Comments on Arthur B's I, Reader

A Reading Canary take on Isaac Asimov's robot series.

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Robinson L at 18:30 on 2017-03-24
I listened to I, Robot on audiobook eight or nine years ago and I found it all right, despite, as you say, Asimov’s very basic characterization. The 1950s family dynamic and attendant sexism definitely stuck out for me in the first story.

Speaking of sexism, the part about Liar! which stood out for me the most was the way Susan Calvin talked Herbie into self-destructing—thus eliminating their only lead on the secret of robot telepathy—out of spite over Herbie leading her on about her romantic prospects, even though she herself acknowledges he was only following the First Law and so therefore was not acting as a moral agent. These women and their emotions, amirite?

Also, I loved the way the story just brushes aside the whole issue of not only telepathy but robot telepathy, and all the scientific implications thereof, and uses the fact that Herbie is destroyed at the end as an excuse never to revisit this earth-shattering revelation again.

I remember most of the stories to some degree of detail, with the exceptions of Reason and Escape!, about which I can recall practically nothing even with your plot summaries; are they particularly unmemorable, you reckon?

I remember Little Lost Robot being good, but something bothered me about the test they did to flush out the robot, like Calvin and her team were missing something obvious. Maybe it was only that just because the theoretical example you give of how the rogue robot might kill a human by dropping a heavy weight on their head, it doesn’t mean you can’t come up with a more practical and less unwieldy test for flushing out the rogue robot than actually dropping a huge weight on someone’s head (almost).

I also remember disliking the ending to Evidence because of the perhaps unfair inference that people only take principled stands on demanding their civic rights in matters such as, e.g., refusing to accede to a search without a warrant when they’re actually guilty of the thing they’re being accused of. (The same way cop shows often bug the heck out of me in the way they depict civil liberties as exclusively obstructions to the pursuit of justice because those shows exist in a magical universe where the cops not only never abuse their power, but also are never mistaken when they make assumptions based on circumstantial evidence.)

this “don’t be afraid of central planning” message must surely have raised suspicions back int he Cold War era

Probably. Although David Harvey has pointed out that the USA basically had a centrally planned economy during World War II, which was a model of efficiency (and therefore, scared the crap out of the capitalists who were working alongside FDR to make all that happen); I wonder if Asimov was drawing upon that history at all. One line I remember from that story was something about Marx and Adam Smith having run their course and both winding up in the same place at the end, which I found pretty rich considering, well, see below.

The whole “Machines need to run the world because humans aren’t capable of organizing themselves” angle from Evitable Conflict really ticked me off. At best, it’s patronizing; at worst, it reinforces incredibly skeevy narratives about how because ordinary human beings are incapable of managing ourselves, we need superior beings (lacking all-knowing Machines, all-knowing technocrats are the current fad) to manage us for our own good, because obviously they know what’s good for us better than we do. The 2007-08 financial crash and the emergency manager program in Michigan and consequent water crisis in Flint being two major contemporary examples of this kind of thinking in action.

(I’ve only listened to the first Foundation book, but I’m given to understand that at the end of the trilogy
the Second Foundation becomes just such a group of elite benevolent overlords. And psychics, at that, so exactly the kind of elitism that Philip K. Dick was apparently prone to criticizing, and quite rightly in my view
.)

Never read The Rest of the Robots. If I can get my hands on a copy of it on audio, I may check it out for the sake of Galley Slave; the others don’t sound particularly appealing to me.

From your description, it sounds like The Caves of Steel would be worth a read. The 1950s gender sensibilities are repulsive, but not a deal breaker in themselves, and the book itself sounds pretty interesting. Depending on how much I like it, I may move on to The Naked Sun, but probably won’t bother with The Robots of Dawn. Showing a middle ground between Earth and Solaria sounds like a decent thematic premise for a third novel in terms of the world-building, but it sounds like Asimov mostly squandered the potential there.

it’s harder to get a raging controversy happening out of a process which makes wuzzy, adorable babies happen

Possibly my favorite line of the review.

I’m curious about one thing: you mention Bailey having a wife in The Caves of Steel, but in later episodes you describe him flirting with and imply he has sex with other women. Does his wife die or divorce him at some point, or is he supposed to be a philanderer? (From your description, I somehow doubt Asimov was prescient enough to write his reader surrogate character in an open marriage – especially if he started in the 50s.)
Arthur B at 01:43 on 2017-03-25
Mrs Bailey is alive and well for both the other novels.
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2017-03-25
And remains Mrs. Bailey throughout? So, a philanderer, then. I suppose that's not too surprising.
Arthur B at 12:36 on 2017-03-27
It's odd. In The Naked Sun it isn't really played up - Baley is more embarrassed and flustered by Gladia's behaviour than actually responsive, whereas in The Robots of Dawn he's 100% cool with it and 100% doesn't particularly worry about his wife.
Robinson L at 16:00 on 2017-03-30
Perhaps it’s another feature of the time skip between novels, and Asimov’s perceptions about what he can get away with in the 80s as opposed to the 50s. *shrug*
Arthur B at 17:03 on 2017-03-30
That's quite possible, now you mention it - though I think Asimov was a big enough name in the SF field by the time he did the original that he could have pushed the envelope a bit. (It's not like marital infidelity is exactly an uncommon theme in 1950s fiction.)
Orion at 18:38 on 2017-03-30
The whole “Machines need to run the world. . ." angle from Evitable Conflict really ticked me off. . . .at worst, it reinforces incredibly skeevy narratives about how because ordinary human beings are incapable of managing ourselves, we need superior beings (lacking all-knowing Machines, all-knowing technocrats are the current fad) to manage us for our own good, because obviously they know what’s good for us better than we do.

