Study Guide

I, Robot Fear

By Isaac Asimov


"Afterward, they became more human and opposition began. The labor unions, of course, naturally opposed robot competition for human jobs, and various segments of religious opinion had their superstitious objections." (Introduction.35)

We have robots today that don't look like us and work in factories, and some labor unions have worried (understandably) about lost jobs; but notice in Asimov's world, people only really start to worry about robots when they "became more human." Why is it that people in these stories fear robots when they start to look more human?

Gloria's mother, however, was a source of uneasiness to Robbie and there was always the impulse to sneak away from her sight. (Robbie.49)

Most of fear in this story stems from people being afraid of robots, so it's interesting to us that one of the first stories involves the opposite: it's true that Grace Weston is afraid of Robbie, but Robbie is a little afraid of her as well. And this is one of our first robots, so already we see that Asimov's robots are emotional.

The little dots that marked the position formed a rough circle about the red cross of the selenium pool. And Powell's fingers went to his brown mustache, the unfailing signal of anxiety. (Runaround.22)

Powell is calm and Donovan is passionate most of the time, but even Powell gets a little upset when he's facing death. On one hand, this may be Asimov's way of telling us that fear isn't a terrible thing—it can sometimes be a useful emotion since it tells us that there's a problem. On the other hand, let's note that anxiety doesn't really help Powell here. Only science will help.

Mathematical squiggles on paper were not always the most comforting protection against robotic fact. (Reason.6)

Generally, in this book, the people who are afraid of robots aren't the smart people who work with them. Take Mrs. Weston for example—she may be smart, but she doesn't understand robotics. Sometimes Powell and Donovan (and Calvin, especially in "Escape!") get worried about robots, too. So how should we feel when robot specialists are occasionally afraid of robots?

Donovan pounded the desk, "But, Greg, he only goes wrong when we're not around. There's something—sinister—about—that." (Catch that Rabbit.50)

Again, Donovan gets fearful, even though he's a robot specialist. It turns out he's just being ridiculous—but do we know that when we start this story? Again, Asimov fakes us out by offering a "robot rebellion" possibility that is totally untrue.

"Having it walking beside me, calmly peering into my thoughts and picking and choosing among them gave me the willies." (Liar.18)

Having a robot read your mind might be frightening, as Milton Ashe and Calvin agree. In fact, this might be the first really scary robot we see: a robot who is not only better than us at something we can do (like math), but does something that we can't do at all.

"Susan," said Bogert, with an air of sympathetic amusement. "I'll admit that this Frankenstein Complex you're exhibiting has a certain justification—hence the First Law in the first, place." (Little Lost Robot.66)

"Little Lost Robot" is so interesting to us because it's the only story in this book that has a dangerous robot. In the rest of the stories, Asimov shows us how robots aren't monsters and shouldn't feared. But in this story, he has the most intelligent character in the book, Susan Calvin, express fear.

"Listen, this junk about the space-warp knocked out Consolidated's robot, and the longhairs said it was because interstellar travel killed humans. Which robot are you going to trust?" (Escape.170)

Once again, Powell and Donovan are on the frontline of robot testing, and this means they're in some danger. Now, they shouldn't be, because robots should be incapable of hurting people. But once again, since these robots are doing something new (figuring out the warp drive), there's always a danger that the Three Laws won't hold like normal.

"Why not prove it? Or would you still rather try to prove it to the public?" (Evidence.56)

Quinn motivates Lanning to get involved through the threat of making his accusations public. His accusations would just be rumors, but Lanning is still afraid that people will react negatively to those rumors. In other words, Lanning is fearful that people will be more afraid of robots if Quinn says that some people might be robots. You could imagine that people would fear a Battlestar Galactica type of situation with robots infiltrating human society. Eek.

"That such small unbalances in the perfection of our system of supply and demand, as I have mentioned, may be the first step towards the final war." (Evitable Conflict.18)

Luckily, we know by the end of this story that Byerley is wrong and that robots aren't trying to kill us all. (That would be the Terminator situation, if you're keeping track of what science fiction films this story almost is.) We don't want to make fun of him, exactly, but it does seem like an awfully big jump from "small unbalances" in the economy to "the final war." It must just be something about robots, though: everyone always expects them to kill all humans.