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Literature / Escape!

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First published as "Paradoxical Escape" in Astounding Science Fiction (August 1945 issue), by Isaac Asimov, this Science Fiction Short Story is set to take place after "Little Lost Robot", featuring Dr. Calvin, but also featuring Greg and Donovan.

U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men has been given the research for hyperspace travel by a competitor, which they immediately identify as a trap. Dr. Calvin, however, has an idea for a way to use the information to help themselves become the first company that develops FTL Travel.

Their supercomputer, called "The Brain", is a positronic machine designed with a personality. This personality will make it more resilient against potential dilemmas. It creates a spaceship, but small signs show that The Brain might be damaged. Naturally, the troubleshooters Donovan and Powell are ordered to take a test flight to ensure the ship is safe. But it isn't safe; they die!

"Escape!" has been reprinted in three other anthologies; I, Robot (1951), The Complete Robot (1982), and Robur 11 (1986).

"Escape!" provides examples of:

  • Artificial Intelligence: Large companies with robotics, such as U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation and their competitors, have designed "super-thinkers". A super-thinker is a robot brain much bigger than normal that is used to brute-force mathematical solutions, much like what we use supercomputers for in Real Life.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic: The prototype hyperspace ship has excessively minimalistic design. The only permanent feature is a meter that displays current distance from Earth. Everything else, such as bathrooms and cabinets, are recessed and only opened by the computer in charge.
  • Brain in a Jar: The Brain, US Robotics' supercomputer, gets its name from the fact that it uses a positronic brain as memory and processor. This brain is stored in a globe containing a non-reactive helium atmosphere, and a number of peripherals are hooked up to the globe.
    The Brain was a two-foot globe merely - one which contained within it a thoroughly conditioned helium atmosphere, a volume of space completely vibration-absent and radiation-free - and within that was that unheard-of complexity of positronic brain-paths that was The Brain. The rest of the room was crowded with the attachments that were the intermediaries between The Brain and the outside world - its voice, its arms, its sense organs.
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Powell and Donovan are dead during their hyperspace jump. But they are perfectly alive afterwards. The positronic computer that built the ship knew this, and even though their death was temporary, breaking the First Law unbalanced the computer, causing it to become a practical joker. The period of their deaths is made... interesting, with an advertisement for Cadaver's Coffins and lines to get into hell.
  • Kissing the Ground: Michael Donovan's first action, after returning to Earth from an interstellar trip orchestrated by a half-mad AI, is to kiss the runway of their landing.
    And then, slowly and purposefully, the one with red hair knelt down and planted upon the concrete of the runway a firm, loud kiss.
  • Literal Genie: The Brain includes certain quirks in the design of the prototype spaceship because it went a little insane. The equipment is all recessed, and only opens under the computer's command. The crew has enough to eat and drink, but only beans and milk for weeks. Earth can contact the ship, but they can't respond. Technically it does everything they ask of it, just not quite the way they wanted/expected.
  • Logic Bomb:
    • US Robots is given a request from their rival, soon after the rival's supercomputer has been turned non-functional. They speculate that the two events are related, and Dr. Calvin points out that their system must have violated the Three Laws of Robotics to have suffered such a serious breakdown. Most likely involving human death.
    • When instructing their supercomputer, US Robotics is careful to weaken the First Law, hoping that the Personality Chip will prevent it from breaking down. They're half right; The Brain continues to work, but it has become more quirky, playing practical jokes with the prototype hyperspace ship.
  • Ludicrous Speed: The robot Brains working on hyperspace travel discover that hyperspace travel causes humans to die (they get better, though), which causes their Three Laws-Compliant brains to go haywire (Consolidated Robots' Brain renders itself into junk, while the US Robotics' one has more personality and develops a mischievous sense of humor). The two characters we see taking the hyperspace jump actually go to Heaven and Hell respectively (somewhat Gilbert and Sullivan-influenced places, due to Author Appeal).
  • One-Word Title: When Dr. Asimov republished "Paradoxical Escape" in I, Robot, he changed the name to simply "Escape!".
  • Personality Chip: US Robotics has a super-thinker robot (essentially a supercomputer) that has a personality of a young child. Dr. Susan Calvin believes that this personality will give their robot more resilience against a Logic Bomb involving the First Law compared to their competitor's emotionless super-thinker. She turns out to be right.
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: There are a number of organizations attempting to create some sort of FTL Travel. Consolidated sends the research they've done to US Robotics after their super-thinker (a robotic supercomputer) crashes. The characters figure out that the math which allows for faster-than-light travel doesn't allow for matter to exist at the same time. For the brief moment of hyperspace, the ship and crew don't exist/are dead. This (temporary) violation of the First Law caused Consolidated's supercomputer to break down and the US Robotics supercomputer to become more quirky, playing practical jokes with the prototype hyperspace ship.
  • Zeerust: The information sent from Consolidated arrives in the form of "about five tons" of paper. Today we'd just send a PDF or equivalent electronic file.