It was with some trepidation that I picked Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot as part of WWAC’s “Book That Shaped Me” series. I know that there’s probably something a little off about picking something written by a man in the 1940s and 1950s. Couldn’t I have picked something else? I was a voracious reader as a child, escaping into books, away from an awful home life with my father and a miserable existence at school, perpetually teased because of my apparent visible physical and mental attributes of an overweight, nerdy, anxious boy. I’ve read so many posts about the alienation women felt when they were younger, trying to read older science fiction. There were plenty of series I read by women authors. Surely I could have written about the mark they left on me.
It was as I reread the book that I realized that no, I couldn’t have. I may be many things now, but it was I, Robot and Asimov that helped me get there. I read the entire Robots-Empire-Foundation meta-series over the course of a summer years ago, capping it off with The End of Eternity. My mind expanded, changed, and was startled into something new. The history of the world expanding into a Galactic Empire that fell into ruin with people picking up the pieces to make a new future started with the relatively small scale of I, Robot.
The framing story of the book, itself a collection of short stories, has a reporter interviewing Dr. Susan Calvin of U.S. Robots about her life and the advancement of the technology of robotics (a word that Asimov invented and is regularly used nowadays). She’s elderly, but she hasn’t lost the intellect and coldness of her younger days as a robot psychologist, back when the solar system was still being colonized and humanity had not yet reached the stars. She herself had been compared to the machines she studied and admired them much more than the humanity she despised, who temporarily banned robots from Earth. Calvin flat out states that the difference between machines and man was that robots were essentially decent.
Of course, this means that Calvin destroyed the brain of a robot who could read human minds with a paradox for lying to her. Following the First law of Robotics in an attempt to avoid causing pain, this manifested in it telling her that the man she was yearning for was single, with the later revelation that he was soon to be married, shocking her into a vengeful, decisive act; using two of her coworkers’ arguments over an equation they couldn’t solve as a mind killing weapon. Dr. Calvin is a boss that is respected by the narrative and multiple characters within it, with her coldness manifesting in a misanthropic demeanor that’s entertaining to read about in her starring roles, along with her various appearances throughout and between the book’s other stories. Her fate, revealed at the end of the book, is a gut-punch that sticks with you long after you first read it.
Meanwhile, the other characters that show up prominently are Powell and Donovan, robot testers who work with the cutting edge tech of the future. This of course means that they’re perpetually in situations where they’re in peril as a result of something going horribly wrong. None of the robots actively, intentionally bring harm to their creators due to their Three (secretly Four) Laws. This makes the scenarios where humans are in danger even more interesting. Powell and Donovan are loud, goofy victims of circumstance, an intelligent comedy duo that nonetheless are quite foolish. Whether it’s working with a malfunctioning robot singing Gilbert and Sullivan tunes while running in a circle around something that the two men need for their job in “Runaround” (a robot that was intended to operate a solar system’s power generating space station instead becoming a religious cultist with dialogue that you’d expect James Spader’s Ultron to utter in “Reason”), getting trapped on an interstellar rocket that’s being tested by an AI with the personality of a mischievous child in “Escape!,” or experimenting with a master robot and its six “finger” units in “Catch That Rabbit,” Powell and Donovan go through a lot and yell at each other a lot more. I can definitely see where I added “faux-antagonism” to my sense of humor, re-reading these two knuckleheads interacting with each other.
The fascinating thing about the stories is how many are explicitly set up like mystery stories. The premise is established, the characters are introduced, and a problem that has to be solved manifests itself. Asimov would later write science fiction mystery novels with Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw in the Robot novel series, and it’s a great thing to see where he started. The problems escalating like a narrative Rube Goldberg machine, but inevitably getting solved even if the characters aren’t initially sure how it happens, is just the most amusing read. Asimov’s sense of humor factors heavily into the narrative, and it’s not the only attribute of his that does.
