Ossus Library Index
Science Fiction Index


A short story collection by Isaac Asimov
(1970, Fawsett Crest)
[originally published 1950]

As robots become more advanced, the evolution of their relationship with humans and the Three Laws of Robotics is explored.


-- 2nd reading (paperback)
June 21st to September 6th, 2015


It has been many years since I read this book of short stories, and I found it lacking in many ways. Maybe it's just because it's from a different era, but the mysteries were not resolved to me in an acceptable way, and much of the early conflict seemed forced.

Spoiler review:

Of course, these stories were written more than 70 years ago (most were written in the early 1940s), so they can be expected to age a bit. Strangely, it is not the technology that has aged, even though there are no cell phones or internet connections in the story. Only the mention of vacuum tubes dates them in that respect. It is the attitudes of the people involved that frustrated me, especially Donovan and Powell. Their posturing and explosive tempers, cigarette smoking (this applies to so many of the characters in these stories), and inventive swears sound very antiquated and make the stories less relatable. The stories, which were published over many years in SF magazines, are put into a frame in which an interviewer talks with Susan Calvin, renound robo-psychologist, as she is retiring.

Robbie is the first story, and it doesn't actually do much in the way of explaining robots. It is an early era of robots, in which they can't speak, but they are infinitely patient and serving. It's no wonder Gloria is drawn to a speaking robot when searching for her missing robot friend, which is really just a robot pre-programmed with answers to canned questions.

In Asimov's books, Earth people have an unnatural fear of robots, as they are unknown, and people don't trust the three laws of robotics to hold in all cases. So Gloria's mother wants to get rid of the "horrid machine" that her daughter is so attached to, as Robbie is the only mentor and friend that she's ever had. When the father reluctantly agrees, Gloria is horrified and can't get over the loss. Her father suggests several alternatives, all of which bring him closer to divorce, not that they had a healthy marriage in the first place. A vacation puts more stress on the family, they buy her a dog, which she can't wait to show to the missing Robbie. Finally, her father suggests going to a robot manufacturing plant, to show her how they are assembled, and are not really playmates. There they find Robbie, who saves Gloria from an errant truck just in time, cementing her relationship with him for all time. It turns out that the father planned for this to happen, though not putting Gloria's life in danger, of course. The wife ends up very mad, but can't do anything about it...

Runaround introduces us to the team of Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan, a team who seem to love and hate each other and robots. On Mercury, which was very little known at that time (not that it's well known now...), a robot sent out to gather supplies essential for the oxygen generation inside the station is running around in circles, essentially drunk. They try all sorts of things in an attempt to get it to come back, but to no avail. It turns out that the balance between the Second and Third laws of robotics are creating a conflict, as the men didn't put a high priority on completing the task. When the robot comes into an area of dangerous substances that could harm it, the Third law becomes powerful and about equal to the request (not command) that the robot get the materials. They even try to use simple, single-command stupid mining robots to help get them out there, but the First law prevents those robots from allowing them too far. Only when one of the men starts passing out, putting his life in danger, does the runaround robot come to its senses and bring him in with the materials, saving the failing life support.

Reason brings out the worst in Powell and Donavan, and also provides the spark that could lead to robots trying to take over the world and even harming humans, with enough of a push (as was done in the latest movie version). The robot in this space station is the most advanced so far, and is in charge of directing a beam of solar particles to Earth. One tiny misalignment of the beam could scorch millions of square kilometers on the surface, killing millions of people. Powell and Donovan are tasked with integrating the new robot, but there's a problem -the robot has a superiority complex. Robots are clearly superior to humans, so it thinks it is next in the evolutionary change, and that the Master (central computer) has finally perfected its creation. It won't listen to the idea that humans created robots, even when they assemble a robot right in front of its eyes. It does not believe them when they describe Earth to the robot, nor stars, planets or other people. It keeps coming up with incorrect but reasonable arguments for the "myth" that the Master has provided humans as a diversion from their ordinary lives. It creates a cult among the other robots. When a solar storm threatens the beam, the men think the world is doomed, but the robots hold it steady, not because they fear to harm humans, but because the Master told them to -their instructions, which they don't believe come from Earth. Powell and Donavan then leave, with the thought that if the robots continue to do their duty, what does it matter if they believe in some higher power. The robot believes that the humans are going to their deaths by leaving the station, because it doesn't believe in anything outside the station, which amuses the men on the way to their next assignment.

