Robotic Psychology

For my second Sci Fi Experience book, I read I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.  It hasn’t been sitting on my shelf, but it is one I’ve been meaning to read for ages.  And as with a lot of books like that, it turned out to be a faster read than I expected–and not much like my preconceptions of the book.

I always thought this was a collection of short stories, and it is, but they’re far more inter-connected than I had expected.  They’re set in what, at the time of writing, was the future (although we’ve since caught up).  It’s a world like ours, except humans have built advanced robots.  They’re exactly what you’d expect of science fiction robots (maybe they set some of the expectations!)–metallic, roughly humanoid, capable of walking and talking and performing a surprising amount of what at least looks like independent thought.  They’re governed by the famous Three Laws of Robotics.

In brief, the laws are: First, no robot can harm a human or allow a human to come to harm through inaction; Second, robots must obey human orders, unless they conflict with the first law; Third, robots must preserve themselves, unless that would be in conflict with the first or second laws.

The stories, not surprisingly, are mostly about robots that are malfunctioning or otherwise acting oddly, often because of an issue involving the Three Laws.  The stories are loosely linked by a frame-story, an interview with Dr. Susan Calvin, the leading robopsychologist.  She recounts stories from the history of robotics, primarily focusing on two groups of characters: either Powell and Donovan, two scientists who keep getting into trouble with robots on the fringes of civilization; or Dr. Calvin herself and the executives at U.S. Robots Inc.

The Three Laws seem straight-forward enough, but Asimov finds plenty of ways for their application to become confused, contradictory or otherwise corrupted.  There’s a robot who gets drunk when he can’t figure out which law to obey; another takes literally the order to go lose himself.

Characters, even though they are recurring, are not really the strong point of this book.  Most of the humans are not very distinctive.  It’s the robots who make the book interesting–and sometimes have more developed personalities than the humans!  One of my favorite stories is about a robot who doesn’t believe it when humans say they built him, and decides to reason out the truth of the world himself; he swiftly creates a kind of religion for robots, with himself as its prophet.

In some ways, the level of personality in the robots became a little disturbing.  This book is primarily about protecting humans from robots.  There’s nothing about protecting robots from humans–and when you have robots with independent thought, who appear as fairly developed characters, it gets hard to not look at them as people.  In particular there was one scene where Dr. Calvin was interviewing a robot.  She starts addressing the robot as “boy,” while the robot is calling her “ma’am.”  Suddenly you have the language of slavery, and it feels strange.  I know Asimov wrote other Robot books; I’ve read “Bicentennial Man,” which is largely about robot rights, so it’s not an entirely ignored issue…but it would be nice to see it addressed somewhere in this book too.

My favorite story is the first one, “Robbie.”  It’s certainly the sweetest, and is the one depicted on the cover.  It’s about a little girl and her beloved robot nursemaid, and what happens when her parents try to take the robot away.  (That makes it sound like Bradbury’s story, “The Veldt,” and it’s actually not at all like that!)

My last sci fi read made me think about humanity.  This one felt more like it was genuinely about the psychology of robots.  And how we relate to them, and what they say about us…but mostly how their minds work.  But that’s all right, because they work in fascinating ways!

And I think I can safely say that this one is not only classic sci fi, it’s a sci fi classic.  🙂

Other reviews:

Eclectic Reader Book Review
Running Forums


About cherylmahoney

I'm a book review blogger and Fantasy writer. I have published three novels, The Wanderers; The Storyteller and Her Sisters; and The People the Fairies Forget. All can be found on Amazon as an ebook and paperback. In my day job, I'm the Marketing Specialist for Yolo Hospice. Find me on Twitter (@MarvelousTales) and GoodReads (MarvelousTales).
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14 Responses to Robotic Psychology

  1. Leslie says:

    Good choice. I read Asimov’s Robot books what seems like ages ago and enjoyed them.

  2. Redhead says:

    Great review, and I Robot is a wonderful place to start with Asimov’s Robot books. These were super quick short stories, and Asimov has never been known for heavy characterization. The psychology of robots does get mighty creepy, and I have to wonder if at the beginning, if Asimov didn’t even know where all of this was going.

    • I am getting the sense that deep characterization is not Asimov’s strong point…but he does create fascinating worlds and concepts! I love your point that Asimov himself may not have realized where the robot stories were all going–especially considering they were originally written as separate short stories.

  3. dianem57 says:

    You said at the beginning, ” it turned out to be a faster read than I expected–and not much like my preconceptions of the book.” Funny how that can happen, especially with a really famous book that you’ve heard about a lot but never read yourself. Glad to hear it turned out well and you enjoyed the book.

    • It does seem to be a common situation with famous books! They get talked about so much, the discussion on them takes on its own life in a way–and the impressions people get may not be very accurate.

  4. ensign_beedrill says:

    I listened to this one on the way from Houston, TX and it lasted until Joplin, MO. Sometimes, when I think of the stories, I remember where I was on the trip. It wasn’t at all like I had expected, since I’d seen the movie first. I don’t know how they got that movie out of the book.

    I liked it even though it did seem to beat you over the head with the three laws. My favorite story was the one about the psychic robot, mostly because of the “liar” accusation she just spits out at him at the end and the fact that his poor metal brain goes insane. Poor little robot; he just didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s something that we as humans do at times, as well, so in that he was a very human robot.

    But I loved “Robbie,” too. It was indeed very sweet.

    The one with the politician was cool, and I especially liked how it was sort of left open in the end and you still didn’t know whether he’s a robot.

    The one where they take a ride on that super new space ship seemed out of place, and I felt the end story was kind of weak, but that might be a combination of it not actually being about robots and me getting road fatigue.

    • Asimov did emphasize the Three Laws a lot, but I enjoyed all the variation he found on how they could go wrong (or at least strange…) I also enjoyed the politician one, and you’re not the first I’ve heard describe the last one as weaker than the rest. And I love your point about how human the psychic robot was! Dr. Calvin was rather cruel to him, really.

  5. I jumped into the book not knowing anything about it (less than nothing, really, since I’d seen the Will Smith movie). It’s a truly great story, isn’t it?

  6. I always liked “The Veldt”. I read quite a bit of Asimov and Bradbury as a teen, but preferred Bradbury. I wonder if I would have the same opinions now? I haven’t read much sci-fi in a long time.

    • It’s not too late to join the completely no-pressure, lots of fun Sci Fi Experience! 🙂 If you feel like getting back into sci fi, that is. I read some Bradbury when I was younger and liked him pretty well. Somehow I never read Asimov until recently…

  7. bhagwad says:

    If you liked this, do continue with Asimov’s other “big three” robot novels. I envy you cause you have some really really fun reading ahead of you 😀

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