Perhaps when you think of robots in the fictional sense you picture helpers aiding humanity, or killers spurned on by cold logic, or machines gaining sentience and harvesting humanity for energy, or disturbing unrequited love stories. That wasn't always the case.
Isaac Asimov's I, Robot stories were among the first to portray robots in a positive (or even nuanced) light. Sci-fi writers in the 40's and 50's took a generally negative view of robots. Robots were unfeeling metal monsters, always turning on their creators in a warning to man about the dangers of science. Asimov wasn't afraid of robots and he didn't think we should be either.
Later he would write "I could not bring myself to believe that if knowledge presented danger, the solution was ignorance. To me, it always seemed that the solution had to be wisdom. You did not refuse to look at danger, rather you learned how to handle it safely." His stories are all applications of his belief that there are solutions to every problem, if we care enough to find them.
In Asimov's world there are three Laws of Robotics. Each are safeguards embedded in every robot's positronic brain. Each one counters and contradicts the others like a complicated logic puzzle. These laws are:
A robot may not harm a human or, by inaction, cause a human to come to harm.
A robot must obey any order given to it by a human unless it contradicts the first law.
A robot must not allow itself to come to harm unless it violates the first or second law.
These are the stories of roboticists who spent their lives sorting through the endless puzzles of the positronic brain. Dr. Susan Calvin, gruff robopsychologist and narrator. Powell and Donavan, unlucky team of robot testers who get stuck with everything from the robot Messiah to insane mining bots. Lanning, who barely handles the world's first telepathic robot. And the politician Steven Byerly, whose campaign is overshadowed by accusations that he himself is a robot.
Unlike some writers Asimov did not simply create his laws of the universe and leave them untouched. The stories in I, Robot and some of his later novels are the harshest critics of his Three Laws theory, showing in detail where the laws break down. Thus each short story is its own puzzle, with its own mystery to solve.
Asimov's vision of the future is, of course, vastly different from our actual future. For one, robots are nothing like the robots predicted and thought possible in the 50's. Robots today are simply machines, like assembly arms or self-driving cars. Yet his optimism inspired and influenced science fiction for the rest of the millenium, and continues to do so today.
Even if you dislike sci-fi, Asimov might still be for you. His optimism, sense of adventure, and belief that problems can be solved with perseverance is entertaining and inspiring. This Golden Age sci-fi novel is well worth the read.
(It also, it must be added, bears little resemblance to the movie that shares its name. A few elements and characters are taken from this book, and another character is borrowed from a different Asimov novel, but otherwise the movie is a completely different story.)
Used copies may have an older cover design.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
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