Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov – book review

Robot Visions is a collection of 18 short stories, and 16 essays, written by Isaac Asimov.  The stories were originally published between 1940 and 1976.  The essays were originally published between 1956 and 1974 (with a big gap in the middle somewhere).  I had not read any of Asimov’s work before I picked up this collection.  I would recommend it as a good starting point for people who want a glimpse into Asimov’s robots (and the way humans interact with them).

It includes a story called Runaround which was published in 1942.  This story is significant because it is the very first one in which Asimov specifically describes the Three Laws of Robotics.  It is those laws that govern the behavior of all of his robots.  Many other writers have adopted Asimov’s laws into their own science-fiction stories that involved robots.  People (like me) who have never read any of Asimov’s work are very likely to have a good understanding of the Three Laws of Robotics anyway.  They were extremely influential!

The story “Robbie” is another significant one.  It was first published in 1940.  The story is about a little girl who lives with her mother and father but spends most of her time playing with a robot caregiver named Robbie.  He reads her stories, plays games with her, and is her best friend.

The girl’s mother eventually decides that it isn’t healthy for her daughter to spend so much time with a robot, and so, she gets rid of Robbie.  This introduces the main problem in the story.  The girl, of course, wants Robbie back. Her mother tries to encourage her to find other interests.  The girl’s father, who happens to like robots, eventually finds an unexpected solution to the problem (which makes his daughter very happy).

For me, the most interesting thing about “Robbie” was that it included Asimov’s character Susan Calvin.  She’s only a minor character in “Robbie”.  The little girl in the story, Gloria, walks past her on her way to speak with a talking robot that is located in a museum.  Gloria’s questions to the robot confuse it, and Susan Calvin is listening and actively taking notes.  A quote from that story reads:

The girl in her mid-teens left at that point.  She had enough for her Physics-1 paper on “Practical Aspects of Robotics.”  This paper was Susan Calvin’s first of many on the subject.

In 1941, Asimov was imagining a world in which it was perfectly normal for a female “mid-teen” to be doing research for a paper on robotics (which she needed to write for her Physics class).  I did not expect to find that in a science-fiction story from 1941.

I’m writing this book review near the end of 2014, and we are currently in a world that has just recently realized that we need to encourage girls to get into STEM subjects.  We are in a world where women who want to work in tech related jobs are finding it very difficult just to get their applications considered. Women who do get hired in the tech industry are describing their workplaces as hostile to women, where their male co-workers make sexist jokes and hit on them.

In 2014, it became abundantly obvious that women who make video games, or critique them, can expect to receive death threats, rape threats, and to have their personal information posted online.  Some of these women had to leave their homes and get the police involved in order to keep themselves and their families safe.  Put all of this together, and it is easy to see why some teenage girls, or college aged women, are avoiding getting into the tech or gaming industries even when that is what they truly want to have a career in.  It simply isn’t safe.

I much prefer Asimov’s vision, of a world where it was unremarkable that a “mid-teen” girl was working on a robotics related Physics paper.  He presented it as quite normal.  Susan Calvin is a very minor character in the “Robbie” story.  Even so, I think her brief appearance is noteworthy, especially since Susan Calvin eventually became one of his major characters in several other of his robot stories that are included in this collection.

In 1941, Asimov’s story called “Liar!” was published.  Susan Calvin is one of the major characters in the story. She is working as a robot psychologist in a company called U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation.  Susan Calvin is the only woman who works there, and the only robot psychologist.  Her job is an important one and she is indispensable because she’s the only person who has her qualifications.  In this story, Susan is “not yet 40”.

While I liked that Asimov presented a character that was a woman, and who clearly was an important part of a robotics corporation (with quite a bit of power), I didn’t like what he did with this character in the story.  The main problem in this story is that they have accidentally created a robot that has the ability to read the emotions, and thoughts, of humans.  That alone is disconcerting.

Even worse, the robot has a unique viewpoint on the first law of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.  He believes that telling a human something that is true, but would hurt their feelings, would be a violation of that law.  As such, this robot starts telling the humans what they want to hear.  Obviously, this ends up leading to miscommunications.

It bothered me that what Susan Calvin was wanting, but not talking about, was one of her co-workers. Asimov has her develop a crush on a much younger male co-worker.  The robot tells her what she wants to hear, so she starts believing that this co-worker loves her back.

