Sunday, January 28, 2007

Title: I, Robot

Author: Isaac Asimov

ISBN: 0553294385
1950, DoubleDay; 1991

Started Reading:
January 24th, 2007

Finished Reading:
January 25th, 2007

Classics ~ due end of Feb '07
2nd of 5 hosted by Booklogged

Asimov's book is in fact a collection of short stories published throughout the 40s. The stories come together through the narrative of recurring character Dr. Sarah Calvin who reflects on her life as a robopsychologist. One of the difficulties in reading this was the disjointed nature of the text as a whole. Asimov presents his pieces in such a way that each chapter introduces a new idea about robots that isn't necessarily carried over into the next part. I'll make a comparison to Alice Munro here as her novel Lives of Girls and Women (highly recommended!) reflects short story-esque chapter divisions that are cunningly woven together by theme & character. Asimov's attempt at narrative unity isn't achieved - the book feels like an anthology masked as a novel (and for all you who know me well, I abhor anthologies).

Another distraction (or weakness) of the read was the dialogue. When principal characters yell out "By Jupiter!" moments before a certain death, it makes you wonder where these people came from. There is little interaction between characters, and when human characters speak to each other it comes off as contrived and artificial. As for the Robots... I will allow the fact that as a human reader I may have allowed certain corny terms and fake-flavoured sentences to slip by, considering the 'nature of the beast'. Yet there generally seems to be a lack of artfulness in the writing that leaves the reader constantly conscious of the writer's presence, which does not allow for the 'cathartic' experience.

Dr Calvin's character was introspective, however, and original. Her coldness, icy stares, quick wit and cool-under-pressure personality do make for an interesting tie-in; it is once again the elementary writing that surrounds her (and ultimately creates her character) that lessens the effect. Asimov simply did not strengthen this aspect of the text. What Dr Calvin does present us with is an informed and complex understanding of the role of robots in the lives of humanity. Her logic and respect for the beast (as un-beastlike as they are) allows her, unlike many others in her field, to consider the potential threat of what robots can do ... we have all seen Terminator, right?

Asimov himself felt that the strongest point of his robot series is his contribution of 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 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.

While I was researching on why this is a classic, wiki quotes the author on how Asimov wished to present robots in a different light than the traditional Frankenstein/terror or functionality format. Robots, in his book, come together as companions, machines that can interact, assess, and even befriend to a certain level. Asimov's presenting a world where machines are present as walking, talking, thinking beings, as a dependency that humanity has a love/hate relationship with (most strongly portrayed in his final chapter on the Regions) does portray the possible integration of such entities into our society as less of a threat than works such as Shelley's would have us believe.

What I am trying to decipher with other sci-fi fans is whether Asimov is using the robot in his text as a way of expressing the 'next natural step' in historical progression or as a mirror reflection of humanity and our tendencies on the level of social consciousness? It seems contradicting for it to be both simultaneously... any readers out there with thoughts on this topic? any other potential 'uses' for the robot?

Factoid: Asimov's original title was Mind and Iron but the publisher changed it.

Star Trek's creator would visit his friend Asimov with his ideas to see if they were scientifically viable. The author had a PhD in biochemistry.

He is attributed with coining the terms robotics, positronic, psychohistory.

The author died of AIDS which he was infected with during a blood transfusion. The family only disclosed this ten years after his death (d. 1992).

One reason that this may have seemed somewhat elementary to me is that I have been reading sci-fi for years now and usually find that the philosophical elements are not so blatant and obvious, but carefully weaved into the story, allowing the entertainment and active participation that great books demand. Perchance those introduced to the concept of sci-fi may find this a great breather - room to play would be my own recommendation. The language is easy enough for a advanced reader in 6th grade if they can tackle the concepts. At the same time, I'd like to note that there are many classics that 'do things first' , by which I mean put forward important themes or ideas, in a way that did not make me feel as if there was some basic attention to writing lacking in the text. Asimov's careless writing gives the reader the impression that he merely wishes to present the idea, without paying too much attention to genre, dialogue, or narrative style.

In Conclusion, I am happy to have finally read it and will have to read the Foundation Series in hopes that it is better (on a literary scale) than this. Please note that I am not a short stories type of gal, so my harsh criticism of the narrative is somewhat biased.However, the points on the dialogue hold true - it's pretty horrendous.


Cell phone ringing. Caller ID reads 'M'

M: Nessie, my child, we've got a problem. Possession is written by A. S. Byatt.

N: I know. What! You think...

M: You wrote in your comments that it was written by Austen.

N: No, loser, I wrote about Persuasion. (Saying this, cell in hand, I run over to the computer and log on.) I'm going to read it to you. "I finished Possessions some time ago. I am working on a MEGA AUTHOR post - I have read all the works by Jane Austen and" Oh, no!

M: You gotta change it.

N: Shit! Shit! Shit!

And shit. So sorry, Bella! I am looking forward to reading the book Possession by Byatt and will be commenting on your blog to let you know when have posted on it.
And M, what would I do without you!? (I would sit in a cardboard box and cry longingly).


booklogged said...

Oh, darn - I haven't read Asimov yet and was hoping for a good review. Like you say, it was short stories, so we'll hold out hope that his other stuff is better.

Angela/SciFiChick said...

Well, since I don't read scifi for the philosophical aspect, I'm probably not the best person to ask this.
To me, it seemed like he meant it as a next-step in our technology.

Carl V. said...

I read my first Asimov earlier this month, The Stars, Like Dust. It was a fun, space opera book. Asimov reportedly has said this is his least favorite of his works and I could see why. It had some odd sentence structure at times and included euphemisms like you mention here...only in Star is was "By Space!".

I too want to read Foundation sometime since this was his big project. Might get to it this year, we'll see.

Isabella said...

Funny you should say 6th grade -- I actually read this for school in grade 7. At that age, it's eye-opening, and a great introduction to sf.

As for the robot, if I understand you correctly, I think that it is both the next step AND a mirror of humanity -- this is the whole "problem" of AI, how the technology can be advanced without incorporating humanity's weaknesses.

Melissa said...

You know, I read the Foundation series years and years ago, and remember having a positive view of it. It's a bit slow in spots, but overall quite interesting.

Lotus Reads said...

I'm so glad for your blog, Nellie. I love the detailed reviews. I haven't read anything by Assimov yet, but if I do get around to reading this one, I'll come here and let you know what I thought. Am waiting for your take on "Art Of Love" by Ovid! :)

Carrie K said...

Oh, I'm so late to this party! In IA's defense. "By Jupiter" and some other really sounding clunky jargon was actually used quite a lot. My old, old clients still say things like "Sam Hill!"

IA's pretty readable, if a bit, common man? The bulk of his stuff was written in the 50's though, right? There was so many technological advances from what had been before. The opening of the 20th century people still had outhouses!