by Isaac Asimov
Forget the film! Whatever its merits or demerits, the movie starring Will Smith has almost no connection at all with the short story collection having the same title. Three of Asimov’s characters – Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist, Robertson, the head of US Robots, and Lanning, one of its directors, do appear, but in a plot which doesn’t resemble any robot story Asimov ever wrote.
This I, Robot collection contains nine of Asimov’s tales originally published between 1940 and 1950 – he wrote more later – each one exploring a different facet of the robot culture. They are linked over half a century of story time (imagined as being 2004 to 2054) as the memories of Susan Calvin, about to retire as head psychologist of US Robots and Mechanical Men.
These are the tales that introduce the famous 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 the orders given 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.
From Robbie, the first story about a robot nursemaid who saves a little girl’s life, to The Evitable Conflict, in which the Machines are manipulating humanity for its own good, Asimov explores, exploits and manipulates the Three Laws to give us nine thought-provoking stories of robots and their human owners. They deal with some important concepts such as loyalty and obedience, and ask searching questions about us. What does it really mean to be human? What is life? Does a robot who is indistinguishable from a human being have rights? What happens if you tell a robot to ‘get lost‘?
In addition to the Three Laws, Asimov introduces some other ideas which he would develop fully in later, more sophisticated works. Fans of his novels will recognise an embryo version of what eventually became the ‘Zeroth Law’. In Escape! they will read about the first experiments with the hyperdrive, an essential element of the Foundation universe.
Readers new to Asimov will find a fair amount of technospeak in the stories and getting used to this takes time. However, we should remember that the individual tales in I, Robot were written for the pulp sci-fi magazines of the mid 20th century whose readers were already fans of the genre. With the exception of Robbie, all appeared first in Astounding, the magazine that launched Asimov’s writing career and that of Robert Heinlein, Clifford Simak and Ron Hubbard.
Whilst I, Robot can be read as an introduction to Asimov, I think it’s better to start with one of his later novels (or series) such as The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun or The Robots of Dawn, and return to the short stories later for a real appreciation of the subleties of these classics of sci-fi literature.