I, Robot | Critical Essay by Donald M. Hassler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of I, Robot.
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Critical Essay by Donald M. Hassler

SOURCE: "Some Asimov Resonances from the Enlightenment," in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 15, No. 44, March, 1988, pp. 36-47.

Hassler is an educator, poet, and author of Comic Tones in Science Fiction (1982) and Isaac Asimov (1989). In the following essay which focuses on I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy, he explores Asimov's use of Enlightenment philosophy, with particular emphasis on the law and order ideas of John Locke, William Godwin's principle of Necessity, and John Calvin's religious determinism.

One difficulty in describing the SF [Science Fiction] that Asimov continues to produce stems from his rational drive for coherence and unified generality. Like all "scientific" thinkers who have written after the methodological revolution of John Locke and the other reformers of the new science, Asimov can never leave his best ideas alone. He must continually elaborate and link new insights to old on the assumption that accumulating and interlocked knowledge is the only sort of valid knowledge. His continual moves toward the general, even the abstract, can be seen both in the long time schemes of his future history and in the conceptual ideas of his own, implicit (and left open-ended) throughout his writings. Moreover, Asimov, along with other "hard SF" writers, seems to question the absolute insights of intuitive or "inspired" art by affirming the Lockean methodology of gradual accumulation. This is not to say that the images (e.g. of robots and Empire) at the core of Asimov's fiction are totally logical, transparent, and systematically arranged for purposes of Lockean, open-ended accumulation. In spite of himself, the clear and coherent rationalist contacts depths of meaning that are sometimes not on the surface. In other words, the resonance in both I, Robot and the Foundation trilogy seems to me significant; and that resonance or echoing is consistently from the 18th-century Enlightenment.

I will suggest here some ways in which Asimov's ideas on robotics and on history in these two early fictions, both of which are collections of shorter pieces written in the decade of the '40s for Astounding, remind us of key dilemmas stemming from our Enlightenment heritage. These dilemmas always balance "truth" against method, so that followers of the Enlightenment (and I believe Asimov is one of these) continually discover that the most effective methodology leads to the most "indeterminate" conclusions. I am not arguing that Asimov is a conscious scholar of his roots in this context, though any critic would have to think carefully before maintaining positively that Asimov is not consciously aware of some idea. Rather, I simply think it helps in understanding these remarkable and seminal longer fictions from the Campbell years to suggest their echoes from the Enlightenment. Also, though Asimov continues to make use of these ideas in much of his fiction written after these two works, to cover all the work through his most recent Foundation and Earth (1986) would be much too vast a topic for this essay.

One additional qualification needs to be stated at the outset—a qualification pointing to an entirely different essay that a critic of mine might write, or rather that several fine critics have been at work on for some time. I find that the resonances in Asimov echo more directly from the 18th-century Enlightenment with little benefit from the more organic, 19th-century reworkings of notions about history and about mechanism. Hence Asimov seems somewhat of an anachronism, even anathema, to more comprehensive inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition. Specifically, the images for cybernetics and robotics, along with the ideas which they imply, in the work of Stanislaw Lem and John Sladek as well as many other modernists, suggest more tonal and organic complexities and interfaces than Asimov allows for in his work. Similarly, historical determinism as understood by Marxist critics represents a quantum leap in complexity over Asimov and his 18th-century precursors. But Asimov is complex enough and interesting in his evasive anachronism. So it is the story of his ideas I am telling here rather than the total story of the ideas themselves. Certainly Asimov has been taken to task for being too simple; I intend to describe some of this "simpleness" more sympathetically than critics who are convinced that it is too narrow have been able to do. After all, one tenet of the 18th-century Enlightenment was clarity of vision; but this is not to say that the more complex shadows and "ghostlier demarcations" may not also be interesting. As unifying devices for I, Robot, Asimov employs both the character of Dr Susan Calvin and the Three Laws of Robotics. Both devices seem to me, also, imbued with resonance from the Enlightenment.

