Tuesday, February 19

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

Framed as a series of interviews with veteran robopsychologist Susan Calvin, I, Robot collects Asimov’s robot short stories in one volume. From “Robbie,” the tale of a little girl and her devoted, mute servant nursemaid, to supercomputers protecting us from ourselves, every story weaves in Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and explores a different aspect of human/cybernetic relationships.
Initially concentrated on the unique aspects of humanity interacting with another intelligent creature, and looking at how this reflects human nature, the later stories focus more closely on the interplay between the Laws and how increasingly sophisticated robots interpret them.
The First Law states that a robot may not hurt a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm – but what constitutes ‘harm’? What happens when this Law conflicts with the Second (that robots must obey all human orders except where doing so would conflict with the First Law) or Third Laws (a robot must protect it own existence unless doing so would conflict with either the First or Second Law)? To what lengths would a robot go to in order to prevent harm? Is there a way of neutralising any of the Laws?
I have read I, Robot before, many times, the most recent of which was several years ago. It is a testament to Asimov’s skill that his writing remains not only accessible but also contemporary and relevant. Indeed, the original stories themselves wholly stand the test of time, and are dated only by the linking narrative which provides dates that must have seemed far off once but are now contemporaneous (Calvin, for example, was born in 1982 and is 75 years old when the book begins, and the Laws cited at the beginning come from the 56th edition of the Handbook of Robotics, published in 2058).
While Asimov’s ideas are, of course, central to his success, what sets him apart from the majority of his similarly innovative colleagues during Science Fiction’s Golden Age is his writing – clear characters, subordinate to the plot; lucid and believable dialogue; exposition that is unforced and lacks redundancy; an attitude that the readership are intellectually curious and engaged with the work; and a sprinkling of humour, not only from the author (an inveterate punster) but within his characters. And he deals with substantial topics – the question of what constitutes harm is obviously addressed, but Asimov also explores varieties of prejudice, the moral good, and portrayed a strong female character earlier than most. If you’re new to the genre, or the author, I, Robot is a great place to start. - Alex

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