Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Robots are cool

I do love a good robot. I was a fan of Johnny Five as a kid, adored Wall-E the second I saw him and have decided I want Echo as my new best friend. The ones in the film version of I, Robot weren't really on my list though I do love Sonny but that could be because Alan Tudyk is one of my favorite people ever.

I have, unfortunately, never read the books that inspired the movie until now. My dad apparently missed these for me in his reading assignments when I was a kid which is a bummer because I can guarantee I liked this book better than Have Space Suit, Will Travel. I, Robot, is according to my dad, a compilation of short stories Asimov published in science fiction magazines in the 1950s and 1960s as he developed the three laws of robotics for the trilogy they would eventually star in. The short stories are threaded together as memories that Gloria Calvin, lauded robopsychologist, is sharing as part of a press interview on her retirement from U.S. Robots. They track the earliest developments in robotics as the machines grew and came across dilemmas with the Three Laws and their functions.

I actually had the movie tie-in cover but
this is cooler.
To start with, if you have seen the movie, this is not the corresponding book. That is the second book in the trilogy, The Naked Sun, which has most of the basic plot line from the movie. Which, in Hollywood's defense, is an awful title for a robot movie so I can see why they stole the entire series's title. I would catch a few things here and there that ended up in the movie from these short stories (the character of Gloria Calvin, the story where a robot hides among other robots, the idea of a great machine doing things that protect humanity but takes away their rights) but for the most part, these were entirely new stories based around the Three Laws.

I like Asimov's writing style though he can be over my head. A lot of his writing is technical; he is trying to rationally explain science in a fictional context where it may or may not actually be possible in the real world. That said, with the Robot series, over what I saw in the Foundation trilogy, there is a lot more psychology than science. This is of course because the main question is when is a robot more like a human? When is a robot actually a better version of a human? Is there a way to actually tell the difference between them at that point? Lots of cool questions and I loved all the different dilemmas that came up in these stories to explore them.

The secondary characters of Mike Donovan and Greg Powell, who were technicians on the front lines of testing new robots, were funny and often in the weirdest situations: one robot decided he was a Prophet for the machine, another ended up in a dilemma loop which meant he was a drunk robot, yet another time they were the butt of a robot's practical joke as it dealt with a dilemma with the Laws. These were easy to like characters that got at the problem in the story, less so the science which made the science in turn, approachable. A dilemma with one of the Laws is essentially a logic problem and I don't know about you, but that was not my strong suit in math class. However, through these two laymen type characters, I was able to follow and enjoy and try to puzzle out the problem along with them. I did like the stories where Gloria Calvin was also the main person struggling with the robots to figure out the dilemma but the character herself was much more contained and Asimov used that to hold back information, making it harder to puzzle alongside her. She's pretty prickly in general so it's actually a neat way to use the character as a tone for the storytelling.

I liked these stories, I liked being able to explore the Three Laws more and also look into the world that helped develop them. The movie has its place (I like it though I know it was not as popular as hoped) but I always like checking out the origin stories. Gives you a different way to look at a world and a a story you thought you knew.

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