In his fine introduction to the whole canon of Asimovian SF up to but not including the recent outpouring of new Foundation and robot novels, James Gunn [in Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, 1982] has worked out the "fixed-up" chronology for Calvin's life and spinster's career at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. and how that scientific career as "robopsychologist" interacts with key product robots and other employees. There are other psychologists in the early short stories, even one or two "robopsychologists"; but Susan Calvin is special. She supplies not only the unity of I, Robot as a collection but also part of the Enlightenment resonance that makes this such an important book. Writing in an August 1952 "Foreword" to one of the early hardcover editions of the "novel," the anthologist Groff Conklin comments: "[Miss Calvin's] name may have been chosen by the author with a wry eye on the significance of … Calvinism" (n. p.). John Calvin, in fact, laid out a general framework, a time scheme and a theological set of assumptions, that did much to permit the gradualism of the secular Enlightenment and ultimately the technological and moral experimentation that Susan Calvin devotes her life to advancing. Calvin's move to posit an immensely long time scheme, along with a built-in "uncertainty" about any one particular judgment or "election" that God might hand down, did much to liberate thinkers for the gradual experimentation necessary in modern science. A recent critic who makes suggestions similar to those I am making here writes that Calvin, more than Vico or Spengler, ought to be a "likely candidate" for influencing the vast temporal frameworks characteristic of both Enlightenment science and hard SF:

Do we not catch a glimpse in these 'time charts' and thousand-year sagas of a return of the repressed Calvinistic background of the modern sciences? Without a doubt Calvin would be horrified, could he return from the grave, to see where his ideas have led, yet we could hardly underestimate the significance of his role in undermining the sacramental world picture which had prevailed throughout the [M]iddle [A]ges and thus laying the ground for a rational investigation of natural phenomena [David Clayton, "What Makes Hard Science Fiction, 'Hard,'" in Hard Science Fiction, edited by George E. Slusser & Eric S. Rakin, 1986].

I think this resonance fits Asimov perfectly although the theology itself, of course, is never his. He might prefer to invoke the immensely long and gradual history of the Israelites, which does, in fact, seem calculated to postpone indefinitely any absolute appearance of final truth. But the name Susan Calvin reminds us of the Puritan work ethic, and she does work long and hard—and has still not arrived at any absolute truth at the age of 82, when she dies. Asimov has commented in numerous places how he loves this character and has her say finally, "I will see no more. My life is over. You will see what comes next" (I, Robot). Verbs for seeing, I think, are no accident in the usage of an Enlightenment heroine.

Moreover, the adjectives used to describe this driven robopsychologist whose presence does so much for unifying I, Robot complement what Asimov correctly labels at the beginning of the book as her "cold enthusiasm"—"thin-lipped," "frosty pupils." Such ideological excitement as presumably she shares with the other workers at US Robots and, of course, with Asimov himself focusses on the virtues of control, pattern, predictability. The resonance I see here is not only with the great advocate of complete control, John Calvin, but also with that secular determinist of the end of the 18th century: William Godwin. Discarding all theological reference, Godwin simply "believed in" a coherence and order that governed all systems. Hence what he called "Necessity," which many critics have described in terms that resemble Calvinistic determinism rather than a strictly mechanistic determinism, seems to be echoed in Asimov's final story in I, Robot, which I will describe next, as well as in Asimov's world of the Foundations.

In "The Evitable Conflict," benevolent machines seem able to anticipate and control all events in a way that sounds much like the completeness of Necessity in Godwin; and at the same time Susan Calvin's "enthusiasm" is clear as she says finally:

… it means that the Machine is conducting our future for us not only simply in direct answer to our direct questions, but in general answer to the world situation and to human psychology as a whole…. Think, that for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable.

Asimov's youthful wordplay over "evitable" and "inevitable" will grow into a more sophisticated wit in the later novels where robotics play important roles. But his celebration of large, general systems (along with the implicit realization of the dilemma in the need to keep systems open-ended and hence "indeterminate") seems clearly to be linked to the cool wordplay that he gives to Susan here.

