I, ROBOT by Isaac Asimov
Bantam Dell, 1950, 256 Pages, 055338256X, Kindle Edition, $7.99
This book was my second encounter with Isaac Asimov (having read Foundation), but it was also my second encounter with I, Robot—or so I had assumed. You see, I, like many others, watched the 2004 film with Will Smith and made the mistake of assuming that the film was based on the source material. In reality, the setting is similar, and some plot points and characters carry over, but by and large you’re experiencing a different piece of work.
Having seen the film, I was familiar with the core concept on which the book is based. In an alternate future, physically superior robots capable of both emotion and unparalleled intelligence (via the positronic brain) have revolutionized life for humans. These robots are all bound by three laws:
1: A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2: A robot must always obey a human being, 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.
Like Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, I, Robot is actually a collection of several short stories rather than a single narrative. The central idea behind most of the stories involves people dealing with robots that behave in unusual ways, often as a result of some unforeseen consequence of the Three Laws. The stories are framed by an elderly, retiring pioneer in the field of robopsychology who is being interviewed by a young reporter. This reporter is mostly ignorant about the historical progress of robotics, especially in its early years.
First things first: don’t come here if you want action of any kind. If you’re expecting swash-buckling, space battles, or robot uprisings then you will be thoroughly disappointed. Asimov is not the least bit interested in daring feats or grand adventure. Instead, he focuses on cunning logic, deceptive circumstances, and basic human nature.
This leads into, perhaps, the single greatest achievement of the book, for it is not really about robots or their nature. Rather, Asimov uses robots to help us understand humans. Through analysis of these superior-yet-limited beings, we glimpse a fragment of mankind’s dreams and, more often, limitations. One of the most thought-provoking moments occurs when the characters are trying to determine whether a particular public figure is a human or a disguised robot. A younger Dr. Susan Calvin, the robopyschologist who recalls the stories for the journalist in the frame tale, notes that a robot which follows the three laws is almost indiscernible from an especially good human being. Insights like these (and the book is filled with far subtler and more provocative ones) are what keep the reader interested in this fantastic scenario.
Insights aren’t the only interesting aspect of this book. The characters are just as, if not more, thoroughly entertaining than the plot or setting. Several stories in particular follow a pair of U.S. Robots employees named Donovan and Powell, both of whom are charged with field testing new and experimental robots. They are sarcastic, intelligent, and eventually disgruntled with their job’s frequently confounding and dangerous situations. Every story with these two characters is particularly charming, and their repeated distaste for the situations they find themselves in doesn’t get old—in fact, the repetition serves to make it funnier.
If I had any particular complaint, I would say that the book as a whole suffers a bit from the fragmented nature of weaving several short stories together. There are nine beginnings, middles, and climaxes in the book, all of varying intensity. The last climax, for example, is actually rather anti-climactic for a story that occurs at the end of a collection. Additionally, you may fall in love with a character only to find that it’s been relegated to a single short story. (I, for instance, was saddened by the short time the book devoted to Robbie the Robot.) These aren’t flaws with the writing so much as flaws with the basic structure. Even so, it’s worth considering.
Charming is the best word I can think of to describe I, Robot. Charming and thoughtful, perhaps. Asimov doesn’t raise issues in I, Robot by hitting you over the head. Much like his morally superior characters, he prefers to convey a message kindly, as a father talking to a son. Does this mean the story is boring? Far from it—if you allow yourself to get invested in the logic, then it can be truly thrilling at times. Let yourself get swept up in the intelligence and the fun of the stories, and you’ll certainly enjoy yourself.