She starts smiling more, and wearing makeup, and dreaming of a future that simply won’t come to pass.  The men she works with notice and remark upon it to each other – in an unfavorable way.    Without giving away the ending, I can say that Susan takes action that could be viewed as acting out in rage (or not being in control of her emotions).

It was disappointing to see the promise of a young Susan Calvin – writing a Physics paper about robots – to be reduced to the stereotype that suggests that women are “too emotional” and therefore unreliable. Sure, she had a high position in the most technologically advanced company in Asimov’s “universe”.  This didn’t stop her co-workers from joking about her sudden use of makeup behind her back.

The “mid-teen” who was interested in robots grew up and got a position with some power to it in a company that makes robots.  Once there, despite her credentials, experience, and professionalism, she simply isn’t seen as an equal by her male colleagues.  So much for the bright future the initial appearance of Susan Calvin presented!

To his credit, the notes at the beginning of the Robot Visions book explain a bit about what happened to Susan Calvin in “Liar!”  He wrote:

The story was originally rather clumsily done, largely because it dealt with the relationship between the sexes at a time when I had not yet had my first date with a young lady.  Fortunately, I am a quick learner, and it is one story in which I made significant changes before allowing it to appear in “I, Robot”.

Asimov does redeem himself (at least, in my eyes) with some of his other stories that include Susan Calvin as a main character.  In “Evidence”, Susan Calvin accompanies Alfred Lanning (the man in charge of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation) to resolve a problem that might involve robots. In short, they are asked to help prove, or disprove, the notion that Steven Byerley is a robot who is passing himself off as a human.  Calvin and Lanning were hired to take on this task by Francis Quinn, a guy who just so happens to be running for the same political office as Steven Byerley.

Without giving away how this problem is resolved, I will point out that Susan Calvin’s insights into robotics, and her clear-headed observation of the events that take place in this story, are far above all the other characters.  She interprets things in a way that is quite different from what everyone else sees, makes good arguments for her viewpoint, and manages to keep the truth of the situation private.

The other thing I found very interesting about “Evidence” is that Asimov talks about “the Fundamentalists”.  In short, they are a group of people who hate robots.  Asimov describes them as:

They were not a political party; they made pretense to no formal religion.  Essentially, they were those who had not adapted themselves to what had once been called the Atomic Age, the days when atoms were a novelty. Actually, they were the Simple-Lifers, hungering after a life, which to those who had lived it, probably appeared not so Simple, and who had been, therefore, Simple-Lifers themselves.

Later in the story, the “Fundamentalists” are described as:

The Fundies have no real power.  They’re just a continuous irritant factor that might stir up a riot after a while.”

I found this to be fascinating!  Asimov envisioned a world in which the “Fundies” were neither a political group nor a religious faction – and they had no power.  This is so different from today where the “Fundies” are made up of a small, extremist, segment of various Christian religions, and who have quite a bit of power and influence over the Conservative/Republican politicians.

This is why, in 2014, we are still fighting for things like access to birth control and safe, legal abortion – 40 some years after Roe v Wade.  It is why politicians are pushing to inject religious concepts into science classes.  I prefer Asimov’s version of the Fundies: “a continuous irritant” that lacks the power to impose their inaccurate and harmful views on anyone else.  I’d like to see that version make it into reality, preferably before they destroy the quality of the science classes we are teaching our young people.

Susan Calvin really shines in a story called “Little Lost Robot”.  In this one, she (and other members of the company she works for) are asked to solve yet another unique problem that involves robots. A company has manufactured some robots that all look alike.  They don’t have serial numbers, or anything else, that would tell them apart.

Suddenly, one of them has gone missing.  Even worse, there now an “extra” robot that has appeared on a spaceship that is filled with these special robots and that is intended to leave the planet soon.  Time is running out for them to find the “lost” robot (which obviously isn’t behaving as it should be).  Susan Calvin is the one who comes up with a solution that forces the errant robot to reveal itself.  Of all the stories in this book, I found “Little Lost Robot” to have the most compelling problem to solve.

I may have given the impression that all of the stories in this book involve Susan Calvin.  That’s not the case.  A few stories are about Asimov’s characters Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan, who work with robots on a space station and later end up working with robots on the planet Mercury.

