When I Get Home, I’m Going to Give my Roomba a Hug!

Hot damn, that was a good book!

As most good nerds know (even those who haven’t gotten around to reading it themselves) I, Robot, the Will Smith movie, has little to do with I, Robot, the book by Isaac Asimov, except for a few character names and the Laws of Robotics. The book is actually a collection of short stories originally published between 1940 and 1950 that have been interwoven with interstitial narrative of the world’s first robopsychologist being interviewed upon her retirement; in my opinion, a brilliant conceit.

And how refreshing it was to read a series of stories where it is the inability of the robot to see harm come to a human (the first Law of Robotics; I’m not going to print them all here, everyone knows them, and if you don’t Wikipedia will tell you) that provides the impetus and often conclusion to the story after being bombarded by SkyNet, The Matrix, ARIA, Decepticons, HAL, etc.!

Moreover, Asimov managed to create a cohesive narrative through a group of stories that vary drastically in tone, largely to the theme running through them all of the primacy of the Laws of Robotics. There were stories to make you laugh (‘Escape!’), cry (‘Liar!’), and rage (‘Robbie’, that horrible mother!), but two stories stood out as particularly apropos of our time.

There’s something of a disconnect for me when I read books written in the future of now, by which I mean these stories are all supposed to have taken place in the first half of the 21st century, a somewhat distant future in 1940 but obviously now it’s – uh – now.  There’s an interesting dichotomy to see what leaps in technology seemed feasible at the time (interstellar travel! mining on mercury! functional humanoid robots!) and the stagnation of social mores within those achievements (everyone smokes! – indoors! men won’t curse in the presence of a lady!) Perhaps my favorite example of the strange backwards technology that occurs in the story is a description of a “‘visor-phone” which is basically a videophone, Skype, FaceTime, whatever you want to call it, whose display is black and white (or at least that’s the implication in the description of a “light and dark image”)! A videophone seemed perfectly conceivable, that it might actually be able to project color, not so much.

I mention these things, because it made the two stories at the end of the book stand out all the more. Both concern politics and a man by the name of Stephen Byerley. In “Evidence”, Byerley is an A.D.A. preparing to run for mayor of New York City. Francis Quinn, who seems to work for the opposition, believes Byerley may actually be a robot, as he has never been seen to eat or sleep in front of others. He, of course, releases this information to the public resulting in the following:

“The political campaign, of course, lost all other issues, and resembled a campaign only in that it was something filling the hiatus between nomination and election.” (Kindle Location 2884)

A one-issue election. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

The final story, “The Evitable Conflict”, again features Byerley, this time as World Co-ordinator. Benevolent Machines now, essentially, run the world. They calculate data, probabilities, statistics,  on everything from food production to mining to infrastructure needs. In this story, something seems to have gone wrong with the Machines and Byerley travels to meet with his four Regional Vice-Co-ordinators to discuss the problem. He eventually comes to the conclusion that members of the group the Society for Humanity are intentionally ignoring the Machine’s instructions so as to create doubt as to the Machine’s usefulness. Byerley’s proposed solution to this possibility is eerily familiar:

“‘There is obviously no time to lose. I am going to have the Society outlawed, every member removed from any responsible post. And all executive and technical positions, henceforward, can be filled only by applicants signing a non-Society oath. It will mean a certain surrender of basic civil liberties, but I am sure the Congress -‘” (Emphasis mine) (Kindle Location 3405)

This is a marked difference to the story of his first campaign:

“It’s rather symbolic of our two campaigns, isn’t it? You have little concern with the rights of the individual citizen. I have great concern. I will not submit to X-ray analysis, because I wish to maintain my Rights on principle. Just as I’ll maintain the rights of others when elected.” (Kindle Location, 2935)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’m not going to tell you how either of these stories turn out, they’re worth reading for yourself to find out, as is the entire collection. If I, Robot is any indication, I can’t wait to get into the Robot novels!

Bechdel Score: 1 out of 3. ‘Robbie’, the first story does have a conversation between mother and daughter, but I don’t feel like that really falls into the spirit of the Bechdel Test.

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