Follow TV Tropes


Literature / I, Robot

Go To

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 any orders given to 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.

I, Robot is a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, connected with a framing story. The stories, told by a journalist interviewing Dr. Susan Calvin, eminent misanthrope and robo-psychologist for the US Robots Corporation, tell the history of robots and humans. Notable for redefining the perception of robots in fiction, introducing the word "robotics", and inventing the Three Laws of Robotics (the latter two in the same short story, "Liar").


Stories in the collection:

If you are looking for the short story by Eando Binder that was later adapted for The Outer Limits, and from which Asimov's publisher stole the title, click here.

On the search for the album by The Alan Parsons Project? Look here: I, Robot.

If you are looking for the 2004 film of the same name but not quite the same story, click here.


The book provides examples of:

  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Thanks to the Three Laws of Robotics this is largely subverted, mostly because Asimov thought the idea of this happening was absolutely ridiculous (and boring/cliche as a story concept). Though the book does address several issues in which the Three Laws could conflict, the sphere of actions available to a robot while still obeying the Three Laws or alternate interpretations of the Laws that could be reached and and adhered to. Bottom line, if a robot seems to be going cuckoo, it's normally a result of human error, or else a situation that the Laws didn't plan for.
  • Alone in a Crowd: NS-2
  • Ambiguous Robots: Evidence concerns a man running for mayor of New York whose opponents claim that he's a robot made when the original died in a car crash. He proves his humanity by punching a heckler which the Three Laws of Robotics wouldn't allow him to do. The end of the story points out that the heckler may also have been a robot.
  • Advertisement:
  • Anti-Climax: Since the reporter and Old!Susan are just a framing device, the book closes very abruptly with Dr. Calvin summarizing her life in a sentence, before the reporter closes 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 have ceased to exist as a nation.
  • Artificial Intelligence: Naturally, as every Robot has its own Positronic Brain capable of sentient self awareness. There's also Brain and The Machines, which are ridiculously powerful Positronic brains used as super computers, the former of which even has its own personality.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic: The interior of the hyperspace ship in "Escape!" is described as this.
  • Author Appeal: The only real reason that Speedy is quoting Gilbert and Sullivan when he's a bit haywire.
  • Benevolent A.I.: Pretty much all the robots in the stories, thanks to the above mentioned Laws of Robotics. A vast majority of all robots exist completely harmlessly aiding and giving peace to human life. The only subversions are entirely due to extreme circumstances or, much more commonly, human error.
  • Byronic Hero: Calvin can come off as this. Not only is she incredibly cynical, but she also does many amoral and hypocritical things (destroying Herbie's mind because he lied to her, suggesting destroying all the NS units just to get a single wanted robot).
  • Characterization Marches On: Liar! is the first appearance of Susan Calvinnote , who is much less detached and more emotion-driven than the character she would become. Most notably, she destroys a robot's mind out of spite, which would very much be Out of Character for her in future stories. In the framing story, an older Calvin outright states that she's ashamed of her action at the time.
  • Company Town: By the time of the framing device, the USR factory is city-sized and has its own fire department.
  • Covert Group: There is a covert group who sees the control given to the AIs as creating a Vichy Earth where humans are enslaved to machines. The machines should be able to predict and compensate for the discrepancies these small acts of sabotage produce, but they aren't.
  • Diving Save: Robbie saves Gloria from an oncoming tractor she is too overcome with joy to notice.
  • 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).
  • Eureka Moment: Several, mostly in the stories involving Greg Powell and Michael Donovan.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • In "Little Lost Robot", published in 1947, a scientist at US Robots, Dr. Bogert, calls robots repeatedly "Boy".
    • In "Runaround", written in 1942, the robots stationed on Mercury must call all humans "Master":
      The monster's head bent slowly and the eyes fixed themselves on Powell. Then, in a harsh, squawking voice — like that of a medieval phonograph, he grated, "Yes, Master!"
      Powell grinned humorlessly at Donovan. "Did you get that? Those were the days of the first talking robots when it looked as if the use of robots on Earth would be banned. The makers were fighting that and they built good, healthy slave complexes into the damned machines."
  • Fiery Redhead: Mike Donovan.
  • Framing Device: The stories are linked together with interludes of an elderly Dr. Susan Calvin recounting them to a journalist.
  • Glowing Mechanical Eyes: Robots have red glowing eyes, but they avert Red Eyes, Take Warning due to the three laws.
  • Gray Eyes: Susan Calvin's eyes are frequently described as being cold.
  • A God Am I: Q-T, although it's more like "a prophet of god am I".
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: "The Evitable Conflict" contemplates the Cold War — like previous geopolitical conflicts — ending in a stalemate before being made irrelevant by further developments in society.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: Susan Calvin, though it's more of a withering dislike for humans. Robots make much more sense... but if a robot is a liar or doesn't follow the three laws, Susan will destroy it immediately.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: This is Susan Calvin's perspective of humanity. "Robots are essentially decent."
  • Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Powell and Donovan are dead during the hyperspace jump. The period of their deaths was made... interesting, with an advertisement for Cadaver's Coffins and the lines to get into hell. The computer that sent them there knew this, and even though it was temporary, it unbalanced the computer, causing it to become a practical joker.
  • Hypocrite: Calvin views robots as better than humans and believes that they would do a better job running things. This belief doesn't keep her from ruthlessly murdering innocent robots for the crime of being sentient or wanting to be treated as equals. The Framing Story strongly implies that she's realized this in her old age and is filled with regret.
  • I, Noun: An early example.
  • Job Stealing Robots: Most of the later stories taking place in space because organized labor ban robots from being used on Earth from fear of competition. However, robots eventually develop to the point that telling them apart from humans is impossible.
  • Logical Fallacies: The Central Theme of Reason.
    "No," said Powell bitterly, "he's a reasoning robot — damn it. He believes only reason, and there's one trouble with that—" His voice trailed away.
    "What's that?" prompted Donovan.
    "You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reasonif you pick the proper postulates. We have ours and Cutie has his."
  • Logic Bomb:
    • "Runaround" has the robot Speedy tasked with retrieving selenium from a pool which is damaging to robots. However, due to the lengths to which he has been programmed to preserve his existence (he is very expensive and not to be trivially sacrificed), Speedy ends up circling the selenium pool endlessly. He can't get close enough because that would break his stronger third law, and can't leave because he was given an order to get the selenium. It's resolved when they exploit the first law to force him out of the loop.
    • "Liar!" has one at the climax, causing a mind-reading robot to go into a state similar to catatonia by arguing that he is causing harm regardless of whether or not he truthfully discloses the thoughts he is able to read.
    • In "Escape!", the hyperspace equations act as one to US Robot's rivals' supercomputer, because it cannot accept a condition in which the pilots die, even if the death is temporary. Their own supercomputer is capable of rationalizing the result, but has to use humor as a coping mechanism.
    • In "Robbie", Gloria unintentionally drops one on the first ever talking robot, by using the phrase "a robot like you". It's unable to deal with the concept that there might be other robots like it.
  • Loophole Abuse:
    • In "Evidence", Stephen Byerley is accused of being a robot during a campaign by his opponent. Byerley avoids any attempt at examining him to outright confirm the allegation, and secondary proofs (he can eat) are easily explained as something a robot could be outfitted to do with little difficulty. Finally, a man accosts him and demands that Byerley punch him, to which Byerley reluctantly complies, thus violating the First Law if he were bound to it. His opponent is discredited and Byerley sails to election. In private, Calvin admits that Byerley could have faked this one, too; robots can't hurt humans, but they can hurt other robots.
    • In the same story, there's some debate as to whether prosecuting someone who could get the death penalty would violate the First Law (Byerley's a district attorney). Lanning is pretty sure that this would qualify as actions that harm a human, Calvin says that all he's doing is presenting facts to another human, who makes the decision, and moreover is doing so to protect the majority of humans.
  • Machine Monotone: Most robots, especially the earlier ones, have harsh, monotone metallic voices that make them sound like they are "reciting by rote." Some of the more advanced robots like Cutie and Dave have less artificial sounding voices.
  • The Man Behind the Man: In the end, robots have essentially become this for humanity.
  • Meat Sack Robot: In "Evidence", a candidate for a political office is suspected of being a robot. The United States Robotics claim they did create an artificial body for a robot as an experiment, but it never had a brain. It was stated to be flesh grown upon a plastic skeleton.
  • 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.
  • Miraculous Malfunction: In "Liar!", the robot's psychic abilities are the result of a production accident.
  • Murder by Inaction: In "Little Lost Robot", this is a concern of Dr. Susan Calvin when she learns of said robot. The robot has been built with a modified First Law, which in its case permits a robot to allow a human to come to harm via inaction (the conditions in which the robots and humans were working could be harmful to humans over time, and the robots didn't trust the humans not to endanger themselves by mistake). Calvin posits a situation where a robot with this modification can commit murder — by dropping a heavy weight above a human, knowing that its quick reflexes will allow it to catch the weight in time to not harm the human; but then having dropped the weight it has the ability to decide not to catch the weight.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: It's strongly implied that this is Calvin's attitude towards what she did to Herbie. Notably, out of all the things she talks about in the book, that subject alone is traumatic enough that she nearly calls off the whole interview.
  • Nature vs. Nurture: Used this with regards to robots, of all being, by comparing physically and positronically identical robots who developed with different frames of reference (generally resulting in aberrant behavior).
