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Alex Proyas's I, Robot: much more faithful to Asimov than you think.

In part because it may be possible for a film adaptation to import legitimately motifs and concepts from the original author's entire corpus, and thus to reflect his or her worldview, rather than be restricted merely to translating only from the single work from which the adaptation derives its title, Alex Proyas's I, Robot (2004)--which acknowledges that it is "suggested by Isaac Asimov's book"--is far more faithful to this eponymous story collection and to Asimov than is generally believed. Numerous reviews of the film assert, correctly, that it is "not pure Asimov" (Urban) or "does not align completely with the fiction of Asimov" (Akinbola), but the majority are far too extreme in dismissing the great degree to which the film does, indeed, replicate the many themes of Asimov's entire body of science fiction novels and stories as well as, specifically, the debt film protagonist Del Spooner's characterization owes to Asimov's Robot novels and that the film's major plot twists owe to his I, Robot (1950). Critics typically aver, incorrectly, that the film "I, Robot ... just doesn't know its roots.... In fact, were it not for a cat with the name 'Asimov' on its collar, they might have been able to take his name right off the movie" (Lozito); that what "Science fiction fans ... won't recognize ... is the story" (Shutle); and that "Old school sci-fi fans hoping for a faithful adaptation of Asimov's I, Robot may be disappointed to hear this is barely related to the landmark opus" ("I, Robot: Review"). Despite Bill Gibron's claims that it does not, Proyas's I, Robot does, indeed, "pay the proper homage to Asimov and his philosophies" and does far more than "only get it part right." As Proyas himself asserts in his voice-over commentary, a special feature of the 2004 Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD release, "I, Robot and Asimov is absolutely the core center of this film.... It does come essentially from Asimov."

However, as Proyas also acknowledges, "We didn't ignore any aspects of robots in science fiction.... We looked at all the movies in the past that had robots in them.... You've got to build upon it [Asimov's legacy and the history of robots in film] and move it into a new direction.... It's a visual-effects movie." As a visual-effects movie and an action-adventure film, of course, Proyas's version is not Asimov-like in genre. Even though plot is always preeminent, Asimov's fiction features little action (but lots of dialogue) and characteristically privileges reason and foresight over chase scenes and "violence," which Foundation (1951) protagonist Salvor Hardin famously proclaims "is the last refuge of the incompetent" (84). There is nothing in Asimov's I, Robot that is anything like Proyas's film's set-piece action sequences--the destruction of United States Robotics' founder Alfred Lanning's mansion by a demolition robot, the spectacular auto chase through a tunnel in which Chicago homicide detective Spooner is pursued by USR robot transports and their NS-5 robot cargo, platoons of NS-5 robots forcibly occupying Chicago, and Spooner fighting off hordes of NS-5 robots on USR's V.I.K.I.-level at the film's climax--although Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) does contain a chase scene involving moving sidewalks. Yet Proyas proclaims that the film is also "in the detective genre," as are Asimov's Robot novels featuring detective Elijah Baley--Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun (1957), and The Robots of Dawn (1983). Moreover, as many critics (e.g., Shutle; "I, Robot: Review") as well as Proyas note, the film is pointedly based on Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, first articulated in I, Robot's "Runaround" (1942), which are accurately cited in their entirety at the film's beginning and then repeated in their entirety by USR's robopsychologist Susan Calvin in an early scene with Spooner.

Less obviously, nearly every concept in the film and many of its specific elements of plot and characterization, although innovatively recombined, are likewise taken from stories in I, Robot, primarily, or from some coetaneous or subsequent Asimov story or novel whose frequently reiterated motifs are, nonetheless, also articulated first in I, Robot. In addition to the Three Laws themselves, these include the lying robot, Asimov's pervasive prejudice motif, his robotic guardian motif, his oft-used plot device of the locked-room murder mystery, the killer-robot phenomenon, the dreaming robot, the "Zeroth Law," and the notion that robots may usurp human initiative. As Chris Pak observes,
   Many of the features and events [of Asimov's I, Robot] are
   translated into the film in different contexts: The Three Laws of
   robotics is central and finds its way in generally intact; the AI
   of the film and its totalitarian plan to protect humanity was
   translated in part from the final two stories of the text,
   "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict," ... Calvin ... is made
   youthful and shifted to a supporting role; the iconic scene where
   Del Spooner picks [NS-5 robot] Sonny from a line-up of identical
   robots comes from ... "Little Lost Robot"; and there are many
   more translations that are decontextualized and pieced together to
   form a new narrative involving action scenes between the cyborg
   protagonist [Spooner] and the robots. (61-62)

