Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov


07 June 2011

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov book cover
Considered by many to be the definitive science fiction work on the topic of robotics, I, Robot (1950) is a collection of short stories that imagines a world where robots have become highly sophisticated and are relied upon by humans for everyday tasks. It is here that Asimov first set out his famous ‘three laws of robotics’, which are used to govern robot behaviour, ensuring they pose no threat to humans. The work is as much a fragmented novel as a collection of short stories, following three central characters from the early days of robots in society to the machines' eventual recalcitrance. Each story explores an example of robots (seemingly) behaving outside of the three laws, the reason for which is set out as a series of logic puzzles, which both the characters and reader are invited to solve.

Isaac Asimov is regarded by many as the greatest science-fiction novelist of all time, certainly his description of robotics in I, Robot (along with his other key works) significantly shaped the way robots were portrayed in subsequent science-fiction. Prior to his work robots were seen very much in the Frankenstein-sense, a creation blindly attacking its master, but Asimov’s robots, governed by the three laws, are more sophisticated. It's unnerving to think that loopholes can exist, even in such a seemingly infallible set of laws, allowing robots to behave in unpredictable and potentially dangerous ways.

The language is uncomplicated and economical – very much in the style of popular fiction at the time. However, a good deal of the dialogue ages due to the level of slang used and many of the characters are a little one-dimensional. This is particularly grating for the modern reader who is presented with the duplicity of enjoying a futuristic world, but having it populated by a clearly retrograde man.

Despite this, I, Robot, draws together a series of artfully designed stories to produce a coherent and enveloping vision. Asimov plays with the boundaries he has created and generates some enjoyable and thought-provoking tales. For modern readers of more sophisticated science-fiction these short stories may not prove deep enough to satisfy, but for most will provide a beautifully crafted exploration of Asimov’s vision.

I’m not normally a fan of science-fiction, but I really enjoyed I, Robot. The stories were cleverly constructed and atmospheric, Asimov really plays with the rules he sets out.

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Tom McDonnell said...

Asimov's far reaching ideas about robots are typical of his ability to recognise important technologies in their infancy and extrapolate their effects on society far into the future. His vision of today's internet as told in 1988 is another example.

He gave a lecture to a group of young engineers in 1974 titled The Future of Humanity. It is optimistic and well worth reading for the insight in reveals into his thinking.

If you liked I, Robot I strongly recommend the first three books of the Foundation series. They are short, succinct, very clever, and amazing in breadth of scope.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

What a great video. I've never heard Asimov speak before - its great to see someone so sharp, so excited by the possibilities and with such great insight. Thanks for the link!

I've been wanting to read more of his fiction since I finished this, but just haven't got around to it. The Foundation series definitely sounds like the place to start.