Sunday, June 10, 2007

Robot Visions

I.A.T.M. Pleasure Rating: 73%

So, at long last, I've finished Robot Visions by Isacc Asimov.

If you've heard the VSHH single, you've surely heard the soaring refrain "YOU KNOW THE RULES!"

Well, when it comes to robots, Issac Asimov certainly created some timeless rules, otherwise known as "The Three Laws of Robotics."

These laws were a direct response to the barrage of SF stories in the '20's and '30's warning mankind of an impending "Frankenstein effect"-- a futuristic society in which mankind would be overthrown by its monstrous creations.

As a term, "robot" stems from a 1920 Czech play named R.U.R. by Karl Capek. The term means "forced worker" or "slave." And of course, in the play the laboring robots overthrow their masters and destroy them in Marxist-style revolution.

But Asimov was an optimist with different ideas. Unlike the scores of other writers that jumped on that bandwagon, he decided to look at the robot as an innocent machine programmed for good, with safeguards embedded in its positronic brain.

Hence, the quandry of a Hal 9000 can never happen in the Asimov universe. The first law of Robotics-- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm--prohibits it. But instead of creating a boring universe, this actually frees Asimov to play with the limits of technology and language.

In the Asimov universe, a company named United States Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation manufactures all the robots with the three laws firmly embedded in each model's "positronic brain." Earthlings are deathly afraid of robots, so robots are typically restricted to space assignments, manufactured in colonies, used at outposts for mining, dangerous occupations, etc. When Earthlings do come in contact with robots, rich moments arise, such as in the story "Bi-Centennial Man," a masterpiece in which a robot begins to convert himself into a human being through organic enhancements--even down to terminating his own existence so that he can finally receive the coveted distinction of being considered human. (Haven't seen the movie yet, but I hope it's half decent.)

Over half a century, Asimov explored the ethical side of these laws. What does "harm" mean to a robot? How does a robot deal with an evil human being, one that may harm others? Etc.

There is plenty here for oppressed folks to chew on. Throughout, robots call their owner "Master." And it took over thirty years for Asimov to consider the female robot. Fittingly enough, that robot was called JANE-1. (It seems fate is on our side here at Wondaland.)

I, Robot was based on his famous short story collection, and countless other short story collections/films/and SF novels have been built out of these ideas. Asimov even invented the term "robotics," and for years real scientists and engineers have looked to his stories for guidance on how they should approach the future. (Which is given even more resonance by Asimov's creation of "robopsychology" and the character of Susan Calvin, one of his more interesting recurring characters.)

At Wondaland, Asimov has certainly simplified our own search for the droid codes that guide "The Metropolis" universe, which I will post another time, after we've finished refining them.

But here is my grand criticism:

1. As an SF aficianado/reader/writer, I side with the post-World War II, dystopian Phillip K. Dick school of SF. Human nature is a bitch, the world's getting harder, and technology is creating change-- but change and growth are two different thangs.

2. I tend to believe that capitalism is the grand arbiter of industry, not morality systems. The tobacco industry shouldn't sell cigarettes to young folks, but the getting's good, you know? Likewise, I find it hard to imagine top-notch researchers not pushing into the danger zone, if there's money to be had. Most likely, if history is a guide, the war machine will be pushing the robotics industry forward and the first law will go something like this: Kill your enemy-- anyone that looks like this, speaks this language, or prays to this god.

3. Like most pre-World War II SF, black folks are nowhere to be found in the future. But I'm used to this...moving on...

There's certainly more good here than bad. Asimov's laws are timeless treasures, essential nuggets of opitimism in the SF universe. I love the essays, especially their deduction that robots could create a better world than humanity alone, and that perhaps, humanity should step aside for the good of Earth and the universe. Brilliant! And, of course, C3PO and R2D2 would not exist without Asimov's vision and the Three Laws, in terms of their behavior.

Lastly, without Asimov's many robot stories and his need for beautiful illustrations, Ralph McQuarrie would not have had a chance to become a renowned illustrator in the SF community. And then, you guessed it, George Lucas would have never had the opportunity to look up and say "let's hire this guy Ralph to do some designs for Star Wars!"

And without those designs, well...let's just say Star Wars might not have ever gotten made. Because all agree that McQuarrie's early drawings--and then later vehicle sketches, matte paintings and character designs--cinched the deal with 20th Century Fox and then guided ILM through their heroic efforts to build a brand new universe.

1 comment:

Dot Techno Mania said...

You have to wonder what Asimov was thinking when he was thinking about this stuff because it really takes a certaint type of mind...(the one you've got balancing on your neck)
The things he was thinking about were so relevent...It's not even funny!
They say nothing is new to be discovered under the sun..and he certainly is exsisting above the sun...(much like yourself)
I love that you guys are diving into that universe..every time I think about metropolis I get butterflies, because I know it's going to way too big...
And the trippy part about it is that I really do understand, even though I haven't heard or veiw half of the material...Honestly I knew once I heard all ya'll name and seen just a simplr picture what was going to happen your future...Almost as if I were wired to ya'll or something..

And don't worry about Black people not being in the future...
We would have already beamed off into the 4th demension by that time...The transistion will be made...