There’s no sense in doing a traditional review of a book like this, so instead I’m going to take a brief look at this classic, highly influential piece and try to discuss what we can learn from it. Obviously there’s more to it than I’m capable of discussing, and I’m still digesting these ideas as I’m writing this. If you’ve got anything to add, feel free to share with the class.
To start, it’s more difficult to read these stories now because they can’t be judged by modern standards. They were written almost seventy years ago, and what modern writers call the standards of writing have changed. The storytelling has value, less because of its plot or characters (which are both a bit lackluster in my view, don’t kill me), but more because of the ideas it conveys. These ideas are what Asimov is famous for and the reason works like this endure.
To help visualize what I mean, take a look at the book versus the movie adaptation starring Will Smith (which unfortunately decorates the cover of the book that I was reading). They are unrecognizable from each other, but when you see both of them in their natural medium, the differences make sense. Asimov’s short stories are packed with complex, gray ideas that dramatize the evolution of machines as something that needs to be carefully monitored, but ultimately not as a particularly action-packed conflict. The movie keeps Asimov’s three laws, but ultimately changes the plot to something that all audiences can easily understand: AI is dangerous and will kill everyone. But even that view is challenged by the character of Sonny. Asimov’s original plots and characters don’t lend themselves to film well, so it’s clear why changes were made, but at the same time the movie watered his original ideas down so much that the message was lost.
From what I understand, at least, Asimov wasn’t trying to paint AI as evil or deadly. On the contrary, most of the stories paint the robots with surprisingly human characteristics, but without the ability to twist logic to create harmful alternatives to the three laws (as we see in the movie). And in the end, the human characters have to be very innovative in their approach to these often mundane-sounding problems. None of the conflicts seem particularly big, but that’s okay because it’s the ideas that matter. Although, something that bothered me throughout the book is the fact that the solutions to the problems come up so quickly that the endings to the stories feel unsatisfying. But again, the conflict overall is on a much smaller scale than you want to expect if you’re reading from a modern perspective. These are basically stories about people doing their jobs. A problem presents itself, they solve it, they move on. There is nothing big or world-changing about it (well, for the most part), and ultimately that’s okay, even though I admit it made me feel a little confused and empty inside (damn you, modern lens!).
My favorite story, which is probably the easiest vehicle for unpacking Asimov’s intent behind all the stories, is “Liar!” This story tells of a conflict created by a mind-reading robot called Herbie. It’s the easiest to read through a modern lens because the characters all express clear desires which make them distinct and coalesce in a confrontation, which is resolved by logic bombs. If there’s one thing that I love about all the Asimov I’ve read so far, it’s the way his characters fight with logic. And (SPOILERS) watching Dr. Calvin logic a robot to death is easily the most satisfying moment in this entire book. Anyway, the story shows that, even though the robot was the cause of the conflict, it wasn’t out of malicious intent but a disconnect between robotic and human logic. That’s consistent across all the stories in the book. The characters try to humanize the robots by giving them human nicknames and speech patterns, but ultimately the big conflict comes down to a language barrier between man and machine, something that isn’t easily resolved with explosions or with blaming either side.
I had trouble picking up on this while I was reading until I had time to actually sit down and think about it. And maybe I’m wrong (it wouldn’t be the first time), but I think I can safely say that this is why literature like this endures. Because it forces you to think. The messages aren’t neatly packaged for you, though some stories give you some pretty big hints. I think it’s also why people who read the book first may not like the movie so much, because it removes that key element of thought and dilutes the conflict into an absolute. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more media out there that follows this pattern, when maybe there should be more media that emulates Asimov’s approach, especially today where political conversations are often dominated by absolutes and extremes.