I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Through the Cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are timeless classics that everyone has read—everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow slipped through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.

I RobotI love reading, I love science fiction, and I have a deep appreciation for the “classics.” I don’t just appreciate them theoretically (as some might), but I’ve taken the time to read the vast majority of the books on any “classics” list and I’ve read most of the famous science fiction, old and new, from most niche lists made by avid sci-fi readers. With some classic sci-fi authors (like Heinlein), I’ve read not just their most famous, but a staggering number of their books. Yet how did it happen that I’ve never read I, Robot by Isaac Asimov until just now? And not just this book, but never before anything by Asimov?

Funny enough, I’ve always had it in my mind that Asimov was boring. Yes, many people say that regarding a large number of general literature classics which I’ve later found to be thrilling and deeply enriching, so why would I be worried that a classic sci-fi book about robots would be boring?

I started reading sci-fi when I was pretty young, reading Red Planet, Have Spacesuit-Will Travel, and Starship Troopers… all written by Heinlein and all recommended to me by my Dad. I have him to thank for my love of sci-fi (and maybe for my love of all reading) today. I even read the whole Dune series by Frank Herbert while still very young, far too young to understand most of the concepts presented within, but apparently not too young to enjoy the series immensely. All things considered, that’s what should’ve been bored me. But it didn’t, so why be afraid that Asimov would be boring?

My Dad also enjoyed reading Asimov, though he never directly recommended one of his books to me. I saw Asimov books lying around our house often enough and something about the book covers or maybe most of all the odd spelling of his name (odd to a kid who’d hardly ever left his small town in Arkansas)… something about it added up to just make me think Asimov was boring, and I never touched his books. It’s funny how that works: how kids’ prejudices can be formed from one inference or another, or just through lack of encouragement, and it can stick with them well into adulthood. Well, that’s how it happened with me anyway. So I’ve read through so many other books, so many science fiction classics and quite a few mediocre modern books as well, all the while avoiding Asimov as if afraid he’d bore so much I’d want to stop reading altogether.

To be honest, if not for the Will Smith movie I, Robot, I may not have even picked up this Asimov book when I did a few months ago. I watched that movie in college and I loved it (yes, I love sci-fi films about as much as I love sci-fi books; and I forgive a bad sci-fi film much more readily than a bad sci-fi book). So looking for a sci-fi book to fill my reading time, and not ready to jump into something too meaty at the moment (so I thought), I figured, what the heck, I’d finally give Asimov a shot; after all, the Will Smith movie was entertaining enough.

And I’m glad I finally did! I read I, Robot quickly from start to finish, taking a short break from it only a few times. All for the better, the book’s plot is nothing like the movie. Instead of having a single continuing narrative focus, I, Robot is more a series of short stories (with some recurring characters in most of them) detailing different aspects of the development of “thinking machines” and the consequences of their development. There wasn’t really a boring page in the whole book, and each story was unique and thought-provoking enough that once started reading, I could barely stop.

Now I know very well why I, Robot has taken its place among the classics. I, Robot is a milestone book within sci-fi lit regarding the concept of artificial intelligence and Asimov gives a deep consideration for how to create freely thinking machines that do their owners’ bidding (requiring no micro-managing) but without the freedom to defy their creators. This is where we get the entrance of the “three laws” – the three simple logical stipulations that are the foundation for robots’ relationship to humanity (and one of the few similarities between the I, Robot book and the Will Smith movie). Asimov created the three laws of robotics, but many others have copied or borrowed from him since.

At its heart, I, Robot considers two primary themes: one being psychological – how a developing brain would work with a very specific “mental block” hindering it; and the second being social – how people would respond to a thinking, feeling creation of their own making, the age-old question of Frankenstein’s monster. Both themes were handled masterfully by Asimov here, but it was the psychological one that I found more surprising and more gratifying.

Asimov doesn’t handle his creations mechanistically here, as we typically think of robots, but primarily as feeling, as emotive. As the robots’ thinking capacity increases with their technological development, the questions of their psychology (and their relation to human society) become more complicated and more fascinating. The robots’ creation becomes ever more apparently an immoral act, and yet the creatures (not in spite of, but because of their limitations) seem to represent the pinnacle of moral beings. Nevertheless, the robots’ emotive nature causes them to reflect the free will of humanity, while their mental and moral constraints give rise to a multitude of psychoses. It’s these sorts of paradoxes and contradictions that I find fascinating in the best literature, and a too often rare treasure in science fiction. But we find it here in I, Robot in abundance!

I have to admit that like other old science fiction, I, Robot is clearly dated in many ways, having first been published in 1950. Computers have unsurprisingly taken a direction totally unforeseen by Asimov, in most ways (particularly regarding micro-processing and digital information) much faster than he would’ve predicted and in other ways (such as artificial emotion) much, much slower. But despite some incorrect predictions in technological advancements, the deeper considerations of I, Robot and the way Asimov addresses them are surely still very accurate and timely. At the end of the day, the questions Asimov confronts aren’t simply limited to the small scale of humanity and their creation, but possibly even questions to ask of the Creator regarding the free will and morality of the Created. So much for my thoughts of not getting into a “meaty” book when I started reading this! But I wasn’t even slightly disappointed; Asimov handles this heavy substance with ease and enjoyment and sprinkles of humor along the way.

I have no doubt now that I, Robot deserves its place among the classics (and not just sci-fi classics) and that Asimov is not a boring author! I’m excited to try out some of his other famous works soon, such as his Foundation series. I’d recommend I, Robot to all who love sci-fi, to any movie-goers who thought the Will Smith movie could’ve done more with its concepts, to anyone interested in artificial intelligence, or to anyone looking for something to chew on regarding the concept and morality of creating or making use of other living beings. Enjoy!

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