Powell and Donovan are back in Catch That Rabbit, in which they are trying to figure out why a robot that has six dependent robots randomly starts marching them around like parade soldiers rather than mining the ore they are supposed to be supplying. Whenever one of the humans comes close, it snaps out of it, and has no memory of the event. Once again, Powell and Donovan get overly excited and exasperated, not getting any really useful actions out of that, until they get close without being detected. It seems that six dependents is too much for this model, because things snap back into place when Powell destroys one of the robots, so that the power of the Third Law isn't so strong compared to its orders.

Liar brings Susan Calvin to the forefront, but the story isn't as compelling as I remembered it. Susan, while a strong female character, still holds to many outdated stereotypes in this story. The men have academic or professional goals, but Susan has love. Given the date this story was written, it's not surprising, but Asimov learned to do better in later stories. The mind-reading aspect was pretty easy to deduce, and since I remembered the outcome, it wasn't much of a surprise. The mind-reading robot tries to give everybody what they want, not able to harm them, even emotionally. It is not out of professionalism that Susan destroys the robot -it is out of jealousy that she can't have the object of her affections -so she takes revenge by forcing its brain to destruction due to the conflict between multiple first-law commands.

Little Lost Robot is a little more satisfying, and probably my favorite in this collection. A robot who only has half of the first law ("Do not harm a human", but without the "do not allow harm to come to a human through inaction" aspect) was given an explicit command to lose itself, with all the profane vulgarity of the characters in these stories. So it does. I liked the way it defeated all of Susan Calvin's tests until the end, even to the point of convincing the normal robots not to risk their lives saving a human because they might not be around to save other humans in the future. I have trouble believing this would actually work, as the threat to the human subject is real, and the future is theoretical. But it makes for a good story, and the robot is only defeated by its specialized knowledge of radiation. After being told that the path to the human in danger would be blocked by deadly radiation, only the one who could detect that radiation realized it wasn't deadly, and so moved to pretend to protect Susan.

Escape starts a path toward total robotic domination of human society, something that is not really taken up by Asimov's future stories. While it makes sense that giant robot brains would be needed to solve the problem of interstellar spaceflight, and that robots would control humanity's general business, and it is never denied explicitly, but that idea doesn't surface in The Caves of Steel or other robot books. In this case, a competitor's robot was destroyed trying to devise a solution to hyperspace, but due to Calvin's specific commands, US Robots' brain does it, sending Powell and Donovan to distant stars. But it won't bring them back, and has a childish aspect to it, such as giving them only beans and milk to eat, which of course drives them nuts, with their usual temper fits. It turns out that people temporarily die during the transit, and that's what drove the competition's Brain mad. But Calvin specifically told her Brain to put those kinds of aspects aside temporarily, which only caused minor instability in its brain. Eventually she manages to get the Brain to bring them back.

I thought the last two stories were pretty neat. They, too, deal with computers that control humanity. In the first one, Evidence, the man about to be elected as Commissioner of one of Earth's regions is accused of being a robot. The accuser sends Susan Calvin to investigate, and she does a good job of setting up tests to determine the likelihood of Stephen Byerly being a robot. I thought the tests were well done, and they reminded me of Hari Seldon's response in a similar vein in Prelude to Foundation, where Daneel Olivaw simply laughed to dismiss the allegations. Here, Byerly actually hits a man. But as Susan Calvin says, there is one instance where a robot may hit a man -when that man is actually another robot -a neat cryptic ending.

Byerly ends up being Commissioner of Earth. The Evitable Conflict refers to a conflict that can be avoided (as opposed to the inevitable conflict of the wars that have taken place in the past). He worries about small surpluses and shortages in different regions of Earth, and is worried about sabotage. But after presenting all the information about the different regions of Earth to Susan Calvin, she states that the computers that control Earth's economy are simply weeding out threats, in the most subtle manner possible. In order to remove people involved in the anti-robot crusade organization from positions where they could do damage, the computers arranged to have small discrepancies such that these people were moved around to less important jobs. in this way, war is avoided, and humanity can continue to grow.

The science in this set of short stories was rather technical, especially in the earlier stories. They settled down into more human plots later on. While I didn't enjoy Powell and Donovan's rants, I did like most of the Susan Calvin stories, which were about trying to trick the robots into revealing their true nature -or covering it up, in the case of one story. Most of these stories appear in Robot Visions, without the framing story of the interviewer.


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