Esprit S.F.

S.F. F. & F. Culture (Science-Fiction, Fantasy & Fantastic)

How to read Isaac Asimov’s Robots series?

At first glance, the Isaac Asimov’s novels and short stories belonging to the robots series can be read independently.

The short stories.

However, my first advice is to read some short stories before the novels, to familiarize with positronic robots and especially with the “Three Laws of Robotics” concept that Asimov invented. Those Three Laws can be stated as followed:

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

Those laws being very simple, they are greatly implant in the positronic brain of a robot, but they also are relatively easy to bypass. All the savour of the robot stories consist on exploring the flaws of those laws.

The robot stories are reunited in two collections:

  • I, Robot (1950)
  • The Rest of the Robots (1964)

These short stories take place in a near future, at the beginnings of the Robotics (meaning “positronic robotics”) and introduce the most important character in the robots history: a robopsychologist, Dr. Susan Calvin, very smart woman in charge to handle with “deviant” robots. In these stories we also found the most important stories of the series:

  • Runaround which shows a conflict between Second and Third laws.
  • Liar! which show an unexpected flaw in the First law.
  • Little Lost Robot which raises an issue with the First and the Third laws.
  • Lenny which a malfunction makes almost human.

etc… All the stories are in the same vein, have their own charm and their own interest. They are, in my opinion, essential to build an pure “asimovian” spirit.

Notice that there is another collection in which have only one robot story (eponym to the title of the book) but is one of the most important story of the series and served for the basis of the movie I, Robot, directed by Alex Proyas. It introduce a robot which access to intelligence and self-determination:

  • Robot Dreams (1986)

The novels

The first one

On the same principle than the short stories and taking place at the same time, we have a wonderful novelette, poignant, novelization of the eponym short story, relating the difficult process of a robot on the way to humanity:

  • The Bicentenial Man (1976)

This novelette, adapted to the cinema under the same title with Robin Williams in the title-role, is an exception in Asimov’s work because emotional, centred on the feelings of this robot which more than anything wants to become human.

Lije Baley series

In a completely different category – the science fiction polar – a series of novels introduce inspector Elijah Baley investigating, in a far future, on murders with the aid of a humaniform robot, R. Daneel Olivaw.

  • The Cave of Steel (1954)
  • The Naked Sun (1955)
  • The Robots of Dawn (1983)
  • Robots and Empire (1985) (taking place two hundred years after the death of Lije Baley)

Those passionate novels are among the flowers of my bookcase. The characters are appealing, the plots are intelligent and the enquiry smoothly handled. I always read them with delight.

The disciples

There is a domain that Asimov never approach in his stories: the reaction of his robots facing extraterrestrials. For a robot, all will depend on the human definition implanted in its brain.

A few authors buckle down to that task in the Robot City series – and its sequel Robots and Aliens –  in which the Three Laws are driven into a corner: how will react a robot which never saw a human being when it will be confronted to an extraterrestrial for the first time? What will be the “human” definition for a metamorphic robot which evolved among extraterrestrials? How will deal the robot with its priorities between a “real” human and a creature it consider that way?

As much passionate themes developed in the following novels:

  • The Robot City series:
    • Odyssey, by Michael P. McDowell (1987)
    • Suspicion, by Mike McQuay (1987)
    • Cyborg, by William F. Wu (1987)
    • Prodigy, by Arthur Byron Cover (1988)
    • Refuge, by Rob Chilson (1988)
    • Perihelion, by William F. Wu (1988)
  • The Robots and Aliens series:
    • Changeling, by Stephen Leigh (1989)
    • Renegade, by Cordell Scotten (1989)
    • Intruder, by Robert Thurston (1990)
    • Alliance, by Jerry Oltion (1990)
    • Maverick, by Bruce Bethke (1990)
    • Humanity, by Jerry Oltion (1990)

In his side, Roger McBride Allen had expanded the Master’s universe by imaging New Laws of robotics with which humans are less dependant of robots and where the robots have more liberties. This gives us the Caliban trilogy, a robot not subject to the Asimov’s Three Laws:

  • Isaac Asimov’s Caliban (1993)
  • Isaac Asimov’s Inferno (1994)
  • Isaac Asimov’s Utopia (1996)

This series is really good, entertaining, original et well-written.

Notice that another series – Temporal Robots – written by William F. Wu, talks about the adventures of specialists seeking robots which, in accordance with the Third Law, take refuge in the past to avoid their dismantling:

  • Predator (1993)
  • Marauder (1993)
  • Warrior (1993)
  • Dictator (1994)
  • Emperor (1994)
  • Invader (1994)

Personally, I found that series very weak and not very original. Some adventure novels, not bad but also not really good.

What about the cinema?

The Asimov’s work is so rich and worldwide known that it was a pity that the cinema interests only lately to positronic robots.

In the seventies, Harlan Ellison, author mostly known for television and cinema, and Asimov’s friend, tackles to the task to write a scenario introducing some characters and concepts of the series.

Thus, in 1978, was born I, Robot which, unfortunately, never get going on our screens. Judged too intellectual or not enough sales-oriented, no producer wanted to fund such a project to the great displeasure of Asimov, enthusiastic with the Ellison’s work.

Fortunately for the fans, a new project, under the direction of Alex Proyas in 2004, saw the light and gave birth to the excellent movie I, Robot[1]Despite the identical titles, the two project have nothing in common, except positronic robots. with Will Smith in the role of detective Del Spooner (based on the Lije Baley’s character).

What else?

If, with all that stuff, you’re still not replete, I can’t do anything for you, except counsel to you to read the rest of Asimov’s work, and notably immerse yourself body and soul in the Foundation series. Unavoidable!

Références   [ + ]

1. Despite the identical titles, the two project have nothing in common, except positronic robots.
Updated: 20 April 2020 — 15 h 29 min

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