Ambitious Reading List: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

i robotI’ve always known that I’m a pretty slow reader, but seeing my progress since writing about my ambitious summer reading list back in May is kind of depressing. I quit Great Expectations and didn’t read Crime and Punishment again as I originally planned, I finished War of the Worlds, but didn’t really enjoy it and finally got a book I both liked and finished with Great Gatsby. So, in seven months, I’ve read three books. Technically, I snuck Mr. S and lots and lots of trades in that time span too, but I think I need to dedicate more time to reading books.

For anyone who might not be familiar with Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, it’s a series of short stories documenting the evolution of robots in a society that eventually moved to space where the bots were utilized. The earlier stories feature trouble shooters Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan who often find themselves in the middle of strange robotic occurrences like one thinking himself a superior being to humans (he doesn’t even believe in Earth because he was never “conscious” there) and ones doing random dances in formation. The real main character, though, is Dr. Susan Calvin a robopsychologist who also finds herself in the middle of some unusual occurrences like a psychic robot. Most of the adventures revolve around our characters trying to figure out what’s wrong with the robots using the Three Laws of Robotics which are as follows:

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 any 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.

Overall, I dug the book, but I didn’t find it super engaging. The plots were really interesting in a mystery sense. One of the main characters is presented with a problem involving a robot, then you go through the process of them using their brains to figure it out. The problem, though, is that the human characters aren’t the most engaging of all time. In fact, I had a really hard time keeping track of which one was Powell and which one was Donovan considering they were always basically doing the same thing: yelling at each other and trying to understand robots. Calvin gets more of an arc, I guess, as a character since she’s the through story for all the vignettes, but even then, she pretty much stays the same. We get a little glance of her liking someone, but that doesn’t go anywhere and then, in the end, she may or may not have a thing with Stephen Byerley, a man who was never proven not to be a robot. It’s actually kind of funny that Byerley, a politician who was accused of being a robot, which was never proven, even after he died and was atomized, wound up being the most interesting character in the stories. He’s tricky, funny and shows a depth that puts the other characters, who generally can be summed up in a quick sentence, to shame.

Aside from the character stuff, it was really interesting reading the sci-fi aspects of the stories which were originally published as short stories in sci-fi mags like Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950. It’s funny reading this book 60 years after it was written and seeing what Asimov got right and what he didn’t. I’m mostly thinking about how machines communicate silently with one another today and didn’t seem to be able to do that in the book. My cell phone and laptop aren’t running around doing synchronized marches when I’m not looking, so I’m not complaining. Also, I’m still waiting for my personal robot. Asimov also completely nailed the idea of religious zealots getting involved in pretty much everything. The ones in the book don’t seem too far removed from Tea Partiers.

One last quick thing I wanted to mention, the scene in “Evidence” with Byerley’s campaign manager asking him not to go out on a balcony for fear of assassination must have seemed ludicrous when the book was first written, but sounds prophetic now, especially considering the manager’s name is Lenton. Weird. And with that, I’m moving on to Lolita. I started it off and greatly appreciates Nabokov using such short chapters! It is a little creepy though and I don’t expect that factor to go away as I read.

2 thoughts on “Ambitious Reading List: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

    1. Ah yes, that’s a scan of my copy. I got it on the cheap at a discount store last year which explains the Fresh Prince’s appearance here. I’ve got the movie from Netflix which I haven’t seen before and will probably get to post Thanksgiving.

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