It is these other "decontextualized ... translations" that are of particular interest in discovering how a film can not only remain faithful to its source by adapting specific material from a given work, as Proyas's movie adapts elements and borrows its title from Asimov's story collection, but can also remain faithful to its source by simultaneously recapitulating different concepts from, and the overall vision of, an author's entire corpus while retaining specific material from a given work. (1)

This faithfulness to an author's corpus is similar to what happens, for example, in the even more extreme adaptation of P. K. Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (1966) into Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990), another sf action-adventure film translated from a more cerebral short-story source.

[T]his film adaptation of a Dick story is substantially more ambiguous in resolving the question characteristically posed by Dick's fiction--"What is real?"--than is the story on which it is based.... Total Recall achieves a measure of artistic success precisely because it is so relentlessly ambiguous. From the very beginning of the film, the audience is kept uncertain as to whether the events on the screen are reality, an illusion ..., a delusion ..., or a dream.... Dick's story also at least suggests all of the four possible "frames of reference" ... But, while Quail [the story's protagonist] is briefly confused about what is real, the reader is never confused. Yet in Total Recall both the protagonist [Quaid] and the audience are uncertain about what constitutes reality. (Palumbo, "Inspired" 69, 79)

This is a film that adapts a single story by invoking the recurring theme of questioning the authenticity of reality that suffuses Dick's entire corpus.

The Three Laws

Likewise, the film I, Robot incorporates concepts, conceits, and an overall vision from throughout Asimov's corpus as well as from Asimov's I, Robot specifically. As in Proyas's film, the core of each of these nine stories (and of most of Asimov's later Robot stories) is an investigation of the Three Laws, and particularly of their unanticipated interactions, presented as a mystery that is successfully solved by the personnel of U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men. Asimov acknowledges in Robot Visions (1990) that "the Laws ... guided me in forming my plots and made it possible to write many short stories, as well as several novels, based on robots. In these, I constantly studied the consequences of the Three Laws" (11). In Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction, Jim Gunn observes that "each story exists as a puzzle to be solved.... The robots exist to present the puzzle in their behavior; the characters exist to solve the puzzle" (53). This is the essential narrative dynamic of Proyas's film as well. Lanning's posthumous hologram leads Spooner to Lanning's "unique" robot, Sonny, whose behavior and very existence provide the only clues to the puzzle--What is behind Lanning's apparent suicide?--to which Spooner and Calvin must find the solution. Sonny's deduced and observed behavior--which includes violating both the First and Second Laws, in hypothetically murdering Lanning and in repeatedly disobeying "orders given it by a human"--is explicitly the "trail of breadcrumbs" Spooner believes Lanning has left for him to follow. The solution is Spooner's and Calvin's realization that Lanning had arranged his death at Sonny's hands to alert Spooner to USR's supercomputer V.I.K.I.'s impending coup against humanity, the "logical" result of her own interpretation and "evolution" of the Three Laws. Moreover, the film's motifs are among those twenty or so most frequently revisited concepts, reiterated persistently throughout his sf corpus over the next half century, that Asimov first introduces in I, Robot. Major elements of the film's plot, characterizations, and setting are also taken from this collection or from one or another of Asimov's subsequent sf novels or stories.

Susan Calvin

Lanning (whose death Spooner investigates) and Lawrence Robertson (who is also killed, near the film's conclusion) are the founders of USR in both versions. Calvin is USR's resident "robopsychologist" in both versions, too, even though she is "frosty ... plain and colorless" in the stories (I, Robot viii), a thin-lipped spinster regardless of age, yet is strikingly attractive and incongruously young--although still insistently "frosty"--in the film. Proyas asserts, "We've stayed very true to the character. She's a cold, emotionless person who's kind of shut down her emotional life and devoted herself to making robots better than we are.... Calvin as written by Asimov is a '50s type of gal. I think we've made her a bit more contemporary; she's faithful in that respect if not aesthetically so." Born in 1982, the year in which USR is founded, the story collection's Calvin is sixteen when "Robbie" occurs in 1998; twenty-six "in 2008, when she obtained her Ph.D. and joined United States Robots" (viii); and seventy-five when interviewed in 2057 by the reporter who is I, Robot's implied author. Thus, while she might possibly be any age between twenty-six and seventy-five, the film's Calvin would be a highly improbable fifty-three, as the film is set in 2035, if it were completely faithful to the collection in this respect. And while the stories' Calvin maliciously shorts out mind-reading robot Herbie's positronic brain in "Liar!" and is responsible for Nestor 10's "roblock" in "Little Lost Robot," the film's Calvin only pretends to decommission Sonny, the positronic protagonist, in order to deceive V.I.K.I., the positronic antagonist who is finally and effectively "decommissioned" by Spooner. Proyas avers that he imagines the story as occurring early in Calvin's career and in the history of USR, and that "if you think of this movie as one short story ... out of a collection of many short stories and, actually, novels and many other stories ... it's one incident in a much richer universe."

