Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Complete Robot

The Complete Robot
© 1982 Isaac Asimov
688 pages


A boom in electronic engineering followed World War 2, one that led to consumer televisions, the first computers, and a wide variety of other electricity-using gadgets. As people looked more toward the future, they conceived of mechanical men: these robots often ran amok in the style of Frankenstein's monster. Isaac Asimov thought this silly: robots were tools explicitly designed by intelligent people. It made no sense for them to run amok. He subsequently developed in full the Three Laws of Robotics, and later wrote a host of stories and novels based on them.


1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.


Asimov used his stories to explore how humans might use robots to better the human condition, but he also explored questions of intelligence, creativity, sentience, and prejudice. He coined the phrase robotics and his body of work subsequently left various marks on our culture: the android Lieutenant Commander Data of Star Trek possesses one of Asimov's "positronic brains", for instance. The Complete Robot collects just over thirty of his short stories in this theme, written throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Because other robot stories and essays followed it, its name has not remained accurate: still, the book constitutes the sizable bulk of his robot short fiction, including the Susan Calvin stories and classics like "Robbie".

The stories vary slightly in setting, but cover the latter half of the 20th century and human history throughout the 21st, until the dawn of hyperdrives that allow for interstellar travel. Most of the stories share a same canon: at some point in the late 20th or early 21st century,  the many political entities on Earth unite under a weak confederation. Essential parts of the economic (agriculture, for instance) are planned, and crucial to the planning are large computers. These globe-monitoring computing machines in the style of UNIVAC may be subsidiaries to Multivac -- a massive supercomputer at least the size of a building. Several stories here concern Multivac, the machine that bears all the cares of humanity upon its transistor- and vacuum-tube employing shoulders.


Robots in the style of Commander Data come later: while designed to emulate human beings in essential form and size, they exist chiefly for industrial work or for the amusement of wealthy individuals. The people of Earth later react against the employment of robots in this way, relegating them to maintaining space posts in a dozen or so of the stories here. Three stories follow Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell, two quality-assurance technicians in the employ of US Robots and Mechanical Men, as they observe the latest robot models at work, "manning" the stations that beam intense sunlight to Earth, powering its electric grid. Later on, robots nearly vanish from Earth history altogether: in the Empire age, only humans who have left Earth to colonize other worlds use robots. Little of the Empire age is seen here, though -- only its prelude in a short story about detectives Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, the latter being what we call today an android.

Asimov's stories are as ever simple and charming. They bear the mark of the fifties and sixties, not only in their portrayal of marriage (husband goes to work, wife keeps house), but in the way they grapple with the future. Some predictions seem banal by modern standards, others still far off and bordering on fantastic -- but the optimism and hope are undeniable. Asimov is refreshing and endearing, and the retro-feel has its own appeal to me. The Complete Robot is a solid hit, taking me back to that summer in which I first delighted in Asimov's short stories. I definitely recommend it.

Highlights:

  • "Sally", a favorite of mine about automated cars with personalities.
  • "True Love", in which a computer designed to find its maker the perfect match finds his own.
  • "The Tercentenary Incident", set on 4 July 2076, follows the aftermath of an attempted assassination of the US President. The assassins seemed to have only vaporized the president's android decoy -- but who can know that that puff of atoms following the disintegration blast belonged to an android, and not to an unpopular president?
  • "Reason", in which quality-assurance technicians struggle with the first sentient robot after it establishes a religion based on the worshiping the station which it was designed to serve. 
  • "Mirror Image", an unexpected treat featuring the Robots trilogy team of Elijah Baley and Daneel Olivaw as they attempt to settle a matter of academic fraud.
  • "The Bicentennial Man" follows a robot's quest for humanity. Watching the Robin Williams movie of this prompted me to read The Positronic Man back in high school, my first involvement with Asimov. The link leads to the trailer.


"To those of you who have read some (or, possibly, all) of my robot stories before, I welcome your loyalty and patience. To those of you who have not, I hope this book has given you pleasure -- and I'm pleased to have met you -- and I hope we meet again soon." - p. 683, 'the last word'.

Indeed, Dr. A.

2 comments:

  1. Hmmm. I had no idea that Asimov wrote all this science stuff. I have a book of short stories I needed for a class I took ten years ago. I learned a lot today. Thanks.

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  2. Asimov's Robot stories helped to solidify my love of SF in my mid-teens. As you can tell from my book postings I'm still going strong after over 35 years of reading the genre.

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