So I finished Reason, a short story by Isaac Asimov, and it was the perfect antidote for my old-British-man voice doldrums.
Reason is one of the many short stories by Mr. Asimov that eventually made it into his anthology I, Robot. Those stories all included Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics, which are as follows:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The story details the beginnings of the robot QT-1, who is built on a station in outer space. Robots are meant to eventually take over all the tasks of running the station so that humans no longer have to make the journey up there. Throughout the story, QT-1 and his handlers, Powell and Donovan, discuss QT-1’s existence and purpose.
Since it’s a short story, I really can’t say much more without giving everything away. Needless to say, it’s really interesting and I highly recommend this story to everyone. You can read it here for free.
The Three Laws of Robotics
As I mentioned above, Asimov makes use of the Three Laws of Robotics in this story. (According to the Wikipedia, the original version of the story made no mention of the laws, only later when Asimov included it in the I, Robot collection did he update it to include them.) The laws make all robots, in theory, safe. This was a step away from popular science fiction at the time when many stories were about robots turning on their creators. Indeed, we still see this plot device a lot today. Many a YouTube comment reveals that people are getting just a teensy bit tired of the robot mutiny narrative. They should turn to Asimov for the remedy.
I sincerely enjoy this framework for robots, not just because it would be great in real life, but also because it allows for a rich variety of stories, which I’m looking forward to reading when I get to I, Robot.
Reason, Rationality & Creation
This story is called Reason because QT-1 spends much of the time reasoning about his (her?) own existence in a very Cartesian kind of way, exhibiting extreme higher level thinking. This part of the story is really interesting, and funny too!
Strengths & Weaknesses
What can I say except you’re welcome. I mean, what can I say except that Asimov is a master world-builder. He created a whole universe of possibility grounded in these concrete laws. It’s the type of framework all world-building writers aspire to. What are the rules of the universe I’m creating? How does that affect the characters and their choices? When creating a new world, a la Rowling or Tolkien or Asimov, all the parts need to fit together logically.
I remember reading that during the making of the Harry Potter movies, the director or screenwriter or whoever had wanted to make up and include new spells and charms kinda just for the heck of it, but Rowling protested, saying the suggestions did not fit within her wizarding world framework. Rowling’s attention to her world is what makes it seems so real and logical to us. Everything makes sense in it. Asimov created the same thing with his laws: a logical framework for his world upon which everything is based.
Asimov describes QT-1 as having a positronic brain, which concept you might recognize from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Data also has a positronic brain. Asimov is the father of this idea (which I didn’t know until researching the concept!).
Here is his description of the brain:
“Donovan uncapped the tightly sealed container and from the oil bath within he withdrew a second cube. Opening this in turn, he removed a globe from its sponge-rubber casing. He handled it gingerly, for it was the most complicated mechanism ever created by man. Inside the thin platinum-plated ‘skin’ of the globe was a positronic brain, in whose delicately unstable structure were enforced calculated neuronic paths, which imbued each robot with what amounted to a pre-natal education.”
I know I might be biased because I’m so happy to have read another voice, but I can’t really think of any weaknesses in this story. Because it’s a short story, there’s not really room for any!
I really enjoyed this short story. It was the perfect palate cleanser after my struggles with the over-exposition of C. S. Lewis and H. P. Lovecraft. The story is well-written and introduced us to the Three Laws of Robotics and the positronic brain. Cool!
I’ve already started the first Foundation novel by Asimov, which is really interesting so far. Stay tuned for that review!
Author: Isaac Asimov
Publisher: Street & Smith. Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction.