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.’

The opening scene lays the problem out through a great bit of dialogue between an exasperated Greg Powell with an infuriatingly obtuse robot. QT-1 – or ‘Cutie’, as it’s lamely named – doesn’t believe that Earth and space exist or that the engineers made him. Powell goes to great lengths to explain the process that led to Cutie being assembled and activated. Cutie responds, ‘Do you expect me to believe any such complicated, implausible hypothesis as you have just outlined? What do you take for?’

This scene does a lot of work: it directly introduces the central problem, explains the setting and establishes Cutie’s rather eccentric and not especially robot like behaviour. The story’s very economical in this way: Asimov concentrates everything on the robot’s mania, leaving subtleties of character and textual nuance aside. He’s found a new and interesting problem and figured out an amusing scenario and focuses on delivering that.

I’m looking hard to see if I can discover individual characteristics between Donovan and Powell, but it’s hard to spot anything. They tend to respond to problems in the same and speak indistinguishably. And of course, they’re both over-shadowed by Cutie, who’s amusingly full of regal scorn for the foolish humans and their silly notions.

The lack of character in the supposed protagonists isn’t a problem at all, though, in fact it’s a feature. This is high-octane SF with all the unnecessary impurities taken out and it’s hugely enjoyable.

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