Completed 1/30/2019, Reviewed 1/30/2019
I now have finally read this classic collection of short stories about robots. A few of the stores in the middle were a little dry, but overall, I really enjoyed them. I’m glad I hadn’t seen the movie because I had no expectations going into the book. These stories were all initially published separately, then put together with an overriding narrative to make it cohesive. The narrative is not a huge addition, but it helps explain that these stories represent the evolution of robots, from a simple playmate to worker to out-thinking us. And each story is basically a mystery about the behavior of the robots and the figuring out of which of the three laws of robotics is being followed or corrupted.
The first story I really liked was the very first one. “Robbie” is a sweet story about a little girl who loves her robot, to the exclusion of interest in anything else. Robots at this point are not yet verbal, but Robbie has become her closest companion. The mother doesn’t like the attachment to the robot, doesn’t trust it, and wants to get rid of it. The father tries to argue that the robot would never harm their daughter because of the first law of robotics, but loses the battle and gets rid of Robbie, throwing the little girl into turmoil. The reason I liked this story was because it reminded me of people’s relationships with their cell phones today. Particularly, the end scene, which I won’t reveal, made me think of how many people become so preoccupied with their phones that they are oblivious to everything around them.
The next several stories were a good introduction into the application of the three laws of robotics. In each story, the robot is presented with a dilemma which throws them into bizarre behavior. Two humans who are working with the robots, and recur through some of the stories, must figure out what sent the robots into this behavior. My favorite of these was “Reason” which involved a robot on a space station first coming to some kind of sentience. It cannot believe that humans built it since it is superior to humans. It uses logic to deduce that its creator was the ship’s core. It convinces the other robots of this and they worship the core with the robot as its prophet. It’s an interesting reflection on how people will deny scientific evidence and believe in something based on their own faulty reasoning rather than the facts.
The two humans from the first stories appear again in “Escape!”, a story about building a space-warp ship using robots. They present a sort of comic relief to an intense story about trying to discover if the building of the ship by robots would cause a dilemma for the brain (i.e., the main robot) by breaking one of the laws of robotics. I really liked this story because of the comic relief, but also for the mystery involved in discovering why the brain would allow the construction, completion, and launching of the ship.
The last two stories represent the culmination of robot evolution. They were also the best of the bunch. In “Evidence”, one politician accuses another of being a robot. If he is, he would be the first android. The laws of robotics are used as the deciding factor in determining whether or not he is one. In “The Evitable Conflict”, robots control industry and the economy. Everything goes smoothly until suddenly there are some overages, shortages, and missed deadlines. It deals with the point where robots seem to be taking over the world.
I give this book four stars out of five. I loved the progression of the stories, and how each one was a little mystery of figuring out the dilemmas that caused the robots to malfunction. The only reason I didn’t give this book five stars was because the middle three dragged for me. The mystery began to feel repetitive without the overarching plot being interesting enough. It did pick up at the end, as evidenced by my calling them out individually above.