Isaac Asimov

Story Playlist 22: Little Lost Robot

Isaac Asimov: “Little Lost Robot” (1947) In general, I’m no fan of sci-fi, although I don’t avoid it. It just never did it for me. I was more in the fantasy realm after an childhood engaged in avid bouts of Dungeons & Dragons (and for some reason it seems that sci-fi and fantasy fans are never one and the same). But I had always heard of two great sci-fi short story authors who were considered great exemplars of the genre in which they wrote: Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov. So I was eager to sample a work by each.

From the start of Asimov’s “Little Lost Robot” I knew that I would like it, and that the fact of it involving the future and robots was largely incidental and not requisite to the enjoyment of the story. It was sauce on a great piece of meat, not sauce used to hide the poor quality of the meat it dressed. Asimov writes in an assured, if old-fashioned, manner and immediately draws the reader in by starting in medias res. As so many great detective stories do, this begins with experts being called in to solve a problem. In this case, the experts are a pair of mutually-antagonistic robopsychologists, including ornery Susan Calvin (a recurring Asimov character), who are tasked with finding a lost robot.

“Little Lost Robot” introduces Asimov’s now-famous “three laws of robotics,” established by scientists to protect humans against their own creations. The First Law is that a robot cannot harm a human, and must intervene if a human is in danger. The plot hinges upon the fact that a mining corporation has tinkered with a small group of robots and trimmed the first law, cutting out the second clause, because robots were interfering with the human miners, who needed to be exposed to blasts of radiation, too brief to be harmful, in order to conduct the mining. One of the robots who was tinkered with has suddenly disappeared, and now seems to be hiding among the 62 other physically identical robots who work for the corporation. Calvin fears that the robot could possibly endanger a human, while still following the first half of the First Law, by not deliberately harming a human but also not intervening to prevent harm. The robopsychologists must develop a test to determine which of the 63 robots is the outlier, without having to destroy them all and cost the corporation millions.

It’s a great setup, and I should pause for a moment to express just how influential Asimov was as a writer. He invented the term “robotics,” as the study of robots. He didn’t invent robots, of course, but so many of the ideas we have about robots, particularly in fiction, emerged from his pen. Just like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead which established “rules” about how zombies are depicted in fiction, Asimov established, back in the 1940s and 50s, some by-now familiar tropes about robots—specifically, he foresaw just how much we would rely on them, and what could logically go wrong with our over-reliance on them in the future.

After interviewing the miners, Calvin finds one who, in a fit of anger, told the robot in question to “get lost,” which was meant metaphorically but was taken literally by the robot as an instruction. So the robot hid among the other robots. Asimov adds psychology to the robots, so that Calvin begins to believe the robot’s sense of superiority to humans keeps it in hiding, priding itself on outwitting them. She arranges for a human to be put into what appears to be a dangerous situation, in which a weight is falling upon them. Each robot with the second law programmed in place will be compelled to rush to save the human, even at risk to themselves. While Calvin is on the right track, the renegade robot is ahead of her. He has spoken with the other robots, rationalizing with them that they would be unable to save the human and thus die for nothing.

The situation is multifaceted, with an engaging mystery that has profound implications. Eventually Calvin manages to outsmart the robot, but not before Asimov’s main theme has been sounded: if robots become too intelligent, and if we rely on them too much, a) they might become too independent, and b) they might take over. It’s the theme of countless films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Terminator, but Asimov was the first to employ it, decades before it was a cliché. The implications of robots becoming too human is still present for today’s scientists, and our over-reliance is well-documented. We no longer bother trying to remember things, as our computers remember for us. If our computers one day were to become hostile to their “masters,” or were to suddenly forget everything we’ve saved in them—well, a phrase about a creek without a paddle comes to mind.

Near Famous

About three weeks ago, while attending the annual convention of the American Library Association in Chicago, I was passing through the HarperCollins exhibit when, lo and behold, who should be sitting behind one of those fake little barstool-high white tables signing books but one of my favorite science fiction-fantasy authors . Gaiman was signing copies of his most recent novel, the young adult fantasy . I didn’t bother getting in the long line that had grown in response to his presence since I already had a copy at home and wasn’t inclined to shell out more money for a second. Let’s just say autographs and celebrity-chasing never did all that much for me, something I learned through an unusual set of circumstances.

When I was in high school, my father had become very close friends with Isaac Asimov. Now you may be asking: what did a garment district salesman and an internationally famous author of science fiction, mystery stories and a slew of nonfiction titles have in common? I certainly asked. But I was quickly set straight. Apparently both had been yeshiva bochers in Brooklyn in the 1930s, who shared a deep-seated love of Borscht Belt-style joke telling.

Ironically as a high school student I was a committed science fiction reader who had swiftly worked his way through Asimov’s remarkable and his then equally fascinating . While by no means the greatest of writers within the genre, he was still one of its major figures, so I was more than happy to take up my father’s invitation to join him and Asimov at Sardi’s one autumn or winter afternoon or evening—I no longer recall.

In the end, the meal was memorable for how disappointing the whole affair was. Unbeknownst to me, Asimov was famous for his lecherous sensibility, which was on full display for this less than fateful encounter. Dining with this giant of science fiction proved one of the more painful experiences of my so-called high school life. Truly the scales fell from this pair of eyes. For while I love crude irreverence as much as the next native New Yorker, there is a difference between that and boorish behavior—and Asimov was all boorishness.

I turned down the next invitation to dine with my father and Mr. Asimov and the one after that. Once the pattern of polite refusal became apparent, my father inquired as to why I was so coyly avoiding “Isaac.” My father had, after all, kept me mindful of Mel Brooks’ quip that there are two types of people in the world: the famous and the near famous. The “famous” are your typical celebrities; the “near famous” are all the rest who want to sit next to the famous. Alas, lunch (or dinner?) with Asimov had put me in that great unwashed third group. Why I was avoiding ol’ Isaac? As I put it to my father in the form of my newfound credo regarding celebrity: “Forgive me if I prefer the creation to the creator.”

Of course, this does not apply universally to the many talented actors and directors, writers and poets, painters and musicians out there. In general, I’d like to think that most celebrities are actually okay folk, irrespective of their achievements. But whether they are or aren’t doesn’t really matter if what I’ve invested myself in is their work and not their social selves.

…which is just the long of way bringing me back to Neil Gaiman’s presence at that conference. I was not particularly interested in his autograph or even in meeting him, except maybe to bring back evidence of the encounter to my teenage daughter, who still believes in the magic of these things. I’d be more than happy if he just manages to keep producing work of reasonable quality and to my taste. It’s all we ought ask of our artists.