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Literature / Risk

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First published in Astounding Science Fiction (May 1955 issue), by Isaac Asimov, and republished in the October 1955 issue of their UK branch. This Novelette is a Sequel to the events of "Little Lost Robot".

Gerald Black, the etherics engineer responsible for causing the NS-2 model to "get lost" in the previous story, is watching the next stage of hyperspace testing. Hyper Base has developed an expensive prototype spaceship with a built-in hyperdrive, called Parsec, which is expected to travel out to Sirius and return.

When the countdown ends, however, the ship doesn't leave and nobody knows why. Black is selected to board the ship and determine what went wrong and prevent the hyperdrive from activating before they lose their prototype hyperdrive ship.

"Risk" has been republished twice; The Rest of the Robots (1964) and The Complete Robot (1982).

"Risk" contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Dedicated Worker: One of the U.S. Robots is tasked with piloting a prototype hyperspace drive, but when the drive doesn't engage, the robot is stuck in that position. One of the characters believes that even the First Law won't stop its current actions because it is in the middle of completing the order.
  • Accidental Astronaut: Defied by Black. After he enters the Parsec and sees what went wrong, he smashes the ship's computers to make sure the thing won't launch with him (quite unwillingly) in it.
  • Androids Are People, Too: Black is convinced that Dr Calvin believes the preserving robot "lives" is more important than preserving human lives. In reality, she did it because she knows he hates robots and her, and was hoping that his hatred would overcome his fear, making him better at analyzing the situation than a robot could. She explains this to him at the end of the story, a rare case of her demonstrating that robots are inferior to humans in some respect.
    "You're telling me-you're saying you want me to go instead of a robot because I'm more expendable."
    "It comes to that, yes."
  • As You Know: The reporter, Nigel Ronson, describes to Black three people that he already knows, in rather unflattering tones. General Kallner is a military idiot, Dr Calvin is so aloof that she could travel through the sun and come out frozen in ice, and Director Schloss is too egotistical to give a decent answer to his questions. It works to summarize the people if the audience hadn't read "Little Lost Robot".
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: The asteroid orbiting Hyper Base is technically called H937, but everyone on Hyper Base says "it" instead, and eventually the impersonal pronoun achieved the dignity of capitalization.
  • Crew of One: The Parsec, an experimental hyperdrive, is designed to respond to only one control, operated by a positronic robot.
  • Fate Worse than Death: One of the problems with the experimental spacecraft is that any animal that goes through hyperspace loses all higher cognitive functions, sitting in their own waste and refusing to take any action, even eating. Gerald Black, who is chosen to risk this fate, is terrified of it.
  • Flaw Exploitation: After Black has returned from the Parsec, Dr Calvin reveals that she had specifically chosen him because he hated robots, something that had been relevant in the previous story. She was counting on his hatred of being seen as inferior to robots to help him overcome his fear of being rendered a nearly-catatonic idiot as a result of the hyperdrive accidentally activating while he's aboard.
  • FTL Test Blunder: Early tests of Hyper Base's new hyperspace drive reduce the transmitted matter to fine powder. After this issue is resolved it is tested on animals and while the animals are physically unharmed they come back completely mindless and unresponsive. Even worse, when they try a robot-piloted ship, the drive fails to engage at all. A human engineer has to board the ship and identify the malfunction so they can disable the hyperdrive, knowing that at any second the drive could engage and destroy his mind. It turns out that the robot had simply broken the control lever by pulling it too hard.
  • Laser Blade: Black's internal narration mentions a "force knife", implied to be a knife made from force fields, but used to more firmly establish the advanced technology of the setting.
  • Literal-Minded: A robot pilot is set to test a hyperspace drive and is given instructions to "Pull [the control] toward you firmly. Firmly!" until the drive engages. However, the drive doesn't engage, so the robot is stuck in that position and its human operators have to try to get it to stop but it just won't stop pulling because the drive hasn't engaged because the robot pulled back "firmly" with its full strength, damaging the control.
  • The Namesake: This story revolves around risks, the risk of losing all higher cognitive abilities, the risk of losing an expensive experimental spaceship, and the risk of danger to robots. Dr Calvin, coldly analytical robopsychologist of US Robotics, has determined that the risk of losing another robot is too high, and tells Black that he must take the risk instead.
  • New Tech Is Not Cheap: After the Parsec, an experimental hyperdrive ship, doesn't go into hyperspace like it is supposed to, the people in charge quickly grow worried, as the ship itself was very expensive to construct and losing it might mean the cancellation of the entire project for more profitable research.
    Susan Calvin nodded. "The situation then is that if the ship disappears, as it may do at any moment, a few billion dollars of the taxpayers' money may be irretrievably gone, and-it will be said-through bungling."
  • One-Word Title
  • Pressure-Sensitive Interface: Subverted. An experimental hyperdrive fails to work because the robot at the controls, having been ordered to pull the activation lever "firmly", pulls it so hard that it bends out of shape.
  • Subspace or Hyperspace: Hyper Base continues its experiments from "Little Lost Robot", having advanced to sending small animals and now building ships that are capable of travelling through hyperspace. The only negative? The creatures return completely mindless and Hyper Base has no understanding of why.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: While Dr Asimov's robots are important in this story, the main character tries to imagine what Dr Calvin's "Three Laws" might be as she is often compared to the robots that she represents. It demonstrates how he is stewing in his hatred of her.
    What were her three laws, he wondered. First Law: Thou shalt protect the robot with all thy might and all thy heart and all thy soul. Second Law: Thou shalt hold the interests of U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation holy provided it interfereth not with the First Law. Third Law: Thou shalt give passing consideration to a human being provided it interfereth not with the First and Second laws.
    Had she ever been young, he wondered savagely? Had she ever felt one honest emotion?
  • Tinman Typist: It turns out that the reason why the ship didn't launch is because the robot pilot pulled too hard on the starter lever and bent it.
  • Written-In Absence: Schloss had been out on sick leave during the events of "Little Lost Robot", which is why he was not present in that story.