Study Guide

I, Robot Fire

By Isaac Asimov


The Three Laws of Robotics and "atomic" are two symbols that seem to go throughout the book, but are there any symbols that are specific to one or two stories? We think there are, and as an example, we want to look at "fire" and "flames" in "The Evitable Conflict."

Why? Well, first, we noticed that fire comes up a few times in this story, including the beginning and the end of the story. (And if something pops up at the beginning and the end of the story, you probably want to pay attention to it.) The story starts with three paragraphs on Stephen Byerley's fireplace: the fireplace is a "medieval curiosity" (1), but it's also totally modern, "a thoroughly domesticated fireplace" (2) that you can only hear through speakers (3). The fire gets mentioned once or twice during Byerley and Calvin's conversation (35) and it reflects Stephen Byerley's mood (182). And at the end of the story, the fire goes out (228)—and that's the very last line of the story (before we're returned to the frame of the interviewer and Calvin). So, sure, there's a lot of fire here; but what does it mean?

On one hand, fire tends to be associated with heat, light, activity, passion, love—all those good things about life. So if you read a story about how the Machines might be taking over and at the end of the story, a fire goes out, you might think, "Oh, that fire is a symbol for human activity and life. And since it went out, that means that human life is kind of over—so it's a sad ending."

On the other hand, fire may be associated with life, but let's be serious here: fire is a dangerous thing. And it's also represented as old-fashioned, "medieval," in this story. (And this is a good reminder to us: we might know what some symbols mean because that's part of our culture—fire is related to heat and light and love and warmth; but at the same time, sometimes a story will tell us just what a symbol means in the story.) So Byerley might be passionate at that moment, but notice how his passion is leading him in the wrong direction: he's becoming paranoid about the Society for Humanity. Passion, like fire, can be dangerous. So maybe fire is a symbol for our dangerous past; and when the fire goes out at the end of the story, this means that it's actually a happy ending—we've progressed beyond such a dangerous tool and have found safer ways to heat and light our lives.

On the third hand (how many hands do we have?), maybe it's a bit of both: fire is a symbol of something special about humans (we're passionate) but it's also a symbol of how we can be dangerous (we're passionate, sometimes about the wrong things). So maybe this ending isn't totally sad or totally happy, but a mix of both.

So if someone wanted to look at a symbol in one particular story, we might discuss fire in "The Evitable Conflict." Can you think of any symbols in the other stories?