I, Robot | Critical Essay by Darko Suvin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of I, Robot.
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Critical Essay by Darko Suvin

SOURCE: "Three World Paradigms for SF: Asimov, Yefremov, Lem," in Pacific Quarterly Moana, Vol. IV, No. 3, July, 1979, pp. 271-83.

Suvin is an educator, critic, and author of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) and Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction (1988). In the following excerpt from an essay in which he examines the ethics of technology in the science fiction writings of Asimov, Ivan Yefremov, and Stanislaw Lem, he examines the development of the robots—from "doll" in the first story to "god" in the last—in I, Robot.

The best works of SF [Science Fiction] have long since ceased to be crude adventure studded with futuristic gadgets, whether of the "space opera" or horror-fantasy variety. In several essays, I have argued that SF is a literary genre of its own, whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the interaction of estrangement (Verfremdung, ostranenie, distanciation) and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment. Such a genre has a span from the romans scientifiques of Jules Verne to the social-science-fiction of classical utopias and dystopias. Its tradition is as old as literature—as the marvelous countries and beings in tribal tales, Gilgamesh or Lucian—but the central figure in its modern renaissance is H.G. Wells. His international fame, kept at least as alive in Mitteleuropa and Soviet Russia as in English-speaking countries, has done very much to unify SF into a coherent international genre. Yet, no doubt, these major cultural contexts discussed in this essay, their traditions and not always parallel development in our century, have also given rise to somewhat diverging profiles or paradigms for SF. I want here briefly to explore those paradigms in the most significant segment of post-Wellsian SF development, that after the Second World War….

[Isaac Asimov's] I, Robot (1950) is a series of nine short stories detailing the development of robots "from the beginning, when the poor robots couldn't speak, to the end, when they stand between mankind and destruction." The stories are connected thematically and chronologically, and also supplied with a flimsy framework identifying them as looks backward from 2057/58 by "robopsychologist" Susan Calvin. She is being interviewed after 50 years of pioneering work at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., during which time the robots have won out against reactionary opposition from labour unions and "segments of religious opinion." On the surface, this is a "future history" on the model of Bellamy's sociological or Wells' biological extrapolations. It is based on two premises: first, that except for one factor human behaviour and the social system—e.g. press reporters and giant corporations—will remain unchanged; second, that the new, change-bearing factor will be the epoch-making technological discovery of "positronic brain-paths," permitting mass fabrication of robots with intelligence comparable to human. The robots are constructed so as to obey without fail Asimov's famous 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. [I, Robot]

Now [Stanislaw] Lem himself has persuasively demonstrated that such robots are logically unrealizable [in his "Robots in Science Fiction," in SF: The Other Side of Realism, edited by T.D. Clarendon, 1971]. This ingenious mimicry of the Decalogue and the Kantian categorical imperative in the form of Newtonian laws cannot therefore be taken at all seriously as a basis of prophetic extrapolation, and the stories can be read only as analogies to very human relationships. The nine stories form a clear sequence of growing robotic capacities. In the first story, "Robbie", an early model is mute playmate for a little girl, and functions as a huge doll—and yet, melodramatically, as the girl's saviour. In "Runaround", the next model is a drunken servant who functions as a stereotyped plantation "darkie". In "Reason", the robot is a comic-opera idolator who functions as an immature philosopher. In "Catch That Rabbit", an adult, "Head of family" robot collapses under stress, analogous to a psychotic. The fifth and central story "Liar", is a pivot in this progression of robotic power in relation to men. By now, the new model is a telepath who is capable of turning the tables on them, and severely perturbing the life even of the leading expert Susan (incidentally, this proves the Laws of Robotics wrong). In "Escape", the new model is a "child genius", steering a spaceship to unknown galaxies (a feat conveniently dropped as factor of change in later stories), who behaves as a superior practical joker. In "Evidence", a robot undistinguishable from man becomes city mayor in a career that will lead him to become president of the Federated Regions of Earth. Finally, in "The Evitable Conflict" the positronic brains have grown into not only a predicting but also a manipulating machine "in absolute control of our economy"—literally, a deus ex machina. Thus, this clever sequence of "the Nine Ages of Robot" leads from the doll of the first to the god of the last story: and doll turning into god is a good approximate definition of fetishism, a topsy-turvy kind of technological religion. As in Saint-Simonism, of which it is a variant, there are no workers in Asimov's universe, the army and corporation bosses are only figureheads, and the real lovable heroes are the efficient engineers, including Susan Calvin, the "human engineering" expert of behaviourist psychology. In fact, all humans are cardboard stereotypes compared to the more vivid robots who act as analogies to traditional human functions. This view of the benevolent, sometimes comic but finally providential robots and their rise to absolute power amounts to a wishful parable of the sociopolitical result, correlative to presumably perfect scientific ethics. As Dostoevski's Grand Inquisitor, it chooses security over freedom in post-Depression U.S.A.

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This section contains 989 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Darko Suvin