‘I, Robot’ is Isaac Asimov’s go-to book about the future history of robots. ‘Watership Down’ is Richard Adams’ epic tale of how a brace of rabbits escaped the destruction of their warren, and hopped a few fields to start over. Both books show animals and machines with qualities similar to our own, and in that strange mirror that reflects them back on us, we are forced to reexamine our own humanness. What makes us more human, and what makes that important? Both books also effuse imagination; ‘Watership Down’ does it by building up and taking down obstacles for an intricate rabbit society to overcome, while ‘I, Robot’ features a number of mysteries, some curious, some deadly, all featuring humans as they learn to adapt to robopsychology. What the two books do not have in common, however, is faith in the reader. ‘Watership Down’ has it, and ‘I, Robot’ does not.
Perhaps that statement is unfair. ‘I, Robot’, after all, was written in the 1940s as a collection of short stories strung together through the premise of a robopsychologist relating her life experience of working with robots to a young reporter. These nine stories were intended for pulp sci-fi magazines, and needed to use clear language that appealed to the greater audience of a new generation of science fiction readers. I can’t fault Asimov for picking to pieces The Three Laws of Robotics. Those rules may be old news for the modern nerd, but the story ‘Roundabout’ in ‘I, Robot’ was the first time the world was introduced to Asimov’s unifying robotics theme. I also can’t blame Asimov for the retreading similar ground in multiple stories. If his intention was to present the stories without alteration from Super Science Stories and Amazing Science Fiction, then this would be unavoidable Besides, if a story is told right, it doesn’t matter how many times the premise is repeated. Each time presented, that premise will be seen from a unique angle, and, itself, feel new.
But still, I can’t help feel that Asimov could leave some mystery in his writing. He tries to explain everything, and, since he only has so many words to work with, he can’t get very far. Characters are limited by archetypes, problems are presented early in stories, and are explained at the end like a formulaic Sherlock Holmes mystery, and easy to grasp ideas take up multiple lines of dialogue to stumble over.
Compare this to Watership Down. Here, Adams has established a social structure, mythology and culture for his rabbit population. The rabbits go on a quest to create a new burrow, and increase their ranks, while avoiding the dangers presented by men, Read more…