Sunday, February 11, 2007

5. I, Robot

by Isaac Asimov

I’ll admit that when I, Robot the movie came out, I really wanted to see it. But I didn’t because I thought that at some point I might want to read the book. I read some Isaac Asimov in middle school, but I don’t remember what it was and I haven’t read anything of his since. Essentially, I didn’t know anything about the great sci-fi master’s writing style, but considering my love for Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, it seemed inevitable that I’d get around to Asimov at some point. Which I have. And…I’m not sure what to make of it.

First of all, let me say that I don’t even know how they made the movie version of this book because I don’t see any character for Will Smith to play. There’s Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist whose work features greatly throughout the decades the story covers, but there’s no central male lead. I’m guessing they either created a character out of thin air or severely altered a minor character from the book. The book is also not concerned with a robot uprising, like the movie previews lead me to believe, but with the idea of robots taking over the world and assuming complete control over humanity. I mean, not in a violent way, like the previews suggest. More in a subtle, incremental way that’s actually scary when you consider our complete dependence on computers (DSL cuts out at work and all hell breaks loose!).

The book goes through several periods in history during which robots gain more and more power. In the beginning robots are these clunky, non-verbal beings that humans distrust. One of the firsts, whose name was, fittingly, Robbie, was sold to a family as a nanny to their young daughter. When the girl becomes too emotionally attached to Robbie, the parents’ attempts to lose him are done in by the powerful Laws of Robotics. If you’ve been living under rock in regards to the book and movie like I have, these laws are that a robot must not harm a human being or allow a human to come to harm by inaction, they must obey humans, and they must protect their own existence, but only as long as it doesn’t interfere with the previous two laws. Robbie gets to stay with the family because he saves the daughter from a fatal accident. It’s that cut and dry.

However, as robot technology progresses, the laws become a little fuzzy. The ensuing robots – Speedy, Cutie, Dave, Herbie – are more advanced and perform more complicated tasks, but they’re also required to reinterpret the laws. Herbie, for example, can read minds and blatantly lies to humans, not out of malice, but because he believes that telling humans anything other than what they want to hear will cause them harm and directly violate the first law. What we come to at the end of the story is a man who may actually be a highly developed robot with no one able to determine the difference, and the entirety of humanity run by “the Machine.” The paradox here is that the Machine can’t allow humanity to harm itself and destroying the Machine would harm humanity, thus we come to a point where humans are governed by robots and have no hope of breaking free.

While I enjoyed the story and found it to be far more intricate than I had expected, I was a little disappointed with the writing style. Whereas Bradbury handles his words with precision and depth and investment, Asimov is kind of, well, lead-footed in his word choice. I’d go so far as to say that some of it was cheesy. That may be because the ideas that Asimov dreamed up have become so ingrained into pop culture that I’m already over-exposed to them (even Bender owes his existence to Asimov and his positronic brains), but I was just a little bit surprised that I had any criticisms at all for the revered author. I mean, one of the robots is named Cutie, for Pete’s sake! That just doesn’t fly with me. But Asimov is one of a trio of the most famous science fiction writers ever and there’s got to be a reason for that. I plan to continue reading his works and find out exactly why.


Blogger L. Diane Wolfe said...

Conratulations for finishing an Asimov novel! I never could - lead-footed is a very apt description. I found him very dry and more science than passion. It has been a few years, though, so perhaps I should give him another try.
BTW - I doubt you would enjoy the movie now that you've read the book, but it was a fun escapism type of romp!

5:40 PM  
Anonymous SR said...

He's better with his short fiction generally...

5:04 PM  
Blogger Carrie said...

"Lead-footed" is exactly the word I would use to describe Asimov's prose style. I haven't read an Asimov book since high school and i doubt I ever will again (there are too many good books out there!), but I am so happy to read this review.

How are classes going?

12:29 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Wow...I'm surprised that I'm not the only one that feels this way about Asimov's writing. I felt like the sci-fi gods would strike lightning on me for speaking harsh of Asimov, but I feel a little bit better knowing others have thought the same things. Have any of you read anything of his that suggest I try next?

Carrie - classes haven't started yet. That's actually not until the summer (which kind of can't get here soon enough - I'm starting to get excited about this "classes" thing), so right now I'm in the middle of filling out loan forms, which is, as you can imagine, just so very, very fun. (Oh, FAFSA! I thought I was done with you!)

7:48 PM  

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