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Originally posted at FanLit.
“..all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable”
Most science fiction fans know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:
Robots must not hurt human beings or allow them to come to harm.
Robots must obey human beings so far as it doesn’t violate Law 1.
Robots must not harm themselves as long as this doesn’t violate Laws 1 and 2.
In I, Robot, Asimov presents nine stories within a frame story that explore the implications of these Three Laws of Robotics. The introduction presents the frame story, which introduces Dr. Susan Calvin, who has recently retired from a 50-year career as the world’s first robopsychologist. A reporter is attempting to interview the somewhat reclusive Dr. Calvin, who is reluctant to share her experiences. Through clever flattery, questions and prompts, he finally gets her talking, which gives Asimov a chance to reprint these nine stories which were originally published between 1940 and 1950 in the pulp magazines Astounding Science Fiction and Super Science Stories:
“Robbie” — (revised version of “Strange Playfellow,” Super Science Stories, 1940) A little girl named Gloria is given one of the world’s first robotic companions, but her mother worries about Gloria being raised by a machine, so she takes Robbie away. “Robbie” is Isaac Asimov’s first robot story. It’s sweet and simple, dealing with Law 1 in the most obvious way and portraying robots as tools made by man to help him with his work. Dr. Susan Calvin makes a cameo appearance in this story. She’s sitting in a museum studying the first talking robot when Gloria comes to ask the robot a question.
“Runaround” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1942) Engineers Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, a couple of Asimov’s recurring characters, have been sent to Mercury to work on a mining station. When they send Speedy the robot out to fetch some selenium, he doesn’t come back and they have to go looking for him. When they find Speedy, he seems confused and Powell and Donovan discover that there’s a delicate balance between the three Laws of Robotics. They must figure out how to use the laws to get the robot back on track. This is Asimov’s first story that specifically explains the Three Laws and shows that they are not as clear as they seem.
“Reason” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1941) Powell and Donovan are working on a space station with a robot named QT1 (“Cutie”). When Cutie decides that humans do not exist and that he’s a prophet of The Master, the engineers, thinking that the Three Laws are in jeopardy, try to reason with him.
“Catch That Rabbit” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1944) Powell and Donovan are overseeing a mining operation on an asteroid and are accompanied by Dave, a new kind of robot that is still under development. Dave is in an overseer position over six subservient (“finger”) robots. Powell and Donovan notice that when humans are not around, Dave and his “fingers” sometimes quit working and begin marching aimlessly. When the engineers try to figure out what’s wrong, they end up in a dangerous position and need to figure out how to get Dave and his team working correctly so the robots can save them.
“Liar!” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1941) A robot named Herbie misapplies the First Law of Robotics (never hurt a human being) by telling people what he thinks they want to hear. However, Herbie’s lies end up embarrassing and hurting humans, including Dr. Susan Calvin. According to Wikipedia, which cites the Oxford English Dictionary, “Liar” contains the first published use of the word “robotics.”
“Little Lost Robot” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1947) When a human tells the robot named Nestor to “get lost,” he does, by hiding himself in a room full of identical robots. This is a problem for Dr. Susan Calvin and the other scientists because Nestor is an experimental robot that (for a good reason) was produced with a slightly different version of the First Law. While it can’t harm humans, it is not compelled to step in to stop them from being hurt. Dr. Calvin realizes that this programming could logically lead to a situation in which a robot could actually harm someone. They must find Nestor.
“Escape!” — (originally “Paradoxical Escape” in Astounding Science Fiction, 1945) In this weird story, an artificial intelligence called “The Brain” becomes a practical joker, using humor to deal with its cognitive dissonance. Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are the unfortunate victims and robopsychologist Susan Calvin must discover what’s gone wrong.
“Evidence” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1946) Stephen Byerley is running for mayor but his opponent claims Byerley is a robot because nobody sees him eat or sleep. Byerley, running on a civil rights platform, refuses to let his opponents examine him. When Dr. Susan Calvin tries to use the Three Laws to determine whether he’s human, she can’t tell if he’s a robot, or just a “very good man.” This makes her wonder if a robot might actually be a better leader than a man.
“The Evitable Conflict” — (Astounding Science Fiction, 1950) The world is now efficiently run by artificial intelligence. Supply and demand are perfectly balanced and humans thrive. When some of the machines start to make mistakes, Stephen Byerley and Susan Calvin want to know why. What they discover is an entirely new extension of the First Law and it might mean doom (or liberation) for the human race.
I, Robot is an excellent collection of some of Isaac Asimov’s best stories. Here we meet friendly robots, religious robots, prankster robots, robots with superiority complexes, robots that are confused by moral or logical dilemmas, and robots with cognitive dissonance. Asimov explores the implications and the limits of his Three Laws and leaves us with a lot to think about.
The order of the stories in I, Robot makes the collection especially effective; with “Robbie” we start with a simple and obvious application of the Three Laws and with “The Evitable Conflict” we end with a head-spinning potential interpretation of these very same laws. Though Isaac Asimov was optimistic about our future with artificial intelligence, he shows us that even though humans are programming robots, it may be difficult for us to understand and predict some of their behaviors because of the way they use logic to interpret the laws we give them.
