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“Robot Visions/Foundation”: What Did Asimov Dream About?

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Malcolm Streitfeld

Anchor Staff Writer

This one’s a bit of an oddity frankly. I don’t usually do double feature book reviews, but an exception felt necessary in this case. Before I get into why, context first and foremost. A long while back, I went to a bookstore with my best friend. At the time, I had heard of the “Foundation" series by Isaac Asimov, one of the giants of sci-fi. Having never read an Asimov book before, I was on the hunt for the first “Foundation” book. Unfortunately, such a tome was not in stock. However, a manuscript titled “Robot Visions'' caught my eye. It was a collection of short stories written by Asimov. Seizing the opportunity by buying and reading “Robot Visions'' turned out to be a smart move.

“Robot Visions” ended up being my introduction to a man whose mind I even now can scarcely comprehend. Asimov established the Three Laws of Robotics. The First Law says a robot cannot harm a human or let them be harmed. The Second Law says a robot must obey the orders of its human masters, unless those orders conflict with the First Law. The Third Law says a robot must protect its own existence unless that protection conflicts with the Second Law. Are you following me so far? Okay, good. I know it's a lot to wrap your head around, I felt the same way when I started reading this book.

Photo by Malcom Strietfeld

With “Robbie,” Asimov presents a morality tale of little Gloria and her robotic best friend Robbie. Over the course of the story, it becomes apparent that Robbie loves and treasures Gloria deeply in ways that transcend his original programming. But this isn’t possible… or is it? “Liar!” introduces us to psychologist Susan Calvin. Susan’s conversations with the robot Herbie about her personal life tear the poor robot apart as he struggles to reconcile his desire to obey the First Law and protect Gloria from harm with his instinct to tell the truth about her relationship with a coworker. A robot, of course, is programmed to always give the correct answer… but what is the correct answer in this case? In these stories, Asimov establishes the three Laws of Robotics and then uses loopholes to repeatedly subvert them.

Eventually after purchasing “Robot Visions” I discovered “Foundation, at the Brown Bookstore on Thayer Street and promptly obtained it. “Foundation” follows Hari Seldon, a scholar living during the last years of the waning Galactic Empire. Hari embarks on an odyssey to a faraway planet to build a library. This library is meant to contain all of the information accumulated by the Empire over the course of countless millennia. As Hari sets out to accomplish what will become his life’s work, he’s quickly pulled into a political battle waged by several competing factions. In the process, he discovers that it is far too dangerous for any one man to be able to make accurate predictions about the future; some knowledge is better left unknown.

As I mentioned earlier, when reading both these books, it was hard for me to comprehend Asimov’s ideas at first. Only over time did I realize what he was saying. Asimov possesses one of the most extraordinary minds I have ever encountered. His vocabulary is very complex and intricate. Before “Robot Visions”, I’d never even heard of a parallelepiped before (Look it up!). His stories challenge the traditional notions of morality being limited to humans. His vision of a future where machines start to think more and more like humans is still relevant in our era. After all, artificial intelligences, though still quite flawed, are starting to get quite good at replicating our behaviors and speech patterns. Isaac Asimov, along with Arthur C. Clarke, helped to define an entire era of science fiction for future generations of readers. I’d recommend both “Robot Visions” and “Foundation” to anyone who wants a fresh perspective on life and a better understanding of the world as a whole!

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