I wanted to “read” The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov but it wasn’t available on audio (my preferred format for consuming old science fiction). However, Audible.com had three anthologies of Asimov’s stories, I, Robot, Robot Dreams, and Robot Visions. So I wrote out a list of all the stories in The Complete Robot and marked which stories were available on audio in these three audiobooks. After listening to Robot Dreams I had a new appreciation for Isaac Asimov. Now that I’ve finished Robot Visions I have even more appreciation. But boy, I sure am sick of hearing the Three Laws of Robotics being restated.
Robot Visions (1990) has 18 short stories about robots and computers, and 17 essays about writing about robots and computers. Listening to these two volumes you realize just how much of Asimov’s life was devoted to thinking about robots. These stories cover 48 years – from “Robbie” (1940) to “Christmas With Rodney” (1988). Asimov died in 1992, so that’s pretty much his entire writing life.
I read I, Robot and The Foundation Trilogy back in the 1960s when I was a kid, and for most of my life, I’ve pigeon-holed Asimov by this experience. I thought of Asimov as a so-so writer of sentimental tales about robots and a creator of a galactic empire epic I didn’t really buy into. During those other decades, I read a lot of Asimov’s nonfiction, and I thought of him as a great explainer. Giving Asimov’s fiction another try this year has made me realize just how wrong I was about his fiction. He’s a very good storyteller. Sure, he’s not literary or stylistic, but he can tell an entertaining story with engaging characters with drama and humor.
I do believe I’m now seeing the best in Asimov because I’m listening to his stories read by professional narrators. Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist of his stories revealed many complex dimensions of her personality when I listened to the stories, including murderous rage (“Liar!”) and cold-blood killer (“Robot Dreams” in the previous collection). And I could tell Asimov loved his robot creations, especially in “The Bicentennial Man” and “Robot Visions.”
Of course, what Asimov loved most was creating the Three Laws of Robotics. That gave him a lifetime of plot challenges. Most of these stories involved Susan Calvin or Mike Donovan solving a mystery by using the unerring logic of the three laws. These stories are fun, and often clever, but they usually didn’t have the sentimental charm of stories like “Robbie” or “Sally” which don’t involve the logic of the laws. Robot Dreams also had several of Asimov’s classic short stories not involving robots. So the two volumes make nice Best of Asimov set.
Reading the 17 essays about writing robot stories, you can tell Asimov was quite proud of coining the term robotics and inventing the three laws. And I got the feeling Asimov believes robots will eventually have the three laws incorporated into their programming. I don’t.
Here’s the thing, as much as I enjoy Asimov’s robot stories I believe he failed to imagine what real intelligent robots will be like or how we’ll coexist with them. I got the feeling from his essays that Asimov felt his writing legacy has a lock on robot science fiction. Thirty years after his last robot story I feel that legacy is fading away.
Asimov felt he conquered the robot tale because previous writers mainly used the robot as a threat, and he imagined them as friends and faithful servants. Since then writers have created even more beloved robot characters, even robots humans have sex with. Personally, I don’t think science fiction has come anywhere near what the reality of intelligent robots will be or anticipated our future relationships. I wish I had the energy and skills to write fiction because I see this as a wide-open theme.
I believe intelligent machines won’t be programmed by us but will evolve through techniques like machine learning. This means coding the three laws of robotics will probably be impossible. As AI evolves it will become part of its own evolution in a recursive way that we will never understand.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this collection of stories and essays. They perfectly encapsulate an era of science fiction. I think of science fiction written before real space travel as pre-NASA SF. I believe this book will be a classic of pre-Singularity SF one day.
One last note. I found it interesting that the short stories held up better than the essays. The essays are still worth reading, but they seemed more dated. I wished the publisher had interspersed the essays with the stories instead of leaving them as a clump at the end. I believe Asimov wrote almost 500 books, mostly nonfiction, but eventually, I predict he will be remembered for just The Foundation Trilogy and maybe for the robot stories.
James Wallace Harris, 12/29/19