~~Moved from GR~~
by Isaac Asimov
I, Robot is, in my opinion, a fundamental read for anyone interested in the emergence of modern scifi. The story itself is a sequence of loosely connected short stories written in 1950 that take place in a "future" world (where the future is the 1990's and 2000's). The premise of the story collection is that a longtime "robot psychologist" of the main robotics company is about to retire and is being interviewed for human interest stories about her varied experiences with robots. In Asimov's future, humans invented the "positronic brain" and used this technology to create robots that are in some sense a better version of humanity, yet subservient to humanity. The positronic brain encodes three main laws, in order of importance: first, that robots cannot harm humans or allow them to come to harm, second, that they must carry out orders that humans give them, and third, that they must endeavor to prevent harm to themselves. The title, to me, indicates the heart of Asimov's idea of AI technology: all of the robots in the story have feelings, thoughts, emotions, and a strong sense of self-identity. Each story centers around a typically problematic interaction between a robot and its human keepers.
I read this when I was a lot younger, and although I didn't precisely dislike it, I never had any particular interest in reading other books by Asimov. Rereading it, I think I've come to appreciate it more--not, perhaps, for the story itself, but for the insight it gives into the attitudes of the time. Scifi, of course, quickly becomes dated. Asimov's imagining of his future is radically different from the reality we have created. To me, it feels a bit like one of the original Star Trek episodes: fairly soaked with optimism at the abilities of man, drenched in idealism, and so absolutely earnest that it always strikes me as a little sad. It's always interesting to compare the imagined future with actuality, and although I think Asimov was much more perceptive than many of his fellows, his own biases come through clearly. War has apparently been abolished in this shiny new world, but America ("The North") is still the superior economic and social powerhouse. Engineering and mathematics are heavily male-dominated, and the single woman mentioned is also described as pathetic, robotic, cold, and having sacrificed her femininity for "masculine" analytical prowess. I think I also had a viscerally negative reaction to Asimov's characterization of Dr. Calvin, the solitary female. One of the stories is a rather gruesome representation of the scientist/spinster and her secret love for a younger man. It is portrayed as pitiful, pathetic, and ghoulish, and my knee-jerk reaction to it was anger. Even though I was in early highschool when I read it, maybe (cough) it struck me personally. If even one other woman had been positively portrayed, if there appeared to be any way in this world for a woman to be intelligent and not a pathetic little romantic internally, I don't think my reaction would have been as strong. At the same time, I'm captivated by the idea that this man who could so clearly envision an automated world could have such a failure of imagination in societal roles, from women to the ever-present cigarettes. What are the futures that lie in store for us, yet are beyond our imaginings?
I think Asimov's take on the dynamics between humans and robotics--both the paranoia and disdain that stems from a hidden sense of inferiority--is fascinating. I find it especially intriguing given that this is from the 1950s, robots are used as servants/slaves to their self-proclaimed betters, and the humans refer to their robots by first name or by diminutives such as "boy"--sound familiar? What I've always been left unsure about is whether or not this was an intentional commentary on race, and if so, what Asimov's conclusions actually were. Other than this extremely interesting ambiguity, I think the reason that I never really got into these stories was their sheer earnestness. I remember finding all the stories bizarre because Asimov totally avoids the standard AI robot scifi trope: his robots are always benevolent and well-intentioned towards humanity. The First Law is paramount, and despite human fears to the contrary, while the robots make take over, they have humanity's best interests at heart. There is so clearly a "lesson" for us in each one, an obvious angle where our brains are supposed to be stretched, and that's not my favourite type of storytelling. Thinking back over it, it is very reminiscent of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but to me at least, seems much more direct and simplistic. Overall, an interesting read both for diehard scifi fans and for individuals interested in what the 1950s view of the future.