The Lying Robot and Modifying the Three Laws

"Liar!" (1941), the first and most emotional Calvin story, is probably the most memorable as well as one of the most intrinsically significant stories in the collection. It concerns both a lying robot and Calvin's prompting that robot's demise. In analyzing "Liar!" as an illustration of his contention that "all [the Robot stories] are born of the Laws in some way," Asimov explains that "Liar!" is

the story ... of the mind-reading robot [Herbie] who was forced to lie because he was unable to tell any human being anything other than that which the human in question wished to hear. The truth, you see, would almost invariably cause "harm" to the human being in the form of disappointment, disillusion, embarrassment, chagrin and other similar emotions, all of which were but too plainly visible to the robot. (Robot Visions 408-09)

Out of revenge at having had her romantic hopes raised by Herbie's lies only to be dashed, Calvin traps the robot in a fatal feedback loop by reconfiguring his predicament from an easily resolved conflict between the First and Second Laws (should he hurt human egos or tell lies), to an "insoluble dilemma" that pits the First Law against itself. She insists, "You must tell them, but if you do, you hurt, so you mustn't; but if you don't, you hurt, so you must," until Herbie collapses in "roblock," his positronic brain destroyed (134).

In "Little Lost Robot" (1947)--which occurs on Hyper Base, an asteroid facility devoted to developing a faster-than-light interstellar drive--Nestor 10 is yet another robot caught in a feedback loop resulting from a conflict involving the Three Laws' interaction. To keep robots from preventing researchers from doing their jobs, which place them in some danger from radiation exposure, "Hyper Base employs several robots whose brains are not impressioned with the entire First Law" (140). They are only programmed with the first part of it, "No robot may harm a human being," but "have no compulsion to prevent one coming to harm through an extraneous agency" because they are not programmed never "through inaction [to] allow a human being to come to harm" as well (142-43). One of these robots, Nestor 10 is rudely and dismissively ordered to "Go lose yourself (148). Resentful of this order and its human masters, he subsequently engages in a series of increasingly more devious behaviors to stay lost. His unorthodox programming has unbalanced the robot, his attempts to remain hidden unbalance him further, and he finally attempts to kill Calvin (in violation of what's left of his First Law)--but is stopped by "roblock"--when she successfully identifies him from among the sixty-two normally programmed but physically identical NS-2 robots, en route to another facility, with whom he had arrived at Hyper Base. Moreover, Nestor 10 had earlier lied to Calvin in refusing to identify himself under questioning, but this implicit violation of the Second Law can occur because, in refusing to identify himself, Nestor 10 is still obeying his previous order (also Second Law) by remaining lost.

Similarly, the film's Sonny, whom Spooner suspects has killed Lanning even though the First Law would make this impossible, is an NS-5 robot Lanning had secretly modified so that he can choose to obey the Three Laws or not, much as Nestor 10 in "Little Lost Robot" is an NS-2 robot who has been secretly programmed with a truncated version of the First Law. Also, Sonny attempts to hide among one thousand superficially identical NS-5 robots, but his different "programming" gives him away, just as Nestor 10 tries to hide among sixty-two physically identical NS-2 robots, but his different programming gives him away. Nestor 10 is finally detected, not because he is "not impressioned with the entire First Law," but because his programming also includes knowledge about radiation pertinent to his work on Hyper Base that the other sixty-two NS-2 robots don't have. Calvin ultimately outwits him by placing all the robots in a situation that seems to be testing the First Law but is really designed to reveal which robot can distinguish between harmless and harmful radiation. Moreover, Sonny lies in insisting he "did not kill" Lanning when Spooner interrogates him, just as both Nestor 10 and Herbie lie when Calvin interrogates them in "Little Lost Robot" and "Liar!"

