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Book review - The Selfish Robot by Isaac Asimov

Rami Shalhavat brings you a glimpse of the golden age of science fiction through Asimov's book 'The Selfish Robot' - translation: Yair Shimoni, Masada Publishing 1973

By: Rami Shalhavat, Israeli Science Fiction and Fantasy Association

The cover of the book Selfish the Robot
In the 50s and 60s, Isaac Asimov wrote the most important and interesting of his writings. Some of them were translated during the XNUMXs and XNUMXs into Hebrew, in the science fiction series of Masada Publishing House edited by the late Amos Gefen.
Two central axes - two central ideas - accompany a significant part of Isaac Asimov's more important books and stories: the idea of ​​psychohistory and robots. Asimov tried to unite these two, with partial success, at the end of his life, but the best and most fascinating parts were written in his youth. "The Selfish Robot", from Asimov's early books, is perhaps the most important and influential science fiction book dealing with robots and robotics.
There is something very magical about the promise of Asimov's robots. If until his time, robots were presented mainly as inhuman and threatening weapons, Asimov presented in "Robot Selfish" the antithesis of all of these - robots that are not much more than sophisticated work tools, with defense mechanisms, malfunctions, and an ability to perform that surpasses that of humans. Essentially, you can perhaps say that they are not much different from the shovel or the wheel - those who read the instructions carefully, will be able to do much more work with their help than they would with their bare hands.
"The Selfish Robot" is the book that opens Asimov's robot series. The nine stories included in it mostly accompany different stages in the life of Susan Kelvin, a central roboticist from the early days of robotics. The stories are mostly written as short stories, and it is clear that for Asimov they were largely a means of examining and formulating his own initial ideas about the robots he invented. Each of the stories presents some kind of functional failure of a robot, or a failure of coordination between robotic thinking and human expectations, and ultimately leads to its solution - usually by Susan Calvin herself. From this relatively simple pattern, a complex and quite optimistic image gradually forms for her regarding the idea of ​​the robot, and a somewhat less optimistic image regarding human society and its irrational anxieties about the future.
The basic idea from which all of Asimov's robot stories and books are drawn basically boils down to three concise laws in descending order of importance. The first prohibits a robot from harming a person; the second requires him to fulfill instructions given to him; while the third enforces the instinct of self-preservation and requires robots to protect themselves as long as there is no contradiction to the two laws in front of them. Asimov assumed, at least at the beginning of his writing career, that the correct programming of these three laws in the "positronic" minds of robots, would turn them into intelligent machines whose entire purpose is to serve man, and that the safety mechanisms summarized in these laws are what will enable effective service on their part.
The nine stories included in the book describe in chronological order events from the early days of robotics, where in the first story the robotic hero is a non-speaking machine that served as a nanny for a girl, and in the last one the world is actually controlled by thinking machines. At the same time, the future history that Asimov describes shows the increasing resistance to robots on Earth and their irrational relegation to work out of sight of the common man - in space mining sites, and probably also in the newly founded settlement worlds. This split between the constant optimization of the robots' operation for the benefit of humanity, and the hardening of human resistance to their operation, accompanies the book throughout, and will continue to occupy Asimov throughout his long robot series. He will later come to the conclusion that the excessive supervision of robots over man limits his development, but not here. At the time when the "Selfish Robot" stories were written, the robots were first and foremost a great promise for human progress, when any opposition to them was presented as irrational conservatism, in the spirit so familiar to the writers of the Golden Age.
"The spirit of the Golden Age" is both the most attractive thing in the book, and one of its main failings today. On the one hand, there is something very magical about the promise and optimism inherent in the Asimovian ideas, when the future depends only on us, and the machine will subordinate itself completely to the service of man, without any real threat. On the other hand, is this promise still relevant today? Maybe, but not sure.
Not sure, because the literature written today - even in the field of "hard science fiction" - is more complex. The question of the promise or threat of the future is of much less interest to writers today, and the emphasis is more on "what will happen" and not on some vague aspiration to decide the struggle between man and his limitations and between knowledge and ignorance. Is Asimov's search for the potential of robots, or his attempt to negate the threat seen in them before him, still relevant? Or would today's stories be written differently, with a future that is not necessarily a progress or retreat from what we know today but simply "different", with a mixture of advantages and disadvantages.
Of course, there is no point in expecting a book from the 2002s to reflect the spirit of today's era, and as a book from the golden age of the Medv, "Anochi Harobot" is a fascinating work, and even the many anachronisms throughout it (positronic minds? A talking robot in XNUMX? Oh really !) and the archaic translation do not harm the depth of the ideas with which Asimov plays and his writing ability - especially in the quasi-detective genre in which most of the stories are written.
The book is also interesting from another point of view - Susan Calvin herself. Susan Calvin is one of the only female protagonists Asimov created, as well as one of the characters most identified with him, with perhaps only Harry Seldon and Elijah Bailey matching her in this. Considering her uniqueness as a deep female character relative to Asimov's usual norms, it is perhaps unfortunate that she is described throughout the book as a kind of human version of a robot - a cold, calculated, unemotional character (except for one story) and asexual. There is something rather amusing, if somewhat absurd, in that even when Asimov writes about a female protagonist and elaborates on her personality, what he is really interested in is understanding robots. Perhaps this also belongs to the spirit of the times, or simply to the spirit of Asimov himself.

The book Anochi the Robot sold out of the shelves many years ago and can be obtained, rarely, in second-hand bookstores.

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