Book Review: “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

cover-i-robotOne of the most important responsibilities of a parent is choosing appropriate reading material for their children.  Books contain a wealth of ideas, and while exploring different ideas is a good activity for adults to do on a regular basis, one needs to take into account that children’s minds are not yet sufficiently developed to evaluate ideas morally or logically.  Children need protection from bad or infectious ideas.  Ideas such as, “you are useless”, “you need to respect force”, “you are responsible for other people’s problems”, “you owe the government allegiance”, “the media are trustworthy”, “casual sex is harmless and fun”, “all religions are peaceful and good”, and so on.  There are literally hundreds of very bad ideas being fed to children while their brains are not yet sufficiently developed to evaluate the merit of these ideas and filter out the harmful ones.  For this reason, I urge parents to read whatever their children are reading and make sure you introduce intelligent challenges to these bad ideas to prevent your children from becoming slaves to self-destructive ideas. It is also useful for parents to read book reviews of popular books children might read so they get an idea of just how dangerous some insidious ideas can be if absorbed by children during the formative years of their intellectual development.

I first read Isaac Asimov’s book, I, Robot, when I was sixteen years old.  I remember thoroughly enjoying the book at the time.  Last week, feeling nostalgic, I decided to read it again.  After all, rereading books as an adult that one used to enjoy when one was young often leads to profoundly different interpretations and self-learning.  Last month, for example, I reread H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and was more impressed with it now than I was reading it when I was ten years old.  However, I, Robot does not stand the same test of time as well as The Time Machine.  There were subtle and not so subtle political overtones in the entire book.

The first thing that struck me as odd was just how ridiculously emotional and imaginative the robots were.  These robots were not at all operating remotely like real life robots do; they were far more like well trained dogs in their operation: well-meaning, but inept due to lack of insight.  I had been lead to believe that Asimov was a science fiction writer and would therefore know more about computer science.  In the real scientific world, robots do not get drunk, they do not sing nursery rhymes, and they most certainly do not create sun worshipping cults.  As plot devices, these are clever or at least amusing, however, certainly not something I would expect to find in genuine science fiction.  It was only after I reached the closing chapters of the book that it dawned on me: These robots are the proletariat, they are based on the Soviet ideal of a man with a dog’s heart: mindlessly obedient to a central planning authority.  They even eventually staged a peaceful revolution against the regressive pro-humanity (nationalist) organisation and bring in a new world order of a single world government and robot-directed central planning, while the state withers away as predicted in the Communist Manifesto.

The reason why I mention nationalism is that Asimov specifically comments about nationalism as an evil force in the world and that it is a good thing that it is being eroded away and the Earth is turning into a single united political entity.  It is typical of communists to talk about nationalism as evil specifically because nationalism is ideologically opposed to communism which is a globalist ideology.  Communists will talk about the evils of nationalism, as Asimov does, and completely ignore the literally hundreds of millions of lives destroyed and people murdered or starved to death by communist regimes.

The dishonesty of Marxist authors like Asimov in this regard needs to be challenged.  If your teenage children are reading this book it is important to ask them questions like:

“Why are communists so critical of nationalism?”
“What is nationalism?”
“What is communism?”
“What is Cultural Marxism?”
“What is Critical Theory?”
“How many people have been killed by communism and how did they die?”

“Why would cultural Marxists, like Asimov, deliberately write books with a negative portrayal of Nationalism but a positive portrayal of central planning like that undertaken by the USSR?”

However, I am getting ahead of myself.  Let’s go through these matters in more detail.

There are some things I genuinely liked about this book.  It is effectively a series of short stories tied together by the “robots are gradually taking over” theme.  Each of these short stories has a delightfully original and intelligent plotline to it.  Furthermore, the various protagonists have to use cunning and logical thinking to solve the dilemmas they find themselves in, often coming up with ingenious solutions that entice the reader to keep reading.

