1940, 1941, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1950, Books, Fiction

I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov

I read the first four stories and stopped. This is absolutely not my thing in any way.

I didn’t know the term “fixup.” A fixup is, apparently, a bunch of previously published short stories assembled into a larger narrative. I think, in my life, I have only ever encountered one equivalent “novel” and that’s Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. The thing about Haunted, as far as I know, is that he planned to do what he did. But with a fixup, it is done after the fact, meaning that some completely new narrative is imposed on top of the existing short stories.

And I don’t think it works for me. I was reading this book trying to understand how the introduction had anything at all to do with the first story – beyond the extremely tangential moment in the museum – and then I got to the second story and was just as bewildered. I looked it up and found out that it wasn’t a novel.

I thought it was a novel because, years ago, I saw the movie that is, it turns out, barely if at all based on this book, but takes its name. (My copy of this book has Will Smith on the cover.) I think it’s extremely strange that Asimov’s estate allowed this but that is another story. The important thing is that, as far as I can tell, the whole dystopian thing is not at all what’s going on here. Quite the opposite in the first four stories.

Once Donovan and Powell, the heroes of the second through fourth stories, are introduced, a theme emerges. But first: Donovan and Powell are bizarre characters, like a bad buddy comedy duo. Powell is almost always way, way smarter than Donovan, and they bicker endlessly with Powell almost always coming up with the solution and belittling Donovan, and Donovan sarcastically (I hope) telling Powell he’s smart. This is basically all I know about them. Their routine is weird (do people actually talk like this?), annoying and seems to exist solely to drive the plots forward. (While I’m complaining about his bad characters. The married couple in the first story feel extremely old-fashioned. Though they might also be satirical. It’s possible they are just a mean satire of some people he knew.)

In the Donovan and Powell stories, Asimov is trying to say that robots will be great but they will pose issues for us humans. The main issue with no be, like, AGI or something like that, but will rather be bizarre behaviour that is only solvable like a cryptic crossword. Asimov claims the solutions are logical but, of course, we the audience don’t know enough about the world these characters live in so, at least to me, the solutions appeared more cryptic. There’s no much drama in this, to me. And, after the first one (i.e. the second story), very little suspense given that they follow the same formula. It is primarily this formula which is the reason I gave up.

However, the “Reason” story is another. Only an American could write a story arguing that arguing that Christianity (in this case, a very poorly disguised Christianity) would be a logical outgrowth of a priori reasoning by a robot. (That’s not true. I’m sure there are plenty of other Christian-raised writers who might conceive of this, but it sure feels very American to me, right now.) I don’t know if I would have bought this in the 1940s but now it strikes me as rather hilarious and preposterous.

I understand that Asimov is one of the greats in the early history of science fiction. It’s possible that I would appreciate his novels more than these short stories but I don’t think I’m going to find out. I have learned long ago that early work in a genre isn’t always great decades or centuries later. (Though I had to relearn it, apparently!) I think I’d just prefer science fiction that’s made with a little more awareness of modern technology (they are still using paper!!!) and with better characters. I know I prefer HG Wells and I suspect that’s because I believe Wells is a better writer, even if he’s far less pioneering on the tech side.

Anyway, I really didn’t want to continue so I gave up. If there’s some other novel of his that isn’t a fixup that I should try, let me know.

“Robbie”

Maybe it’s on purpose but I found the parents in this particularly grating. Is it satire? Perhaps. But these people reek of the 1930s and 1940s and they feel like they are cliches.

“Runaround”

In the ’40s, did they not know that Mercury rotated? Am I missing something?

“Reason”

It is so very weird to me – and so unbelievably American, in my mind – to think that a robot would somehow get to god from a priori reasoning. I think it’s just fantastical. Also, I think the end is kind of awful unless we’re supposed to not like Powell and think “Well, this is exactly why this happens, because nobody in this company communicates with anyone else.”

“Catch that Rabbit”

Feels like a bit of a retread of “Runaround.”

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