Short Written Text: ‘I, Robot’ by Isaac Asimov

This is the first part of an optional NCEA English internal which I am taking, in which I have to choose six texts and form a personal opinion about them. On second thoughts, I’ve decided to post this on my home page, as I think that it would be a great opportunity for you to offer your opinions, which is what this format of assignment is all about. Each part will be a separate post, but I will also continue updating the page ‘English’ if you wish to read all of them at once. So far, I haven’t done very much, but I will make progress!

So, without further ado, my first post; a short written text.

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“I, Robot”, a series of connected short stories written by Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992), is considered to be classic science-fiction literature in today’s society. However, as Asimov was a Russian-born American author, he tends not to be taught at high schools in New Zealand, who focus more on NZ and British literature. As a result, it was not through school pathways that I came across this book – instead, it was my father who suggested I try Asimov, although I did not act upon it until I read the much more modern “Cold Awakening Trilogy” by Robin Wasserman, at the back of which had acknowledgements by the author which included “I, Robot” as an inspiration for the series.

In the sixth short story, “Liar!”, Dr Susan Calvin, the leading robot psychologist of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. and a recurring character in the “I, Robot”series, is called to analyse a new robot – RB-34, also known as Herbie –  that has accidentally gotten telepathic abilities, although his fellow robots (the other 33) turned out fine. Herbie is still bound by the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Dr Calvin discovers that as the First Law includes mental and psychological pain such as a deflation of ego, which Herbie can sense, when Herbie knows that the truth will hurt the person seeking it, he lies. However, by lying Herbie is hurting them anyway, as he finds out when he tells Dr Calvin, who is in love with Milton Ashe, that he returns her feelings, only for her to catch Herbie out as Ashe confesses that he is getting married soon and feel anguish as she realises that his love is unrequited. Faced by this unsolvable dilemma of lying to prevent pain and causing pain by lying, Herbie breaks down.

A clear bias in “Liar!” is Asimov’s male chauvinism, as Dr Calvin, though very high up in the U.S. hierarchy, is the only woman in the story, and is also depicted as quite a weak character who succumbs to hate and bitterness when confronted with Herbie’s lies, in contrast to the men’s reactions, which were much milder. This prejudice was a common one in the 20th century, and reveals Asimov’s personal opinions of women. I found it interesting that on the one hand, Dr. Calvin is the highest in her field and so should be admired for her intelligence and resilience, but on the other hand, it becomes obvious from Asimov’s treatment of his character that he is not fond of her, regards her as inferior, and does not portray her as someone who is easy to sympathise with.

The main purpose of this short story is to highlight the difference between the words that one says out loud, and those that one keeps inside their head. Asimov seems to be showing us how much humans rely on the privacy of their minds when conducting everyday business, and that often, what is stated is often a disguise to what is really happening inside one’s mind. This is best shown in Dr. Susan Calvin, who on the outside is seen as inhuman and incapable of emotions, as is made evident through this quote: “Well, I’ve been called a robot myself. Surely, they’ve told you I’m not human.”  in which Dr. Calvin is talking about herself. She has “thin, pale lips” and “cold gray eyes” , which are indications of her outward coldness, and furthermore, when she is seen applying make-up for the first time in “Liar!” and her actions are discussed by her fellow officers, the ability for her to fall in love is swiftly discarded and thought of as asinine. “’Maybe she’s in love.’ Ashe allowed his eyes to close again, ‘You’re nuts, Bogie.’” This quote shows that Dr. Calvin is thought of as incapable of emotion, which is very different to what the readers find, as when she is not with her fellow officers but with Herbie the mind-reading robot, Dr. Calvin becomes extremely emotional as she allows herself to feel angry, hurt, wistful because Herbie knows her thoughts already. This example shows how humans limit themselves very much when communicating to others, especially about emotions which they think may cause them to be seen as weak, and is the same in life as in “Liar!”. When have you last heard a friend, or a classmate, or someone you don’t know very well, tell you their real thoughts, rather than editing them carefully in their head first? In fact, when did you last do this yourself? I try not to create such a large blockade between what I think and what I say, but there is an inevitable gap, as politeness must be observed, diplomacy used, and rashness discouraged.

I believe that Asimov is, in “Liar!”, revealing to us the consequences that not speaking our minds may have, and to re-iterate how much importance words can have – that in reality, while sticks and stones may hurt us, so too can words, and that we must therefore exercise caution in what we let others think about us, as is shown in the case of Dr. Calvin, who cannot afford to show weakness to her fellows, but may to a robot who cannot threaten her position or herself.

Here is the link to a PDF of  “I, Robot”.

Hopefully, what I have written has encouraged you not only to read this book or others like it, as Asimov truly is worth reading, if not only to say that you have, but has also prompted you to consider what comes out of you mouth in comparison to what doesn’t, and the possible consequences that this can have.

I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts,

Let’s call me Lily

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