In order to reach such high levels of reliable generality, Calvin and her US Robots colleagues had to devise the simple calculus of the Three Laws of Robotics and then continually try out the balancing and interaction of the laws in all their combinations and permutations. Those continual games of "if this, then the next" consume the stories in I, Robot and provide a further resonance with Godwinian Necessity. Not only is the general outcome of such a grand scheme as Necessity or the "Machines" completely reliable and determined, but also the continual adjustments and "calculus" of the relations within the scheme are continually fascinating. It is as though Susan Calvin, Asimov, and any other such generalist and determinist has both nothing at stake and, at the same time, must always be making adjustments to their system. The belief in Necessity or in the overall general and benevolent outcome frees the "player," in fact, to manipulate the calculus of the game.

Calvinistic theology as well as Godwinian Necessity and Asimovian Robotics all liberate a sort of freeplay of will due to the most general sort of overall system. Such a paradox of free will existing within and because of a rigid system has been agonized over most by the theologians in ways that are inappropriate for this discussion, but the echoes from Godwin in the Enlightenment Asimov should be listened to if we are to hear the real effects of the Susan Calvin narratives. Here is a key passage from Godwin writing about Necessity—both the overall determinism and the individual moves in the calculus—that resounds all through the cool, hard work of Susan Calvin in I, Robot:

… if the doctrine of necessity do not annihilate virtue, it tends to introduce a great change into our ideas respecting it…. The believer in free-will, can expostulate with, or correct, his pupil, with faint and uncertain hopes, conscious that the clearest exhibition of truth is impotent, when brought into contest with the unhearing and indisciplinable faculty of will; or in reality, if he were consistent, secure that it could produce no effect. The necessarian on the contrary employs real antecedents, and has a right to expect real effects.

Godwin's matter-of-fact dismissal of free will as just too absurdly random suggests Asimov's firm ending to I, Robot, with its notion that the machines control all reactions but disguise this total control because they know that a full realization of total control would cause mental anguish or "harm" to humans. Similarly, the three Laws themselves (or three "rules" of robotics as they are labelled in the first story where Asimov mentions them explicitly—"Runaround") seem hardly profound or a great invention of the imagination. They are "neutral," as one recent critic has noted [see Alessandro Portelli, "The Three Laws of Robotics: Laws of the Text, Laws of Production, Laws of Society," Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 7, 1980, pp. 150-56]. Over the years they have gone on to have almost a life of their own as "ideas" outside of the fiction. Usually they are listed and worded with a sort of Godwinian flatness and their position and function in I, Robot is forgotten or confused. It was in the 1942 Astounding story, however, and in a fictional dialogue between Powell and Donovan, who are the key "right stuff" associates of Calvin, that the Three Laws first appear:

'And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.'

'Right! Now where are we?'

Donovan and Powell could figure out exactly where they were and did solve their problem on Mercury, but it would take more robot stories and finally the book I, Robot itself for Asimov to know what a fine gimmick he had invented. Finally, of course, he doctored all the stories in the "novel" so that they would be consistent with the Three Laws.

Further, just as Godwin paradoxically insists (like Calvin before him), that the believer in Necessity will work even harder to make things happen in this world, so Asimov's roboticists (and the robots themselves in his most recent fictions) never tire of discussing and trying to manipulate some implication of these three simple statements in relation to one another. The paradox is simply that the apparent certainty liberates continual and near-infinite permutations. Though, as in "Runaround," this continual balancing act often "strikes an equilibrium [whereby] … Rule 3 drives him back and Rule 2 drives him forward," the permutations of all the robots seem infinite. And so the accomplishment lies not only with the general outcome of "control" but also with the tinkering; it is a wonderful example of Asimov's inventiveness how complex and variable the Three Laws become.

Godwinian inclinations toward such clarity of analysis and such control may seem inhuman, even monstrous, so that Robotics itself, even though the Laws are benevolent towards humans, takes on the effects of the very Frankenstein motif that Asimov was trying to avoid. It is the continual acknowledgment of what I would call the calculus of complexity, however, that keeps Asimov himself lively and benevolent and "human" in his writing, especially his writing on the robots. He always is trying to teach and to clarify, and the material itself contains layer upon layer of complexity.