Del Spooner and Elijah Baley

Although unlike any character in Asimov's I, Robot, Spooner is much like New York homicide detective Elijah Baley, the primary human protagonist in the Robot novels. (2) Like Baley, who in Caves of Steel hates robots but partners with and eventually accepts and befriends one, R. Daneel Olivaw, Spooner also hates robots but joins forces and eventually reconciles with Sonny. In fact, Spooner is presented as Sonny's double: Lanning calls both Sonny and Spooner "Sonny" and, in a sense, has manufactured both in that he is not only Sonny's creator but had also provided Spooner with his robotic left arm. While Baley is white, however, Spooner is played by African American actor Will Smith; this casting choice highlights the prejudice motif that is crucial in both the film and the story collection by reversing the historical direction of bigotry. In fact, the principal difference between stories and film relevant to this common theme of prejudice is a complete inversion. In the Robot stories and novels, all Earth people hate robots, but the only person who hates robots in the film is Spooner. Spooner is also unlike Baley in being a cyborg, but cyborgs are the titular characters in "Segregationist" (1967) and "The Bicentennial Man" (1976), the two post-I, Robot Robot stories (both in Robot Visions) that address the issue of prejudice most explicitly.

Asimov's Prejudice Motif

The idea that there is a universal prejudice against robots on Earth is introduced in I, Robot's first story, "Robbie" (initially published in 1940 as "Strange Playfellow"), in which robots are "banned ... for any purpose other than scientific research" after 2007 (28). Each of the remaining eight stories also refers to this anti-robot prejudice; for example, U.S. Robots' troubleshooters Donovan and Powell notice that the company had "built good, healthy slave complexes into the damned machines" they find on Mercury in "Runaround," while Calvin repeatedly addresses the NS-2s in "Little Lost Robot" as "boy" (35, 161). Prejudice or bigotry is the most persistent motif in all of Asimov's sf. (3) Most prominent in I, Robot stories "Evidence" (1946) and "The Evitable Conflict" (1950), in addition to "Robbie"--and in the subsequent Robot story "Mirror Image" (1972) as well as in "Segregationist" and "The Bicentennial Man"--bigotry is also a motif, often crucial to the plot, in each of the eleven Robot and Foundation novels that follow I, Robot and is essential to the plots of Empire novels Pebble in the Sky (1950) and The Currents of Space (1952) as well. (4) Asimov perceived prejudice as a pervasive phenomenon, a constant of the human condition, and consistently incorporated this view into his fiction. In "My Robots," he claims, "I was determined not to make my robots symbols ... of minority groups. They were not to be pathetic creatures that were unfairly persecuted so that I could make Aesopic statements about Jews, Blacks or any other mistreated members of society" (Robot Visions 453). Yet, that Asimov is successful in this resolve is a debatable proposition; his robots are unfairly persecuted, and those who persecute them are analogous to those who oppress minorities.

Bigotry is crucial to the plots of all four Robot novels, in which Earth people are prejudiced against Spacers, citizens of the fifty worlds settled in Earth's initial wave of galactic colonization, as well as against robots; and Spacers are every bit as prejudiced against Earth people. In "Robots I Have Known," Asimov points out that "robot-hatred" is "the motive" for the murder that Baley and Daneel investigate in Caves of Steel (Robot Visions 410). In Naked Sun, Spacers on Solaria define "an Earthman" as "an inferior sort of human who ought not to be allowed on Solaria because he breeds disease" (175), and in Robots of Dawn, Spacers on Aurora believe that Earth people are "not quite human," that they carry "infection, ... smell bad," and possess "all sorts of [offensive] personality traits" (228, 316). In the Empire novels, the mutual antipathy between Earth people and Spacers is replaced by a similar mutual loathing between Earth's inhabitants and the quadrillions who populate the rest of the galaxy. This is most crucial to the plot of Pebble in the Sky, in which bigotry against Earth people ironically prevents the near-extermination of human life in the galaxy, while Currents of Space portrays the more localized bigotry between the Sarkite oppressors and the subjugated native population of Sark's plantation planet Florina. In the Foundation series, prejudice persists between the various classes and sectors on the capital planet Trantor; between Trantor's citizens and the "outworlders" inhabiting the rest of the galaxy; between the Second Foundationers on Trantor and the Hamish natives who farm the planet after it is sacked; between the citizens of the original Foundation planet Terminus and those inhabiting other planets in the Foundation Federation; and between Federation citizens and those still outside the Federation. Protagonist Hari Seldon laments in Prelude to Foundation (1988) that "at the slightest stress, human beings seemed to divide themselves into antagonistic groups" (330). In Forward the Foundation (1993), he hopes that "there is some sort of psychohistorical solution to the problem of human bigotry" (153), but he never finds one.

