Study Guide

Susan Calvin in I, Robot

By Isaac Asimov

Susan Calvin

Robopsychologist Susan Calvin is a robot. Well, no, we don't mean that literally—she's a human; but she sure seems like what we think a robot should be. Even Asimov said so in an introduction to a story in The Rest of the Robots: she is "much more like the popular conception of a robot than were any of my positronic creations." That is, unlike all of Asimov's emotional robots, Calvin is presented as very unemotional.

Seriously. Check out how many times she's referred to as cold and unemotional in the book: she's a "frosty girl" with a "cold enthusiasm" (Introduction.4), she has cold eyes (Liar.9, Evidence.132), her face is cold (Liar.271, Evitable Conflict.20), she speaks coldly (Little Lost Robot.43, 302). In fact, "cold" in this book usually refers to two things: Susan Calvin and the robots' cold metal bodies. So, Calvin seems somewhat robotic, except whereas Asimov's robots are only cold on the outside and are really emotional on the inside, Susan Calvin seems cold all the way through. And this is such an important part that we have to give it it's own section.

The Frigid Scientist, or Scientist-sicle

Have you ever seen a movie where a scientist was totally unemotional? Or a movie where a female scientist (or a librarian) had to learn how to let her hair down and have fun? This is a pretty common stock character. And at first glance, Calvin looks like the classic scientist-popsicle: she "protected herself against a worlds she disliked by a masklike expression and a hypertrophy of intellect" (Introduction.4). The interviewer notes that some people call her a robot and she never seems to smile (Introduction.20, 16).

Now, even though science fiction was arguably invented by a woman (Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein) and science fiction has always had women writers (check out this book for some examples), science fiction from the 1940s doesn't really have a lot of interesting women characters. Women might be in the stories but usually as supporting characters: the romantic object (often the good daughter of the mad scientist), the nurturing wife or mother, or the scientific assistant who is foolishly trying to be a scientist instead of a wife. So here's the question: does Calvin fit into any of those stereotypes? We're not sure about this—she sometimes seems like a stereotype of a woman who chooses her career over her femininity. (In the old stories, you could do one or the other but not both.)

Now, this pains us to say, because we like Calvin as a character: she takes no nonsense from her colleagues and she's willing to stand up both to her company and to the government for her beliefs. (This is "Little Lost Robot" that we're thinking of, but really she's never afraid to speak her mind.) But let's face it: she occasionally takes time to get to the right answer, but she always does and she always gets there first. And we're not the only ones who like Calvin; Asimov in Rest of the Robots says that he fell in love with the character of Calvin eventually, and we can see how much she pops up after she was invented for "Liar!"

But at the same time, as awesome as Calvin gets to be in the later stories, there's something a little stereotypical about her as the frigid woman scientist, especially when she first appears in "Liar!" For instance, she may be a great scientist, but she's no good at putting on makeup (Liar.100); and her whole plot in "Liar!" is about how she likes a guy (who's really not as cool as she is, let's be honest). Asimov actually noted (in Robot Visions) that he wrote "Liar!" before he had ever been on a date; so, he altered it before it was put into this book, but you can kind of see how simple Calvin's character started out as: the love-struck but emotionally distant woman scientist. We don't have an answer for this issue, but it seems like she starts out as a bit of a stereotype in "Liar!" only to become a more interesting, powerful character in the later stories.

(If you could get a copy of the original story, it might be cool to compare how she changes between that version and how it appears in the book. It might also be worth a paper to examine how her character changes over time in the book, from "Liar!" to "The Evitable Conflict.")

Calvin's POV on Robots and Her Retirement

First, since Calvin seems so cold and the robots seem so emotional, you might think that they don't get along. But you'd be wrong: Calvin seems to like robots more than she likes humans. This idea pops up in the Introduction first; so from the first time we hear about Calvin, we hear how she thinks that robots are "a cleaner better breed than we are" (Introduction.32). That idea comes up again explicitly in "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict"—though there are times when Calvin seems pretty callous toward robots. For instance, when she drives Herbie insane in "Liar!" or recommends destroying many robots in "Little Lost Robot." How do these two attitudes fit together?

Second, since Calvin loves robots, we totally expected her to die after she retires from being a robopsychologist. (Which is not a word that spellcheck recognizes… yet.) And she does die after she retires—six years after. What happens in those six years? Does she surround herself with robots? Or does she just remember the good times that she had, mostly with robots? Whatever it is, it probably involves robots.

Calvin's Name

Some critics argue that Susan Calvin's last name is a reference to Calvinism, a Protestant theology that is best known for its doctrines of human sin and unconditional salvation; that is, people are born sinful and certain people are pre-destined to be saved. There's more to Calvinism, but that's probably what it's best known for. (And since Asimov was an atheist Jew, we're not sure how much he knew about Calvinism's nuances.)

So, how does Calvinism fit into these stories? Well, we're not entirely sure; like Calvinism, the robot stories are really interested in questions of good-and-evil and free will. Some critics argue that Susan Calvin actually is a god-figure in this book: she sees all, from the robots' primitive beginnings to their full realization, and she judges all. Or could it be that the robots have taken the position of God and that Susan Calvin is merely their prophet-theorist? That the robots are judging us and Susan Calvin knows that people are really sinful?