The series of stories dealing with the Foundation that was evolving at the same time as the robot series in the 1940s is not only the fiction that Asimov is best known for but also, perhaps, best exemplifies his inclinations towards the general and, in this case, towards the human and towards storytelling. In addition to his numerous autobiographical reminiscences about this remarkable invention of the Foundation trilogy, Asimov's 1953 venture into full-fledged literary criticism with his essay for Reginald Bretnor entitled "Social Science Fiction" is both close enough to the actual writing of the stories and candid enough to be very helpful. Asimov has become increasingly more coy about doing literary criticism himself—perhaps because he has come to see more clearly and to take more seriously "hard SF" writing as radical and important. But as the Foundation trilogy was first appearing in book form, what he had to say about the genre in general reveals a great deal about what he himself had accomplished by that time and about his set of mind and its debt to the Enlightenment.

First of all, he effectively disassociates himself from the "gadget" materialism of SF writers by defining what he and Campbell have been interested in as the influence of social change and history—viz., "people movement" rather than "gadgets." Further, Asimov makes clear in this essay both his knowledge of the revolutionary changes that took place in the 18th century and his admiration for the "discovery of history" that had not been truly possible prior to the Enlightenment because humans had not experienced fundamental change:

if science fiction is to deal with fictitious societies as possessing potential reality rather than as being nothing more than let's-pretend object lessons, it must be post-Napoleonic. Before 1789 human society didn't change as far as the average man was concerned and it was silly, even wicked, to suppose it could. After 1815, it was obvious to any educated man that human society not only could change but that it did. ("Social Science Fiction")

The fact that the young chemistry student at Columbia read as much history as he did is remarkable in itself. Later in the 1953 essay he identifies more fully this continuing fascination with the details of human history that provided story outlines for many of the narratives in the trilogy: "I wrote other stories, the germs of whose ideas I derived from the histories of Justinian and Belisarius, Tamerlane and Bajazet, John and Pope Innocent III." L. Sprague de Camp speaks of his and Asimov's "Toynbeean period" in the late '40s; and Asimov himself recollects that when he originally proposed to Campbell a tale about the fall of a Galactic Empire and a return to feudalism, this seemed perfectly natural to him since he "had read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not once but twice" ("The Story Behind….). Such omnivorous reading in youth may be exaggerated as both statements are reminiscences occasioned by the appearance of a new Foundation title; but there is no question that whereas the recent sequels fuse with the robot novels and introduce other themes, the original trilogy is overwhelmingly permeated by Gibbon, Toynbee, and the whole sweep of history seen from the perspective of a remarkable young man's readings.

I suggest further that in addition to this fascination with cycles in Toynbee, with pessimism in Gibbon, and with the whole detailed vista of Roman history as it modulated from repeated intrigue to resistance to forward movement to second-stage collapse, Asimov also knew Old Testament history. The Bible would have provided him with similar patterns of cycles. Certainly the continuing sense of exile and lament for a destroyed Jerusalem suggests the lost glory of Trantor as much as a fallen Rome does. And the early Church hidden within the declining Empire is a sort of "type and symbol" for a Second Foundation, even if Gibbon would not agree. Certainly present-day interpretations of the Bible by Fundamentalists as well as the long record of traditional interpretation would not agree with the notion of such open-ended movement; but from John Calvin's vision of a long future, mentioned earlier in this essay, to the "opening up" of history in the 18th century, such widening patterns in biblical history seem more viable. My main point here is not to insist on specific parallels, but I think history itself, and specifically the future history modelled on the reading of history as students have known it since the Enlightenment, must be acknowledged first as the major theme in these Foundation stories that epitomize Asimov's own description of social SF.

In other words, the vision of open-ended possibility and the full recognition of "change" in society that so characterized the revolution of the Enlightenment that Asimov talks about in his 1953 essay and that he had imaged in his trilogy manifested itself not only in the permutations and analyses of robotics but also in the realization of the nature of history itself. Historiography from Gibbon and Hume to Asimov himself contains nothing that can be called "absolute." Rather it recounts continuing movement from one faction to another, by spurts and long slow declines, with repeated variations on the images of equilibrium and disequilibrium.

