Study Guide

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov Essay - Asimov, Isaac

Asimov, Isaac

Introduction

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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
Words from History (nonfiction) 1968
Asimov's Guide to the Bible, Volume II: The New Testament (nonfiction) 1969
The Shaping of England (nonfiction) 1969
Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare (nonfiction) 1970
The Gods Themselves (novel) 1972
Asimov's Annotated "Paradise Lost" (nonfiction) 1974
Lecherous Limericks (poetry) 1975
Murder at the ABA: A Puzzle in Four Days and Sixty Scenes (novel) 1976
Animals of the Bible (nonfiction) 1978
In Memory Yet Green: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1920–1954 (autobiography) 1979
In Joy Still Felt: The Autobiography of Isaac Asimov, 1954–1978 (autobiography) 1980
Foundation's Edge (novel) 1982
The Robots of Dawn (novel) 1983
The History of Physics (nonfiction) 1984
Asimov's Guide to Halley's Comet (nonfiction) 1985
Robots and Empire (novel) 1985
The Dangers of Intelligence, and Other Science Essays (essays) 1986
Foundation and Earth (novel) 1986
Asimov's Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (nonfiction) 1988
Nemesis (novel) 1988
Prelude to Foundation (novel) 1988
Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories (short stories) 1990
Isaac Asimov Laughs Again (autobiography) 1991
Robot Visions (short stories) 1991

∗These works were collectively published as The Foundation Trilogy: Three Classics of Science Fiction in 1963.

†This collection contains the novels The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun.

Criticism

N. M. (review date 4 February 1951)

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...

(The entire section is 133 words.)

Darko Suvin (essay date July 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 997 words.)

Gorman Beauchamp (essay date Spring-Summer 1980)

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...

(The entire section is 5513 words.)

Jean Fiedler and Jim Mele (essay date 1982)

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.

...

(The entire section is 3938 words.)

Christian W. Thomsen (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 3580 words.)

Donald M. Hassler (essay date March 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 5164 words.)