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.

Perhaps to the reader in the 10 to 16 age group – when I first read this and many other sci fi classics – the robots represent the incomprehensible social rules of the world. Donovan and Powell are kind of like eccentric uncles who lead the young reader’s thought processes through a problem. They’re pleasingly rambunctious company with an anti-authoritarian air – they smoke cigarettes and talk about beer, they mock the ‘slide-rule boys’ who think a robot is all theories, blueprints and lab tests and curse in a mild way that might have been titillating in the 40s but sounds a little camp nowadays, the gosh geewhiz nerd-talk of the classic geek: ‘You’re as lucid as Euclid with everything except the facts.’

What Donovan and Powell share with a child, though, is a tenacious rational approach to the world. They want things to make sense and feel great frustrations when they seem unfair or illogical. In fact they throw child-like tantrums and shout at each other in frustration, although that might just be Asimov egging up the conflict in an effort to make Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum a little more interesting.

The problems of the robots themselves all inevitably have a mechanical or electrical – even positronic – origin. It’s finally patience and observation, with a little inspiration that saves the day. Once deduced by Donovan and Powell, the robot’s personality flaws can be fixed through a simple adjustment to one of the circuits in the robot’s positronic brain. This one actually hinges on a rather dubiously extended analogy to climax with an annoying punch-line ending that makes you groan. How we get there, though, is what makes all the difference to this story.

It’s an interesting to contrast the Donovan and Powell stories with another series of robot stories I read at the same time in my life, Ro-Busters in2000AD. They’re pure Asimov: chatty robots with gimmicky names and quirky personalities.

In Robusters, the robots have the child’s-eye view of the world. They’re na├»ve and hopeful, with the same longing for justice as children. The fascistic human state is every mean decision Mum and Dad ever made and Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein’s search for the utopian robot planet is a story of gradual maturing as much as a slave narrative or a speculative fiction exploring artificial intelligence. It’s not really the last one at all, as a matter of fact.

This type of robot was all over 2000AD (and Starlord!) and those early days. The robots in Judge Dredd even had a robot revolution and if you think about the plot of the first run of Robo-Hunter is basically Reason played out on a planetary scale and with a layer of knowing noir wise-cracks. There’s even a character called Cutie, although it was one of Sam Slade’s robot sidekicks if I recall.

I’ve really enjoyed the last three stories. Robbie was a worrying start but these have been as good as I remember them. I was understood they were going to be so far. The details are all so deftly laid out that it just reeks of the future to me, perhaps because of my age!

These three stories aren’t separated by the framing text. I guess we’re expected to assume that Susan Calvin related them to the journalist (who later confirmed the details with Greg Powell, now a grand-father living in New York). At the end of this one, though, we get a short bit of the framing text to introduce the first of the Susan Calvin stories.

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