The robot stories of Isaac Asimov

The Complete Robot

The Complete Robot

The order in which I choose to discuss classic works of science fiction and which works I choose specifically are not generally intended to have any conscious implications. Thus, I start with an old favorite which I happen to have largely re-read relatively recently, the collection The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov. If one is going to have any single volume to represent Asimov’s robot stories, without a doubt this book is the one to have, simply because it contains the essential stories– including all the stories from the more famous collection I, Robot. Admittedly, it also includes a few some would not consider properly part of the series, although all the stories do involve robots.

As described in his introduction (in my Book Club edition from Doubleday at least) the stories included were written between 1939 and 1977. More importantly, these stories in general mark a dramatic departure from previous stories about robots, as Asimov himself loved to point out. Rather than dealing with robots as either monsters or other form of menace or in contrast as misunderstood or oppressed metal people, Asimov approached robots primarily as machines— albeit machines capable of tasks one normally only associates with people. (His story The Bicentennial Man, an homage to the latter type of previous stories which he terms robot as pathos stories, is exceptional.)

The innovation was the development of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics by means of which humans build fail-safes into robots for protection and which first explicitly appear in the story Runaround. Thus the later stories deal in dilemmas arising from the application of those laws.

For any fan or scholar of the genre, the stories are a must-read. My recommendation is not to read them in the sequence they appear in the book (which is topical) the first time reading them but in publication order. One will in that way truly see the evolution of Asimvo’s own conception of robots as reflected in his writing.

Admittedly the social mores reflected also evolve. For example, the recurrent character robot psychiatrist Susan Calvin is today a bit stereotypical as a female character. Yet at the time, having a woman lead character at all was a departure from the norm, and Asimov clearly intended the portrayal to be positive.

All of this goes to one of the central points of this blog. When science fiction is set in the future (which it is now always) the stories are not about the future. Rather the current issues and human perceptions are projected into a future setting.

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