Sunday, 30 December 2012

I, Robot - part 10: The Evitable Conflict

This story addresses the moment when the Machines take the reins of the world and mankind is rendered redundant. Within the lifetime of Gloria Weston of the first story robots have gone from her puppy-like paymate Robbie to rulers of the world in place of men.

It's not a bloody robot uprising of the the sort depicted in the terrible movie that bears this book's name. Instead, in a move that seems eerily prescient, the robots take control of Earth using the most powerful weapon in the modern arsenal: the economy.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

I, Robot - part 9: Evidence

We get to the real meat of the issue here: what’s the difference between a man and robot? It’s one of the foundational questions of SF that’s been addressed by through simplistic pulp tales of vengeful servants to PK Dick and Greg Egan’s existential angst and the infinite varieties of post-singularity SF. 

Like these other writers, Asimov gives us his own take on the issue: the difference between robot and human is that they’re better than us. 

Sunday, 23 December 2012

I, Robot - part 8: Escape

In this story we see the return of Donovan and Powell, reflecting the core cast of characters that Asimov has built up over the stories so far. These two and robopsychologist Susan Calvin tend to lead matters – they share the spotlight in this one – supported by mathematician Peter Bogert and director-emeritus of research Alfred Lanning. Other characters come and go but it’s these five we return to again and again.

There’s not much continuity for these characters. They seem pretty static and events from one story to the next don’t seem to make much difference to them. But while the characters don’t change or develop much, the world they exist in is changing in ways that this story highlight. The previous story, Little Lost Robotintroduced the concept for the hyperatomic drive to the robot story universe. In this story, we get one step closer.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

I, Robot - part 7: Little Lost Robot

This is another one that feels like a bit of a cheat. Similarly to Runaround, where the Third Law had been tweaked up to help survive the hostile environment, in this one the First Law has been tweaked down to prevent the robots interfering with the work the humans are doing by rushing in and trying to save them from the low levels of radiation that their work entails.

Well, that’s just a great idea, isn’t it? What could possibly go wrong with that?

Monday, 17 December 2012

I, Robot - part 6: Liar!

Susan Calvin is a bold move for Asimov. The genial, avuncular Powell and Donovan were perfectly serviceable vehicles for the fictional problems he wanted to pursue, but the only reason there’s two of them is so they can explain the story to each other. Asimov attempts to make the relationship interesting by resorting to a sort of roaring angry banter to give them a reason to interact, which always reminds me of those Fry and Laurie characters Peter and John, but they don’t have any distinguishing features really.

Susan Calvin gives him a chance to explore a range of character possibilities. She’s a contrast to the blokey and intuitive men of U.S. Robots who we’ve met so far. She’s cool and intellectual, a little bit vinegary. She’s described as plain and at 38 is considered – perhaps most keenly by herself – to be an old maid. He makes a good fist of it, but this story is a rather melodramatic tale of a woman humiliated in love.

Monday, 10 December 2012

I, Robot - part 5: Catch That Rabbit

What makes these stories such brilliant science fiction is not so much the speculative elements, but the way the protagonists approach the problems in their path. Each story establishes a limited setting to contain all the elements of the plot. This ensures that the central problem is very tightly focused, something inherent in the characters (usually the robot) and the setting itself – Mercury, a space station orbiting the sun, a mining station on an asteroid.

It also eliminates ‘call the cavalry’ solutions and allows Asimov to limit the tools that Powell and Donovan (it’s them again) can bring to bear on the problem. It mostly comes down to their powers of deduction and rational approach and I think this is one of the big reasons these stories appeal most to sci fi fans in their deepest pubescence.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

I, Robot - part 4: Reason

This is the kind of story that made me fall in love with SF the first time around. It’s focused on a knotty a philosophical dilemma that’s wittily expressed using a robot as the central actor. The companionable Donovan and Powell don’t seem to have too many concerns other than the action of the story. They’re classic capable men bringing order to the frontier of space, and turning it to their advantage if they can.

The two are on a space station orbiting the Sun this time, installing a new super-intelligent robot that will take control of the energy beam that shoots power back to Earth. As the story says in the rather electrifying opening paras: ‘Whatever the background one is face to face with the inscrutable positronic brain, which the slide-rule geniuses say should work thus and so. Except that they don’t.’

Friday, 7 December 2012

Can't think what to get me for Christmas?

You're wracking your brains: not socks again, not the latest J K Rowling/Nigella/Lee Child, not the Tiffany diamond tiara even if I would look FAB in it.

Let me help you out: if you can't think what to possibly get me, how about this boxed set from The Residents? The fridge would be nice, but, well, if you really love me...

Thursday, 6 December 2012

I, Robot - part 3: Runaround

This is more like it. This is the type of story I remember from my teens, one that depends on a bit of hard science and a subtle understanding of the Three Laws of Robotics. It’s set on a mining base on Mercury and stars two plucky scientists and an out of control robot. It’s a problem story a rather brilliant Boys’ Own yarn for geeks where the characters win-through with careful logic and cool patience even in the face of death.

Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan have been despatched to Mercury to resurrect an abandoned mine. On arrival they discover that the ‘photo-cell banks’ that protect the mining base from the glaring sun are shot and they’ll need selenium to get them running. Fortunately there are naturally occurring open pools of it dotted around the planet surface nearby, so Donovan sends their robot – SPD-1, or Speedy – out to get some.

Of course, Speedy doesn’t come back, and the reason is a conflict between the Second and Third Laws of Robotics.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

I, Robot - part 2: Robbie

This story reminds me of nothing so much as some kind of cosy narrative about race relations that you might encounter in pre-civil rights era America. What Asimov appears to have done here is write a charming narrative about a young girl called called Gloria Weston and her coloured nursemaid, and then replaced with the nursemaid with a robot.

The plot goes like this: Gloria’s mother disapproves of her spending all her time with her robot playmate, the titular Robbie. She says: ‘I won’t have my daughter entrusted to a machine. It has no soul and no one knows what it may be thinking. A child just isn’t made to be guarded by a thing of metal.’

George Weston protests that Gloria loves Robbie, and is in no danger: ‘He’s the best darn robot money can buy and I’m damned sure he set me back half a year’s income. He’s worth it, though – darn sight cleverer than half my office staff.’ This makes the relationship entirely clear. Robbie’s a chattel that George Weston values in material terms: he’s a slave.

Monday, 3 December 2012

I, Robot - part 1: Introduction

NB: I do eventually get to I, Robot!

Don’t you ever ask yourself, ‘how did I get here from there?’ It’s one of my favourite trains of thought, lying awake when sleep seems far away and the dark is haunted by familiar things made weird by night. At those times, it’s hard to disagree with Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish. We’re killing each other and killing the planet all in the name of X-Factor, Vodafone, News International, amazon, Starbucks and Google.

Sci fi was supposed to be the bulwark against all of this. We had 1984 but we’ve still got China, North Korea and all those former Soviet states that cling to the an aging Stalin-lite in order to avoid civil war. We had The Handmaid’s Tale, but we still got Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. We had Mad Max and Robocop but still we got Putin’s Russia. We had The Space Merchants, but still got all this.

In the meantime, we also had The Martian Chronicles, but we got no mission to Mars. We had Rendezvous with Rama, but Rama never showed up. We had The Lensman, and Foundation and Dune and God knows how many more, but popular space travel seems unlikely to ever be possible.

And of course, we had I, Robot but we got no robots.