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November 10, 2009

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

I, Robot. You, Jane.

It's been probably ten or fifteen years since I last read Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. That's often a recipe for disaster: the book that you enjoy as a kid may be filled with all kinds of glaring faults and dated prejudices when viewed through adult eyes. Asimov's stories hold up better than I expected, although according to his timeline we're a few years overdue for household robots, and I for one feel cheated.

The reason I went back to the book in the first place was Susan Calvin, Robot Psychologist. The movie adaptation was on TV one night, and although it's not an unwatchable film, it does turn Calvin into a typical plot device: mobile-exposition-slash-love-interest. In doing so, and in the deployment of a bog-standard action-movie story, it loses a great deal of what made the stories interesting in the first place.

At heart, Asimov's Robot stories fit into a particular niche of sci-fi: the high-tech detective yarn. There's not a lot of work in this space, because it's a very difficult thing to do. In his Flatlander collection of "Gil the Arm" stories, Larry Niven explains:

A detective story is a puzzle. In principle, the reader can known what crime was committed, by whom, and how and where and why, before the story hits him in the face with it. He must have enough data to make this obviously true, and there must be only one answer possible.

Science fiction is an exercise in imagination. The more interesting an idea, the less justification it needs. A science-fiction story will be judged on its internal consistency and the reach of the author's imagination. Strange backgrounds, odd societies following odd laws, and unfamiliar values and ways of thinking are the rule. Alfred Bester overdid it, but see his classic The Demolished Man.

Now, how can the reader anticipate the detective if all the rules are strange? ... More to the point, how can I give you a fair puzzle?

With great difficulty, that's how. There's nothing impossible about it. You can trust John Dickson Carr, and me, not to bring a secret passageway into a locked-room mystery. If there's an X-ray laser involved, I'll show it to you. If I haven't shown you an invisible man, there isn't one.

The basic idea, then, is to make sure that the rules and the scenarios are clearly laid out for the reader, so that it's a fair challenge with no deus ex machina. Niven is better at this than Asimov is, but the latter has the advantage of what would become one of science fiction's most well-loved tropes: The Three Laws of Robotics. Having introduced the laws, Asimov then uses his short stories to play with them--what happens if they're modified? What if the robot has additional capabilities, like mind-reading? How could these laws go wrong?

Which brings us back to Susan Calvin, the troubleshooter for U.S. Robotics. In about half of the stories collected in I, Robot, Calvin's the protagonist tasked with sorting out her charges' aberrant behavior. She's a cold, impassive woman, described as "plain" but brilliant. Calvin likes robots more than people: in response to a question about the difference between people and robots, she snaps that "robots are essentially decent." I think it's odd that you don't hear much about Susan Calvin when lists of great sci-fi characters--and particularly, great female sci-fi characters--get made. She's acerbic, opinionated, smart, and misanthropic. Compared to Asimov's usual "boy scouts in space," she's a breath of fresh air.

The lone exception, and the one that took me by surprise, is the short story "Liar!" In this case, the malfunctioning robot (Herbie) turns out to be telepathic. Calvin and two other (male) U.S. Robotics scientists are sent to figure out how such a thing could have happened. For each of the three, Herbie presents a different aspect: for one mathematician, he's a brilliant calculator, while for the other (much more insecure) scientist, he professes no great skill with equations.

For Calvin, he claims to be mainly interested in human emotions, and to that end she supplies him with "slushy romance novels." It gets worse: Herbie begins supplying the scientists with "secret" information garnered through mind-reading. To the career-minded Bogert, it's news about an upcoming promotion. But in Calvin's case, it's an unrequited love--and when it turns out to have been a lie designed to satisfy the humans (in accordance with the First Law), she shrilly confronts Herbie with the contradiction of "causing no harm" and sends him into an unrepairable catatonic state. Apparently, no matter how smart or capable a woman is, at heart she's just another over-romantic shrew.

This portrayal of Calvin bears no small resemblance to the treatment of Jane Lynch's Sue Sylvester on the TV show Glee, and it introduces a degree of uncomfortable uncertainty to Asimov's intent. Is Calvin really a smart, cynical woman? Or is she merely an androgynous stand-in, whose rare moments of femininity are exploited for humor? I'm still not entirely sure. I suspect Asimov hoped it would be the former, and he just wasn't quite capable of escaping the latter. It's too bad: as puzzles go, the other stories are often quite good. Asimov's vision of robots as something other than terrifying Frankenstein monsters is still refreshing (the final entry, "The Evitable Conflict," sets the foundation for Iain Banks' Culture society, among other things). And I think it's no coincidence that Susan Calvin's the subject of the Robot Universe prequel novels authorized by the Asimov estate, and the first Asimov property to be written by a woman. There's a really interesting character there for revival, if it's done right.

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