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"I, Robot" Half a Century Later
Last night, I finished rereading Isaac Asimov's book "I, Robot" in e-book form. I picked it up on special from Fictionwise a few weeks ago. This book was published in 1950, and it collected a bunch of Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" stories that he had witting in the 1940s. For the record, no stories featured an uprising of robots against humanity where everyone was saved by a Will Smith-type character; however, in defense of the new film, none of the stories are very cinematic. They tend to be "theater-of-the-mind" pieces where the protagonists are trying to understand the behavior of a robot that's acting oddly in the framework of the Three Laws; the stories also postulate some scenarios where those laws are bent in different ways, and how that would affect them. They play more as mysteries than space opera.

Asimov does a fairly good job of showing a future society, but he misses a lot too. Space travel has advanced a lot more in his stories than it has here in the real world; there are mines on Mercury and in the asteroid belt in the early 21st century in his narrative. For a book about robots, he totally misses the computer age. There's an irony in me reading this off a PDA, a device that he couldn't even imagine in the context of the 1940s. The whole idea of a "positronic brain" is quaint, but its also sufficiently "magic" to not be that big of an issue, and its complexities does provide the motivation for the story. Advanced in areas of embedded system control and operations research also make some of the logic in the stories flawed in modern eyes, but in the context of having just fought and won World War II with a huge military base, the view of the world going to a centralized command system is understandable.

Finally, there a gender studies view of Dr. Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist featured in many of the stories. Susan isn't painted very sympathetically; she's portrayed as plain, cold, bitter, and pathetic, and those qualities seem to be consequences of her brilliance and determination. While she does find the solution in many of the stories, she's also humiliated and treated with condescendation. While it is good that Asimov tried to show that women would be participating in the technological advances of the future, he also punishes them for their participation. Calvin dies unhappy, never finding a connection to other people that can match her obsession with robots. More so than the science, this is the most dated part of the work.


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