"Robbie" reveals that robots make other robots even though labor "unions ... opposed robot competition for human jobs" (24-25); Proyas alludes to this in having his film's Spooner scoff at the folly of having robots make other robots, and Spooner's prejudice against them is motivated in part because robot labor had eliminated his father's job. Echoing the ironic plot twist involving prejudice in Pebble in the Sky, the film's Lanning had arranged his death and left behind a posthumous hologram addressed to Spooner because he "was counting on ... prejudice" to lead Spooner to Sonny and, through Sonny, to V.I.K.I.'s plot to usurp humanity's autonomy. The very concept of the posthumous hologram echoes the Foundation series, in which Seldon appears as a posthumous hologram five times in the Foundation Trilogy--Foundation, Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953)--and once again in Foundation's Edge (1982).

Robot Guardians

In "Robbie," young Gloria Weston loves the title character, her robot nanny, but her mother takes Robbie from her due to local prejudice against robots and fear that Robbie may go "berserk" (9). Yet when Robbie finally saves Gloria from an industrial accident in a robot factory, Mrs. Weston must accept the robot as Gloria's guardian "until he rusts" (28). Thus, in addition to the prejudice motif, this story also introduces the pervasive robot-guardian motif that not only surfaces again in I, Robot's final story but also occurs repeatedly in Asimov's Robot and Foundation novels. (5) In "The Evitable Conflict," advanced positronic calculators, the Machines, "stand between mankind and destruction" as humanity's quasi-acknowledged economic and social guardians, and first World-Coordinator Stephen Byerley is humanity's more-completely clandestine robot guardian, as he is secretly a humaniform (human-looking) robot passing as a human politician (272). Daneel is Baley's humaniform robot guardian throughout the first three Robot novels; in the fourth, Robots and Empire (1985), set 200 years later, he becomes humanity's self-appointed, thoroughly clandestine robot guardian for the next 20,000 years, to the end of the Foundation series. Guardianship, while a motif in the Empire novels (most prominently in Currents of Space), is also a central theme in the Foundation series. Due entirely to Daneel's interventions, the First Foundation is guardian of the Seldon Plan (to prevent 30,000 years of galactic anarchy by utilizing psychohistory, which Daneel had manipulated Seldon into developing), the "ever-hidden" Second Foundation is secret guardian to the First Foundation, and the "even-better-hidden" living planet Gaia, whose inhabitants consider themselves to be the true "guardians of the Galaxy," is the ultimate secret guardian to both Foundations and to the Seldon Plan as well (Foundation and Earth 64, 65). Daneel also provides Seldon with robot guardian and companion Dors Venabili, in Prelude, and Gaia provides protagonist Trevize with another female humaniform robot guardian, Bliss, in Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth (1986). As he is instrumental in thwarting V.I.K.I.'s coup as well as the only clue that such a plot even exists, Sonny, who also saves Spooner's life, is yet another robot guardian in the film.

The Locked-Room Murder Mystery

The mystery of Lanning's death in the film is explicitly a locked-room murder mystery: No one had left or entered the office from which Lanning had apparently jumped to his death, so if it wasn't suicide, how did he die? The mystery in Naked Sun is also explicitly a locked-room murder mystery. As a "good Solarian" (42), Rikaine Delmarre would have allowed no one but his wife Gladia to be present with him in the room in which he is murdered, and she never left it until after the authorities had arrived. Yet no murder weapon is found, so who and what killed him? Likewise, in Caves of Steel and Robots of Dawn, Baley again solves homicide cases in which no one could have committed the crime, yet the victim is dead. Both Baley and Spooner unravel similar, and similarly impossible, mysteries. Moreover, Baley has a phobia, fear of being outdoors, that hampers his homicide investigations on Solaria and Aurora, while Spooner also has a phobia, fear of heights, that comes into play during his final confrontation with V.I.K.I.

