I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have become some of the founding concepts of science fiction and artificial intelligence alike. I, Robot is a collection of 9 short stories tied together by the memories and experiences of Dr. Susan Calvin that deal with the first writings by Asimov on the subject of robots.
After a long and illustrious career in robot psychology working for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Dr. Susan Calvin is retiring. A reporter from one of the major newspapers comes to interview her, looking for a recap of her career and any interesting or exciting stories she may have to tell about her robotic patients over the long years of her practice.
Each story in the collection features a unique and mind bending look at how the Three Laws shape a robot’s psychology, as well as how a human must twist to see things from their perspective.
The Three Laws of Robotics 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 any orders given to 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.
As Calvin begins to relive the important robot-centric events from her life, we are shown heartbreaking characters, human and robot both, and frightening looks at what would happen to humans if ever the Three Laws were changed or broken in any way.
In “Little Lost Robot” a group of robots have a modified First Law, wherein the second half of the law is not part of their positronic brains. This leads to a scenario in which a robot, through action and then inaction, could cause harm to humans. With the story “Liar!” a quirk in manufacturing has led to a robot that can read minds, but will a robot who is programmed to cause no harm, really be capable of revealing the true thoughts of those around us? Or will we only hear what we want to? And in “Evidence” we are presented with the possibility of a robot made to look and pass as human. Would he become our overlord, or the greatest humanitarian in history?
The fascinating thing about these stories is the almost complete lack of action, proving definitively that you can in fact write science fiction without explosions and drooling aliens. Very few of them actually contain even scenes in the outdoors; most of the storylines take place in dialogue or inner monologues, leading to a book that not only makes us think, but makes us think hard. Another amazing point in their favor is the sheer ability of these stories to withstand the test of time. They are as relevant today as they were fifty or sixty years ago.
The fact that Susan Calvin is a woman, a pioneer in her field, a juggernaut in the robotics industry, and incredibly intelligent in her own right is a huge point in the book’s favor as well. But unfortunately, Asimov chose to make her independent by turning her into the stereotypical “Ice Queen”. Calvin is cold, blunt, and often compared to her beloved robots to her detriment. In “Liar” she is shown to have a heart, but the cruelty with which it is bruised and made mock of by her fellow robotics engineers is incredibly harsh. I would have enjoyed it slightly more if Calvin could be seen as human, rather than a human-shaped robot.
As well, the world in the future is apparently run by your typical WASP man, with the exception of Calvin. I don’t recall a single character of color, male or female, in the entire set of stories, except the very last one in “The Evitable Conflict”, and even then I’m not sure of their actual ethnicities. Given that this was written half a century ago, I can actually understand the misstep, but that point doesn’t make me regret it any less.
Overall, while dated in some ways, this collection is still a magnificent piece of science fiction, and any fan would do well to read it, several times in fact.