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.

Well, Mrs Weston gets her way and Gloria is heartbroken, but in the end coincidence – perhaps with a bit of help from soft-hearted old George – sees them reunited at the US Robots manufacturing plant. Robbie returns to his servile status in the Weston household, just like the good little robot that he is.

It’s all about prejudice: Mrs Weston’s antipathy to Robbie is at first driven by the people in village, who’ve banned robots from the village centre after dark and who won't let their own children play with that strange Weston girl and her metal playmate. I’m sure it’s supposed to be a story of tolerance: Robbie loves Gloria and can be trusted to perform the menial task of childcare. It’s an admission of the slave’s lowly status – in fact, the slave loves it because the alternative isn’t freedom it’s a job in the factory making other slaves.

There’s no other real driver to the story, no technical SF challenge or even a mention of the laws of robotics. In fact, there’s nothing here that requires a robot at all: the story works in exactly the same way with slaves from any age, of any race. It’s as if Asimov just thought ‘imagine if there were robots – would they face prejudice?’ and plucked the first plot he could think of out of the air. It is, unfortunately, a bit of a rum one by today’s standards.

It’s a bit creaky and old fashioned in other respects, as one might expect form a story about the future written seventy years ago. It’s set, in fact in 1998 where the family visits the visivox every Saturday night and drive a gyro but life still seems to follow the patterns of a mid-century suburban ideal. The shrewish wife and warm-hearted and indulgent dad are stereotypes from another era, characters who are not just obsolete but not even fully realised.

Stereotypes aside, though (and racism and sexism... only joking!) it moves along quickly, sentences follow one from another in a pleasing way and there are intriguing setting elements – the brief pen portrait of future New York also feels like it’s drawn life and the factory of U.S. Robots is interesting to see, as is Gloria’s encounter with the experimental talking robot.

It’s not a great start, it’s true, but we’ll wait and see how the next story treats us.

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