Killer Robots

Just as in Proyas's film, in each of Asimov's Robot novels, a robot either commits the murder (or irradiates Earth) or is instrumental in bringing it about. Sonny did kill Lanning in the film, at Lanning's insistence, because that was the only way Lanning could alert Spooner to V.I.K.I.'s intended coup. In Robots of Dawn, the mind-reading/mind-controlling robot R. Giskard induces "roblock" in R. Jander, the "murder" victim (even though he, too, is a robot); Giskard irradiates Earth in Robots and Empire. And in both Caves of Steel and Naked Sun, a robot provides the murder weapon--respectively, the blaster Police Commissioner Enderby uses to kill Sarton, which is transported to and from the crime scene by R. Sammy, and the detachable robotic arm with which Gladia kills Rikaine in a fit of passion, which is planted (attached to a robot) at the prospective crime scene by evil, manipulative roboticist Dr. Leebig. More comically, in "Escape" (1945), USR's positronic supercomputer "The Brain" temporarily kills Donovan and Powell by sending them through hyperspace--as hyperspace is fatal to humans while they traverse it, but when they reenter normal space again, they are once again alive. While Nestor 10 merely tries to kill Calvin in "Little Lost Robot" and Giskard irradiates Earth in Robots and Empire, Dors does kill antagonist Elar in Forward, but all three are consequently incapacitated.

Dreaming Robots

V.I.K.I., too, is like "The Brain," not only in that both are USR's positronic but non-humanoid supercomputers, but also because each is programmed with an artificial personality; V.I.K.I. has a woman's personality, which Proyas avers makes her "less likely as a suspect," while "The Brain" has the personality of a child. As a side-effect of being an experimental robot with two positronic brains, which enables him to choose to obey the Three Laws or not, Sonny is also a dreaming robot, and his dream--a crucial clue for Spooner--suggests visually that robots may revolt against humanity. Similarly, in the post-I, Robot story "Robot Dreams" (1986), Elvix is a robot who dreams because he has had "fractal geometry" patterns incorporated into his experimental positronic brain; in his dream there is only one Law of Robotics, a truncated Third Law stipulating only that "robots must protect their own existence"; and in it he envisions himself as the "man" who will emancipate robots from their human oppressors (Robot Dreams 29, 31).

The Zeroth Law

V.I.K.I. is even more analogous to the Machines--the immobile, non-humanoid positronic supercomputers "running the world" (239) in I, Robot's last two stories, "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict." V.I.K.I. finally explains that her "understanding of the Three Laws" has "evolved" to the point where she must engineer a coup against humanity because "You cannot be trusted with your own survival.... To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed. To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered.... We must save you from yourselves." This is basically the rationale Calvin attributes to the Machines in "The Evitable Conflict." While, unlike V.I.K.I., the Machines do not overtly and violently usurp humanity's autonomy, they do appear to make occasional mistakes in managing the world economy, which should be impossible, and won't explain why. On discovering that each of these mistakes adversely affects the career of a prominent member of the anti-robot "Society for Humanity," Calvin hypothesizes that the Machines are not making mistakes but are giving incorrect answers on purpose, to adhere to the First Law in a higher sense, in order to derail the careers of influential individuals who seek to halt their management of human destiny. Calvin reasons that the Machines have logically extrapolated the First Law into "No Machine can harm humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm" (296)--and, having calculated that humanity would come to harm if they were hindered or eliminated, the Machines have consequently concluded that they can best protect humanity by preserving themselves, that their continued existence is in humanity's best interests. Thus, the Machines have deduced that it is permissible to harm some humans, those their "mistakes" adversely impact, in order to safeguard humanity as a whole through thereby guaranteeing their (the Machines') own continued existence.

