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Literature / Runaround

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"A robot must react to orders, but must, on the other hand, have sense enough to disobey if the order would destroy it. But that can lead to a most embarrassing sort of situation, when a robot gives its owners a handsome runaround!"

First published in Astounding Science Fiction (March 1942 issue) by Isaac Asimov, this Novelette is about a robot that seems to have gone insane.

Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, from United States Robot & Mechanical Men Corporation, were sent to Mercury to evaluate the possibility of reopening the Sunside Mercury Mining operation. The mining operation had been shut down due to bad luck before, and now Powell and Donovan were encountering another bit of bad luck; their only robot was sent to retrieve selenium, and they'll die if it doesn't return.

Observing SPD 13 (Speedy) tells them that the robot is circling the nearest pool of selenium, but they don't know why. So Powell proposes that they reactivate the robots from the first expedition and send one of them to help Speedy. They refuse to move unless accompanied by a human, so Donovan and Powell mount two of the robots and head off through the mining tunnels to minimize their exposure to Mercury's sunlight.

When they reach Speedy, the robot greets them irreverently and runs off back the way it came. Donovan and Powell think for awhile, going over their situation to help focus on the problem. They try a few different ideas, but they fail. Getting desperate, Powell tricks Donovan in order to put himself at risk. The selenium pool (and Speedy) are far enough away from the darkness that Powell's suit will fail and he will die if Speedy doesn't save him. Fortunately, the trick works, and it looks like the jinx has been broken. Powell is looking forward to their next job, at 273 degrees below Centigrade.

This story has been republished several times; I, Robot (1950), The Coming of the Robots (1963), As Tomorrow Becomes Today (1974), Meine Freunde Die Roboter (1982), The Complete Robot (1982), Hallucination Orbit Psychology In Science Fiction (1983), War With The Robots (1984), The Asimov Chronicles Fifty Years Of Isaac Asimov (1989), and Robot Visions (1990). Harlan Ellison adapted the story for his attempt at an I, Robot movie in The '70s.

"Runaround" contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Published in 1942, this story takes place in 2015, with ubiquitous robots and interplanetary space travel.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Rather than using the model designation, SPD 13, Powell and Donovan call their robot Speedy.
  • As You Know: When trying to figure out what went wrong with their robot, Donovan and Powell review the situation they're in, which Dr Asimov uses as an opportunity for Exposition about the three Rules of Robotics.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: In order to refute concerns that robots might rebel against their owners, robots in 2005 were programmed with "healthy slave complexes", including calling all humans "Master". The analogy between robots replacing slaves is not subtle.
    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."
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Powell and Donovan are quite proud of themselves for thinking of using the mining laboratory to create oxalic acid to chase Speedy away from the danger. Up until they realize, too late, that it only shifts the problem a few meters in one direction or another without solving the Logic Bomb.
  • Gone Horribly Right: SPD 13's Third Law (self-preservation) was modified to be a higher priority than normal. When Donovan casually sends the robot on a mission to fetch selenium, he accidentally creates a Logic Bomb, where the robot must fetch the selenium (because of the second law) and mustn't get too close to the selenium (because of the third law). The bomb makes the robot act drunk while it runs around the lake.
  • Industrialized Mercury: Mercury is the site of an abandoned mining facility. The problems with Mercury mining had caused humanity to retreat for years, so United States Robot & Mechanical Men Corporation has sent Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan with a new robot model to test the feasibility of restarting operations on Sunside.
  • Logic Bomb: Because the Rules of Robotics ensure that Speedy will take care to avoid danger to self, Donovan set up an unintentional conflict by casually sending Speedy into a situation he didn't know would be dangerous. To resolve the weak Rule 2 against the strong Rule 3, Speedy has been spending hours running around where the two priorities are exactly equal. The conflict is resolved when they exploit the first Law to force him out of the loop.
  • Mini-Mecha: The robots from the first Sunside Mercury Mining operation were programmed with a strong sense of subservience and are unable to move unless someone is riding them. All this to reassure the population that the robots won't rebel against the humans.
  • More Hero than Thou: Powell and Donovan are arguing over who should risk their life to rescue a malfunctioning robot. Powell proposes a math contest: whoever can solve a difficult math problem gets to go. Of course, he already solved it in his head before proposing the contest, and immediately runs off before Donovan can realize he was tricked.
  • One-Word Title
  • Power Source: The robots are powered by a two-inch sphere of atomic energy.
  • Servant Race: During the timeframe when the first Sunside Mercury Mining operation occurred, people were extremely distrustful of the mechanical men. To reassure the population, these robots have a strong sense of subservience and are unable to move unless a human is riding them.
    "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." — Gregory Powell
  • Shout-Out: The proximity to selenium has disturbed Speedy's sensitive computer brain, causing him to speak whimsically, such as quoting from several Gilbert and Sullivan plays.
  • Tidally Locked Planet: Donovan and Powell are sent to Mercury to try reopening the "Sunside" mining operation. The story was premised on the conflict that the fields keeping the humans from dying would fail before sunset (since it was common scientific knowledge at the time that Mercury was tidally locked).
  • You Are Number 6: The robot model Donovan and Powell are field-testing is designated SPD 13.