Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Random House Audio
Format: Audio CD
The first Isaac Asimov book I ever read was an autobiography. Perhaps that sounds strange — and I suppose it is — considering that he wrote or edited over 500 books. After acquainting myself with the author, I am now going back and reading some of the works that made him famous in the first place. I, Robot is the first of these.
It has been more than sixty years since the I, Robot collection was first published. Nine short stories are told within a larger frame story where robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, recounts her experiences with several different robots manufactured by U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. Considering that the short stories were individually published in magazines the decade prior, it is astounding that Asimov was able to collect them into one larger story.
The common thread in the stories is that the robots are governed by Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
What most of these stories boil down to is a study in the nature of these laws and how they affect the robots and the people around them. For instance, in the story “Runaround,” a robot gets caught in an endless loop where the second and third laws conflict with one another. For a normal robot, this would not be an issue — the second law always outweighs the third law. But Speedy, the robot in question, was expensive and its third law was strengthened to guarantee it would not injure itself. Two practical engineers, Powell and Donovan, travel to Mercury to investigate the strange behavior of this robot.
In “Little Lost Robot,” a robot, Nestor, has its first law modified so that it doesn’t intervene when humans are exposed to a radiation that won’t harm them in the first thirty minutes of exposure. After a researcher loses his temper and tells Nestor to get lost, the robot blends in with sixty-two other robots on site, thus becoming unidentifiable. A psychologist is brought on to help identify the lost robot. Elements from this short story were incorporated into the Will Smith movie that came out a few years ago.
I really struggle with how to rate such a collection. After all, the stories are quite different than modern short stories. They are not about character or plot, but center more around the idea of robots and their nature and relationships with humans. Science fiction is losing its status as a genre of ideas, but at the time this collection came out, ideas was what defined the genre. Aside from the first story, “Robbie,” you probably won’t find any stories that leave you with any emotional attachment. Rather, the stories read more like logic puzzles in which you debug robot logic with the other scientists.
I’m probably not giving the collection its proper justice — after all, these stories provide so much foundation and inspiration for later works. I did enjoy hearing them and I find it worthwhile to read the collection. If you want to get a flavor for what’s inside, I’ll recommend the stories Robbie, Evidence, and Little Lost Robot. They represent the greater collection well and have what I consider to be the strongest characters and plots. If someone is new to the genre, I, Robot is not where I would lead someone, but for those trying to whet their appetite with the classics, I, Robot is an essential part of the diet.