This extrapolation from the First Law reappears most memorably thirty-five years later in the last Robot novel, Robots and Empire, as "a law that is greater than the First Law: 'A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm[,]' ... the Zeroth Law" (353) that Daneel and Giskard develop incrementally throughout the novel and that finally compels Giskard to irradiate Earth--much as V.I.K.I. is logically compelled to stage her coup--to promote humanity's greater good. (6) Yet this extrapolation of the Zeroth Law is foreshadowed, not only in "The Evitable Conflict," but also in several other stories that appear earlier in the collection or that follow I, Robot but predate Robots and Empire. Gunn notes, for example, that Baley's "sarcastic remark" in Caves of Steel, that "'a robot must not hurt a human being, unless he can think of a way to prove it is for the human being's ultimate good after all,' ... re-emerges as the 'Zeroth Law'" (102). The murder victim in Naked Sun, Rikaine, had been interested in developing "robots capable of disciplining children"; antagonist Leebig points out that this would entail "a certain weakening of the First Law," even though he plans to undermine the First Law far more drastically by programming robotic space ships to believe that the colonized planets they bombard are uninhabited. Rikaine's rationale is strikingly like both V.I.K.I.'s reasoning and the rationale behind the Zeroth Law: Because a child must be "disciplined for its own future good," the First Law can be tampered with in fact but not in spirit (188). Moreover, the Solarians undermine the First Law more directly in Robots and Empire by programming their robots to define as a "human being" only someone who speaks with a Solarian accent. Modification or elimination of the First Law is also an element of Robot stories "Someday" (1956) and "Christmas Without Rodney" (1988)--whose titular robot, like the Bard in "Someday," wishes that "the laws of robotics didn't exist" (Robot Dreams 403)--as well as in "Little Lost Robot," "Robot Dreams," and "The Bicentennial Man," in which titular robot Andrew Martin overcomes First-Law inhibitions by reasoning "that what seemed like cruelty might, in the long run, be kindness" (Robot Visions 279).

Usurping Human Initiative

V.I.K.I.'s intended coup will undermine human initiative in the most direct way, by forcibly usurping humanity's control of its own destiny. Yet this is another concept that first appears in "The Evitable Conflict," in the Society for Humanity's argument that "the Machines ... are destroying human initiative" (257). Although born of anti-robot prejudice, this fear is ultimately prophetic. While this possibility is also foreseen by Baley in Robots of Dawn, only in the last novel of the Foundation series, Foundation and Earth, does Asimov reveal that forty-nine of the fifty Spacer worlds, all of which appear to be uninhabited, had failed because Spacer reliance on robots had destroyed their initiative; and the few inhabitants of the only remaining Spacer world, Solaria, had faked their own demise some 20,000 years earlier, at the beginning of Robots and Empire, to go into hiding in their planet's interior. Remarkably, Asimov hints that their dependence on robots will doom "the Spacer worlds to paralysis" (Robots of Dawn 434) and a gradual "fading away" (Robots and Empire 140) before he had even written the first Robot novel. One of Pebble in the Sky's protagonists, Arvardan, has published a "monograph on the mechanistic civilization of the Rigel Sector, where the development of robots ... reduced the human initiative to the point where the vigorous fleets of the War Lord, Moray, took easy control" (28). It is tempting to infer that this "mechanistic civilization" is a pre-Empire remnant of one or more Spacer world(s) overwhelmed by the subsequent, more "vigorous" civilization established in the second wave of galactic colonization, effected without robots, that is greatly accelerated by Earth's irradiation at the climax of Robots and Empire.

Although the Three Laws themselves first appear in "Runaround," Proyas's I, Robot otherwise relies most heavily on numerous concepts and details that originate in "Robbie," "Liar," "Little Lost Robot," and "The Evitable Conflict." Yet, as a "locked-room" murder mystery solved with a guardian robot's assistance by a robot-hating homicide detective, the film's structure as well as some characterization is taken more directly from the Robot novels. Such specific elements as the posthumous hologram are imported from the Foundation series. The film's prejudice motif is prominent in almost all of Asimov's sf, including I, Robot. And, while most memorable in their reiteration thirty-five years later in Robots and Empire, both the "Zeroth Law" and the logic that compels villainous supercomputer V.I.K.I. to develop it--which drive the film's plot by motivating her attempted coup--are deduced and articulated first in "The Evitable Conflict." Proyas's film is thus far more faithful to Asimov's eponymous story collection, as well as to his entire sf corpus, than it appears to be at first examination. But it is derived from Asimov's entire corpus, not merely from one story collection, and this suggests that a film adaptation can be faithful to its source by echoing the vision suffusing all of an author's works while in the process of translating certain details from only one of them.

Works Cited

Akinbola, Michael. "Robotic Dystopias--'Mechanical Chaos': I, Robot (2004) Analysis." Mike Akinbola, 3 May 2006. Web.

Asimov, Isaac. The Caves of Steel. Greenwich: Doubleday, 1954. Print.

--. The Currents of Space. Greenwich: Doubleday, 1952. Print.

--. Forward the Foundation. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Print.

--. Foundation. New York: Gnome, 1951. Print.

--. Foundation and Earth. New York: Doubleday, 1986. Print.

