BOOK (1950)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 October, 2010, 12:00am

I, Robot
by Isaac Asimov
(Gnome Press)

Before Will Smith came along and bastardised the world's collective memory of the text, Isaac Asimov's series of nine robot-themed short stories, I, Robot, was the defining word on what we knew of the Three Laws of Robotics.

The robotic equivalent of the Ten Commandments set out in simple terms the conditions for their existence. In Asimov's futuristic science fiction settings, man lived in such fear of his robotic creations that this strict set of rules had to be programmed into the machines. The Three Laws would come to serve as the thematic backbone of Asimov's stories, and the cultural hinge on which his searching moral questions would hang:

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 any 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 Law.

Not only did these laws fundamentally change the representation of robots in popular culture, but Asimov - also a biochemistry professor, humanist and staunch Democrat - made good use of the device to explore ironic themes and propagate satire on the human condition.

Take, for instance, the politician character Stephen Byerley, from Evidence, the penultimate story in I, Robot. Byerley, a humanitarian lawyer, runs for mayor of New York City, only to be smeared in an ugly campaign by his opponent, who accuses him of being a humanoid robot - a potentially ruinous charge in the technophobic city.

Despite many attempts, the opposition fails to produce evidence that Byerley is indeed a robot, but suspicion lingers.

Ironically, the only way Byerley will be able to fully prove himself human is to show he is willing to harm another human - and therefore violate the First Law. At a campaign rally, Byerley is given the opportunity when a heckler takes to the stage and challenges the candidate to punch him the face. Byerley obliges, thereby clearing his name.

Throughout I, Robot, Asimov strives to assert the 'humanity' of robots. In this sense, he is actively working against the 'Frankenstein pattern' most prevalent in literature up until that point in history: human creates machine, machine turns against its creator and wreaks havoc. Asimov detested that literary device and sought to subvert our expectations. In the process, he created an enduring work of art that cemented his place as one of the great science fiction writers. Robots and humans alike should thank him.