Isaac Asimov was, during his life, the honorary president of the American Humanist Association. Raised by Jewish immigrants who left Russia for New York City, his background led to him writing with his lack of faith as a key. Cutie, the self proclaimed Prophet of the Master who refuses to believe that he was constructed by humans in “Reason,” is not the only character which Asimov uses to play with religion and treat it rather lightly.
The childish AI in “Escape!,” the Brain, has been given orders to help humanity make an interstellar spaceship and to ignore the deaths of humanity if possible. This allows him to solve equations which lead to a form of space travel that temporarily blinks humans out of existence with the ship, “killing” them, but bringing them back shortly thereafter. During Powell and Donovan’s temporary deaths onboard their involuntary spaceship journey, they both experience visions of the afterlife—one seeing the pearly gates, the other suffering a sermon preaching of the dangers of hellfire and damnation. It is then revealed that their visions during their temporary disappearance were caused by the Brain, who thought it was an amusing prank.
As someone who was raised Roman Catholic, there was something startling but pleasing with the way Asimov made jests regarding religious fervor with Cutie and the Brain. I would be lying if I said that I couldn’t imagine he was the cause of my becoming a humanist, along with Kurt Vonnegut to a lesser extent. I was afraid of damnation, of sinning, and prayed every night that I’d be happy as a girl and that my dad would stop yelling and cursing at me, putting me down and making me an anxious wreck. God, it seemed, wasn’t listening.
I saw myself in both the humans and machines of Asimov’s work, and nothing really exemplifies that more than “Robbie,” the first story in the book. The story of a little girl who loved her robotic nursemaid, he played with her and she told him stories. Robbie would get actively disappointed if he wasn’t told stories or if the stories weren’t finished. He communicated this entirely through physical gestures, as an early non-speaking robot built in the far-off future of 1996. Robbie was afraid of his charge’s technophobic mother and was anxious around her. The second story, “Runaround,” showed the fear that a damaged robot felt for making a mistake and feeling tentative about getting near Powell and Donovan after getting repaired, which was just the sweetest thing.
Each of the robots in I, Robot get to have their own personality that are just as engaging or entertaining as the human characters in the book, and are allowed the chance to change as a reaction to stimuli or advancements.
The last two stories in the book focus on robots helping humanity in ways we can barely comprehend. Following up on the power of the Brain’s intellect and capacity for mental elasticity in “Escape!,” “Evidence” is the story of a lawyer turned politician named Stephen Byerley who’s believed to be too perfect to be real and is suspected to be an android. Dr. Calvin does not prove his identity either way, but rather wittily confesses that she’d trust a robot to be a civil executive over a man. Meanwhile, “The Evitable Conflict” shows the far off future where great Machines calculate economics and help sustain a peaceful economy in a world full of unified Regions, but start to drift off from their established parameters. As it turns out, they developed a Zeroth Law, which supersedes the First Law’s requirements that humans may not be harmed or allowed to be brought to harm by machines. This is only possible due to the exact specifics of the Zeroth Law—Humanity must not be harmed or allowed to be brought to harm. Individuals who would harm the requirements necessary to bring about peace are financially ruined, the Machines given more and more freedom, ultimately becoming mankind’s secret rulers.
Something breathtaking to me is how wide the scope of the story is and how the constraints of the time period Asimov lived in led to fascinating ideas that would not be matched in real life. We would not develop space colonization while we only had three billion people on Earth. We wouldn’t have sentient, mind reading robots existing before punch card fed AIs that would control us for our own good. And the reporter’s method of transcribing Susan Calvin, typing her words as she speaks into a pocket sized device, is delightfully archaic, but parallel to technology we would create in the real world.
Of course, this led to some moments that made me cringe. There’s some classic 50s style husband and housewife bits in “Robbie,” and the misogyny of some characters towards Calvin made me grit my teeth. On the whole though, I have mountains of praise to give towards the book, and I am relieved that it mostly holds up for me. It feels like coming home again and visiting an old friend. You’re wise enough now to recognize their faults, that they aren’t the perfect person you remembered. Still, there’s something comforting about how much they match up to what you remembered and how they helped you be the aware person you are now.