13. A collection of short stories: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
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It can be a strange experience, reading formative classics. Isaac Asimov is a titan of science-fiction, and his work has had a lasting impact on the genre to this day. But he was also one of the first writers to extensively explore artificial intelligences and sentient robots in his work, so while he was breaking new ground, later authors could build on his foundations to dig deeper into conversations about personhood, autonomy, and how technology interacts with humanity. Reading I, Robot in a week when the film M3GAN, a horror movie about a sentient robot doll, is in theaters, gives a real sense of the scope of conversations around artificial intelligences, and how these conversations have grown and evolved past much of Asmimov’s work.
The collection I, Robot unites nine short stories with the framing device of an interview with the world’s leading robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin. In the year 2064, she looks back at her decades of work with robots, and recounts notable occasions when robots were particularly odd or troublesome. All robots are programmed with the unbreakable “Three Laws of Robotics”:
- First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Most of the stories read like logic problems, where the interactions between the Three Laws cause strange occurrences to take place and human scientists have to sort out why it happened and how to fix the problem. Characterization takes a backseat, with Dr. Calvin being the only person to really stand out. Two recurring characters, Powell and Donovan, are played for workplace comedy, but they are virtually indistinguishable from one another and fairly bland. Dr. Calvin distinguishes herself mostly by being grumpy and taciturn, though that comes with some unfortunate implications that she is unhappy because she is “plain” looking and can’t get a date. None of the robots are considered people, by the characters or the narrative, so the stories have little interest in investigating what it means to be a human, except in contrast to what it means to be a robot.
There are a lot of interesting concepts in Asimov’s world, and his clear prose and simple plotting probably helped these stories to become as popular and foundational as they became. For devoted science-fiction fans, it is worth the time to explore the roots of the genre. But over the decades, other stories have grown from those roots and bore fruit that has far surpassed Asimov’s work, and there is a big universe of science-fiction out there to explore.
Would I Recommend It: For fans of logic puzzles or sci-fi history, but not for casual readers.
Bonus Recommendation: M3GAN is a well-crafted horror movie and a great exploration of both the role of technology in child-rearing and methods of coping with grief and trauma.