-Spoilers for the Foundation universe. A full index of novels can be found here–
Genre: Tomorrow Fiction
Publication Date: 1950
Robots are everywhere. In our homes, in our workplaces, on Mercury and Venus and all the space stations humanity has built. One woman was there from the start. Now at the end of her life, Susan Calvin is ready to share her thoughts on the invention that changed humanity . . .
I, Robot is without a doubt Isaac Asimov’s most famous work. When people think of Asimov, they generally think of robots, and with good reason. While he did not invent them, nor was he the only person writing about robots at the time, he developed the concept of robotics and did more with it than any of his contemporaries. His Three laws of robotics are so influential that they remain in use to this day, both in fiction and in real-world robotics.
Not quite a novel, this is a fix-up of several of Asimov’s early robot short stories. Binding them together is a series of scenes in which Susan Calvin, famed robopsychologist, is interviewed by a journalist. These scenes serve as both an introduction to the stories, setting their place in the larger chronology of Asimov’s future history, and also offering some commentary on them. Some of the stories feature Calvin herself, others have Asimov’s other early characters Powell and Donovan in the starring role. Covering over half a century, they show the progression of robots from simple household helpers for the rich, to vast computers which effectively govern the world.
Asimov wrote dozens of robot short stories during his life, and only a fraction are included here. Most notably, neither ‘Mirror Image’ nor ‘The Bicentennial Man’ had been written at the time of the book’s release. Nevertheless, I, Robot gives a perfect insight into Asimov’s evolving vision of the role of robots in humanity’s future. In large part due to the simplicity of Asimov’s robotics, the stories can feel a little repetitive. After all, almost all follow the same pattern of:
1 – Robot faces dilemma within Laws.
2 – Robot malfunctions.
3 – Humans investigate.
4 – Dilemma is resolved.
This is particularly true in the Powell and Donovan stories. However, this is not a fault with the stories themselves. I imagine you’d suffer the same fatigue if you read twenty murder mysteries in a row. With the rules Asimov has set out for himself, there are a finite number of problems and solutions. But that doesn’t mean he can’t have fun with the format. Each story brings its own twists and quirks. so that the repetition of theme and content never becomes stagnant.
Robots will play a key part in the Foundation saga, particularly in its earlier phases, so this is a good starter for any one considering a readthrough. It’s interesting to see that, even though he continues to play with the details, Asimov sticks to the rules set out so early on. Of course, the entire Foundation universe is a fix-up of different series and novels, but on a chronological readthrough it appears more organic, at least at this stage.
If you want to learn about the origins of modern robotics in SF, this is the place to do it. truly, a foundational work.