Isaac Asimov,
Robot Visions
(Roc, 1991; 2004)

It's both interesting and disconcerting to revisit the work of an author as revered as Isaac Asimov. I've read my share of Asimov stories and novels over the years, though the bulk of my consumption of his fiction took place in my late teens and early twenties. At the time I was just discovering science fiction and Asimov's optimistic visions of a robot-filled future were great fun.

Over the past couple of years I've had the occasion to review a pair of Asimov short-fiction collections, revisiting many of the stories I enjoyed decades ago. My central complaint about the first of the Asimov books I reviewed, Robot Dreams, had to do with the paucity of robot stories in the volume. Thankfully, such is not the case with Robot Visions. Here it's cover-to-cover robot stories, augmented by a series of short essays on robotics (a word Asimov is credited with inventing).

Fans of science fictional robots will certainly not be disappointed with this volume's story selection. All the key Asimov robot stories are here: "Robbie," "Little Lost Robot" (which was also featured in Robot Dreams), "The Bicentennial Man," "Liar!" and "Runaround" (the story that first contained Asimov's famous three laws of robotics). Also on hand are less frequently reprinted works such as "Too Bad" and "Christmas Without Rodney."

But in reading through the 18 stories it becomes obvious that Asimov was an uneven writer, occasionally able to craft a complex and layered story, more frequently content simply to construct a tricky plot around a mental puzzle. Too many of the stories here are populated by cardboard characters delivering clunky dialogue in service of a punchline ending, all too quickly forgotten.

A prime example of the author's tendency to have his characters explain crucial scientific concepts to the reader by telling each other things they already know can be found in "Runaround."

"I tried to locate him by radio, but it was no go. Radio isn't any good on the Mercury Sunside -- not past two miles, anyway. That's one of the reasons the First Expedition failed. And we can't put up the ultrawave equipment for weeks yet-- " "Skip all that. What did you get?"

"Skip all that." My sympathies exactly. Or at least deliver exposition by some other means than through foolish dialogue.

Also included in Robot Visions is the story "Mirror Image," which features Asimov's odd couple sleuths, Lije Bailey (human) and R. Daneel Olivaw (robot). This piece is a perfect example of everything I've come to most dislike in Asimov's writing. The characters are underdeveloped, the dialogue wooden, there's not even a plot per se. All there is is a puzzle, one the human detective must solve because the robot simply cannot see past logic to the strange ways that humans think.

Perhaps the most interesting inclusion in this collection is the 1969 story "Feminine Intuition." In this story a robot that can make intuitive leaps is built in order to solve a particularly difficult scientific problem. The robot is given a contralto voice and other female attributes in order to make it more appealing to the all-male scientific team with which it will be working. But, after solving the puzzle, the robot is destroyed in a freak accident and the boys at U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men are unable to deduce a way to retrieve the coveted information. They're forced to call in Asimov's most famous female character, Susan Calvin, now retired from her job as chief robopsychologist.

In an obvious move to distance himself from early science fiction's notoriously chauvinistic legacy, Asimov has Calvin react to the news of the robot's female characteristics with the line, "It is a difficult choice sometimes whether to feel revolted at the male sex or merely to dismiss them as contemptible." Yet even in a story as recent as 1988's "Christmas Without Rodney," Asimov seems incapable of coming up with female characters with greater depth than a stereotypical housewife and an overly pampered shrew with the sort of, "excellent connections in business" that can help her henpecked husband's career. An astounding lack of vision from a writer capable of imagining a future in which robots strive for equal rights and in which humans are living and working in the most far flung corners of the solar system.

There are a few gems in Robot Visions. Certainly "The Bicentennial Man" and "Little Lost Robot" hold up quite well here in the new millennium. But the overall quality of the fiction isn't wonderful. And the 16 short essays that flesh out Robot Visions are much too repetitive. Most of them, because they were meant to be read as stand-alone pieces, quote the three laws of robotics in their entirety. This becomes more than a little tedious. It would have been much stronger to have chosen two or three of these articles and to have augmented these with a nonfiction piece written specifically for this collection, something to tie it all together without so much retreading of the same ground.

Robot Visions may live up to its name by being a collection of Asimov's robot stories, but this book is not nearly as rewarding a read as Robot Dreams.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

2 February 2008

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