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Literature / I, Robot

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To you, a robot is a robot. Gears and metal; electricity and positrons. Mind and iron! Human-made! If necessary, human-destroyed! But you haven't worked with them, so you don't know them. They're a cleaner better breed than we are.
Dr Susan Calvin

First published in 1950 by Dr Asimov with Gnome Press, this collection was edited into a complete Novel by adding a Framing Device of a journalist interviewing Dr Susan Calvin. Together, they tell the history of robots and humans. This volume reprints several stories that were notable for redefining the perception of robots in fiction, introducing the word "robotics", and inventing the Three Laws of Robotics. The stories are essentially a Genre Deconstruction of A.I. Is a Crapshoot, exploring the specific faults in logical reasoning which may cause a robot to conclude that it must behave erratically.

Stories in this collection:

If you are looking for the 1939 short story by Eando Binder from which Asimov's publisher stole the title, click here.

If you are looking for the first arcade video game to use solid 3D rendered raster graphics, created by Atari in 1984, click here.

This book has been continuously in print since it was first published, and has been included in multiple Omnibuses. It has inspired several adaptations/homages, such as The Alan Parsons Project's 1977 album, the 1978 movie screenplay that was published in 1994, the 2004 movie starring Will Smith, and the 2005 short story by Cory Doctorow.

