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Literature / Robbie

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First published in Super Science Stories (September 1940 issue), by Isaac Asimov, under the name "Strange Playfellow". This is a Science Fiction Short Story about a girl and her Robot Buddy. It was nominated and won the 1941 Retro Hugo Award for short stories in 2016. "Homo Sol" and "Nightfall (1941)" were also nominated, but didn't win.

When our story begins, Gloria and Robbie are playing games, behaving like any other pair of eight-year-old children. Gloria is partway through "Cinderella" (with her own embellishments) when they finally hear Gloria's mother, Mrs Grace Weston, calling them in for dinner. Gloria's mother is dismissive of Robbie, threatening to have Robbie taken away if Gloria tries to keep him at the dinner table. It's quickly revealed through conversation with her husband, Mr George Weston, that she wants to get rid of the robot because of the shift in popular culture against them.

Mr Weston doesn't see a need to bow to popular opinion, and disagrees with his wife, insisting that Robbie be kept as Gloria's nursemaid. But the narration tells us that she tries again and again. Each time, Mr Weston's disagreement grows weaker and weaker, until Mrs Weston gets her way. They arrange to take Gloria out to a movie while Robbie is taken from their home and a dog brought in as a replacement.

Gloria is immediately upset, and she's told a fiction about Robbie leaving on his own, rather than the truth about Mr Weston arranging for him to be picked up by the manufacturing company. For weeks afterwards, Gloria remains depressed, trying to find Robbie around every corner and under every rock. She's only happy when her parents tell her that they plan to move to New York. Mrs Weston figures new surroundings will help change Gloria's focus. Gloria reveals that she knows her parents are secretly moving to help find Robbie with the larger resources.

"Robbie" has been adapted by BBC Radio 4's 15 Minute Drama (an episode of the five-part story Isaac Asimov's I, Robot). This story has been reprinted over a dozen times, and Dr Asimov would include it in several of his collections: I, Robot (1950), Le Livre Des Robots (1967), Opus 100 (1969), Meine Freunde Die Roboter (1982), The Complete Robot (1982), The Asimov Chronicles Fifty Years Of Isaac Asimov (1989), and Robot Visions (1990).

"Robbie" provides examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Originally published in 1940, this story would take place in 1982; when people had robot nursemaids, visivox, and trips to the stratosphere.
  • Ban on A.I.: In Dr Asimov's I, Robot collection, this story has been modified to include an Exposition about robots being outlawed on Earth during the first decade of the 21st century, though it's okay to use them offworld. The usual stated reason is public fear of technological unemployment, though it's implied that it's also partly because the development of talking robots put them into the Uncanny Valley invoked and freaked people out.
  • A Boy and His X: Gloria has had her Robot Buddy "Robbie" for three years before the start of this story. Her mother, worried about what the neighbors have been saying, wants to get rid of the robot. Gloria is, of course, devastated by her loss. She never stops looking for where Robbie might have gone, checking every robot she comes across, and even checking factory robots.
  • Diving Save: Robbie saves Gloria from an oncoming tractor that is going to run her over because she is too overcome with joy at finding him to notice.
  • Dramatic Irony: The audience is shown the Westons deciding to move to New York City without Gloria's input. Mrs Weston notices Gloria is back to her cheerful self, and is very proud of her idea until Gloria reveals that she knows her parents are moving to the city to use detectives in finding Robbie.
  • Featureless Plane of Disembodied Dialogue: Characters have little-to-no description and their description is never reinforced later in the story. The setting gets no description, either, except for signs pointing Gloria towards the talking robot.
  • Glowing Mechanical Eyes: Robbie is described with red glowing eyes, which disturbs Mrs Weston, but Gloria finds reassuring because of their expressiveness. Mr Weston reminds his wife that Robbie wants to keep Gloria safe, too, because he's a machine that was made to care for her and couldn't harm her no matter what.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: Out of the three main characters, the only one to call Robbie "it" instead of him/he is Grace Weston, because she sees it as a source of danger rather than a person.
  • I Owe You My Life: Played With because Robbie saved Gloria, who didn't even notice she was in danger. Her mother, Mrs Weston, had noticed, and because Robbie saved Gloria by grabbing her out of danger, she finally acknowledges that he is safe. To repay the debt, Robbie is allowed to rejoin the house as Gloria's nursemaid.
  • Logic Bomb: When Gloria visits the first-ever talking robot, she unintentionally creates a paradox for it by using the phrase "a robot like you". It's unable to deal with the concept that there is a category of "robot", which it might be a subset of.
  • Mocking Sing-Song: After Robbie lets Gloria win a game, she begins taunting him, mocking him for being slower than her. Robbie playfully turns the tables on her without speaking.
  • Morality Chip: This story predates Dr Asimov's development of Three Laws-Compliant, so rather than directly mentioning them, he merely alludes to something in Robbie's programming that makes him safe for humans, especially Gloria.
  • Parlor Games: Gloria and Robbie are playing hide-and-seek at the start of the story, switching to a piggyback ride (in I, Robot, this turns into a Cowboys and Indians type roleplay) once Gloria doesn't want to lose any more, implying that they play many children's games together.
  • Orwellian Retcon: This story was originally published under the title "Strange Playfellow", but when Dr Asimov republished it for I, Robot, he changed it back to his Working Title and nearly doubled the word count by expanding the story (adding things like a young Susan Calvin cameo and replacing the Finmark Robot Corporation with US Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation). Most Anthology books that contain this story use this updated version, but Isaac Asimov Presents: Great Science Fiction Stories of 1940 faithfully republishes the original text.
  • Raised by Robots: The central conflict is Gloria's mother trying to eliminate Robbie, Gloria's mute Robot Buddy, for fear of her daughter coming out strange due to his influence. Gloria, on the other hand, wants to keep her best friend around, and is depressed/listless without him.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Mrs Weston is disturbed by Robbie's Glowing Mechanical Eyes, but Gloria and Mr Weston disagree with her assessment.
  • Robot Buddy: Robbie is a machine that was made to be a nursemaid, and he has been with Gloria for years by the start of the story. Gloria's mother takes the fact that Gloria prefers spending time with Robbie over other humans as evidence that Robbie is detrimental to her child. Even years after their separation, the two run into each other's arms when they meet again. Robbie technically does it because otherwise Gloria would've died, but the narration still indicates that he's happy to be reunited with her.
  • Shout-Out:
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Gloria evaluates Robbie as a person, even human, and ascribes a number of emotions to him. Her mother, Mrs Weston, has a nameless dread of the robot and wants it gone. In the I, Robot version she's been listening to some of the neighbors, and popular opinion has turned against robots, so she wants to get rid of it.

Alternative Title(s): Strange Playfellow