I listened to Scott Brick narrate Random House Audio’s version of I, Robot. Scott Brick is always a great narrator and I highly recommend the audiobook.
Originally posted at FanLit (come visit us!)
“The thing’s hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God — it’s full of stars!”
2001: A Space Odyssey is the novel that Arthur C. Clarke wrote so that Stanley Kubrick could develop it into the now-famous movie. It’s partly based on two of Clarke’s short stories: “Encounter in the Dawn” (1953) and “The Sentinel” (1948). The first story tells of a technologically advanced race that visited Earth millions of years ago, discovered early humans, and gave them some technological jumpstarts (and “one small step toward humanity.”) In the second story, humans have finally reached the moon. Much to their excitement and consternation, they discover an ancient alien artifact that may be an alarm to alert aliens when humans manage to get themselves off their little planet.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that we see these plotlines unfold and connect in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A related plot involves a spaceship traveling to Saturn that’s controlled by a new self-conscious computer named HAL 9000. Perhaps the most famous scenes in the movie (and I think these are some of the best scenes in the book, too) occur when HAL decides to override the astronauts’ commands because of his own interpretation of his original instructions (this reason is not explained in the movie). These scenes are probably even more frightening today than they were back in 1968. Clarke perfectly captures our fear that the artificial intelligences we create may become smarter than we are and, therefore, out of our control.
I can’t resist Arthur C. Clarke’s visions and I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by him. It’s exciting and awe-inspiring to read his speculations about creation, the mysteries of space and time, extraterrestrials, artificial intelligence, the freeing of the spirit from the body, the existence and nature of God, and what’s “behind the back of space.” I also enjoy his theoretical arguments about the speed of light, physics, relativity, wormholes, etc. Clarke’s awe of space and his expectation that humans will conquer it is infectious and thrilling. At the same time, the possibility that we, who thought we were alone, may not be, is both exciting and disturbing. Clarke writes beautifully of both the potential glories and horrors of space.
I listened to Dick Hill narrate Brilliance Audio’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dick Hill narrates a lot of old science fiction and here he is as wonderful as he always is. His voice for HAL was so creepy it gave me chills (“Hey, Dave… what are you doing?”). The audiobook begins with an interesting talk by Arthur C. Clarke in which he gives us some context and background for the story, talks a bit about his writing process and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, and mentions some of the pop culture that the book and movie have spawned. Three sequels to 2001: A Space Odyssey continue the story and address some of the questions that Clarke leaves us with.
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden during World War II. He only survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden because the Germans housed the American prisoners in a meat-locker in a building they called Slaughterhouse-Five. For years afterward, Vonnegut attempted to write a book about his experiences, and in 1969 he eventually produced Slaughterhouse-Five, a fictional biography of one of his fellow soldiers who he calls Billy Pilgrim. In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut explains that his novel will be short and “jumbled” and that it’s “a failure” because “people aren’t supposed to look back” and “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.” Well, the book is short and jumbled, but it’s not a failure — it’s interesting, irreverent, and very funny (if you like bleak black humor).
Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time” — he seems to move up and down his own timeline, experiencing his life — his uneventful childhood, his inglorious experiences as a POW, his mundane marriage, his time in an insane asylum, his dull but lucrative career, and his death — out of order and repeatedly. Billy also believes that he was once abducted by aliens and taken to the planet Tralfamadore where they put him in a zoo so they could observe human behavior. The Tralfamadorans, who experience four dimensions and are outside of time, have a fatalistic philosophy of life, war, and death, which Billy embraces.
Vonnegut’s non-linear narrative and his repetitive imagery and language evoke a feeling of bizarreness, disorientation and impotence, which mirrors Billy Pilgrim’s feelings about his life — especially his feelings about the war where he was a weak, ineffective soldier who did nothing but get caught by the Germans and witness the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Vonnegut keeps repeating the phrase “And so it goes” after any mention of death. The phrase is used over 100 times and, rather than becoming irritating, it lends a fatalistic air. It also gets funnier each time, in a gallows humor kind of way. (The phrase is even used after we’re told that the champagne is flat.)
Along with the jumping around in time, Billy’s delusions about Tralfamadore make us assume that he’s insane. Was he insane before he went to war, or does he have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a disorder that, at that time, the military either didn’t recognize or didn’t acknowledge?
On the surface, Slaughterhouse-Five, though entertaining and funny all the way through, seems absurd and pointless. But that is the point: War is absurd and pointless. It’s illogical, irrational, and unstoppable. Vonnegut never overtly condemns war — the novel feels fatalistic instead; there is war, people die, and so it goes. If Slaughterhouse-Five is a condemnation of war, it’s a subtle condemnation, and maybe that’s why it works so well. Nobody likes to be hit over the head with a Message. Instead, Slaughterhouse-Five makes us consider the absurdity of war for human beings who, unlike the timeless Tralfamadorans, live in only three dimensions.
I listened to Harper Audio’s production of Slaughterhouse-Five. The narrator, Ethan Hawke, was amazing. This was one of the best audio productions I’ve listened to recently. Hawke, who sounds laid back and like he just smoked a couple of joints, speaks almost in a whisper. He sounds intimate and philosophical. Hawke’s narration greatly enhanced my enjoyment of Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s also an interview with Kurt Vonnegut at the end of this Harper Audio production.