Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: I, Robot (1953) by Issac Asimov

The terrible Will Smith film I, Robot shares a title but little else with the Issac Asimov book.

Book Review
I, Robot (1953)
Isaac Asimov

  I think for many people, including me, science fiction represents a transition from children's literature to adult literature.  I grew up in a suburb in the East Bay of Northern California, and I wore out the science fiction section of the local public library near the end of grade school and throughout junior high.  I should say that I read widely in both science fiction and fantasy, once separate genres, today they both tend to be called "speculative fiction."  A major difference between science fiction and fantasy is in their treatment of time and space.  Fantasy almost entirely takes place in another time period other than "modern times" and almost entirely take place in a fictional place- another universe, etc.  On the other hand, science fiction is thoroughly grounded in the tenets of "realism" developed by 19th century authors in the western novel.

  Although Issac Asimov in no way invented science fiction, he became the figurehead of American 20th century science fiction authors in that he was first and he sold the most copies. I, Robot is important because it was his first hit in novel form.  Prior to that Asimov, like many genre writers in the 20th century started writing short fiction for periodicals.  Asimov also had a day job the whole time.

  I, Robot is really a series of previously published short stories.  Asimov wrote a framing narrative involving a main character in several of the stories- Doctor Susan Calvin, the chief robopsychologist for the fiction United States Robotics Corporation.  The framing takes the form of a near-death Susan Calvin being interviewed by a journalist writing a history of robotics.  I, Robot is a sort of template for modern science fiction in that the inelegance of the prose being subsumed by the breathtaking creativity of the ideas.   The amazing foresight that Asimov displayed is even more remarkable if you consider that the short stories were originally published prior to World War II.

   In addition to influencing future writers inside and outside of genre fiction, Asimov's vision has influenced reality itself.  Many technologists from Silicon Valley and scientists from the generation prior to Silicon Valley were directly influenced by Asimov's fiction.   It's almost impossible to recreate the novelty of Asimov's treatment of "robots" in 1940.  First of all, they didn't exist.  Second of all, the computer as we now discuss it did not exist.  In I, Robot, Asimov brings robots to life in  a way fully recognizable to anyone who watches television or goes to the movies in 2015.   Robots are ambulatory mechanical men with a computer powered brain.  Again, computers literally did not exist in the 1940s, when these stories were published.

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