Welcome to the first Summer of Asimov, where we'll be examining the third of the so-called Big Three Golden Age Science-Fiction authors. We've already covered the technologist Arthur C. Clarke and the political futurist Robert A. Heinlein, so now we get to the philosophical fantasist, Isaac Asimov. Covering Asimov adequately over one summer proved to be a daunting task, especially with the current coronovirus situation, so I've had to split it into two. This year, we'll be spending most of our time with the Robot and Empire series--tackled in a carefully chosen order--and next year, I plan to cover the entire Foundation series. So sit back, relax, and enjoy some vintage, epic science-fiction from one of the grandmasters of the genre.
The thinking man's cover
Isaac Asimov is famous for many different things, but perhaps his greatest contribution to science-fiction is the Three Laws of Robotics. (He also invented the word "robotics.") Therefore, it seems reasonable, after last week's brief look at his juvenile "David Starr" series, to start our examination of Asimov with his most influential works: the robots. It also helps that Asimov's four robot novels precede, chronologically at least, his Empire series and Foundation series, all of which Asimov eventually merged into a single fictional universe. Where he did his most robotic experimentation and primarily fleshed out his Three Laws are in the short stories, though, which are compiled in several different published books, but nowhere as comprehensively as in The Complete Robot, the subject of today's review.
Most of these stories play out like simple thought experiments or mysteries, and they all lean into Asimov's cleverness as a futurist. Unlike Clarke, Asimov's interest in the details of technology is surface level, a means of getting at the underlying ramifications or logical--and oftentimes difficult to foresee--consequences of a given technology's existence. He doesn't completely avoid politics, but they never dominate his stories the way they do in Heinlein. He also seems resolutely skeptical of any political worldview that presents simple answers to complex problems like economics, though he does, in stories like "The Evitable Conflict," make the case that robotic intelligence could one day solve them.
A misconception I come across repeatedly is this notion that Asimov never wrote "robots-run-amok" or "robots-as-pathos" stories. While it is true he tried not to write too many of them--and as such differentiated himself from all others writing about artificial intelligence in the forties and fifties--he did nevertheless write quite a few. Most of his stories involve robots at the very least going astray, oftentimes as a result of human error like a poorly worded order or a simple oversight, but there are stories where robots quite clearly run amok and/or try to take over mankind, stories such as "Sally," "Reason," and "...That Thou Art Mindful of Him." There are also a handful of "robots-as-pathos" stories, most notably his self-proclaimed greatest robot story, "The Bicentennial Man."
The boring cover
As I see no upside to disagreeing with Asimov, I can say that "The Bicentennial Man" is one of the best things he ever wrote. I briefly entertained the idea of reviewing the extended version he wrote with Robert Silverberg, called The Positronic Man, but the original story stands on its own as an incredible work. (I've read The Positronic Man in the past, and it's fine, but it isn't sufficiently different from "The Bicentennial Man" to warrant a separate review.) Prior to Asimov's work, a few writers had tried to write stories from a robot's perspective with varying degrees of success, but Asimov, armed with his previous robot stories, his expanded robot universe, and the Three Laws, found a way to approach the idea that drips with pathos, even though Asimov never once writes in an overly romantic or emotional style. He doesn't get carried away describing robot injustice--just one minor incident is plenty for him--nor does he dwell on the multiple human deaths as a way to squeeze salty tears onto the page. He simply describes a robot's journey to become human, and he never feels the need to explain or justify it beyond showing how the robot goes about it.
Of course, one cannot discuss the robot short stories without mentioning one of Asimov's most famous characters: Dr. Sarah Calvin, the robopsychologist who appears several times throughout. Calvin is a fascinating character who stands heads and shoulders above the multiple male characters Asimov invented for these stories (even above the admittedly lovable Powell and Donovan). However, until this exercize, I had never read the story in which she first appears--"Liar!"--which portrays a very different version of her that has almost nothing in common with the character she would become.
In fact, "Liar!" might be my least favorite story in the entire collection. It involves a robot who has become inexplicably psychic* and who decides that, in order to fulfill the First Law, it must tell humans what they want to hear in order to spare their fragile egos. In the case of Calvin, the robot tells her that a man she is enamoured with is madly in love with her, and when she discovers this to be untrue, she is shockingly violent, hate-filled, and brutal against the robot. This version of Dr. Calvin is an unimaginative and cringey female stereotype, a far cry from the calculatingly intelligent and fiercely independant robot advocate she is in every other story in which she appears.
*I'm not sure if Asimov included this in order to fulfill John W. Campbell's mandate on including pseudoscience in the stories he published, though I suspect, as Asimov was an outspoken scientific skeptic, he probably did. "Liar!" was first published in Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in May of 1941, so the timeline matches up.
The non-American cover
Probably what I love most about the robot stories is that they demonstrate, quite adeptly, a simple scientific principle: one must always be trying to disprove the best hypotheses. Asimov invented the Three Laws, and though these laws seem perfectly air-tight and inviolate, Asimov uses most of these stories to show subtle ways they can be manipulated, misused, or misunderstood, as though he is trying to directly refute his own concept. No robot out-and-out violates the rules (except in one or two stories where the Three Laws aren't a thing), though many seem to, and the best stories involve a quest to figure out how the seemingly hostile or inexplicable behavior of a robot can be explained by the very Three Laws that were designed to control them. Asimov is, in effect, trying to tease out all the imperfections of the apparently perfect laws he created, rather than spending his time proving how perfect they are.
These stories have been profoundly inspirational throughout both science-fiction and real-life science. Modern roboticists in the real world owe not just the name of their profession but also a lot of its philosophical underpinnings to Asimov's work. Asimov tried to imagine how robots would really interact with society, without too many of the prejudices of what he called "the Frankenstein complex." As he was less interested in predicting a future war between man and machines--a war that is far, far too common in science-fiction--he managed to envision the more rational and realistic possibilities, so much so that these stories, despite being as many as eighty-one years old, are still relevant and forward-thinking today.
I also can't stress enough how entertaining they are. I've read many of these stories dozens of times--if you must know, my favorites include "Victory Unintentional," "Robbie," "Risk," and of course, "The Bicentennial Man"--and I'm sure I'll read them a dozen more. Asimov was more than a prescient futurist, a scientific philosophist, or a clever problem-solver; he was also one hell of a storyteller.
-e. magill 5/28/2020
SPECIAL THANKS TO MY PATRONS: