Saturday, April 28, 2012

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov

For my fifth Grand Master reading challenge, this project may well be the only one at Random Comments that runs on schedule, I decided to read something by Isaac Asimov. Several of his novels feature prominently on all kinds of recommended reading lists and he is certainly one of the genre's towering figures. I read his Foundation novels (the original trilogy) a while ago and I can't say I was overly impressed. Asimov didn't lack ideas but his prose is barely serviceable and he has the tendency to explain everything in great detail to his readers. Perhaps I should have picked something from later in his career but I, Robot (1950) is such an iconic work in the genre that I felt I should give it a go. Much to my surprise, I liked this book better than the Foundation novels. Not that the flaws in Asimov's writing are absent in this novel, but the quality of the stories is more consistent and on the whole, I though them more entertaining as well.

I, Robot has been described as a fix-up novel or a short fiction collection. I think of it as the former but it is certainly true that most of the text appeared in the shape of various short stories between 1940 and 1950 in a Super Science Fiction Stories and of course John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction, to whom the book is dedicated. Asimov has connected the stories with bits of interviews with Dr. Susan Calvin, a robotpsychologist working for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc, as she is looking back on her long career in the field. She is not always the main character, or even a character, but she does provide just enough context to put the stories into a general future history. Asimov does this in his usual efficient way, not wasting a word more on it than absolutely necessary. I understand Asimov changed some of the details in the stories to make them more consistent. He is certainly making the most of repackaging these short stories with minimal effort here.

Being written in the 1940s, most or the novel is pretty badly dated and some of Asimov's depictions of the future will seem decidedly strange to new readers. We have caught up with the start of the series now. I, Robot starts in 1996, with the story Robbie (1940), about a primitive robot and playmate of the eight year old Gloria. The girl treats the robot like she would a human friend and this makes her mother uneasy. Robbie wil have to go. Asimov uses the story to outline the resistance against artificial intelligence, the fear of superior robots replacing human beings. First in the work space and later completely. It is an introduction to his famous three laws of robotics, which he will name in the second story Runaround (1942).
"We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."
"Two," continued Powell, "a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law."
"And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws."

Powell and Donovan discussing the Three Laws of Robotics - Runaround
Runaround, set in 2015, introduces the field testers Powell and Donovan and is a story in which Asimov examines the conflicts that may arise from these three laws. The laws are the kind of logic that Asimov seemed to have liked, simple, elegantly formulated and its intent easily understood. He was smart enough to see they are by no means flawless though. Most of the stories contain situations in which some conflict between these laws makes the robots behave unexpectedly or cause them to be caught in a loop, often jeopardizing the project they are working on or the lives of the unfortunate humans in their company. In Runaround it happens in the supremely hostile environment on Mercury, which shows just how little we knew about conditions on the planet in 1940. It gives Asimov plenty of room to speculate though.

Some six months after events in Runaround Donovan encounter a different sort of problem. In Reason (1941), which I consider to be one of the strongest stories, Asimov takes a more philosophical tone when our field testers are stuck with a robot who will not accept the (in its opinion) contrived and unnecessarily complicated explanation for its existence. A case of Occam's razor gone blunt I suppose. This story contains the most memorable quote in the book if you appreciate sarcasm.
"I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection", said Cutie, "and the results have been most interesting. I began at the one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself exist, because I think..."
Powell groaned, "Oh Jupiter, a robot Decartes!"

QT-1 discussing its own existence.
Cutie retreats from reality along the same lines as a human being might do in the end by resorting to religion, shutting out the need for an explanation. It is one of several instances where robotpsychology runs parallel to human psychology. Something even Susan Calvin reluctantly admits later on in the book.

In Catch That Rabit (1944) robot behaviour shows some parallels to buggy software as well. It sees our field testers use drastic measures to get the robot back under control. Asimov spends a lot of the later part of the story lecturing (disguised as a conversation between Powell and Donovan). I can't say I particularly liked it. Liar! (1941) is more interesting.Set in 2121, it deals with a robot that can read minds. The conflict arises when it receives one sets of instructions verbally, that don't correspond with the real desires of the person giving the instructions. Calvin's behaviour in this story will no doubt make some readers groan but the concept is a strong one.

By the time Little Lost Robot (1947), robots have become quite advanced and exploration of the solar system is well under way. In 2029, one such space program employs robots with a slightly altered set of robotic laws, enabling them to ignore a human being putting themselves in danger. If the mere existence of such a robot was to become public knowledge on earth, the political consequences would be dire. When one of the robots is lost, the people who run the project are in deep trouble. Calvin is called upon to find it. The three laws of robotics can be quite a restriction I suppose, so the temptation to do away with them is clear. Asimov presents a perfectly reasonable argument for doing so in this story. It might have worked better if there had been more of an element of danger in the story though. The missing robot is still unable to actively do harm. Personally I wouldn't have been particularly worried to have it around.

In Escape! (1945), positronic brains have become so advanced they are capable of calculations comparable of those of a super computer. The Brain, as this robot is called, is set to the task of creating the means for interstellar travel, a problem that has already cracked a competing robot. Calvin is aware that there is a conflict with the three laws but doesn't know where. The company tries to avoid the problem by feeding The Brain the information is small sections. It features a lot of irrational behaviour on the Brain's part. I'm not particularly fond of this story but as usual, Asimov's rationale is perfectly logical.

The book then moves on to 2032, a year that poses a completely different challenge to Susan. A Turing with a twist. In Evidence (1946), Stephen Byerley is a brilliant district attorney running for mayor, when one of his opponents accuses him of being a robot. How do you prove someone is a robot when the subject is not cooperating and very aware of his rights? Written during the aftermath of the second world war, it is easy to see what Asimov (of Russian Jewish descent himself) was aiming at. It is the most politically charged story in the book, with a lot of it focussing on the suspicion and outright hatred of robots despite the fact they are incapable of harming a human being. Where Asimov usually explains the entire plot to the reader in detail, this story is certainly food for thought.

Interestingly enough I, Robot then goes to show us some suspicion of robots might actually be warranted. In The Evitable Conflict (1950), set in 2052, Calvin has realized that robots rule the world. They are responsible for the allocation of goods and services and the division of labour of the entire planet, which by that time is divided into four super states. Calvin is called upon to explain apparent imperfections in the solution the robots provide. These turn out to have a perfectly reasonable explanation in line with the three laws of course. This story has aged very badly, Asimov's future, at this point in time, seems positively silly, although from his perspective it might not have been entirely impossible. It was not my favourite part of the book though. Partly because of Asimov's tendency to explain everything and partly because of the fact that the plot is mostly a guided tour though planetary government in 2052.

With I, Robot Asimov lays the foundation of what would become one of the three main series in his career as science fiction writer. He is not technically a good writer (at this point in his career at least) but back in the days where science fiction was very much seen as the literature of ideas, you probably couldn't do much better than Asimov. He had ideas and was not afraid to explain them at length. For the modern reader a lot of I, Robot is dated but with lasting contributions to the genre such as the three laws of robotics and the positronic brain, it is one of the novels that shaped the genre. One of the thoughts that kept returning while reading this novel is just how many things Asimov discussed that were in the experimental stage at the time, or didn't exist at all. All things considered, I think it deserves at least some of the praise that is heaped on it.

Book Details
Title: I, Robot
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 224
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-553-80370-9
First published: 1950

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