A (Brief) Defense of Asimov

I’ve noticed that down at the Castalia blog Asimov has been taking a heavy beating lately. REALLY heavy. The comments section crew has been merciless.

And I do get it. Asimov is best described as bloodless. His stories are much like his robots; every now and then there’ll be a brilliantly shined gem, but it’s ultimately still a gem. There’s no spark of life to his tales. And I too find his opposition to heroic fiction rather repulsive; despite my cynical nature I am actually a romantic at heart (but don’t tell anyone).

That isn’t to say he didn’t write some excellent stuff. The “I, Robot” collection is uniformly excellent, and “Caves of Steel” is to this day one of the most clever mysteries I’ve ever read (never really “got” “The Naked Sun” though).

The robot stories play to Asimov’s strengths. They’re weak on description, and weak on character, but they are very, very, VERY strong in plotting and ideas. Asimov was skilled at twisting his laws around like pretzels in order to get them to do the tricks he wanted, and some of his stories are super clever.

He also wasn’t AS bad with character as is often claimed. Some of his best robot stories, like “Liar!”, only work because they play off of existing character traits; Susan Calvin, at least, definitely had a distinct personality that definitely played an important role in several stories.

I mean…we’re getting comments down there trying to claim that the three laws of robotics weren’t actually that influential. The THREE LAWS OF ROBOTICS.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Here’s the thing: In all of the years before I decided to try reading sci-fi – and I didn’t even try any until after high school outside of “A Wrinkle in Time” – the Three Laws were one of the ONLY sci-fi concepts I’d ever heard of. Seriously. I, who knew nothing about science fiction, knew what the three laws of robotics were.

To say they didn’t influence things is misleading. Now every AI created since either had to consciously accept or consciously reject the three laws; there was no ignoring them. Even little known things like the webcomic “Freefall” make sure to reference the three laws. A hit summer blockbuster was made based around them (the “I, Robot” movie, a pretty good film with little relation to the book it shares a title with outside of the three laws conceit).

Do I think the laws would work? No, I do not. But so what? It’s fiction. It’s a fascinating premise for stories. Honestly, I doubt the two laws of “God, Robot” would really work either, but they make for really interesting Legos to play with.

I got the impression from a couple of reviews that people looked at “God, Robot” as a sort of “response” to Asimov. Nothing could be further from the truth. “God, Robot” was not a critique of Asimov, it was not a response to Asimov, and it was certainly not a repudiation of Asimov. It was the opposite: It was a homage to Asimov. My hope isn’t that those who read the book come away convinced that we one-upped Asimov, it’s that they come away convinced to pick up “I, Robot” for themselves and see why I loved it so much.

So here’s to Isaac Asimov. Was he perfect? No, but he was brilliant, influential, and exceedingly clever, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of about that, either.