Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, July 23, 2012

1950: I, Robot (Asimov, Isaac)

Superficial threading of mixed bag of robo-stories (3/5)

It's no secret I don't like Foundation (1951). Some could interpret this as a distaste for Asimov himself or for 1940s-1950s science fiction... but they would be wrong. I like Asimov's short stories in collections such as Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) but I think it prose is usually flat. Asimov's popularity rests on his inventiveness rather than his use of the English language, something which tends to drag down even the best of his stories. Lyrically flat but infused with creativity, Asimov is a must read (even I admit that) but it's not the most enjoyable reading in science fiction. However, the most irksome quality springs up in Asimov's dialog. Foundation had some terrible ejaculations with "Oh, space!" and  "Great galloping galaxies!" dotting the conversations; I, Robot isn't as annoying but it still shows Asimov's juvenile use of English: "Sizzling Saturn!", "Jumping Jupiter", and "Great Galaxy!" being among the cheesiest.

Required reading some may say... I would agree. I, Robot is collection of stories that first places robots at the moralistic center of society (even though the robots are later displaced from Earth, their interaction with humanity persists). The three laws are inseparable from the positronic brains of the robots, a dogmatic template which is a danger to the robots as much as it is a savior for humans. A dilemma between the laws can destroy the robot, which the company sees as an occasional necessity. Some of the robots exhibit personality and passion, dedication and cleverness, but the staff of the U.S. Robots company never see themselves in a dilemma--spare the robot death or drive it mad. Are the dogmatic morality and secret reasoning of the robots more favorable than the overt indifference and freedom inhibiting of the humans?


Robbie (shortstory, 1940) - 4/5 - When a little girl's heart is broken, stemming from the loss of her nursemaid robot Robbie, a dog is simply not a replacement for the non-vocal are Robbie once showered upon the growing girl. 19 pages ----- A cute, fairly juvenile start to the collection, one which doesn't rely on any of the three laws, but highlights the intrinsic humanity the robot Robbie is endowed with.

Runaround (novelette, 1942) - 5/5 - Gregory and Mike need selenium for their Mercury-based laboratory's cooling system, but their only errand running robot, Speedy (S.P.D. 13), seems to be running circles so they must go to rescue him before time and life elapse. 19 pages ----- Ping-ponging between the second and third laws, Speedy is caught in a conundrum which reveals a hazard for their isolation.

Reason (shortstory, 1941) - 5/5 - The field engineers are supervising a new, more intelligent robot (QT-1) which will one day single-handedly run the solar energy transmitter, but the robot starts to contemplate his own existence and that of his maker. 19 pages ----- Though Gregory and Mike are the experts in robotics, Cutie the robot seems to violate the second law but they must have faith in the laws.

Catch the Rabbit (shortstory, 1944) - 2/5 - The mining robot (DV-5) is in charge of six subordinate robots, but the squabbling field engineers can't figure out why the team lapses into a field march every time they're without human supervision. 20 pages ----- Dave is more complicated than Cutie and the engineers are even more stumped with seven times the number of robots violating the second law.

Liar! (shortstory, 1941) - 3/5 - The thought reading one-of-a-kind robot RB-34 is a whiz at mathematics but loves to read fiction, yet the robot is being uncooperative on the math problems but remains oddly congenial when it comes to the heart-to-heart. 18 pages ----- Breaking no laws but simply wanting to please the humans, RB-34 dangerously plays with confines of the first law.

Little Lost Robot (novelette, 1947) - 3/5 - When robot NS-10 of the Nester branch takes a "get lost" command too literally, robotists Susan Calvin and Peter Bogert must concoct elaborate tests to sniff out the rouge robot out of the sixty-three. 27 pages ----- Wishing to obey opposing commands, NS-10 confuses the duo but the couple prove to be too clever for the limitations of an amended set of laws.

Escape! (shortstory, 1945) - 3/5 - The U.S. Robots' competitor Consolidated Robots seeks assistance with the calculation for a hyper-atomic drive, something which crashed their "Super-Thinker" but are still hopeful of U.S. Robots' "Brain" and the two field engineers. 22 pages ----- The three laws are expanded from robotic bodies to the supercomputers which govern the success of each company.

Evidence (novelette, 1946) 4/5 - Francis Quinn has it in his mind that the district attorney and mayor-hopeful Stephen Byerley is a non-sleeping, non-eating, non-drinking, and non-violent robot and sets out to prove it to the entire electorate. 24 pages ----- Aiming to frame the man as a robot, Quinn proves that a polite robot is just as good as decent human.

The Evitable Conflict (novelette, 1950) - 3/5 - Discrepancies in production in the solar system and within the world's four super nations are denied by the same nations' Machines, but Susan and Stephen think the ignored errors are part of something bigger. 24 pages ----- The mega-minds' seemingly secret scheming raises questions which only thorough investigation of the laws and data can cover.


Some of these stories are perfect with clear inventiveness, purpose, execution, and conclusion. But scattered through the collection are a few stories which are afterthoughts, additions based on a simple idea without the reflective complexity that the others are embedded with. The thread binding the stories (that umbrella story of interviewing Susan Calvin) is superficial at best, with a hearty introduction and paragraph or two between dedicated to the stories' suturing.

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