Saturday, 30 January 2016

I, Robot

I, Robot is a collection of interconnected stories exploring the Three Laws of Robotics. Anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction or robotics will have heard of Asimov’s laws and they have continued to be influential over 65 years later. The book is also charming to read.

Having learnt that introductions in many editions of classic novels often contain spoilers, I skipped the introduction here, without realising it’s actually part of the story. Take note! The premise is that a reporter is interviewing robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin for the Interplanetary Press. Calvin has spent her career at the heart of US Robotics and has plenty of tales to tell.

The first story tells us of Robbie the robot who is a nursemaid for a young girl who loves him, but feelings towards robots are starting to turn. Soon robots are to be banned from Earth, but this tells of time when robots could be trusted with the most precious tasks.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or 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.

Many of the stories follow Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, two men employed by US Robotics and posted out on remote planets to oversee various models. Working with some of the newer or more experimental robots they start to see where the Three Laws let them down. The stories aren’t necessarily about robots being a danger to us, more that the Three Laws can limit them, or cause bugs.

Yup, there’s one story that felt like Asimov had been working in software development. There’s a new release and there’s something wrong with it. But no one knows what exactly and Powell and Donovan can’t seem to recreate it. It only happens when they’re not looking. This is so very familiar.

In one story we see a politician accused of being a robot in hiding. Calvin is brought in to investigate but should a person comply with the Three Laws, it doesn’t prove them a robot, perhaps they are just a good human being. In fact, it is interesting that the main representative of US Robotics in these stories is the psychologist, putting emphasis on the robots are more than just machines; it explores their behaviour in relation to the Laws and how they may evolve into beings more like us.

It really didn’t feel dated at all. The positronic brain might be an unexplained thing that allows the robots to exist in a time when robots were pure speculation, but they don’t feel too unrealistic now. We might not have humanoid robots wandering our streets, but robots of a kind do have a huge impact on our lives. You can talk to a small computer that you carry round in your pocket after all! The Machines at the end are the closest I’ve seen someone get to the prediction of an interconnected world network in fiction.

If you’ve seen the film with Will Smith, it really isn’t the same story at all although there are elements which made it into the adaptation. A robot with altered Laws hides amongst visually identical robots and a test must be conceived to identify it. Dr Lanning is in both but not really the same character. The idea that humans turned against robots and removed them from the streets is only briefly mentioned in the book, but was more of an undercurrent in the film.

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Book Source: Borrowed from Josh

7 comments:

  1. Interesting review. I haven't read much classic science fiction. This sounds like a book that I would enjoy.

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  2. This is one of many sci-fi books my husband bought back in his teen years (so quite old!)and I first read it not long after we got married so ....ooh ...a LONG while ago, certainly over 30 years. I've not read it recently though even if I intended doing ever since I saw the film (and you're right, there's not really a lot of similarity!) I seem to think there are a couple of longer sci-fi/crime novel spin-offs with a robot detective helping out a human to solve a murder mystery - and making quite a good job of it. (One of them is possibly called Caves of Steel but I'm not sure)

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    1. Josh thinks the second "robot" book is more like the film. I might give it a go out of interest later on.

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  3. This is one of those books that I've always wondered about - and may have even stashed away at the shop at some point - but have never actually read. I love it when you read these things for me so I know if they'll be up my street or not! *adds back to wishlist* :P

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    1. It's really not dense at all and the robots are quite sweet in places.

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  4. I read this when I was about fifteen and looking back it seems that a lot of it went over my head. I remember that it was NOTHING like the Will Smith film. I don't think I disliked it, but I wasn't impressed either.

    I do really want to reread it now that I'm older and (theoretically) wiser though. Maybe I'll finally unearth my old copy now :)

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    1. I had it in the back of my mind that this was written before people had even really thought about computers (other than WWII code cracking, though not sure that would have been public knowledge). We're probably quite phased by robots now. I wonder if people reading it in 1950 were mind blown or just thought it was all far fetched...

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