Just as one can see few absolute truths in the panorama of change and history, so Asimov's texts are never set in stone; he correlatively seems quite comfortable with the publishing practices that made up the commercial "relativism" of pulp SF. Whereas texts of nostalgic "high art" in our scientific age will be early standardized to be set in type the same way each time as though "absolute" (I think of the standard paging in various teaching editions of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Asimov had to accept a more fluid state of the text effecting the Foundation trilogy even after the stories had become books. For example, the first novel becomes The 1,000-Year Plan in a drastically cut 1955 edition that sold for 25 cents. Asimov did not seem to mind. Further, he has updated his texts in accordance with changes in scientific knowledge and terminology—which would seem to confirm that he sees little of permanence and absoluteness about "art." Not only the publishing practices, then, but the "tinkering" and continual rational manipulation in Asimov speaks more of the open-endedness of science than of the absolute values of art. In his essay "The Story Behind Foundation," written to introduce the surge of sequel writing which began to appear in 1982, Asimov anticipates new scientific findings that he can now incorporate into the narrative:

The Foundation series had been written at a time when our knowledge of astronomy was primitive compared with what it is today. I could take advantage of that and at least mention black holes, for instance. I could also include electronic computers, which had not been invented until I was half through with the series.

Even before the sequel writing, however, he was quietly altering "atomic" to "nuclear" throughout the trilogy in line with post-war nomenclature.

Similarly, the sense of permanence in the text of I, Robot seems to take a back seat to the coherence of the ideas as they evolve in Asimov's mind over time. For example, the story "Reason" appeared in Astounding (1941) before the Three Laws of Robotics had been articulated by Asimov and Campbell; but in the book Asimov includes an updated paragraph in "Reason" that makes the Laws explicit (I, Robot). Scholars of the future are bound to have particular troubles with the texts and the setting of the texts for SF works if the attempt is ever made to "establish" them as high art and thus to standardize a text.

Though neither history nor art itself is able to supply Absolute Truths in the Foundation trilogy, it does have its general ideas and themes that momentarily and in their changeableness do catch our imaginations as the best substitute we can have for absolutism. More than the continual variations on political or military intrigue in the plot, which I have said echo the continual intrigues in history itself, these general themes woven into the trilogy are what affect the reader. Some of the most important themes are, in fact, representative of the rational urge in Asimov always to move to the general. These emerge from the overall tale of Hari Seldon's plan through the "science" of psychohistory to lessen the chaotic effects of declining control within the Galactic Empire and to establish a new "Enlightenment" by means of the Foundation that he institutes on the planet Terminus working in continuing tension with the Second Foundation.

The first general idea is an echo not from the fall of the Roman Empire, although I suppose the hidden and ameliorative influence of the early Church is a "foundational" resonance here, so much as it is a set of images from the 18th-century Enlightenment. Certainly the major activity of the Seldon psychohistorians is work on the Encyclopedia Galactica, which is quoted from periodically throughout the trilogy; and the echo here is to the massive French work, done also by a small army of "new scientists"—Diderot and his cohorts—that helped both to overthrow the ancien régime in the 18th century and to "enlighten" the darkness following the decline of that Regime.

But history itself, or the whole record of human activity over time, is also the theme as we read about these future encyclopédistes. The important effect is the general notion about history that is stated, perhaps, most clearly in Foundation and Empire, the second book, though it is implicit in the entire set of stories. Here is an expression of the consternation felt by the villain, Bel Riose, in the face of Necessity:

Riose's voice trembled with indignation. 'You mean that this art of his predicts that I would attack the Foundation and lose such and such a battle for such and such a reason? You are trying to say that I am a silly robot following a predetermined course into destruction.'

'No,' replied the old patrician, sharply. 'I have already said that the science had nothing to do with individual actions. It is the vaster background that has been foreseen.'

'Then we stand clasped tightly in the forcing hand of the Goddess of Historical Necessity.'

'Of Psycho-Historical Necessity,' prompted Barr, softly. (Foundation and Empire).

It should be noted that Asimov has Riose call himself a "silly robot" in this passage—which suggests that the inevitability of the Three Laws of Robotics also carries with it the sad cancelling out of individual actions.

