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.
This story plays with the First Law of Robotics, ‘A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction allow a human being to come to harm.’ The puzzling and apparently random creation of a mind-reading robot allows Asimov to explore what we mean by harm. RB 34 – aka Herbie in true Asimovian robot tradition – tries to protect the human staff of U.S. Robots from harm by reading their secret desires and telling them what they want to hear.
Susan’s not the only one to get taken in. There’s a sub-plot in this story about rival mathematicians that feels like comic relief beside her anguished tale of heartbreak. It’s a bit cringey, though, when Susan glams up on the assurance that her crush returns her feelings. Milton Ashe, her unwitting inamorata observes:
‘Say, Bogie, you notice anything queer about the lady lately?’
Bogert relaxed into an undignified grin. ‘She’s using lipstick, if that’s what you mean.’
‘Hell, I know that. Rouge, powder and eye shadow, too. She’s a sight. But it’s not that. I can’t put my finger on it. It’s the way she talks – as if she was happy about something.’ He thought a little then shrugged.
The other allowed himself a leer, which, for scientist past fifty, was not a bad job. ‘Maybe she’s in love.’
So, U.S. Robots a great place to work, but look out for the office gossips!
Later, we see her sighing and gazing at Ashe ‘with melting eyes’ and when he starts talking marriage, ‘her heart bounded’. Her subsequent humiliation when it becomes clear that Herbie has lied to her is just as vivid: the room starts spinning and she sees herself with ‘nasty red splotches’ of rouge on her ‘chalk-white face’, and stumbles blindly from the room.
In fairness, her vengeance on Herbie is unforgiving. She faces him down with a classic robot dilemma – to tell each of the rival mathematicians which of them was going to get the plumb job. She harangues and harasses the robot until it’s mind shuts down.
This story was written in 1941 and the death-by-paradox is still a staple of the robot genre. Stuff like that is poison to robots, pure linguistic mind poison! I’m reminded of the consciousness eating mind-parasites in Hannu Rajaniemie’s The Fractal Prince. Both see the mind as a system of information – in Asimov the positronic impressions, in Rajaniemie a more familiar software-based model – that’s susceptible to these kinds of logic infection that can bring it to a halt. It’s an idea we’ll see again soon!