Being an avid reader as a kid, I now regret not having explored science fiction. Of late, I have been indulging myself in a few landmark Sci-Fi novels, and I cannot be more thankful that this happened. I now truly appreciate the genre and hope to add many more to my list in the future! Here are reviews for seven books that I read. (The first one is unnecessarily long since I began recording each story as I read. The later ones are more concise.)
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
This book was one of my favorites in the list. I absolutely admire the way Asimov seamlessly takes the reader into his world of robot rules and finally asks questions relating to a world of peaceful co-existence of humans and robots. Although one may call this wishful thinking, as we don’t quite know what form superintelligent AI could take, it comes as a relief to read a book that vouches for good-endings! This in part, is mentioned in the books’ introduction, where Asimov despises the Mephistopheles comparisons to AI (Mephistopheles was a monster in German mythology that destroyed the creator). The book compiles the recollections of Dr. Susan Calvin after her retirement from US Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. Below is a list of stories. They progressively make one familiar with everything that’s Asimov – positronic brains, three laws of robotics and of course, good endings.
The story revolves around a little girl who is attached to her robot baby sitter called Robbie. An apprehensive mom tries to separate the two but in the end realizes that the robot is not necessarily harmful for her daughter.
Two scientists stationed on Mercury need their erratic robot Speedy to bring them selenium to power the photo-cell banks that protect them from Mercury’s monstrous sun. But Speedy reaches an equilibrium of rules 2 and 3 of robotics and continually circles around the selenium pool without bringing it back. Powell and Donovan need to think quick and smart about how they’re going to save themselves and Speedy.
This story introduces a new kind of robot called QT that has the ability to reason out statements based on postulates. During a conversation with Powell and Donovan. It comes to the conclusion that it hasn’t been created by humans, and that there is no earth or stars but rather a single Master i.e the L-tube that it is programmed to ‘serve’. The robot goes into some kind of religious mania that the scientists cannot handle.
Catch the Rabbit
Powell and Donovan are now stationed in an asteroid to field test a mining robot that handles six subsidiary robots under it. They observe that the robot works perfectly well when they are around, but ends up ‘dancing’ with its subs when left on its own. They later figure out that it is because the personal initiative factor is most strained during emergencies in the absence of humans. They must now test their hypothesis.
Herbie is a mind reading robot, and scientists are desperately trying to find out what lead to this.
Little lost robot
A robot called Nestor 10 with a modified first law is stationed in the Hyper atomic Drive. He is subsequently ordered to “lose himself ” by his human master. In his drive to prove robot superiority, he tries to lose himself in a group of 62 identical robots. The crew need to find ways to spot him. This story, for the first time introduces the concept of a robot capable of harming humans.
US Robots have taken on the task of making their star robot, The Brain, build a space warp engine after their rival organisation, Consolidated, fails to do so. The trick is in preventing the Brain from entering a dilemma of human protection vs following human orders.
This story starts with a politician being accused of being a robot and the events that follow to test this hypothesis. On a broader level, it makes us wonder if in the future, humans could really have a peaceful co-existence with robots and treat one another respectfully, regardless of whether one is a human or a robot.
The Evitable Conflict
This story kind of sums of what Asimov hopes the human-AI relationship should be.
Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) by Karel Capek
This is a play that’s set in a fictional era where artificial humans are manufactured. These robots look exactly like humans but lack what the author calls a ‘soul’. It deals with questions such as what the world would look like if robots replaced humans in every possible job and were just meant to serve us. Would they remain servants? What happens if the ingredient to create a ‘soul’ is added during their creation?
This play deals with the concept of soul, that Turing in his famous paper argues robots need not have. But an interesting question to ponder over is what would happen if we infuse emotions into an artificial being and whether there is a need for it at all.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
This book was a psychological and philosophical roller-coaster. There are parts that I absolutely loved and others that I clearly despised. The story is set in a post nuclear apocalyptic earth that’s almost been reduced to dust. Most of the humans have migrated to other planets. The few that remain consist of ‘specials’ (low IQ humans), aged people and others who wished to stay back. The plot revolves around finding humanoids that have killed humans on Mars and escaped to earth posing as humans.
The book tries to answer questions such as how would one distinguish a human from a humanoid. Humans are assumed to have empathy which the other lacks. The book also develops a whole new notion of religion and class hierarchy (which depends on the animals owned by a person). The story as a whole is quite depressing and might not leave one very satisfied by the end of it, partly because it questions human identity (and I’m after all a human). Nevertheless, the effects are bound to stay much longer after having read the book and one might be left pondering over it for a much longer
time. This book left me quite overwhelmed.
Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov
This short story talks about a robot named Andrew that has somehow learnt to be creative like humans. It follow’s Andrew’s intellectual quest to be more human-like as time passes. It details a beautiful human-robot relationship between Andrew and ‘Little Miss’ and how the two of them support and care for each other at different stages. It explores concepts such as what it means to be truly free, have rights for oneself, etc. This story made for a good read.
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente
The story is about a virtual reality game-playing AI called Elefsis that’s created for kids in a family and how it evolves along with the girl in question. It begins to learn to speak, emulate human behaviour and starts ‘feeling’ emotions. Similar to Philip’s ‘Do Androids..’, this tale asks open questions about what it means to be alive.
This short novel is a very cleverly written, throught-provoking story. It is abound with an innumerable number of visual imageries and is a treat for the mind! It has a blend of intense emotions and ‘fairy-tale’ style writing that takes one into a different world, much like the ‘Inner World’ in the story.
Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov
I guess I couldn’t get enough of Asimov when I picked this one! This is another set of eight short stories on robots. It’s packed into four chapters that progressively explain the usage of robots. Quite a few stories have an abundance of humour in them, similar to ‘I Robot’. One of the stories deals with ideas of romance between humans and robots, and another one talks about the usage of robots in war. Unlike my previous Asimov review, for the purpose of brevity, I have refrained from penning my thoughts on each individual story.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I read the first book of the series and found it weird, insanely weird! The story starts off with an event that destroys Earth, and follows a man named Arthur Dent, who is saved by virtue of an alien friend Prefect. His adventures (and misadventures), and how he and Prefect manage to navigate their way around, forms the crux of the tale. This is an awfully humorous read, and I may get to reading the rest of the parts during summer break!
If there’s one line that sums up the first book it has to be this
‘Earthman, the planet you lived on was commissioned, paid for, and run by mice‘.
Dent’s humor and genius is refreshing!
This sums my Sci-Fi book reviews. I’ll definitely be actively hunting for more books from this genre hereafter!