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Literature / Liar! (1941)

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A Science Fiction Short Story first published in Astounding Science Fiction (May 1941 issue), by Isaac Asimov. In 1977, it was edited by Rosemary Border into a chapter book for people learning English as a second language. This story features a lovestruck Susan Calvin, and how a robot's efforts to avoid injuring a human broke her heart.

Director Alfred Lanning meets with department heads Ashe, Bogart, and Calvin to discuss what needs to be done with RB-34, also known as Herbie. Something must have gone wrong with the production because Herbie has Telepathy. Milton Ashe is assigned the job of inspecting the entire assembly line for imperfections that may have caused the unusual ability. Dr Calvin is assigned to work with the robot directly, learning the extent of its abilities. Peter Bogert will double-check the mathematics behind the positronic brain design for RB-34, while Director Lanning works with him and coordinates the whole thing.

Dr Calvin goes to speak with Herbie first, learning that her crush on Ashe is reciprocated. Dr Bogert goes in turn, asking Herbie if Director Lanning is planning on retiring, whereupon he reveals that Director Lanning has already given Dr Bogert the position and is merely waiting until they solve the problem of Herbie before making it official. Full of confidence, Dr Bogert challenges Director Lanning on part of the mathematics they're working on. Angry with each other, they both go to Herbie.

Meanwhile, Ashe and Dr Calvin have been chatting, and he casually mentions getting married. Flustered and embarrassed, she runs off to Herbie. He tries to convince her that Ashe's engagement is a nightmare and she'll wake up from it soon. Partway through, she realizes what's happening and snaps out of it, just in time for Director Lanning and Dr Bogert to barge into the room and start yelling at Herbie. Dr Calvin observes the argument and starts laughing hysterically. She realized that Herbie has been lying, to all of them, because of the First Law of Robotics. Herbie can tell when egos are bruised or people feel fear and jealousy just like other robots can tell when skin is bruised or limbs are torn apart.

"Liar!" was adapted into episodes of Exploring Tomorrow (1958), Out of the Unknown (1969), the Soviet series This Fantastic World (1987) and by BBC Radio 4's 15 Minute Drama (the 2017 five-part story Isaac Asimov's I, Robot). This story has also been reprinted over a dozen times, and Dr Asimov would include it in four of his collections; I, Robot (1950), Meine Freunde Die Roboter (1982), The Complete Robot (1982), and Robot Visions (1990).

Other books titled Liar can be found here.

"Liar!" provides examples of:

  • Affectionate Nickname: The RB model robots are called "Herbie" as a nickname.
  • Fictional Document: The first few books Dr Calvin gives Herbie are textbooks such as Theory of Hyperatomics. After telling her that he prefers fiction, she starts giving him books like Purple Passion and Love in Space.
  • Finale Title Drop: The last word of "Liar!" is... exactly that. Dr Calvin uses it as an invective against the robot for trying to drive her crazy.
  • Funetik Aksent: Several slurred words appear, minor examples of dialogue spelling being modified to demonstrate character speech.
    "B' seein' ye!"
  • Gaslighting: Herbie attempts to convince Dr Calvin that she's having a nightmare, but when she wakes up, Milton Ashe will be in love with her and everything will be just perfect.
  • Hates Everyone Equally: This story is the first appearance of Dr Susan Calvin, and while she fears being perceived as cold, she demonstrates lovesickness, embarrassment, joy, longing, nervousness... in fact, it could be this encounter is what solidifies her dislike of her fellow man and belief that robots are tools, not people.
  • I Didn't Tell You Because You'd Be Unhappy: Played with by Herbie, a robot who can read minds. The robot promptly begins lying to everyone because the First Law prohibits harm to humans, which means he can't hurt their feelings by telling them an unpleasant truth. To Dr Susan Calvin, he justifies every romantic fantasy she's about a co-worker for weeks on end. When she finds out he's been lying, she induces a Logic Bomb on the robot as punishment, effectively killing him.
  • Intro Dump: The story opens with Director Lanning in a meeting with Ashe, Bogart, and Calvin to discuss what needs to be done with the malfunctioning robot, RB-34. Main characters and primary conflict all at once.
  • Logic Bomb: Dr Calvin and others confront the telepathic robot over the lies it's been telling. Director Lanning wants to know what part of the assembly accidentally created robotic telepathy and she forces the robot to realize that telling the Director will harm him (because it would prove a robot figured out what he couldn't) and refusing to tell hurts him (because the answer was being withheld from him). Her repeated contradictions build and the robot freezes up, becoming useless.
    "I confronted him with the insoluble dilemma, and he broke down. You can scrap him now-because he'll never speak again." — Dr Susan Calvin, robopsychologist
  • Miraculous Malfunction: Herbie's ability to read minds are the result of a production accident. Nobody could figure out how it happened; Herbie knew but couldn't tell because telling would hurt the ego of human engineers to know that a robot knew something they didn't.
  • My Sensors Indicate You Want to Tap That: The mind-reading robot, Herbie can tell that Dr Calvin is in love with a co-worker. He tells her that he doesn't understand how love works, and asks her to bring him romance novels to try and get some education on the subject.
  • One-Word Title
  • Relative Error: Herbie, a telepathic robot, tells Dr Calvin that the man she's attracted to isn't dating. In fact, The 'other woman' that she had seen was a first cousin, and not his girlfriend. Subverted, as he is planning on marrying her soon after solving the problem of telepathic robots.
  • Telepathy: RB-34, due to some accident in the production line, is capable of reading thoughts from nearby characters. Since he cannot transmit thoughts, he verbalizes his response.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: After Dr Calvin deliberately causes the telepathic robot to have a mental breakdown, she 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."
  • You Are Number 6: The story focuses on the thirty-fourth RB unit, also known as Herbie.