation. The last two stories in the book, "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict," present the possibility of a robot with a human appearance. The character of Stephen Byerly is a judge and a candidate for mayor of a large metropolitan city. His opponent is convinced he is a robot constructed to replace the original Byerly, who had been the victim of a tragic accident years before. The fact that Byerly refuses to undergo certain tests to prove or disprove this assertion does not bode well for his case. His defense is one of human rights and privacy. Susan Calvin and others from U. S. Robots are called upon to convince Byerly to submit to the tests. Even though Calvin suspects he is a robot, she defends his position since she has always been more fond of robots than of other humans. Another aspect of the tale is the contention that a robot who conforms to the Three Laws exhibits behavior one would expect of a truly enlightened and benevolent human.

As I mentioned in my general essay on Asimov, he is more highly regarded for the intellectual puzzles he presented in these and other stories rather than for character development. The best story in this collection is one of the exceptions to that rule. "Liar!" presents a vivid portrait of Susan Calvin, a shy and sensitive woman who has devoted her whole life to the understanding of the psychology of the positronic brain of the robot. In this story we discover she is also quite susceptible to the human emotions of love, vanity, jealousy, and anger. The focus this time is on the robot Herbie, who happens to be able to read the minds of his human creators. Due to the restrictions of the First Law, Herbie is forced to lie to them since he knows what they are thinking and that the truth will hurt their feelings. He is unable to tell Lanning and Bogert about the stage in his manufacture that caused his unique condition since the truth of a robot solving the puzzle would harm their self-esteem. The lie he tells Susan Calvin is that the man she secretly admires, Milton Ashe, is actually in love with her. The fact that the lies harm the humans as much as the truth causes Herbie to withdraw into a catatonic state, unable to reconcile his actions with his understanding of the Three Laws.

I, Robot is one of those books that deserves a place on the shelf of any who desire to explore the full scope of science fiction's history. With this and his other robot novels and stories, Asimov created a realistic view of a possible future, one in which humans and robots worked together to create a more harmonious environment. Even if none of the specifics ever come to pass, he gave us a vision of a future towards which we all should strive.

Also of related interest, check out my article on Harlan Ellison's still unproduced Screenplay for I, Robot.

 

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Author
Isaac Asimov

Published
First story in 1940
Book compilation in 1950

Available from amazon.com