Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Book Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I know it may be odd reviewing a book that is over fifty years old, but I think it's time more people become familiarized with the mutton-chopped granddaddy of sci-fi, Isaac Asimov. If you've seen the film which stars Will "I'll shit all over your groundbreaking novel" Smith, I beg you, do not blame Asimov for it. He died in 1992 and I'm sure rolled over in his grave a few times after the film adaptation of his novel was released.

The Gist
If you're not familiar with any of Asimov's works, his universe centers around robots and how they affect humanity. "I, Robot" is the first in the Robot Series, introducing his unique creations. While Asimov did not invent the idea of robots in science fiction he takes the road less traveled when dealing with them. While most writers utilize robots as simple mechanisms used only for minor assistance or combot, Asimov explores the econimic, sociologic, and ethical effects they have on humanity. This first novel is a collection "linked" short stories being told by the first Robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin who begrugingly accepts a reporter's request for interviews.

The heart of Asimov's robot universe are the three laws:

  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 orders given to 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.
Each short story is based on how these robots react to situations bound by these laws. The human characters of the stories are generally placed in situations where a robot or robots "malfunction" and are faced with the task of figuring out what--pertaining to the three laws--is causing the problem. A couple of examples include a robot who can read minds and tells people what they want to hear because of law 1 (not being able to hurt humans), and one where a robot questions its own existence and denies that it was made by humans because they are inferior. A lot of it mirrors that of human development and is a great exploration into our own follies.

The Good
The way Asimov approaches robots is what makes his writing really shine. They aren't mindless automatons that are used for destruction or limited human assistance. Asimov explores the hurdles man goes through when playing god and creating artificial life. This novel isn't about flying robots and explosions which is one of the reasons why it stands out as a science fiction classic. Each story is somewhat of a small mystery tale--as described above--where the three laws are tested beyond what they appear to be on the surface which keeps it interesting. Even though they are considered short stories, the tales are somewhat linear in that it begins with one of the earlier robot models and ends further in the career of Dr. Susan Calvin when robots are far more advanced so this isn't just a typical collection of unrelated stories.

The Not So Good
I really didn't find anything to dislike about this novel other than that it wasn't longer, but I'll mention a few things that some readers may find fault with. Since the novel was written in 1950 some of the slang seems very out of place; clearly from the point of view from someone trying to write future events, but that is the nature of early sci-fi novels. Also, there is a little bit of science lingo that is thrown around with Asimov being the very learned man he was, but it's nothing too heavy, or anything you really have to retain to enjoy the core of the story because they are more about logic and relationships than anything else.

The Verdict
Anyone who is a science fiction fan that hasn't read this novel needs to. It really makes it blatantly clear what some modern-day science fiction writers are doing wrong. If you like space battles and flying robots you won't like this book. If you like smart science fiction and enjoy unique approaches to a genre that sometimes seems a little single-minded and stale, this'll definitely be something different.

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