Isaac Asimov – I Robot

Back when pulp magazines dominated science fiction, robots were a common feature in stories. And they frequently featured in the cover art, but generally as an anthropoid robot molesting curvaceous young ladies. This never made a lot of sense, since there is not much a robot can usefully do with a curvaceous young female, but you have to remember the audience. As we said in the beginning of this series, the old joke is that the golden age of science fiction is fourteen. And while robots had no real interest in curvaceous young females, fourteen-year-old boys (and they were overwhelmingly boys) barely had room in their brains for anything else. And robots were considered highly dangerous creations that would brings about the end of civilization if not restrained. In many ways, it was similar to what we say today about Artificial Intelligence. And since conflict is an essential part of a good story, this was an easy way get your story going.

But Isaac Asimov had a different idea. He thought robots could be developed with safeguards that would enable them to be helpers instead of threats. His first robot story, Robbie (1940) was about a robot who is companion to a young girl, but the girl’s mother is concerned that he might be danger and also that the girl might have problems socializing with other children, so she has the robot returned to the factory. Then the father arranges a visit to the factory, the robot saves the girl’s life, and all is well. But this was just a warm-up story of a young writer. In 2016 this story was given a 1941 retro-Hugo for best story, but I think this was mostly in recognition of what he started with his Robot stories. The story itself does not seem to me to be outstanding, though it is a perfectly good story.

This shows the kind of story Asimov wanted to write, but he didn’t hit upon his formula until the second robot story, Runaround, published in the March 1942 issue of Astounding. It was in this story that he came up with his major invention, his Three Laws of Robotics:

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

Asimov later stated that he expected that he would be remembered for two things: the Three Laws of Robotics, and Foundation. In an interview he said:

Asimov stated in a 1986 interview on the Manhattan public access show Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer with Harold Channer with guest co-host Marilyn vos Savant, “It’s a little humbling to think that, what is most likely to survive of everything I’ve said… After all, I’ve published now… I’ve published now at least 20 million words.  I’ll have to figure it out, maybe even more.  But of all those millions of words that I’ve published, I am convinced that 100 years from now only 60 of them will survive.  The 60 that make up the Three Laws of Robotics.”

And to me it looks like he was correct in that. But in addition to the Three Laws, he settled on the idea that the brain of a robot would be positronic, i.e. that it would somehow involve the antimatter opposite to electrons. I have no idea how that could possibly work, and quite likely he didn’t either, but it sure sounded sciency. And the physical part of the brain would consist of a platinum-iridium sponge. From this point on all of his robot stories would contain these features of the robot’s construction.

With these features in place, Asimov now had a slightly different problem to solve. Good stories require conflict, and if robots were now the safe helpers and good friends of people, where would the conflict come from? And Asimov’s answer in the stories was to look at the Three Laws and see how they could somehow have unanticipated effects. In Runaround, the problem comes when a robot on Mercury is sent out to get some selenium that is needed for the solar power collectors. This is vital because without the power life could not be sustained in this hostile environment. The robot goes out, but does not come back, and when they investigate they find it is running in circles around the selenium pool. They eventually figure out that the selenium pool contains something dangerous to the robot. And this robot had its Third Law strengthened because it was expensive to produce. And the order given to it to get the selenium had been given casually, so the Second Law was somewhat weakened. The robot was running a path around the selenium where the imperatives of the Second and Third laws were balanced. The recurring characters of Powell and Donovan, who were robot technicians, resolve this by placing themselves in danger, so that the First Law trumps everything else. The robot stories that followed continued to find places where the Three Laws somehow went a bit astray, so that they are in essence puzzle stories where the characters need to figure out what is going on with the robot in its interpretation of the Laws.

These stories were of course originally written for and published in Magazines such as Astounding, but eventually Gnome Press, which we saw previously had collected the Foundation stories, decided to do the same thing for the Robot stories and in 1950 collected them in volume called I, Robot. This had the stories as well as some framing material by another recurring character Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist, i.e. someone who specializes in the psychology of robots. She presents these stories as a series of reminiscences, even though technically she isn’t in all of them. But she is the robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, the company that manufactured all of the robots, and for whom Powell and Donovan also worked.

Side note: The company U.S. Robotics which manufactures modems took its name from U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men.

One of the stories featuring Dr. Calvin is Liar!, which appeared in the May 1941 issue of Astounding. The idea here is that a manufacturing accident has produced a telepathic robot that can read minds. But of course it still has the Three Laws, and cannot do anything to harm a human, and that includes telling them anything that would cause them pain. So instead the robot lies. Dr. Calvin is caught up in this because the robot reads in her mind that she is infatuated with a co-worker, and tells her that this is reciprocated. Of course, this co-worker has no feelings for her at all, and she ends up heart-broken. This story has been adapted a number of times for film and television in various countries.

I, Robot was a good collection, but there were more stories, and Asimov continued writing more stories. So in 1964 a second volume was published called The Rest of the Robots which contained 8 short stories not previously collected, as well as two novels. The novels have their own significance so I will discuss them separately, but the short stories were good to have. But eventually they came out with The Complete Robot (1982), which did contain all the stories from both I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots (except the novels). Despite the name, however, it did not include every robot story Asimov wrote. The reason is that some stories were written after The Complete Robot was published.

Other Robot Stories

Asimov collaborated with his wife to do a series of children’s books about a robot called Norby. There were eleven of these novels, and Asimov stated that they were 90% written by his wife Janet, but that he did read them over polish the prose a bit. And of course the publisher insisted on using Isaac’s name prominently on the cover to get better sales. The last one, however, was written entirely by Janet Asimov a few years after Isaac’s death.

Robot Dreams (1986) is a collection of stories that contains one new story, the title story, but is otherwise a collection of reprints of Asimov stories originally published elsewhere, and many of which have nothing specifically to do with robots. But the title story is another Susan Calvin story and quite good.

Robot Visions (1990) contains one new story, the title story, a few stories not collected previously in the Robot collections, and a bunch of reprinted stories that you can find in The Complete Robot. It also has a number of essays, many of which had never before been collected. Asimov wrote a large number of essays (over 1600 I have seen in online sources). He wrote a regular monthly essay on science for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for which he wrote 399 essays. I know I read many of them in their original publication as I had a subscription for a while.

Adaptations in Other Media

Harlan Ellison wrote a screenplay based on I, Robot for Warner Bros., but the project fell apart, which is not unusual in Hollywood. But you can get a copy of I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (1994).

Robin Williams starred in a movie based on one of Asimov’s robot stories called The Bicentennial Man. This story was of course written in 1976, but the twist is that the bicentennial is of a robot who has lived 200 years and wants to be recognized as a man. This goes in a different direction from the Star Trek: TNG episode The Measure of a Man, but it is still a good story.

Finally, there was a movie called I, Robot (2004), starring Will Smith, that uses a number of the names of Asimov’s characters, but really has nothing to do with Asimov’s stories or writing. I’d call it a standard Will Smith action movie, and if you like that sort of thing you are welcome to it, but I have no use for it.

So these are the stories that laid out Asimov’s ideas about one potential future with robots. I like the stories quite a bit, and I can recommend them without hesitation. But there are also novels, and they require their own focus, so that will be the next thing I tackle.

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