Several stories did not include these characters at all, instead focusing on new ones who appeared in just one of the stories within this collection.  In some stories, the robot is the main character.  In others, the reader doesn’t learn which character is a robot until the end of the story.

The collection also includes a sarcastically humorous Christmas story titled “Christmas Without Rodney”.  It is told from the viewpoint of the husband in the story whose wife gets the idea that they should give Rodney, their robot, a “vacation” during Christmas.  This becomes extremely problematic after the couple’s adult son, along with his unpleasant wife and spoiled child, come over for Christmas dinner.

I’ve focused most of this book review on the stories in the “Robot Visions” collection.  This is because I found them more engaging and entertaining than the essays.  This is not the fault of Asimov, however.

The essays were written over a number of years (with a big gap in the middle) and appeared in numerous publications.  As such, he had to repeat himself at times to make it relatable to audiences who may not have read much of, or any of, his work.  He ends up repeating the descriptions of the Three Laws of Robotics many times.  It makes sense to do so at the time the essays were written.  However, when they are all put together in book format, it gets a bit redundant.

That being said, I did find some concepts in the essays that surprised me.  For example, “The New Teachers”, which was published in 1976, describes a transition from learning taking place in classrooms to it becoming more self-directed.  Asimov describes the source of knowledge, and the means by which people access it and learn it, coming from something that I thought sounds a lot like the current version of the internet we all use today.

In an essay titled “The New Profession” (published in 1979) Asimov describes more about his character Susan Calvin:

I wrote other stories about Susan Calvin over the next few years, and as I described matters, she was born in 1982, went to Columbia, majored in robotics, and graduated in 2003.  She went on to do graduate work and by 2010 was working at a firm called U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc….

…There are some estimates that by the time my fictional Susan Calvin gets out of college, there will be 2 million robot technicians in the United States alone, and perhaps 6 million in the world generally.  Susan won’t be alone.  

As I write this book review, at the very end of 2014, it seems to me that the real world has yet to catch up with Asimov’s visions of it.  We don’t have humanoid shaped robots living in our homes as domestic servants and/or child minders.  However, we do have some colleges offering majors in robotics.  That’s a step in the right direction towards a world where Asimov’s robots exist.

The disappointing thing, though, is that Asimov’s concept of Susan Calvin not being “alone” refers only to her job as a robot psychologist. It is not clear that he specifically thought that there would be plenty of women who earned their degree in robotics and who went on to have a successful career in it, by 2010.

TechRepublic posted an article in July of 2014 titled “The state of women in technology: 15 data points you should know”. It points out the massive gender gap in the technology industry.

For example, in 2013, women made up only 26% of the computing workforce. “In the mid-1980’s, 37% of computer science majors were women; in 2012, 18%”. Only 20% of software developers are women. One study on Silicon Valley startups showed that only 12% of engineers were women.

There is hope, however. The same article noted that at the end of 2013, 15 million students participated in the “Hour of Code” campaign and wrote more than 500 million lines of code. More than half the participants were girls. In the spring of 2014, the University of California Berkeley changed the name of a class from “Introduction to Symbolic Programing” to “Beauty and the Joy of Computing” – which increased female enrollment by 50%.

Could there be a “Susan Calvin” – or several “Susan Calvins” – out there? I truly hope so. It seems were are just now reaching the tip of the iceberg of the “alternate universe” (for lack of a better description) that Isaac Asimov described in his short stories.

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2 comments to Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov – book review

  • Joanne Pransky  says:

    Actually, I am the World’s First Robotic Psychiatrist and Asimov himself dubbed me the real Susan Calvin in 1989.

  • Roy Wells  says:

    Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an android body? What about mind uploading? I do not believe that mind uploading will offer immortality or life extension because it will not actually be you. While it is a way to live on, you would just be able to see a new version of yourself from your old body. Even as an android, I imagine you may have difficulties. For instance, food and alcohol would not be the same. I have written a fictional story about a person who has uploaded his mind into a perfect android body. You would think he would be living in a dream. But he will find that his past will come back to haunt him. My story is called A New Self by Roy Wells. You can borrow the book for free if you have a Kindle and Amazon Prime. I hope you enjoy it!

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