There is much sadness in such "determinism" for the individual actor, and that sadness is the second major general idea to consider. In a real way, also, it is simply another facet of the image of decline that is inevitable over vast stretches of time—the same sublime sense of cycles that gave such energy to "Nightfall" and that Asimov indeed found validated in his readings of the historians from Hume and Gibbon on, even to the great events of the then-ongoing Second World War. When cycles themselves and vast wars are the main "heroes" in history, individuals like Bel Riose do indeed feel overshadowed. Such a sense of eclipse and small "modernness" can be seen best in the key villain of the trilogy, the mutant and sad man, strangely named the Mule, who is able to alter emotions. Gunn [in Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, 1982] has noted how much Asimov did seem to like this character of the Mule, as is evident in the fact that the Mule figures in more stories than any other individual except for Hari Seldon. His very role of being an enemy to all other forces in the Galaxy, including the Foundation, and yet promoting the eventual benevolent outcomes of the Seldon Plan through his antagonistic acts illustrates the predetermined sense of historical destiny that causes all "moderns" at any given time to experience this sense of sadness.

The second important theme I notice, then, is nostalgia for the lost glory of individual heroism balanced nicely with a full acceptance and celebration of smaller, limited "modernness." In fact, this is the motif of the Ancients versus the Moderns, or the lament for lost Golden Ages coupled with the realization of the advantages in an Iron Age. I think Asimov also learned this from the Enlightenment. It is the Georgic mode that informs so much 18th-century literature—an age in which people were coming to terms with the complexities and limits of the peculiar "modernness" that the scientific revolution and economic and socio-political changes brought with them. Regardless of how deeply scholarship can measure this resonance, however, the theme seems clear in the trilogy. The Mule is a strangely limited leader. He spends much of his time disguised as the court fool, Magnifico, and sadly, like his namesake, he is lonely and infertile. In other words, "Moderns" are small and limited compared to the "Ancients." The technology, including the robotics, of an Iron Age such as ours mirrors our beliefs in system and in "corporate" action. The individual hero has been replaced by steady progress in robotics and in other Iron Age techniques and, as in the 18th-century Georgic, the tone in Asimov's expression of this tradeoff is mixed.

Similarly, the Iron Age adaptability of the Foundation itself seems well worked out by Asimov to contrast with the glory of Empire. Nuclear devices must be small in the Foundation. Traders and other leaders are always somewhat imperfect and ineffectual as individuals; only the Plan itself is ultimately effective. Further, the Foundation itself is always working far out and on the periphery of the Galaxy, and even the Second Foundation, located at the other "end," is hidden and small. This translation that Asimov cleverly makes of the cycles of history and of the spiral shape of our Galaxy into the mysterious loops that eventually bring readers to discover the Second Foundation back on Trantor suggests the non-heroic peripheral details of a "modern" technological age. Over against Golden Age, titanic heroism, such as the "giants" in the sixth chapter of Genesis, we moderns can survive by means of the micro-electronics of a continually changing Iron Age technology. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, and one of the most mysterious has to do with the fact that grand results are accomplished by means of small, peripheral modern men.

Thus a final overall theme brings us back to the role of generalization and to the centrality of humans. It is significant that a concluding key figure in this massive narrative is a writer, the future novelist Arkady Darell, just as a journalist is a key point of view character in "Nightfall." But the real hero of the trilogy is the sublime history of humankind itself. And it is this large vision, which only the Enlightenment could take, that ultimately—and poignantly—submerges even the individual heroism of the writer. The more telling way of conceptualizing this effect is in terms of the general idea itself. (In this way, William Godwin, who was after all also a novelist, is further seen as a key prototype.) Here is Hari Seldon himself speaking at his trial, which provides the focus for the shorter initial piece that Asimov wrote last as the book publication was being readied:

'I shall not be alive half a decade hence,' said Seldon, 'and yet.. [the future] is of overpowering concern to me. Call it idealism. Call it an identification of myself with that mystical generalization to which we refer by the term, "man."' (Foundation)

When he writes the later sequels, Asimov will have his robot heroes come back to this big generalization about "man." The important thing to see here, then, is his move again to the large general idea. Therefore, just as I, Robot toys with permutations in laws that echo Godwinian Necessity, so the early Foundation stories support this paradoxically liberating vision of "system" that both orders and submerges—with the added notion, confirmed by the Enlightenment, of a vast, yet anthropocentric history.

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