I, Robot provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: The Framing Device is set many years after the stories being told by Dr Calvin. The world is ruled by a single planetary government, robots/machines are used for nearly everything, and humanity has colonized parts of the solar system. By inference, we can tell the introduction begins in 2058 AD.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Deconstructed. Isaac Asimov felt it was absolutely ridiculous (and boring/cliche as a story concept) for robots/machines to behave in ways not covered by their programming, so he created the Three Laws of Robotics as a guiding principle. Each story explores ways in which the Three Laws could conflict and cause the robots to not behave as intended, but the sphere of actions available to a robot always remains restricted to obeying the Three Laws or alternate interpretations of the Laws. Bottom line, robots don't go cuckoo for seemingly no reason; they go cuckoo explicitly as a result of a human error in logical reasoning, which the protagonists have to figure out.
  • Androids Are People, Too: Dr Calvin, a misanthrope who only cares for her robots, is used to humanize the robot characters. Other characters directly compare her to them, marking her as emotionless and dedicated as any robot. Despite this, we are made to sympathize with her view, and see her care deeply for several of the models, being tricked into romantic love and choosing to become a mother figure.
    • Dr Calvin makes an argument for both her misanthropy and her love of robots using the Three Laws: because of the Three Laws, she argues that a cruel human being can only be a human being, whereas a kind, pacifistic, generous person can either be one of the very best of human beings, or a very advanced robot. The story "Evidence" is all about this argument over whether a prospective mayor is a robot or a man.
  • Anti-Climax: The Framing Device featuring the reporter and Dr Calvin ends very abruptly after the last story, "The Evitable Conflict", ending with the reporter stating that she died recently.
  • Artifact Title: In-universe, USR still calls itself "United States Robotics" long after the world's governments have been unified and the United States has ceased to exist as a nation.
  • As You Know: The viewpoint narrator of the Framing Device often reviews information or prompts Dr Calvin to share colloquial knowledge. This helps the audience know background information, and is justified by the viewpoint character being a reporter who plans on writing the interview for public consumption.
  • Asimov's Three Kinds of Science Fiction: The Three Laws of Robotics are the invention in question — the series start detailing how the Laws are invented as well as their kinks, then move on to some adventure stories relying on the Laws, and end up with social science fiction about the impact of Three Laws-compliant AI on society, setting up Asimov's Robot novels.
  • Ban on A.I.: Between retelling the events of "Robbie" and "Runaround", Dr Calvin mentions that Earth-based robots (for purposes other than scientific research) were banned by most governments during the years of 2003-2007.
  • Boxed Set: Isaac Asimov: Five Books by the Master of Science Fiction contains five books, all published by Fawcett Crest; I, Robot, The Gods Themselves, The Caves of Steel, The Martian Way And Other Stories, and Earth is Room Enough.
  • Byronic Hero: Dr Calvin is incredibly cynical and takes several amoral and hypocritical actions (destroying Herbie's mind because he lied to her, suggesting they destroy an entire shipment of NS units just to get a single wanted robot).
  • Cassette Craze: Justified Trope because the viewpoint character is a journalist that planned ahead of time to interview Dr Calvin. They use a pocket recorder to ensure accuracy in recordkeeping.
  • Characterization Marches On: "Liar! (1941)" is the first appearance of Susan Calvinnote , and is more emotionally-driven than the Ice Queen she would become. Her motivation for destroying Herbie is spite, unlike her pragmatic decision in "Robot Dreams".
  • Company Town: By the time of the framing device, the USR factory is city-sized and has its own fire department.
  • Dedication: This collection is dedicated to John W. Campbell, and recognized as the "godfather" of the robots.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Humans calling robots "Boy", Robots calling human "Masters" and then "Sir", a human cannot find a robot because all robots look alike, humans protesting about robots that could have the same rights as humans, a sleazy politician who cannot care less about civil rights discredits his opponent with malicious slander about him being a robot... this is a satire about American racial relations. On top of all that, Asimov has stated in a separate essay about the history of robots in fiction that the origins of the word "robot" essentially translate to "slave" (for more on this, see the page for R.U.R., the work that originated the word).
  • Fictional Document: During the introduction, the narrator/journalist mentions the Encyclopedia Tellurica as a resource.
  • Framing Device: The stories in this collection are linked together with interludes of a young journalist interviewing an elderly Dr Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Dr Susan Calvin has a withering dislike for all humans because they fail to live up to her ideals of positronic robots. Robots make much more sense... although she does not hesitate to destroy any robot that lacks/breaks the Laws of Robotics.
  • Human-Interest Story: The reporter whose point of view we follow in the Framing Device is trying to write an article about the famous Dr Susan Calvin because she's retiring from U. S. Robots, after having worked there as Chief robopsychologist for fifty years.
    "Human interest out of robots? A contradiction."
    "No, doctor. Out of you."
    "Well, I've been called a robot myself. Surely, they've told you I'm not human."
  • Icy Gray Eyes: Susan Calvin's gray eyes are frequently described as being cold.
  • I, Noun: A collection of Artificial Intelligence stories. The title was stolen from one of the Adam Link stories by Eando Binder.
  • Iron Lady: Dr Susan Calvin is portrayed as distant and dispassionate from the very start of the book. In the introduction, her "masklike expression and a hypertrophy of intellect" contrast against the "hectic discussion" of a panel about next-generation robots. Dr Calvin's personality is consistently described with cold analogies, keeping her emotions under tight control.
