Alazzar's Reviews > I, Robot

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
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Mar 10, 2012

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Read from March 11 to 15, 2012

From the Wikipedia entry on Isaac Asimov:

Except for two stories—"Liar!" and "Evidence"—they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent ... The robot stories—and, as a matter of fact, almost all Asimov fiction—play themselves on a relatively bare stage.

This was my first time reading an Asimov book, and I’ve got to agree with the above statements. His “characters” aren’t really characters—they’re just talking heads that spit information at the reader. And the settings certainly leave something to be desired (like, say, “description”). Still, all that being said, I was stuck between giving this book 3 or 4 stars, so it can’t all be bad, right?

I actually think it’s possible for science fiction stories to get by without much characterization, because SF stories are often more about ideas than anything else. Of course, this applies mostly to short stories, because no one wants to chew through a 400-page novel where none of the characters leave any sort of impression on the reader. But I, Robot isn’t really a novel so much as a mash-up of Asimov’s short stories, tied loosely together under the premise of a robopsychologist being interviewed and recounting her life’s tales.

Asimov is more about the ideas than the characterization or prose, but that’s fine—his ideas are good. He’s been a huge influence on a lot of writers. He paved the way for a lot of the SF that followed him, and if not for his three laws of robotics, we may never have had Roger Zelazny’s “The Stainless Steel Leech.” (And with that, my Zelazny-reference quota for the review has been filled. Booyah.)

The stories in I, Robot are somewhat formulaic in a Sherlock Holmes-type of way, in that they all follow a pattern:

1. Robot malfunctions or behaves in some way that leading experts in the field consider “weird.”
2. Scientists look into the problem.
3. Scientists come up with an idea, but don’t tell us (the readers) what it is.
4. Scientists solve the problem, then explain to us how they did it.

This can be a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, the reader tends to have almost all of the information that the scientist does (namely, the three laws of robotics), which allows the reader to make some guesses as to the solution. (And it’s always a nice ego-boost when you end up being right!) On the other hand, if the story doesn’t end with an explanation that was as satisfying as you’d hoped, it basically ruins the entire thing.

But enough about content—the content, overall, is pretty good. Now, let’s move onto something that’s less good: Asimov’s prose.

As noted earlier, Asimov basically has a bunch of talking heads giving us plot information. But they occasionally stop to do something like tug on their mustache or run a hand through their wild red hair. (That’s the extent of the characterization for Donovan and Powell: one has a mustache that he can’t keep his hands away from, while the other has red hair that gives him the same problem. We know basically nothing else about them.)

The actions during dialogue are a little silly, for the most part, but what’s worse is Asimov’s use of adverbs. It’s the type of thing that would normally infuriate me, but for some reason I just laughed at it like you might laugh at a puppy that can’t quite figure out how to get off its back: you’re not mad at the thing, you’re not taunting it, but it’s just so darn adorable because it’s kind of retarded.

A few examples:

1. “He was not no machine!” screamed Gloria, fiercely and ungrammatically.”

(I’m glad that you pointed out that she was saying it ungrammatically—I never would have noticed!)

2. The other dragged at his mustache bitterly. “He’s a skeptic,” was the bitter response.

(That’s decent, but I would have written it: The bitter other dragged bitterly at his bitterstache, bitterly. "He’s a bitter skeptic," was the bitter bit-sponse.)

3. “From the inside,” said Black, laconically.

(Here’s a superior version, for those who want a more precise description of Black’s speech pattern: "From the inside," said Black, using three words to describe the situation.)

In addition to the hilarious adverbs, Asimov also occasionally suffers from “not taking a step back and realizing what I just wrote” syndrome—you know, the type of thing where someone makes an exaggeration to get a point across, but doesn’t realize just how silly it sounds. For example:

1. Donovan opened his mouth and left it that way for a full minute.

(This happened during conversation after Donovan had heard something shocking. Here’s an experiment: while talking to someone, open your mouth and look at your watch. Wait for a whole minute, then resume conversation. See if that doesn’t feel a little odd.)

2. Donovan passed out the door, shaking his head viciously.

(“Viciously”? Really? Is Donovan a dog trying to tear the squeaker out of a new toy?)

I know I’m being nitpicky here, but as I told my Asimov-loving friend while I was reading the book, it doesn’t matter how much I like something, I will spend all my time complaining about the parts I didn’t like. So, here we are, with a needlessly lengthy review to show for it.

This calls for a TL;DR version:

Asimov’s ideas are fun. I’d say this book is probably worth reading if you like sci-fi.

(Just know that his prose and characterization suck.)

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