Book Review – I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I, Robot

I, Robot is a “fixup” novel of short stories by Isaac Asimov, telling stories about positronic robots, their interactions with humans, and the way the author’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics” influences robot psychology and behaviour. A “fixup” novel is a novel collecting stories that were previously published separately, not initially intended to be a part of a collection. A positronic brain is the technological device conceived by Asimov that gives a robot consciousness similar to that of a human being. The framing device around these stories is an interview between a reporter and Dr. Susan Calvin, who has led a long and storied career as the chief robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. Though not all of these stories are directly about her, she recounts each to the reporter (our narrator) as particular points of interest in the history of robot development.

The Three Laws of Robotics

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

A striking thing about this collection is how much it detracts from stereotypical depictions of robots as menacing or out to usurp their creators. Asimov was known for his optimism on the subject of robots and artificial intelligence, which I’m sure is why he asserts the idea of the built-in laws. Some of the stories deal more closely with anti-robot prejudices among human beings, while most others are about resolving anomalies in robot psychology as it pertains to the Three Laws, to which robots are slavishly bound. Asimov implements these rules very seriously and goes to great lengths to consider what could go wrong in ways obscure yet realistic. Stories begin to follow a familiar yet compelling pattern as a result, where a variant of robot is made or introduced that begins to behave problematically when confronted with a unique set of variables, causing conflict with the Laws in some way.

The first story to present this structure was “Runaround,” in which robot SPD-13, or Speedy, is sent to gather selenium, an element crucial to running the life support at a mining station on Mercury. The problem is he has not returned for a long time, instead running in circles around where he was sent and behaving “drunkenly.” Powell and Donovan, the only human operators at the station, must reach Speedy and figure out what is wrong or they will die when the life support stops. Further complicating matters is the surface is too hot to withstand exposure longer than 20 minutes in their protective suits, and Speedy is behaving erratically and moving too quickly over too great an area for them to retrieve him.

Though not structured in a way that I feel the reader could figure things out on their own, I really liked how the conflict of these stories revolved around logical quandaries with a set of consistent constants (the Laws) and new variables. Each story felt like a puzzle and I was urged along to the conclusion to learn just what had caused the dilemma in the robot’s mind. I was also satisfied with knowing that by the end it wouldn’t simply be reduced to rebellion or nefarious intentions, but a logical explanation that could be resolved. I especially liked the story “Reason” for how it showcased the way a robotic mind can invent its own mythology and religion when given a higher sense of reason, which I found rather poignant when you realize how much it highlights the sapience of these machines that are essentially enslaved to humanity, even if they do not outwardly suffer.

The character of Dr. Susan Calvin is fascinating as well, who is featured in numerous stories since figuring out what is going wrong in the mind of a robot is exactly her field of expertise. She’s cold and clinical, with an assertive personality. She never really falters in her ability to analyze a robot’s mind, yet when she speaks of them it is always surprisingly warm. She’s got a misanthropic streak, yet sees robots as legitimately decent thanks to their built-in nature. She makes these views especially well-known in the stories that deal with anti-robot sentiment, which paint humans as realistically illogical in their intolerance while also raising some interesting questions about who is really in charge of the world and whether it really matters if it’s not us.

Final Thoughts

I, Robot is a fantastic collection science fiction stories for those with interest in robotics, AI, and conflict that revolves around puzzling, thoughtful concerns rather than more standard action/adventure branches of the genre. While sometimes colder and more clinical through Dr. Calvin, stories have an amusing tone too thanks to the banter between the hapless Powell and Donovan, who recur in several stories as well. The book is also, incidentally, a great way to dip your toe into a surprisingly expansive literary universe created by Asimov in the Robot, Empire, and Foundation series, which are not directly connected but share history.

My rating: 4 out of 5

4 thoughts on “Book Review – I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

  1. Great review!
    This actually sounds a lot better than the movie. I can see why they only used the three laws since you can’t really adapt short stories like this. I’m definitely going to try to get around to this this year. Thanks!

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