  • Irony: In "The Evitable Conflict", Stephen Byerley is horrified by the idea that the Machines are running the world, and Susan Calvin has to point out the advantages to this. The last time Dr Calvin expressed similar opinons was in "Evidence" when Byerley himself was suspected of being a robot ... and now that he's World Co-Ordinator, she's still not sure he isn't.
  • Loophole Abuse: In the story "Little Lost Robot" notes that the ".. or through inaction.." clause of the Three Laws was added prevent a different Loophole Abuse, where a robot could push a heavy box onto a human from above if it knew itself to be capable of later preventing it hitting the human - arguing that the action of pushing therefore had no certainty of causing harm - but then not actually save the human, since their compliance with the law was fully satisfied by pushing the box. The clause was problematic, as it resulted in robots spontaneously grabbing humans and pulling them out of even regular X-ray machines, since the robot could not be certain how long the human would be exposed for and even a short-duration exposure causes some amount of "harm", even though it is insignificant if managed correctly.
  • Messy Hair: Donovan's hair always springs back to the same unruly state he does to it, so he just doesn't bother. Anyway, he has bigger problems when we see him.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The viewpoint character of the Framing Device is a journalist interviewing Dr Susan Calvin.
  • Nature Versus Nurture: Used this with regards to robots, of all beings, by comparing physically and positronically identical robots who developed with different frames of reference (generally resulting in aberrant behavior).
  • No Name Given: The unnamed reporter who acts as our viewpoint character for the Framing Device never shares their name (to the audience) while interviewing Dr Calvin. The closest she gets to directly addressing them is saying "young man".
  • Not So Above It All: Despite her misanthropy and stoic veneer, the one time Dr Calvin loses her cool, particularly with a robot, is when the telepathic Herbie falsely tells her that a man returns her affections.
  • Odd Couple: Donovan is the quirky, Hot-Blooded Red Oni to Powell's calmer, saner Blue Oni, but they work well together, united in their quest to survive dealing with the invariably insane robots their bosses throw at them.
  • Omnibus: Great Science Fiction Stories, published by St Michaels Press, collects four Science Fiction novels; 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Demolished Man, The Day of the Triffids, and I, Robot.
  • Patchwork Story: This novel begins with a Framing Device of having a journalist interview Dr Susan Calvin. The stories that Dr Calvin tells the journalist are all previously published works featuring positronic robots. Many of them have been tweaked for their inclusion in this collection, adding scenes and fixing timelines.
  • Planet Terra: The (fictional) encyclopedia resource mentioned in the introduction is named Encyclopedia Tellurica, making it a set of books about the Earth.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: The stories featuring Powell and Donovan tend to always be the most comedic, with the fellas typically subjected to The Chew Toy slapstick treatment bordering on Cosmic Plaything.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Donovan is the quirky, Hot-Blooded Red Oni to Powell's calmer, saner Blue Oni, but they work well together, united in their quest to survive dealing with the invariably insane robots their bosses throw at them.
  • Series Continuity Error:
    • "Little Lost Robot", which, according to Dr Calvin's narrative, is set in 2029, references a World Coordinator; however, in "Evidence", Dr Calvin states that the first World Coordinator was elected in 2044.
    • In "The Evitable Conflict", set in 2052, when Dr Calvin is seventy, Bogert is said to be dead; however, in "Feminine Intuition", when Dr Calvin is nearly eighty, Bogert is very much alive.
  • Spell My Name With An S: The Digit Books cover from 1958 publishes the author name as "Issac Asimov".
  • The Stoic: Susan Calvin makes out that she has no emotions. She does, but she bottles them up and tries to forget about them.
  • Tagline:
    • "MAN-MADE MACHINES RULE THE WORLD! Fascinating Tales of a Strange Tomorrow" — Signet cover, 1957
    • "Stories of Science Fiction" — Grayson And Grayson cover, 1952
    • "The Day of the Mechanical Men— PROPHETIC GLIMPSES OF A STRANGE AND THREATENING TOMORROW" — Signet cover, 1961
    • "Fascinating Tales from Beyond Tomorrow by the Master of Science Fiction" — Fawcett Crest, 1970
    • "Over 1 million copies in print" — Del Rey, 1983
  • Those Two Guys: Powell and Donovan. Even portrayed as explicit Heterosexual Life-Partners in Harlan Ellison's unfilmed screenplay.
  • The Un-Reveal: Though it's hinted Stephen Byerley may actually be a robot, the book never definitely says so. Even in death, he avoided any proofs one way or the other. Calvin doesn't care either way; as she sees it, him being a robot would only mean he'd do his job to the best of his ability, as much as could be asked of any human.
  • Unobtainium: Positronic central processing units are made from a "the spongy globe of plantinumiridium about the size of a human brain". These "positronic brains" are used, in conjunction with the Three Laws of Robotics, as plot devices to create the Puzzle Thriller stories.
  • The Watson: The Framing Device is written from the perspective of a reporter who is interviewing Dr Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist. It is at their prompting that Dr Calvin tells the stories and drops Exposition about the world of the future.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The book heavily examines this. Though robots are treated as tools by humans, there are increasingly strong hints that they're developing sentience. The corporations that produce robots have people like Calvin deal with supposed glitches and malfunctions, many of which are obviously not flaws in the robot's programming but rather hints of dissent or desire to be treated equally, making it more akin to a dictator quietly murdering people who oppose them. Susan Calvin is even described as a robot psychologist, instead of a programmer or technician, indicating that the designers of robots at least have some indication how complex their creations truly are, even if they are still vastly underestimating them. Ironically, by the end the robots are ultimately the ones running things from behind the scenes.