As a I previously mentioned, Asimov’s robots are absurd.  They have emotions, something that is explained away because of their positronic brains having emotional algorithms implanted into them.  This is absurd because what separates human minds from machine minds is the capacity for emotion.  Give a computer emotions and it ceases to be a machine, but becomes a living organism able to dream, plan, organise, and direct its own behaviour like an animal can.  If these robots have emotions, then they are sentient, thinking beings.  If the robots don’t have emotions, then they are strictly limited to their programming, slavishly obeying it.  If the robots do have emotions, then they are in control of themselves and are companions to humans, not their servants.  At no point does Asimov ever address this issue, a startling omission for a science fiction writer.

Here one can ask questions like:

“What makes a work science fiction?”
“How is science fiction different to fiction?”
“Does calling them robots, when they do not act or think like robots make any sense?”
“What could the motivation be to call something a different name deliberately?”
“What is euphemism and dysphemism?”

The fact that there is so little science in his science fiction leads me to think this is political fiction, not science fiction.  These emotional robots are clearly slaves, slaves programmed with a set of laws which force them to put the needs of humanity ahead of their own needs.  This conflict between their own needs and the needs of their masters creates all sorts of neuroses, making the job of a “robo-pyschologist” a real occupation in this future world.  In the book it is explained that is it so expensive to manufacture a robot that it is worth the expense to fix them with robo-psychologists rather than to scrap them and build a replacement.  Here I have to ask why Asimov’s grasp of economics and manufacturing was so poor?  Was it because he was a communist and not interested in other economic theories that contradicted his cherished beliefs?  Also, these robots are clearly treated as though they have equal value to human beings, again raising the question: are these really robots or are they a metaphor for the working class?  The female robo-psychologist is supportive and approving of their takeover.

Every time a robot is given a problem for which there is no solution, they overload their circuits and essentially die.  These robots are incredibly fragile to inputs that are out of range.  As every computer scientist knows, when you give a computer a problem it can’t solve, such as “divide by zero”, it halts unless a failsafe is put into the design to avoid it ever actually attempting to process such impossible inputs.  I could not help but laugh at how ridiculous Asimov’s robots were.  Especially when the solution to this problem was eventually revealed to be to design the robots to simply ignore data that was out of range of previous data.  If the temperature reported to it from a weather station was outside the established mean and deviation, it would simply ignore this information so that it wouldn’t malfunction.  These robots were so fragile to information that contradicted their expectations, they simply ignored it.  One robot actually created a whole sun worshipping cult because it could not believe a place such as Earth full of billions of people could exist. This wilful ignorance of data one does not want to accept is a symptom of a highly emotional and irrational being.  Yet, Asimov actually praises this kind of sloppy thinking.  Why might a communist praise wilful ignorance of inconvenient facts?  Especially in light of the millions of people murdered by communist regimes.

The robots are oppressed on Earth with a planet-wide ban because white people (yes, it actually singles out white countries as the places where anti-robot people live) are afraid of them.  No rational reason for this objection to robots is put forward; it is framed as being merely prejudice. Because of this ban, the only place robots are allowed to exist is in space, and so the robots live in exile and eventually established themselves on Earth disguised as humans and take it over through political means.  On the one hand,  this follows a standard heroic narrative in which a young hero is exiled, has to grow stronger from the challenges he faces in exile, and returns home as a wise and precious member of the community.  On the other hand, it is also an allegory of the Marxist view of the proletariat.  The robots are put down purely because of prejudice by the ruling class (Asimov implies it was specifically rich and powerful white people who were opposed to the robots) and eventually rise to power to create a benevolent communist dictatorship.

More questions to ask younger readers of this book:

“Why would Asimov want to suggest that white people, specifically wealthy and powerful white people, are simply incorrigibly bigoted?”
“What prejudices does this reveal about Asimov?”
“What might Asimov want the reader to believe and why?”

Any characters who are anti-robot are viewed as having significant character defects, such as rudeness, arrogance, anger problems, and inferiority complexes, while those who are pro-robot and especially open to the robot stealth takeover of Earth are portrayed with more positive traits, such as being more mature, accepting, rational, and ethical.  These differences are subtle at first, but it becomes increasingly obvious as one progressed through the book.