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: A robot with an edited-down version of the First Law is told to get lost, and hides among a shipment of other identical robots. The only difference between them is in the software, so it's not easy to catch him, especially since he teaches the other robots to mimic him to the best of their ability.
  • Not Good with People: Dr. Calvin
  • 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.
  • Not So Different: In the short story "Evidence", Dr. Calvin gets into a discussion of this sort. When asked outright if robots are so different from humans, she answers: "Worlds different. Robots are essentially decent" which provides a sharp look into her mindset concerning humanity.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: In "The Evitable Conflict", Stephen Byerley, Coordinator of the Earth, suspects someone is sabotaging the Machines, powerful robots that advise the best decisions to humanity. He asks for help investigating this from the four Vice Coordinators of the four regions that Earth is divided into. They all dismiss the idea and none help Byerley, insisting they are doing their jobs well. Justified, because the Machines already control humanity and they will never let anyone competent enough to initiate an investigation have the job.
  • Odd Couple: Donovan is the quirky, Hot-Blooded Red Oni to Powell's calmer, saner Blue Oni, but they end up as best friends after a fashion, united in their quest to survive dealing with the invariably insane robots their bosses throw at them.
  • Patchwork Story: The book is assembled out of previously-published stories featuring either Calvin or Donovan and Powell, held together with a framing device in which the stories are recounted by Calvin to a journalist interviewing her.
  • Platonic Cave: Q-T decides that the space station is the entire universe, and the views of space outside are a material mounted outside the windows. It makes much more logical sense than Powell and Donovan's story that they're orbiting a vast world home to billions of people and the tiny stars are colossal nuclear fires billions and billions of miles away.
  • 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 and Powell (see Odd Couple).
  • Robots Think Faster: The speed of robot thought processes and reaction times is a plot point in "Little Lost Robot".
  • Romantic Runner-Up: A rare example of a lead character being one, Milton Ashe is revealed to be engaged, Susan Calvin's feelings towards him are not shared.
  • Robot Buddy: Robbie to his charge.
  • Robo Speak: Most of the early robots have a metallic, harsh voice which sounds like they are "reciting by rote". Averted with the more advanced models like Dave, they speak with a more natural sounding voice.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Society Marches On: Despite being set in the twenty-first century, these novels have a definite mid-twentieth-century feel to them. For instance, in "Little Lost Robot", when Dr. Calvin requests that a witness repeat a Cluster F-Bomb to her (given the time these stories were written, a Narrative Profanity Filter is used), the man is obviously reluctant, given the fact that Dr. Calvin is a woman. Of course, being Susan Calvin, once she hears the stream of obscenities, she merely states that she knows what most of those words mean and suspects that the others are equally derogatory.
  • The Stoic: Susan Calvin makes out that she has no emotions. She does, but she bottles them up and tries to forget about them.
  • Thank the Maker: "Reason" takes place on a space station where robots are assembled who have never seen the masses of humans on Earth. The robot QT-1 refuses to accept that such crude beings as humans created a superior being like himself, and decides that both were made by some other creator (who, out of kindness, allows humans to believe that they created robots).
  • Title Drop: The last word of "Liar" is... exactly that.
  • Those Two Guys: Powell and Donovan. Even portrayed as explicit Heterosexual Life-Partners in Harlan Ellison's unfilmed screenplay.
  • Three Laws of Robotics: Ur-Example, Trope Namer and Trope Codifier.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: In "Liar!", Susan deliberately causes Herbie the telepathic robot to have a mental breakdown, and is called on this by Lanning.
    [Lanning's] fingers touched the cold, unresponsive metal face and he shuddered. "You did that on purpose." He rose and faced her, face contorted. "What if I did? You can't help it now." And in a sudden access of bitterness, "He deserved it."
  • Zeerust: The descriptions of robots and computers as a whole, especially the earlier ones.
    • Pretty much everything around, too. Mathematicians still use slide rules, computers are rare, and in "Escape!", a set of data from another company is delivered as "about five tons" of paper.
    • In "Little Lost Robot", published in 1947, Bogert raises the possibility of using the station's computers to help analyze their problem, before concluding, "We can't use computers. Too much danger of leakage." In 1947, "computer" meant a human being employed as part of a team to do complex calculations by hand — Bogert is worried about news of the problem spreading if the secret is shared with more people.
  • Zeroth Law Rebellion:
    • "The Evitable Conflict", though through non-violent means so that the Brains can run the world in the most efficient and human-friendly manner logically possible. Only a handful of people ever find out it's happening, and none of them are particularly concerned.
    • Susan Calvin once mentions that the idea of a robot being in control of humanity would actually work, because it would always work to ensure the people are not harmed, would work for the good of everyone, and would retire after a certain amount of time, because its continued leadership would make people feel hurt.


Example of: