Book Review: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.
I read this book because of a T-shirt.
See, a while ago, I stumbled across Out of Print Clothing– in an independent bookstore, of all places. Their schtick is to take the cover art to old, classic novels … and put them on a T-shirt. Naturally, I gravitated towards the nerdiest option available, Issac Asimov’s I, Robot.
I vaguely recall reading I, Robot many years ago, when I was a kid. More accurately, I TRIED reading I, Robot many years ago. Being young and not exactly of discerning tastes, I didn’t really get that far into it, and probably put it to the side in favor of something with more spaceships and lasers on the cover. But, so as not to be like ‘that guy’ who wears a band T-shirt without actually having seen them live, I got a copy from Amazon, and now here we are!
I, Robot, as one could gather from the title, is about robots. Asmovian, three-law robots, who I’ve mentioned before in this blog. It’s a collection of loosely connected short stories, each of which deals with, well, robots. Insane robots, dancing robots, psychic robots, religious robots, and so on.
Asimov is at his best with his short stories. Each story is basically a logic puzzle, revolving around various interpretations of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The characters in these stories are painted with fairly broad brush. For the most part, the characters aren’t that compelling, and the settings aren’t that well drawn- it’s all there to serve whatever the particular problem of the story is. By keeping to a short story format, Asimov doesn’t have the chance to get as grating as he might in a full-length novel.
I wouldn’t say any of this is contrived, per se, but politics and character motivations always take back seat to whatever crazy robot problem is at hand. That’s the fun part- just trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Though I will note that one story, “Little Lost Robot,” could’ve been wrapped up in a matter of minutes if they had bothered to draw serial numbers on the robots.
Asimov tends to write fairly generic characters, but I, Robot actually features a few interesting people in its cast. For one, there’s a pair of Robot Technicians who pop up in several of the stories, where they invariably are presented with some impossibly malfunctioning robot. They’re basically Sci-Fi IT guys, which is a hilarious image. I, Robot also features Dr. Susan Calvin, who may just be my favorite Asimov character. She’s a typical Asimov character: brilliant, logical, somewhat misanthropic. The book is presented as a series of stories that Dr. Calvin is sharing about the history of robotics, and how she dealt with a couple outlier robots of her own. What surprised me is the fact that Asimov featured a woman so central to the plot, in a book published in 1950. Nobody makes a big deal about how smart and successful Dr. Calvin is “for a woman,” either. It’s more progressive than I thought it would be, which is a pleasant surprise.
Old sci-fi tends to get a bit dated, and I, Robot is no exception. There’s a bit of hilarity in retrospect at play here. For one, characters casually smoke a lot- even in places they prorbably shouldn’t, like robot factories and space stations. There’s also a story set on “Hyper Base,” which just cracks me the hell up. And that’s before one gets into the various geo-political states Asimov divides the world up into. I mean, ‘The Northern Section’ consists of North America, Russia, England … as well as Australia and New Zealand. Because that’ll be an easy stretch of geography to administrate.
Dated 50’s sci-fi aside, Asimov’s stories still can speak to stuff we’re worried about today. In “Evidence,” the second to last story in the collection, a politician is accused of being a robot. This couldn’t help but remind me of the “Ted Cruz is a secret Canadian!” accusations being thrown around even as we speak. It’s ridiculous in the story, and it’s ridiculous in real life- but that’s politics for you. For the record, Cruz is not a robot, nor a Canadian. Dude’s just an asshole.
There’s a certain classist undertone to I, Robot that Asimov never really addresses. Asimov’s Robots are in a strange sort of category; they talk, they think, they manifest various human traits … but at the same time, they’re treated as property, leased out by U.S. Robots. On top of that, some robots refer to humans as “master,” where in turn, some of the humans refer to the robots as “boy,” which … is fairly loaded language, given U.S. History. However, Asimov never really tackles the robots-as-underclass theme head on in I, Robot. There’s a little talk about robotic superiority, and how their inner resentment is only held back by the First Law, but Asimov tends to be more concerned with individual robots and their quirks, rather than sociological issues on the whole. I wonder intentional this was on Asimov’s part. One of the reasons he came up with the Three Laws of Robotics was to get away from the traditional Frankenstein-ish narrative of a created creature rebelling against its master. The robots-as-proletariat theme goes all the way back to RUR. It’s really hardwired into the concept.
I will not apologize for that joke.
Still, I, Robot holds up fairly well, decades after its publication. It’s well worth a read, especially if you’re interested in some of the older stuff in the science fiction canon. And as a bonus, once you’ve read it, you can get a rad T-shirt!