The author of nearly five hundred books in a wide variety of fields and genres, Asimov is renowned for his ground-breaking science fiction and for his ability to popularize or, as he called it, “translate” science for the lay reader. In I, Robot (1950)—a collection of nine short stories linked by key characters and themes—Asimov describes a future society in which human beings and nearly sentient robots coexist. Critics consider it a pivotal work in the development of realistic science fiction literature mainly for its elaboration of Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” as a viable ethical and moral code. I, Robot is also significant for its espousal of the benefits of technology—a rather rare position in the history of science fiction and fantastic literature, which traditionally viewed technology and science as threats to human existence.
Plot and Major Characters
In the nine stories in I, Robot, Dr. Susan Calvin, a robot psychologist, explores the benefits of robots to society and illustrates some of the developmental problems encountered in creating them. The book opens with the presentation of “The Three Laws of Robotics,” the ethical ground-rules for the interaction of human beings and robots. They are: “1—A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2—A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3—A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” In the first story, “Robbie,” the robot is a relatively simple, nonvocal machine designed to be a nursemaid. Gloria Weston, a small child, loves Robbie and enjoys his company, but her mother does not trust the device, even though Mr. Weston considers the robot to be both useful and safe. Eventually, Robbie is instrumental in saving Gloria’s life. In “Runaround,” the robot Speedy—so nicknamed because of its serial number SPD-13—is fitted with a new “positronic” brain and sent to Mercury to explore for minerals and run the Sunside Mine.
While searching for a selenium pool, Speedy begins to act strangely, reciting lines from Gilbert and Sullivan, and causing Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell—robot troubleshooters, astroengineers, and recurring characters in the book—to deal with an apparently drunk robot. In “Reason,” Cutie (QT-1), the robot who runs a solar power-station, has developed a kind of self-reflective con-sciousness and begun to question its own existence. When Donovan and Powell explain to Cutie that they built and assembled “him,” Cutie rejects the idea as preposterous, reasoning that intellectually inferior human beings could not have created a “being” such as “him.” “Liar” introduces Herbie (RB-34), a robot with telepathic capabilities. Herbie’s ability to read minds poses a threat to human dominance, and Dr. Susan Calvin expresses her concern that Herbie and similar robots might start acting on their own volition, outside of human control. “Little Lost Robot” continues to address robotic independence, as it focuses on a robot that refuses to harm a human being, but willingly allows human beings to be harmed, thus circumventing the Three Laws of Robotics.
In “Escape,” a super positronic robot brain, so big it has to be housed in a room rather than an anthropomorphic humanoid body, begins to express personality and emotional characteristics. As the super brain works on the problem of hyperspace travel, it concludes that any human beings attempting it would have to have their lives briefly “suspended,” thus causing death. Donovan and Powell’s safety is jeopardized as the brain attempts to strike a balance between its scientific mission and the First Law of Robotics that requires it to protect human life. In “Evidence,” Stephen Byerley, a politician running for public office, is severely injured in an automobile accident and decides to temporarily replace himself with a robotic likeness.
The robot Stephen Byerley continues the campaign and eventually wins the mayoral election. Soon after, he runs for the presidency of the Federation and is challenged by an opponent who accuses him of being a robot. In a fit of anger Byerley strikes his opponent, ostensibly proving that he is human. Dr. Calvin, however, remains doubtful. The final story, “The Evitable Conflict,” describes a future world organized and run by President Byerley and four robots. Byerley is distressed to learn that errors are occurring in many areas of economic production. He is unable to understand how such sophisticated, purportedly infallible machines can make mistakes. Byerley consults Dr. Calvin who diagnoses the problem as stemming from a broadened interpretation of the First Law.
I, Robot reflects Asimov’s concern for the future of humankind in an increasingly complex technological world. By introducing The Three Laws of Robotics, Asimov emphasizes the need for ethical and moral responsibility in a world of advanced technology. But technology is also represented as a potentially profound benefit to human life, as evidenced in the nursemaid robot in “Robbie,” the mining and exploration robot in “Runaround,” and the four robots that run the economic, political, and social systems of the world Federation in “The Evitable Conflict.” Asimov cautions, however, against allowing technology to get out of control, as seen in “Liar” where Herbie the robot begins to think and act independently. Other themes include the preservation of human freedom in a technologically controlled environment, and an exploration of the Calvinist-Puritan work ethic, portrayed through the “lives” of several robots.
The critical reception of I, Robot has been generally favorable. Most commentators applaud Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, arguing that they give the stories a sense of realism and moral depth. Others praise his skill at linking nine stories together into a novelistic whole. Many critics comment on the innovative ways in which I, Robot opposes the traditional “Frankensteinian” view of technology and science as unholy threats to humanity. Others note his ability to tell an engaging story and his facility for combining elements of the mystery and detective genres with the conventions of science fiction. Although many critics fault Asimov’s predictable characterizations and “naive” sentimentality, most credit his realistic, ethical portrayal of futuristic society in I, Robot as revolutionary in the science fiction genre, changing the way fantastic literature could be conceived and written.