That's interesting -- I didn't have that reaction to the story, and generally don't feel that way about fiction. There are propositions (the idea that it would be great if superior beings ran the world for us is one) which cause me to instantly distrust anyone who invokes them, but which I find intellectually compelling nonetheless, either because they are plausibly true or because I think they are worth thoughtful rebuttals. I tend to look at science-fiction as a safe space to float ideas with troubling implications or outright dangerous applications and sort out where the problems are.

It's been a long time since I read it, but I don't think I interpreted Evitable Conflict as a straight-up endorsement of the system so much as an opening offer or an extreme test case. I'm open to signing on to more moderate proposals; "if we find or create beings that are smarter than we are in general, much better than we are at considering whole systems and chains of causation in particular, and are basically incorruptible, we ought to let them execute many of the powers of the state, and possibly expand the powers of the state as well." I'd prefer that the decisions about what power to give them were more informed, democratic, and intentional than I got the impression they were in EC, and that humans exercised some oversight, but I think the story does something worthwhile by asking me why I care about such things.

When someone tries to apply this kind of thinking to the real world, I can reject it without resolving those questions; it's a simple matter of extraordinary claims demanding extraordinary evidence. Throughout history, all sorts of people have claimed to be superior beings, and none of them actually were. I don't believe such beings exist now or will exist in my lifetime, if ever.
Orion at 19:01 on 2017-03-30
One line I remember from that story was something about Marx and Adam Smith having run their course and both winding up in the same place at the end. . . .

I don't recall the line or what "run their course" would mean in this context, but it doesn't strike me as absurd. Marx's thinking and Smith's are. . . not similar, exactly, but surprisingly compatible. They are interested in different things -- Smith is interested in the morality and character of individuals and in what makes one nation wealthier than another; Marx is famously interested in classes and in what makes the future wealthier than the past. However, they have basically the same assumptions about what labor, value, and capital are and about the upsides and downsides of division of labor are. They're both very keen to highlight a distinction between getting stuff by working for it, which is basically "good," and getting stuff by owning capital, which is "not so good (for smith) or terrible (for Marx)." Both think that people's desire get status symbols and luxury goods in order to imitate the wealthy (or to become wealthy in order to get those things) is one of the biggest things holding us back from a better, happier society. Both believe that the rentiers conspire to exploit the workers and that the state ought to build public infrastructure that will help everyone be more productive and less beholden to the rich.

It helps that both of them are inconsistent or at least ambivalent on some key points, producing anomalous moments in which Smith sounds like Marx and Marx sounds like Smith.
Robinson L at 20:15 on 2017-04-03
@Arthur: That’s true about 50s sensibilities, or so I gather. Maybe he just changed his mind.

Orion: I tend to look at science-fiction as a safe space to float ideas with troubling implications or outright dangerous applications and sort out where the problems are.

See, I dunno about that. I mean, yes, if it actually engages with the troubling implications or dangerous applications, sure, but what I recall of Evitable Conflict was pretty close to unequivocal endorsement of society being ruled by a benevolent dictatorship of machines, which I respond to the same way I respond to any hideously creepy ideas put forth to me uncritically in fiction. Now, if the story were novella or novel length, and actually explored some of the major potential drawbacks, and either made the case that they’re not actually valid, or that they are but they’re still better than the alternatives, I could at least evaluate the arguments the story put forward, if that's what you mean. But I don’t remember it doing any of that.

I still probably wouldn’t agree with it though, because my reading of how the universe operates is that wisdom comes from the bottom up, rather than from the top down; from the aggregated micro views, rather than the macro, so the idea that any being or system is better suited to administrate from a top down position rather than bottom up is going to be a really tough sell for me personally.

Re: Marx and Smith
Marx was critical of Smith (and Ricardo), but also greatly admired the two as economic thinkers, so the idea that there’s a significant overlap between them isn’t that surprising.

However, along with arguing for public rather than private ownership of the means of production, Marx was also emphatic about the need for the proletariat to be masters of their own destinies and have command over their own work – he and Engels even cited liberal democracy as a crucial element to building a communist society. Looked at from that angle, putting machines in the driver’s seat bossing over the humans as in Evitable Conflict is pretty much the opposite of what Marx was pushing for.
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