I, Robot by Isaac Asimov: Modern Scifi Owes a Debt

I, Robot

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

I, Robot. Is there a selection from the golden age of science fiction that better epitomizes the era?

There’s no doubt that Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is a science fiction classic. Complete with the three laws of robotics, it casts a tall shadow over almost every work of science fiction, book or movie, and you hear echoes, loud and soft, anywhere on artificial intelligence or robotics appears.

Whether it is Bishop in Alien ( “It is impossible for me to harm, or, by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being.”), C-3PO in Star Wars (“It’s against my programming to impersonate a deity.”), or the android Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, whose role in the show seems to be guided by examination of the themes in I, Robot, Asimov’s laws have made an impression that place the novel firmly in the science fiction canon.

As I reread I, Robot recently, considering these themes and how Asimov told his tale, and what the I, Robot’s legacy should be, I was struck with how much science fiction has changed, and yet owes a debt to Asimov. Even this year’s winner of the Hugo for best novel, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, resonates with themes about artificial intelligence embodied and self-examining the rules and justifications for existence, not unlike I, Robot. But unlike Asimov’s highly logical tales–I, Robot is structured more like a collection of stories that follow the introduction of robots and artificial intelligence to society–Leckie’s novel is a space opera, focused more on existential drama and emotion than on hard science and logic. Anyone can enjoy Leckie’s fiction–well, almost anyone–but Asimov’s writing lends itself more to the devotee of the genre, to the engineer, to the aficionado of the hard sciences. He believed that the only constant in history was change, and that it was the role of science fiction to guess at what the future would be. “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today — but the core of science fiction, its essence, the concept around which it revolves, has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

Meanwhile, much of today’s science fiction seems to focus less on the science and more on the pet political issues of its writers. Asimov was no shrinking violet when it came to politics or religion (he was an atheist and dismissive of those who believed in divinity), but neither was he one to allow society to get in the way of the science in his fiction, including I, Robot. Looking at other Hugo winners, he would have enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Lady Astronaut of Mars, a tale about the first lady astronaut to go to Mars considering how to return to the stars, but Asimov would have scratched his head over John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” which is best described as two gay guys having sex on a couch when they magically take the ice bucket challenge.

(I think he would have been just fine with Charles Stross, a multiple Hugo nominee and recipient this year, especially since Stross explicitly cites and applies  the three laws of robotics found in I, Robot in his Saturn’s Children).

Looking at these Hugo winning selections, its easy to see some relationship to Asimov’s influence and I, Robot, but also to see complete aversion to a hard science effort at fiction. Sure, readers expectations have shifted, writing styles have changed, and we’ve caught up to what was then the future in I, Robot. But what made Asimov resonate was a view to the future that was hopeful and expectant (mostly), believing that we could dream up ways to solve our problems with technology as our tools.

Or maybe I’m reading too much into Asimov. But I don’t think so. There may not be the gripping and exciting action scenes or the touchy-feely interviewing of heavy-handed political messages (I’m looking at you, Nancy Kress and your After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall), but it’s hard to walk away from I, Robot without wanting to then stop by the Radio Shack and pick up a few gadgets and gizmos to maybe try putting together a robot or two of your own. That’s the kind of science fiction I like, and that’s the kind I hope more modern writers will write.


I, Robot Book Cover I, Robot
The Robot Series
Isaac Asimov
Science Fiction
Spectra, Reprint edition
April 29, 2008

The 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 orders givein 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.

With these three, simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future--a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.

Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-read robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians, and robots who secretly run the world--all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asmiov's trademark.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.


  1. Keith Seegmiller says:

    I read the original version (and may still have a copy) what, close to fifty years ago? I’m pleased you enjoy the classics, Dan, but you must admit that that the genre has expanded in many ways, most of which are welcome and substantial. Always enjoy your comments, though these days, I can’t begin to keep up the prolific rate at which you produce them.


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