I, Robot

by Isaac Asimov

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The very word “robot” came from science fiction—it first appeared in
(Rossum's Universal Robots)
by Karel Čapek from 1921.   As so often in sci-fi,
the concept revealed more about the present-day world of the author than the
future.  The impact of industrialization and assembly line techniques on
society was a hot topic in the 1920s, and Čapek obsessed on a factory making
“artifical people” (or “robots” as he called them), just as Aldous Huxley would
imagine mass production of flesh-and-blood people a decade later in
New World.  

It is perhaps ironic that the most common use of robots today is in . . . .
replacing human labor in assembly lines.   Thus these mechanical wonders
have gone from being the
product made by
manufacturing processes (in Čapek's vision)
to the
producer of conventional consumer
items.  This reality is far different from the
vision for robots in science fiction, which
looked forward to robotic servants, robotic
teachers, robotic secretaries, even robotic
companions for the lonely.  

Isaac Asimov followed this path in the stories
that comprise his book  
I, Robot.  His robot
“Robbie” is nursemaid to a young girl.  
“Speedy” is a miner sent to an outer space
excavation.  “Cutie” is a robot with a day job
at a space station, but becomes fascinated
with philosophical and religious issues,
evolving into a skeptical thinker with a
Cartesian orientation. Stephen Byerley is a
lawyer running for Mayor of New York, and the plot in Asimov's amusing story
about him  (“Evidence”) turns on accusations that he is actually a robot.   (Yes,
it might be considered a plus by voters these days.)  As these examples make
clear, robots had a wide range of career choices open to them in the Asmovian
scheme of things.

But you
don’t read science fiction in hopes of finding future science—no matter
what you may have been told.  As Ray Bradbury points out, you can find stuff
“on the cheap at Circuit City” these days that trump the paltry stuff envisioned
in old-school sci-fi.   And if Asimov’s predictions of technological evolution
have gaping holes, his mind is analytic and rigorous in the highest degree as he
constructs his plots.

This is shown with particular vividness in his “Three Laws of Robotics.”  In
case you didn’t memorize these in high school, here they are:

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 orders given to 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 Law.

You might think that these three commandments are part of the background
color of
I, Robot, but they actually play a central role in the nine stories that
comprise Asimov’s book.    When a robot is malfunctioning, or some robotic
matter needs to be investigated or remediated , the Three Laws come into
play.  They often push the story forward or resolve  the main complications in
the plot.  

By any measure, this is a strange state of affairs in pulp fiction of that era (or
any era).   In the world of genre fiction, complications in the plot are usually
resolved with
weapons or, at a minimum, a fistfight.  It comes as little
surprise that, when Hollywood finally made
I, Robot into a movie, they ignored
the faithful screenplay written by Harlan Ellison (a sci-fi master in his own
right) with the support of Asimov, and instead opted for a more conventional
script with lots of action sequences.   

But if you dumb down Asimov, it is no longer Asimov.   It tells us quite a bit
about this author that formulaic action scenes and cinematic cliffhangers play
such an insignificant part of his books, while rules and cogitation fill so  
important a role.  Indeed,
The Foundation Trilogy—the other defining work of
his career—is built on the premise that a thousand years of history can unfold
based on predictable rules.   In
I, Robot, as in that other work, Asimov is like a
brilliant geometer, a Euclid of the space age, building surprising theorems out
of simple postulates.

It is clear from reading his books that Isaac Asimov had a remarkable mind,
analytic and penetrating.   He was not a great prose stylist by any measure—
like so many talented genre writers, he mimicked the pulp fiction writing
conventions of his day.   But the penetrating quality of his thinking gives
vitality to his stories, even when the sentences are merely workmanlike.    

To some extent this is the legacy of conceptual fiction as a whole—the marriage
of brilliant thinking, a breathtaking ability to re-conceptualize reality, with
plain vanilla writing.   Asimov is perhaps the single most representative figure
of this odd combination, and you need to learn to love his stories if you hope to
come to grips with conceptual fiction as a whole.   
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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Asimov, Isaac
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Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

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The Crystal World

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Giles Goat-Boy

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The Demolished Man

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A Case of Conscience

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Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

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Fahrenheit 451

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The Illustrated Man

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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The View from the Seventh Layer

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The Master and Margarita

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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Stories of Your Life and Others

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A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

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Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

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Ada, or Ardor

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The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
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Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
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Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

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Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley

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