More questions:

“Why would Asimov want to associate in the reader’s mind the idea that people who were against the robot/proletariat revolution with primitive and regressive?”
“What are the consequences of such ideas being implanted in the minds of the young?”
“What are the consequences of having the idea ‘new things are better than old’ being subtly implanted into people’s minds?”

Remote control technology is a big deal in the modern world and, in fact, Asimov’s robots are capable of communicating with each other through their mysterious positronic brains.  Again, it is lazy writing for a science fiction writer; he is essentially saying the robots just work by magic and even admits the people who built these machines do not even understand how they work.  Asimov seems to think it is entirely plausible that robots would talk to each other, have discussions verbally, and depend on people giving them instructions in person, yet then work together by remote control just as easily.  In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, he was writing in 1898 and admits that in the future people probably would have a better device for making light than matches, but it was beyond the comprehension of his character what these devices would look like, so he picks up the matches as that’s the only technology that is familiar to him.  But he is careful to explain every aspect of technology and social change as best as he can, even using Darwin’s theory of evolution extensively to predict what the future of humanity would be like in a plausible sense.  What is remarkable is that H.G. Wells’ conception of the future is far more realistic in 1898 than Asimov’s in 1950!

Further discussion questions:

“Compared to the works of H.G. Wells, is it fair to call I, Robot science fiction?”
“Why might Asimov’s predictions of the future of robots be so different from what actually has happened?”
“What does it suggest about Asimov if his predictions of the future are less accurate than works published more than 50 years earlier?”

The most disturbing aspect of the book is that centralised planning of everything is hailed as a brilliant idea, when central planning of food production has killed literally tens of millions of people through easily avoidable starvation.  In the early chapters of the book, there are some pro-capitalist themes and even some scepticism of the government and military. However, the book talks up the brilliance of a command economy.  Everything is planned and organised on a global scale. The types of food people eat, where factories are built, how much raw material is manufactured, how many people live in an area, how much population growth. In fact, the European/white parts of the world are the only places to have a population decline relative to the rest of humanity and this is by robot design because the implication is that fewer white people would be good for the planet, on the grounds that they are most opposed to robots. The future looks exactly like the Soviet Union with a massive robot bureaucracy making all planning decisions. Robots see themselves as better than humanity at taking care of humanity, so they reinterpret their laws of robotics by putting their self-preservation ahead of human beings, reasoning that if a robot is damaged, it cannot help as many people than if it is still fully functional.  So if they allow some humans to come to harm so they can protect a greater number of people, then it is ok for them to harm those people. Furthermore, they rationalise what they are doing to these people, calling it not harm, but simply reducing their influence, when in fact they are destroying these people’s businesses and livelihoods. Therefore, the people who are against robot control are being targeted for harassment, economic hardship, and eventually loss of all influence.  But all this is portrayed as good, moral, and positive for humanity’s future.

More questions:

“Is Asimov promoting this as an acceptable method of dealing with political rivals?”
“Why was no attempt made to illicit the voluntary co-operation of the opponents of the robots?”
“Why was their destruction as an effective lobby group the only way ‘win’ the debate?”

In conclusion, although there are many interesting and even charming aspects to this book, it is clearly a work of communist propaganda.  The language of the book is probably too difficult for most children under the age of ten to access properly, so it is most likely teenagers who would be reading this book.  If younger children are reading it then it, will be important to challenge how realistic these robots are because they have little resemblance to the robots we actually have in the world.  If your teenage children read it, to be sure to question and challenge the ideas and themes of the book.  Like most communists, Asimov writes like he is completely oblivious to his political biases and is enthusiastic about finding devious ways to avoid a direct intellectual challenge to his ideas.  It is worth noting that the FBI investigated Asimov as a possible Communist infiltrator during the cold war.  Personally, I would welcome having a discussion with teenage readers of this book, as it illustrates superbly how political propaganda can be woven into popular storytelling to influence the political opinions of maturing minds.

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One Response to Book Review: “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

  1. Pingback: Why Honesty Matters | Philosophical Therapist

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