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Book cover art by Stephen Youll (left); Don Dixon (right).
Review © 1998 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Not technically a novel, I, Robot in fact collects the earliest of Asimov's robot short stories and novellettes from the pages of (mostly) Astounding, spanning the entire decade of the 40's. With a framing device involving an interviewer who's researching the life of Dr. Susan Calvin and her involvement with the history of the robots, the stories have been assembled in chronological order to form a novel in effect. Though inescapably dated in many ways — "Robbie" is set in a 1998 that we know has not come to pass — these stories hold an important place in the history of science fiction, not least for their establishment of the highly influential Three Laws of Robotics, but also for the groundbreaking way in which Asimov combined technological speculation with heartwarming, humanistic storytelling. Machines with a heart of gold may very well be a cliché today. Here's where it all began. In Asimov's hands, steel and "positronic brains" have a warmth and humanity that few authors today can successfully attach to their flesh and blood creations. The stories stand by the strength of Asimov's conviction.

The Three Laws of Robotics are perhaps SF's most well-known creations, and in his earliest tales of the robots, Asimov focused primarily on those laws and the bizarre problems which might arise when the robots themselves interpret them differently than one might expect. Briefly, the laws prevent robots from harming people in any way; require robots to obey people unless they are ordered to harm someone; and oblige robots to protect their own existence unless they risk harming people by doing so. Greg Powell and Mike Donovan are a couple of grease-monkeys employed by US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., (I wonder if Bill Gates would have a stake in such a firm?) to field test the latest robots to come off the assembly line, and they run into strange problems indeed. One robot refuses to believe it was built by "inferior" humans, and develops a religious mania, worshipping the station itself and claiming to be the station's "prophet."

Another robot on the surface of Mercury finds itself facing a conflict between laws, and ends up malfunctioning so that it seems literally drunk. Other strange crises emerge: in "Liar!", Susan Calvin encounters a robot that by some fluke is able to read minds. Unfortunately, in its interpretation of the don't-harm-humans law, it proceeds to feed people any line of bullshit they want to hear (regarding their careers, love lives, etc.), on the basis that the truth would hurt too much. (Bits of this story were later lampooned by Poul Anderson in the short story "The Critique of Impure Reason.")

Throughout, Asimov's quick wit walks hand-in-hand with hard science to deliver stories that are truly speculative fiction with a wry twist. Naturally, as I said before, much is dated, particularly in dialogue that reads a little stiffly to modern tastes. The last story, "The Evitable Conflict," while fascinating, is mostly an exercise in talk and exposition. Also I don't think anyone's used a slide rule in 30 years (amazing how prescient so many Golden Age SF authors were, yet no one could predict the pocket calculator). But there's a warmth and a humanism that washes over everything. Asimov was always deeply involved in the advancement of human knowledge — vide his hundreds of nonfiction books on virtually every scientific discipline imaginable — and that conviction carried over into his fiction as far back as 1940. The man will always be one of my personal heroes, and I'm sure I'll be re-reading this book and so many of his others, all the way to my deathbed.

(In 1982, this collection was subsumed in its entirety by a much longer and more complete collection of robot stories rather laconically titled The Complete Robot. And yet I, Robot has remained in print in its original form to this day. The current edition is from Spectra.)

Addendum: In case you were wondering, ignore the bullshit Will Smith movie.