Wednesday, September 09, 2009

I, Robot | Isaac Asimov

There is no doubt that Isaac Asimov was one of the best and most innovative Science Fiction writers of all-time.  My passion for his "Foundation" series cannot be equalled for anything else in the genre.  However, "I, Robot" fell a little short based on prior Asimov expectations.

Know first that the book is a collection of short stories written in different periods and tied together through discussions between "robo-psychologist" Susan Calvin, and a reporter.  The connection between the stories makes logical sense, but doesn't flow like a REAL novel would.  While the Asimov skill for storytelling doesn't really come through in these works, his knowledge and innovation on robotics theory does.

These stories, written in 1950, begin with Asimov's 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 Laws.
The stories go on to show some of the problems that arise out of robot interpretation of these laws.  The typical plot structure is as follows:
A) A more advanced type of robot is created
B) A human order is given to said robot
C) Robot interprets order in a different way than the human order was intended
D) This creates some sort of problem for humanity
E) Humans try to figure out what's wrong by means of trial and error mixed with ingenuity
While this becomes somewhat formulaic in most stories, others are more enlightening.
"Robbie" is a tale of robot emotions, and the power of love - especially of children.
"Reason" shows us that creating something "more intelligent" then ourselves could lead to disastrous results.  In addition, there is a great theme explored on the power of blind faith - hinted to be religion (God = "Master)
"Evidence" tells the story of a political figure that may or may not be a robot and asks "Who cares?  As long as they do a good job!"
"The Evitable Conflict" flashes forward to a time where we are run by "machines."  There is a great point on whether human thinking becomes obsolete or if machines make human thought even more valued. 
All the tales in general touch on the inefficiency of humans, but yet point out how much strength and versatility we have in our minds (if not our bodies).
The one thing that I found excruciatingly, was the use of bad futuristic slang such as "we've been stuck with pretty lousy jobs in our time, but this takes the iridium asteroid" 69, or "holy howling Jupiter" 74, "Jumping Space!" 82, "Jumping Jupiter!" 88, "Great Galaxy" 156.  I found this in bad taste, but maybe it's indicative around the humour of the time or maybe I just need to lighten up - as bad slang is present in all recent human history.
On the whole, while the book lacked a cohesive story, it did provide some enlightenment on the human condition and presented a believable history of robots.  Each story provided an additional step of the evolution but really lacked man's reaction [other than specialists] to the times.  In addition, the novel assumed that each time humans were able to correct the situation.  Over the course of history, it's been shown that some of the things man does to nature cannot be corrected by man at all - look at the poisonous cane frog that was introduced in Australia to kill aphids (or some other creature) who were destroying the crops.  Now the cane frogs are taking over.  I would assume that it's more likely that the robots take over and control humans and we get the same dilemma as in "Frankenstein."  Is the monster the product or the creator?
"Our entire technical civilization has created more unhappiness and misery than it has removed.  Perhaps an agrarian or pastoral civilization, with less culture and less people would be better.  If so, the Machines must move in that direction, preferably without telling us, since in our ignorant prejudices we only know that what we are used to, is good - and we would then fight change.  Or perhaps a complete urbanization, or a complete caste-ridden society, or complete anarchy, is the answer.  We don't know.  Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them.
'But you are telling me, Susan, that the 'Society for Humanity' is right; and that Mankind has lost its own say in its future.'
'It never had any, really.  It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand - at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war.  Now the Machines understand them; and no one can stop them, since the Machines will deal with them as they are dealing with the Society, - having, as they do, the greatest of weapons at their disposal, the absolute control of our economy.'
'How horrible!'
'Perhaps how wonderful!  Think, that for all time, all conflicts are finally inevitable.  Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable!' " 223-224

No comments: