I, Robot Isaac Asimov
The following entry presents criticism on Asimov's short story collection I, Robot (1950). See also, Isaac Asimov Criticism and CLC, Volumes 3, 9, 19, and 26.
The author of nearly five hundred books in a wide variety of fields and genres, Asimov is renowned for his ground-breaking science fiction and for his ability to popularize or, as he called it, "translate" science for the lay reader. In I, Robot (1950)—a collection of nine short stories linked by key characters and themes—Asimov describes a future society in which human beings and nearly sentient robots coexist. Critics consider it a pivotal work in the development of realistic science fiction literature mainly for its elaboration of Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" as a viable ethical and moral code. I, Robot is also significant for its espousal of the benefits of technology—a rather rare position in the history of science fiction and fantastic literature, which traditionally viewed technology and science as threats to human existence.
Plot and Major Characters
In the nine stories in I, Robot, Dr. Susan Calvin, a robot psychologist, explores the benefits of robots to society and illustrates some of the developmental problems encountered in creating them. The book opens with the presentation of "The Three Laws of Robotics," the ethical ground-rules for the interaction of human beings and robots. They are: "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." In the first story, "Robbie," the robot is a relatively simple, nonvocal machine designed to be a nursemaid. Gloria Weston, a small child, loves Robbie and enjoys his company, but her mother does not trust the device, even though Mr. Weston considers the robot to be both useful and safe. Eventually, Robbie is instrumental in saving Gloria's life. In "Runaround," the robot Speedy—so nicknamed because of its serial number SPD-13—is fitted with a new "positronic" brain and sent to Mercury to explore for minerals and run the Sunside Mine. While searching for a selenium pool, Speedy begins to act strangely, reciting lines from Gilbert and Sullivan, and causing Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell—robot troubleshooters, astroengineers, and recurring characters in the book—to deal with an apparently drunk robot. In "Reason," Cutie (QT-1), the robot who runs a solar power-station, has developed a kind of self-reflective con-sciousness and begun to question its own existence. When Donovan and Powell explain to Cutie that they built and assembled "him," Cutie rejects the idea as preposterous, reasoning that intellectually inferior human beings could not have created a "being" such as "him." "Liar" introduces Herbie (RB-34), a robot with telepathic capabilities. Herbie's ability to read minds poses a threat to human dominance, and Dr. Susan Calvin expresses her concern that Herbie and similar robots might start acting on their own volition, outside of human control. "Little Lost Robot" continues to address robotic independence, as it focuses on a robot that refuses to harm a human being, but willingly allows human beings to be harmed, thus circumventing the Three Laws of Robotics. In "Escape," a super positronic robot brain, so big it has to be housed in a room rather than an anthropomorphic humanoid body, begins to express personality and emotional characteristics. As the super brain works on the problem of hyperspace travel, it concludes that any human beings attempting it would have to have their lives briefly "suspended," thus causing death. Donovan and Powell's safety is jeopardized as the brain attempts to strike a balance between its scientific mission and the First Law of Robotics that requires it to protect human life. In "Evidence," Stephen Byerley, a politician running for public office, is severely injured in an automobile accident and decides to temporarily replace himself with a robotic likeness. The robot Stephen Byerley continues the campaign and eventually wins the mayoral election. Soon after, he runs for the presidency of the Federation and is challenged by an opponent who accuses him of being a robot. In a fit of anger Byerley strikes his opponent, ostensibly proving that he is human. Dr. Calvin, however, remains doubtful. The final story, "The Evitable Conflict," describes a future world organized and run by President Byerley and four robots. Byerley is distressed to learn that errors are occurring in many areas of economic production. He is unable to understand how such sophisticated, purportedly infallible machines can make mistakes. Byerley consults Dr. Calvin who diagnoses the problem as stemming from a broadened interpretation of the First Law.
I, Robot reflects Asimov's concern for the future of humankind in an increasingly complex technological world. By introducing The Three Laws of Robotics, Asimov emphasizes the need for ethical and moral responsibility in a world of advanced technology. But technology is also represented as a potentially profound benefit to human life, as evidenced in the nursemaid robot in "Robbie," the mining and exploration robot in "Runaround," and the four robots that run the economic, political, and social systems of the world Federation in "The Evitable Conflict." Asimov cautions, however, against allowing technology to get out of control, as seen in "Liar" where Herbie the robot begins to think and act independently. Other themes include the preservation of human freedom in a technologically controlled environment, and an exploration of the Calvinist-Puritan work ethic, portrayed through the "lives" of several robots.
The critical reception of I, Robot has been generally favorable. Most commentators applaud Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, arguing that they give the stories a sense of realism and moral depth. Others praise his skill at linking nine stories together into a novelistic whole. Many critics comment on the innovative ways in which I, Robot opposes the traditional "Frankensteinian" view of technology and science as unholy threats to humanity. Others note his ability to tell an engaging story and his facility for combining elements of the mystery and detective genres with the conventions of science fiction. Although many critics fault Asimov's predictable characterizations and "naive" sentimentality, most credit his realistic, ethical portrayal of futuristic society in I, Robot as revolutionary in the science fiction genre, changing the way fantastic literature could be conceived and written.
I, Robot (short stories) 1950
Pebble in the Sky (novel) 1950
∗Foundation (novel) 1951
Biochemistry and Human Metabolism (nonfiction) 1952
∗Foundation and Empire (novel) 1952
∗Second Foundation (novel) 1953
The Caves of Steel (novel) 1954
The End of Eternity (novel) 1955
The Martian Way, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
Races and People (nonfiction) 1955
Inside the Atom (nonfiction) 1956
The Naked Sun (novel) 1957
The World of Carbon (nonfiction) 1958
Words of Science and the History behind Them (nonfiction) 1959
The Double Planet (nonfiction) 1960
Realm of Algebra (nonfiction) 1961
The Genetic Code (nonfiction) 1963
The Human Body: Its Structure and Operation (nonfiction) 1963
A Short History of Biology (nonfiction) 1964
†The Rest of the Robots (novels and short stories) 1964; also published as Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robots, 1966
Of Time and Space and Other Things (essays) 1965
The Genetic Effects of Radiation (nonfiction) 1966
The Roman Republic (nonfiction) 1966
The Egyptians (nonfiction) 1967
Is Anyone There? (essays) 1967
Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Volume I: The Old Testament (nonfiction) 1968
(The entire section is 316 words.)
SOURCE: "Realm of the Spacemen," in The New York Times Book Review, February 4, 1951, p. 16.
[In the following review, the critic favorably assesses I, Robot.]
[In I, Robot,] it is the year 2058, with nationalism abolished and the world divided into Regions. Man is employing "positronic" atom-driven brains and has conquered inter-stellar space. Human colonies inhabit the planets. Dr. Susan Calvin, retiring robot psychologist of U. S. Robots & Mechanical Men, Inc., tells a reporter for the Interplanetary Press of the evolution of robots from the "human" interest angle.
This is an exciting science thriller, chiefly about what occurs when delicately conditioned robots are driven off balance by mathematical violations, and about man's eternal limitations. It could be fun for those whose nerves are not already made raw by the potentialities of the atomic age.
(The entire section is 133 words.)
SOURCE: "Three World Paradigms for SF: Asimov, Yefremov, Lem," in Pacific Quarterly Moana, Vol. IV, No. 3, July, 1979, pp. 271-83.
[Suvin is an educator, critic, and author of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) and Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (1988). In the following excerpt from an essay in which he examines the ethics of technology in the science fiction writings of Asimov, Ivan Yefremov, and Stanislaw Lem, he examines the development of the robots—from "doll" in the first story to "god" in the last—in I, Robot.]
The best works of SF [Science Fiction] have long since ceased to be crude adventure studded with futuristic gadgets, whether of the "space opera" or horror-fantasy variety. In several essays, I have argued that SF is a literary genre of its own, whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the interaction of estrangement (Verfremdung, ostranenie, distanciation) and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment. Such a genre has a span from the romans scientifiques of Jules Verne to the social-science-fiction of classical utopias and dystopias. Its tradition is as old as literature—as the marvelous countries and beings in tribal tales, Gilgamesh or Lucian—but the central figure in its modern renaissance is H.G. Wells. His international fame,...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
SOURCE: "The Frankenstein Complex and Asimov's Robots," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. XIII, Nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 83-94.
[Beauchamp is an American critic and educator, who has written extensively on science fiction. In the following essay, he examines the way in which technology is characterized in Asimov's robot novels and stories, including I, Robot.]
In 1818 Mary Shelley gave the world Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, that composite image of scientific creator and his ungovernable creation that forms one central myth of the modern age: the hubris of the scientist playing God, the nemesis that follows on such blasphemy. Just over a century later, Karel Capek, in his play R.U.R., rehearsed the Frankenstein myth, but with a significant variation: the bungled attempt to create man gives way to the successful attempt to create robots; biology is superseded by engineering. Old Dr. Rossum, (as the play's expositor relates) "attempted by chemical synthesis to imitate the living matter known as protoplasm." Through one of those science-fictional "secret formulae" he succeeds and is tempted by his success into the creation of human life.
He wanted to become a sort of scientific substitute for God, you know. He was a fearful materialist…. His sole purpose was nothing more or less than to supply proof that...
(The entire section is 5513 words.)
SOURCE: "A New Kind of Machine: The Robot Stories," in Isaac Asimov, Frederick Ungar, 1982, pp. 27-39.
[Fiedler is an educator and author of children's and young adult books. Mele is a poet, editor, and journalist. In the following essay, they examine the development of robots and robotics in I, Robot, and explore some of the ethical consequences of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.]
There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone.
Of all his creations, Asimov himself says, "If in future years, I am to be remembered at all, it will be for (the) three laws of robotics."
These three laws, deceptively simple at first glance, have led to a body of work—twenty-two short stories, two novels, one novella—that has permanently changed the nature of robots in science fiction. Far from confining Asimov, these laws sparked his imagination, provoking inventive speculation on a future technology and its effect on humanity.
As a science fiction reader in the thirties, Asimov says he resented the Frankenstein concept, then...
(The entire section is 3938 words.)
SOURCE: "Robot Ethics and Robot Parody: Remarks on Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and Some Critical Essays and Short Stories by Stanislaw Lem," in The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction, edited by Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich, Greenwood Press, 1982, pp. 27-39.
[In the following excerpt, Thomsen compares I, Robot with the works of Stanislaw Lem, contending that Asimov's writings fail to realistically address the ethics of future technological problems he envisions.]
Androids, living statues, automatons have, of course, a tradition that reaches far back, even beyond European and American periods of enlightenment and romanticism. Certainly we usually ascribe the basic philosophy for a mechanistic world-view and the machine age to such theorists as Descartes and La Mettrie, and also certainly we correctly regard Vaucanson's wooden flute player (1738) as the prototype of a whole series of actual ingenious automatons; still, nearly all classical authors tell us of living statues and prophesying picture columns which were supposed to contain gods. Mixed feelings of bewilderment, fear, awe of magic, and superstition were connected right up to our times with mechanically constructed men. Thomas Aquinas, for example, is said to have destroyed Albertus Magnus's android who served the scholar and churchman as doorkeeper when he saw him unexpectedly and head him speak, because he thought the...
(The entire section is 3580 words.)
SOURCE: "Some Asimov Resonances from the Enlightenment," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 15, No. 44, March, 1988, pp. 36-47.
[Hassler is an educator, poet, and author of Comic Tones in Science Fiction (1982) and Isaac Asimov (1989). In the following essay which focuses on I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy, he explores Asimov's use of Enlightenment philosophy, with particular emphasis on the law and order ideas of John Locke, William Godwin's principle of Necessity, and John Calvin's religious determinism.]
One difficulty in describing the SF [Science Fiction] that Asimov continues to produce stems from his rational drive for coherence and unified generality. Like all "scientific" thinkers who have written after the methodological revolution of John Locke and the other reformers of the new science, Asimov can never leave his best ideas alone. He must continually elaborate and link new insights to old on the assumption that accumulating and interlocked knowledge is the only sort of valid knowledge. His continual moves toward the general, even the abstract, can be seen both in the long time schemes of his future history and in the conceptual ideas of his own, implicit (and left open-ended) throughout his writings. Moreover, Asimov, along with other "hard SF" writers, seems to question the absolute insights of intuitive or "inspired" art by affirming the Lockean methodology of...
(The entire section is 5164 words.)
Fiedler, Jean, and Mele, Jim. "Asimov's Robots." In Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, edited by Dick Riley, pp. 1-22. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978.
Examines the benefits-of-technology theme in Asimov's robot novels and stories, focusing on I, Robot, The Cave of Steel, and The Naked Sun.
Moore, Maxine. "Asimov, Calvin, and Moses." In Voices for the Future: Essays on Major Science Fiction Writers, Volume 1, edited by Thomas D. Clareson, pp. 88-103. Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976.
Examines the ethical aspects of the characters in I, Robot from Calvinistic and Judaic perspectives, with a particular emphasis on the Puritan work ethic, human freedom and determinism, and human responsibility.
Thorner, Lincoln. Review of I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov. In Emergency Librarian 15, No. 3 (January-February 1988): 22.
Favorably assesses I, Robot.
Wilson, Raymond J. "Asimov's Mystery Story Structure." Extrapolation 19, No. 2 (May 1978): 101-07.
Examines the similarities between traditional mystery stories and Asimov's science fiction, paying particular attention to...
(The entire section is 243 words.)