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Parasha: I Robot: November 9th reading

Comments on the previous entry were along the lines of no separate spoilers entry needed, since the short stories are stand-alone enough. So unless I'm otherwise requested, I'll just keep to one post, and ask people to remember to not be all spoily-pants about future short stories.

In which two men, Powell and Donovan, get shipped off to Mercury with their robot Speedy to re-start some mining expedition up there, and the problems that occur.

We only got a little bit of mention of the Rules of Robotics in the previous story, mostly the First Rule, against robots hurting humans. This story really drags those rules into the spotlight though, as not only are they handily infodumped on us (well, but it's done in a pretty non-clumsy way at least), but they also come heavily into the solution of the problem. And it's pretty well-done really. Of course, I thought the solution was a bit obvious, but I HAVE read the stories before even though it's been a while, so I might have just been remembering that much.

Again it's jarring reading it from our own perspective - this is our very near future, and there are odd mix-ups, such as manned long-term missions on other planets, and humanly intelligent (or nearso) robots being commonplace and *old*, yet they still have communication problems (although I guess maaaybe there could be real sciency reasons for it, it just seems a lot more handwavy to our own culture than I suspect Asimov intended).

I also wish we had a bit more info on the actual problem! That's one of the main flaws with the story for me - I realize this is supposed to be all science fiction, and a lot of it not quite nailed down, but it's a lot harder to feel a sense of urgency for getting the selenium when the consequences for not getting it aren't really spelled out - we just know that they need it for some such-and-such cells. Gah, the whole "we can't really wait! We need that selenium!" bits were really annoying, because I wanted to know "well, WHY?"

The other flaw for me was that the characters are again a bit one-or-two-note. Which at least makes the Harridan stereotyping of the first hausfrau a little less grating, since other characters are fairly stereotypical too - we have Powell, the Calm Collected Smart guy, and Donovan, the more brash and not as bright second. That's... pretty much it, although Donovan at least does come up with some good ideas.

It is interesting also though to see Asimov exploring some of the consequences of human-like robots, and humanity's reaction to them, such as the whole shift to a "slave mentality" for a while. That at least makes the world seem a bit more fleshed out, although I still can't quite get past the problems of culture shock and somewhat flat characterization to really get immersed in it.

As requested, here's a reminder link of the book schedule.


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(Deleted comment)
Nov. 9th, 2009 07:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but how eventual is eventual? And I didn't remember them even saying that it was a matter of the temperature control, although I might have just read over it (read part of it late at night when sleepy, sorry!)

As for the second, the impression I got was that Speedy just didn't realize it was that important, because of the way Donovan worded the order (which is stupid on his part), which seems a bit odd... robots can be that intelligent, and obviously have a lot of background information to work with (based on Speedy's quotes from literature of all things), yet he doesn't realize that the selenium is vitally important?
Nov. 9th, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
Which raises the question of why they didn't just say, "You, robot, if you don't fetch us some selenium, us fragile humans will roast to death, so the First Law says get our bloody selenium!"

As stormfeather said, that's exactly what triggers the problem--or, more specifically, the fact that they didn't think they needed to.

They thought Speedy would just get the selenium when they told him to, not realizing that he was a bit more risk-averse and a bit less command-following than average. If they had realized that, and made clear that not getting the selenium would lead to their deaths, he'd have done it without issue. As it was, he was literally walking the line where going any further would potentially harm himself, and going back would violate the order.

As to why Speedy didn't figure it out, yeah, we get a lot of indications that robots aren't really capable of abstract thought and following through to consequences. Or, which we start to see in later stories, they are capable, but don't always do it. ("Little Lost Robot" springs to mind.)
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 11th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
I got the sense in this one that Asimov's robots get to react but not plan -- the neural nets inside positronic brains can assess abstract situations, but not make a chain of inferences. At least, not when it's required by the plot? I'll be keeping an eye out to see if this keeps coming up.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 11th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is what I'd pretty much come up with. Especially given how sure humanity is about these Three Laws (and basically not having already had a ton of Messy Incidents where the First Law didn't protect people as it should), there has to be some ability for the robots to figure out the consequences of its (in)action.

Especially if they're going to be programmed to also obey humans unquestioningly, which could lead to some devious set-ups by malicious-minded (or just plain insane) humans.
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 11th, 2009 06:13 am (UTC)
Re: More comments!
4) I think that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. It was clear that they'd moved away from that, and that was not the modern (liberated?) robot philosophy of today.

Huh. I wonder if this read even more strangely in the '40s?

[Edit] The slave thing was just part of the logic problem, making it so that the old robots can't get you out of the puzzle. They may also be there in order to provide flavor and backstory, or answer a general "what if?" someone might've had, but they're not allowed to be the solution.

Edited at 2009-11-11 06:23 am (UTC)
Nov. 11th, 2009 06:20 am (UTC)
I think I read this book when I was 12. I wouldn't have recognized
When you're lying awake, with a dismal headache
And repose is taboo'd by anxiety
I conceive you may use any language you choose
To indulge in, without impropriety
For your brain is on fire
-- I think there were several brains on fire in this story. First Speedy's, and then Powell's, when he goes off to commit suicide in hopes that Speedy will stop him.

The characters grated on me less than they did in "Robby", although that may just be because I'm getting back into the swing of things. The husband & wife in the last story reminded me of something out of a New Yorker cartoon. It's a well-drawn sketch, but it's not deep.
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