I writer, you robot

I, RobotI, Robot by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I Robot is the book that first introduced the world to the Three Laws of Robotics, which are: 1. A robot may not… yadda yadda yadda. 2. A robot must obey… etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. 3. A robot must protect… yeah, we get it already! Read ’em in the other reviews if you really need reminding.

Three better-known laws (in SF circles) one can hardly imagine. But it should be simpler, shouldn’t it? They are servants, right? “Hey Robot, butter my toast!” How hard can it be? If you should order your robot to kill somebody, it’s your fault, not the robot’s. Much like if you order your car to run somebody down, your gun to shoot someone, or your chainsaw to chop somebody in half.

But no. Because of the Three Laws, I Robot is not a collection of stories of detectives forensically trying to find out who ordered the robot to kill (which is what the movie was). Instead it is a collection of stories in which robot mechanics try to logically work out why robots are doing seemingly illogical things given that they are governed by three logical protective laws. Like running in circles around a pool of selenium. Or telling Dr Calvin that the hunky guy down the hall secretly loves her when he doesn’t. Or playing hide and seek.

The Three Laws will of course never really work in practice. We need our robots to be able and willing to kill us. What would most video games be if the ’bots couldn’t shoot back at us? Boring.

Okay, I’d better say something about the stories. They’re great. They’re well-written in a straightforward kind of way, which is what is needed when the story is otherwise tying you into logical knots. In no case did I actually guess the solutions in advance. But I am easily confused.

And the characters. The mechanics Powell and Donovan, who turn up in all the stories, are really just tools of the author. Dr Susan Calvin, however, is a real literary character. She is larger than life, unlikeable, irritating, loveless, and a genius. She’s fantastic. She’s one of those characters other writers like to use. I wonder if she herself was based on another character, who was in turn based on another, and so on. Her actual inspiration might have been my great great grandmother who, I understand, was a bit of a cow.

The robots themselves deserve special mention. They are characters too, and often much more interesting than the other human characters. Which serves to confirm Dr Calvin’s belief that robots are better than people, and to make one wonder if Isaac Asimov was a robot himself.

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