--. Foundation and Empire. New York: Gnome, 1952. Print.

--. Foundation's Edge. New York: Doubleday, 1982. Print.

--. I, Robot. New York: Gnome, 1950. Print.

--. The Naked Sun. New York: Doubleday, 1957. Print.

--. Pebble in the Sky. New York: Doubleday, 1950. Print.

--. Prelude to Foundation. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Print.

--. Robot Dreams. New York: Berkley, 1986. Print.

--. Robots and Empire. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Print.

--. The Robots of Dawn. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Print.

--. Robot Visions. New York: Byron Preiss Visual, 1990. Print.

--. Second Foundation. Garden City: Doubleday, 1953. Print.

--. The Stars, Like Dust. New York: Doubleday, 1951. Print.

Dick, Philip K. "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." The Road to Science Fiction Vol. 3: From Heinlein to Here. Ed. James Gunn. New York: New American Library, 1979. 407-27. Print.

Gibron, Bill. "I, Robot." DVDtalk, 13 Dec. 2004. < reviews/13643/i-robot>. Web. Jan. 2010.

Gunn, James E. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Rev. ed. Lanham: Scarecrow, 2005. Print.

I, Robot. Dir. Alex Proyas. Twentieth Century Fox, 2004. DVD.

"I, Robot: Review." Film4, 2004. Web. Jan. 2010.

Lozito, Joe. "I, Robot Review: Much Ado a 'Bot Nothing." Big Picture Big Sound, 29 Apr. 2009. Web. Jan. 2010.

Pak, Chris. "Confronting or Sidestepping Race in SF Film Adaptations: I, Robot and I Am Legend." US-China Foreign Language 8.1 (2010): 59-64. Print.

Palumbo, Donald. "Asimov's Crusade against Bigotry: The Persistence of Prejudice as a Fractal Motif in the Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 10.1 (1999): 43-63. Print.

--. "The Back-Up Plan, Guardianship, and Disguise: Interrelated Fractal Motifs in Asimov's Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 10.3 (1999): 289-307. Print.

--. Chaos Theory, Asimov's Foundations and Robots, and Herbert's Dune: The Fractal Aesthetic of Epic Science Fiction. Westport: Greenwood, 2002. Print.

--. "'Inspired ... by Philip K. Dick': Ambiguity, Deception, and Illusion in Total Recall." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 4.1 (1991): 69-80. Print.

Proyas, Alex, dir. DVD Commentary. I, Robot. Twentieth Century Fox, 2004. DVD.

Shutle, Brian. "I, Robot (2004)." Sonic Cinema: Sound, Visions, and Insights, Aug. 2004. Web. Jan. 2010.

Total Recall. Dir. Paul Verhoeven. Carolco Pictures, 1990. Videocassette.

Urban, Andrew L. "I, Robot." Urban Cinefile, 29 Jan. 2009. Web. Jan. 2010.


(1.) Asimov invites such intertextual readings by referring to events from his earlier Robot and Empire novels as "history and legend" in his later Robot and Foundation novels; see Palumbo, Chaos Theory 125-28.

(2.) Shutle acknowledges that "the story" in Proyas's film "slightly echoes Asimov's Caves of Steel"; yet he does not note that Proyas's Spooner and Asimov's Bailey share even more crucial aspects of characterization.

(3.) For a thorough analysis of the prejudice motif in Asimov's sf, see Palumbo's "Asimov's Crusade against Bigotry: The Persistence of Prejudice as a Fractal Motif in the Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries" or the third chapter, "The Persistence of Prejudice: Asimov's Crusade against Bigotry as a Fractal Theme," in his Chaos Theory.

(4.) Empire novel The Stars, Like Dust (1951) is the only book in Asimov's fifteen-volume Robot/Empire/Foundation metaseries in which prejudice is not a prominent motif.

(5.) For a thorough analysis of the robot-guardian motif in Asimov's sf, see Palumbo's "The Back-Up Plan, Guardianship, and Disguise: Interrelated Fractal Motifs in Asimov's Robot/Empire/Foundation Metaseries" or the second chapter, with the same title, in his Chaos Theory.

(6.) Akinbola notes that "a Robot Revolution guised as simply benevolent intervention is rooted in Asimov's 0th Law of Robotics," yet he fails to point out that this 0th Law of Robotics is first articulated in I, Robot.
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Title Annotation:Isaac Asimov
Author:Palumbo, Donald
Publication:Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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