Friday, January 18, 2008

Isaac Asimov, Private Eye

I first cracked the cover of Asimov’s short-fiction collection I, Robot without much relish. I’ve never enjoyed hard science fiction, a genre whose proponents often seem more interested with the gravitational pull on Mars or the finer points of quantum physics than in crafting an entertaining narrative. Imagine my surprise when I realized I, Robot isn’t SF at all. It’s a collection of mysteries.

From police procedurals to cozies, hardboiled detective stories to whodunits, the mystery genre operates on a central convention: the dilemma. Something is wrong, someone doesn’t know everything about it that he would like and he (and the reader) spend the bulk of the narrative trying to figure it out. It could be the motivation for a character’s strange behavior or an unknown cause of death or the location of a missing perpetrator. No matter the emphasis, though, the pattern of dilemma, investigation and discovery remains constant.

Asimov clings to those conventions like a drowning man to driftwood. He erects three laws to which all robots must hew, introduces an apparently impossible violation and invites the reader to figure it out. (For the uninitiated, the three laws- -in decreasing order of importance- -are that a robot must not directly or indirectly harm a human; a robot must obey humans; and a robot must preserve itself unless doing so conflicts with the other two laws.) One scenario involves a robot becoming convinced he was created by a space station’s power converter and refusing to acknowledge his handlers’ commands. Another finds a mind-reading robot answering questions conflictingly despite being told to tell the truth. In a third, a flippant order from a frustrated technician to “go lose yourself” gets taken in a very literal manner.

I, Robot proudly wears all the trappings of SF. There are positronic brains and deep-space energy storms, asteroid-mining expeditions and interstellar travel. But you get the odd feeling while reading that
Dorothy Sayers could’ve written it if only she’d studied biochemistry at university. Some might not enjoy having their genre expectations subverted in such a manner, but to me that was exactly when the fun started.

(Picture: CC 2005 by litmuse)


Amy said...

Did you see the movie? This is one of those movies where I have only seen the ending, but I have seen it a few times. I am wondering if the knowing ending of the movie would take away from the enjoyment of the book, or if the mysteries are entertaining enough to stand alone? Or should I just pick up Dorothy Sayers instead?

Loren Eaton said...

I never saw the movie, but I get the idea the two are pretty different. Asimov's I, Robot is a collection of shorts linked with an overarching narrative, kind of like Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man.

Dorothy Sayers, of course, is always great.