I, Robot is a book that I’ve wanted to read for a while, and one that turned out to be absolutely nothing like I was expecting. I’ll be honest, I was expecting something like the film, and whilst the book is nothing like the film (OK, the two share some characters) this collection of short stories didn’t disappoint.
I, Robot is a collection of nine short stories which chart the rise of the robot age, from the first beginnings as they become integrated into our lives, to the point where they have become indispensable, at all times governed by The Three Laws of Robotics:
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
The collection is framed by a series of interviews with Dr Susan Calvin. Now on the verge of retirement, she has been instrumental in the development of robots and their usage through her role as a robopsychologist, often focusing on the anomalies resulting in some developments.
The stories are told chronologically and chart the progress from the initial creation of robots used as (un)hired help, to the point where they have become indispensable and feed into all aspects of human life. Additionally, each story looks at the interaction of humans and robots, and so the reader also sees how the relationship develops, from the initial stages where they are purely subservient to the point where they aren’t quite in control. Of the nine stories in the collection, and there were a couple that stood out for me for various reasons.
The first story in the book is Robbie and features a robot called Robbie (funnily enough) who is a childminder and companion to an eight-year-old girl, Gloria. Robbie and Gloria are inseparable, much to her mother’s chagrin, and, fuelled by local gossip, she decides to remove Robbie from her daughter’s life. This story resonated with current times, as the gossip and prejudice focus largely on how robots are taking over jobs and causing unemployment for humans, their trustworthiness etc. There are also some wonderful moments of friendship between Gloria and Robbie, and I thought that this was a lovely story that emphasised acceptance.
A later story called Reason looks at a more advanced model of robot – the Robot QT-I, or Cutie. Cutie is unable to accept that he was built by man – in his view, you cannot create something superior to yourself, and therefore man cannot have created him. He becomes fixated upon a being he calls the Master, believing him to be behind the creation of both humans – a practice run, if you like – and himself, a creation much closer to perfection. I think that this highlighted the ways in which early man must have sought a need to believe in a superior being in order to explain their existence – not a thought that I would expect to occur to me from such a collection of stories.
Whilst science fiction, I found these stories to be more accessible than I had expected, and there is an undertone of humour throughout the stories, which, having been written between 1941 and 1950, are undoubtedly prescient. I think that what as most surprising to me was that the outcome was not as terrifying as many recent novels looking at a similar topic. It maybe that the stories stop short of the complete takeover and domination of robots, but it may also be that Asimov had a more optimistic outlook and felt that as long as the three laws stand, we would always be protected.
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