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. 🙂