The Future That Should Have Been from I, Robot

I Robot's 1970 cover

The book that introduced me to the world of science fiction in the 1970s. Note the 75 cent price on the cover and weep.
The book that introduced me to the world of science fiction in the 1970s. Note the 75 cent price on the cover and weep.

If Only...

I was startled the other day to see my old copy of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, which I hadn't seen or read in many years, in my son's hands. He's nineteen now and a college sophomore. I asked him, "You're reading that?" with a twinge of nostalgia. "I've read it three times," was his response. He is an engineering student after all. So, I reopened the pages of the book that introduced me to the sprawling world of sci fi and quickly became surprisingly wistful.

The first robot in the book was introduced as a "nanny" in 1996. Robots were large then, given their gearing and need to eliminate heat ... in 1950 when the book was first produced I imagine micromachines and solid state circuitry were still a ways off and no writer can be expected to see too far into the future with clarity. It could not speak but was very expressive. We on the other hand have a vacuum cleaner robot today.

The story takes place in the 2050s, safely one hundred years from the initial date of publication. But the first stories take place in the early 2000s, several years before the date of this writing. In the world of Asimov's future, the reporter interviewing Susan Calvin, robo-psychologist and head of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men (I'm glad the movie version of I, Robot from a few years ago shortened that to simply U.S. Robots), had an audience of three million spread across the solar system. There were mines on Mercury, massive power collecting stations collecting solar energy orbiting far beyond Earth orbit, and, of course, all those marvelous robots following 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 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 Law.) and getting into all sorts of scrapes when conflicts with those laws arise.

The stories center around either Susan Calvin's personal struggles with ornery robots or the adventures of two robot repairmen (sort of robot IT specialists) who head off to all the exotic locales in deep space that the first half of the twenty-first century was supposed to produce on repair missions for one type of robot or another.

Since the stories were published in 1950, the main characters almost all smoked like chimneys. I'm glad that's not what the future actually held. However, I do wonder where all our marvelous, three laws safe robots have gone. Where are all the colonies on so many planets and moons in our solar system? Where did Isaac Asimov's bright and engaging future go?

I recommend these delightful old science fiction stories. Asmiov was a master storyteller and the tales are all fun and full of heart and humanity. The future elements that never came true only make them more poignant.

Where are my robots?

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