Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov (1986) K

Date Read: 11.22.07
Book From: MITSFS, now Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Robot Dreams is simply an amazing work of art. I’ve always believed there really is no other science fiction author who has managed to capture the emotional and ethical plights of robotics, and indeed, Asimov was the first to invent the concepts themselves. Robot Dreams is a collection of soft sci-fi stories that examine all sorts of aspects of a futuristic society in which humanoid robots exist. Now on to… story by story! (get ready.. there’s a bunch!)

Little Lost Robot– A team of roboticists try to track down a new rogue robot among 62 other robots of exactly the same look by using robot psychology. \\ This was definitely the right story to start off the collection. A gentle, but breathtaking introduction to Asimov’s world of robots, and a rightful introduction to Asimov’s famed Laws of Robotics. It was so well-planned and clever, from all the different psychological tests they tried to use to root out the rogue robot, to how the scientists finally accomplished it.

Robot Dreams– A robot with an altered brain wave pattern relates its dream experience. \\ Another excellent read and the namesake of the collection. It’s really short, with a huge twist at the end, and very very cathartic. This is also one of Asimov’s most famous works and I think it is the blend of surrealism with the coldness of futuristic science that makes it so genius.

Breeds There a Man…?– Ralson is a mathematical genius slowly spiraling into insanity. He is convinced he has to end his life because he has delved into the Meaning of Life and knows of an impending apocalypse. However, other scientists beg him for one last effort to help them stop the apocalypse. \\ A long short story with great depth. Asimov examines existence from DEITY-MODE! (sorry, 6.001 reference to the program I’m working on right now). He likens the purpose of existence to bacterial cultures on a petri dish– first, there is a ring of penicillin around the edges of the culture to keep it from spreading to other regions (corresponding to limits of human intelligence), and that the bacteria will be disposed of and a new colony formed once the current experiment is done. It’s just really interesting because Ralson rants and raves about his experiences in the “intellectual penicillin”… and very eerie. My Asimov love grows…

Hostess– Rose Smollett, a dedicated and famous biologist, invites an alien into her house for his visit to Earth. Over the proceeding days, she discovers much more about the alien, the interplanetary connections between Earth and other worlds, and her puzzling relationship with her husband. \\ This was another twist-ending! The read itself was a lot of fun, because there was a lot of tension between her and her husband, both pre-existing and as a result of the alien. It’s another one of those stories that explores a really abstract explanation for certain characteristics of humanity– in this instance, aging and death.

Sally– Jake takes care of a retired car farm where he has befriended all of the automatobiles (cars with AI systems). However, one day Jake is threatened by a businessman when he refuses to sell his car parts. \\ Examines the idea of AI sentience and emotion, and correct human–>machine treatment. It was a comforting, but predictable read.

Strikebreaker– Lamorak travels to Elsevere to help the inhabitants solve a waste contamination problem. There, he learns of the Rasgunik’s, those that handle human waste and recycle it back into the “ecosystem” of the planet so humans can survive. Rasgunik is on strike because he is shunned by society, but because the role of Rasgunik is so untouchable, no one else will step up to save the community. \\ The underlying concept in this story is that Rasgunik’s role is vital to society, but because he is forced to handle disgusting materials, he is shunned and isolated. What really strikes you is the force of the community’s hatred for Rasgunik and how much societal prejudices can outweigh common sense.

The Machine that Won the War– Two men explore past the Multivac machine to what really programmed it. \\ So, to explain, the Multivac is a recurring supercomputer in most of Asimov’s futuristic stories. Multivac is like the all-computer with databases throughout the universe and in this timeframe, basically decides all the decisions of each world and humanity. Anyway, it’s just a clever little story that goes behind Multivac’s programming to see what really saved the world.

Eyes Do More Than See– Extremely abstract look at personified Matter and Energy and the formation of certain human features in space. It’s incredibly short (2 pages), and I guess there’s not much to say besides that… it’s very good?

The Martian Way– A space expedition comes up with a new idea for a water supply when they reach the ice rings of Saturn. \\ There wasn’t much plot so much as character development and examining of futuristic human psyches. Interesting, a bit long, not my favorite, but interesting as usual.

Franchise– In the future, all political elections are decided by one voter alone. While reminiscing about the simplicity of past voting systems (i.e. the one we use now), Norman Muller is informed that he has been selected as The Voter for the year and must vote on behalf of the entire country. \\ INTERESTING. So many cool elements. They had a really good explanation for why it the voting system evolved to be one voter alone, which didn’t make common sense at all but was entirely plausible due to the warped mentality of roboticists and a scientists of his futuristic world. But, the best part was the psychological development of Norman Muller. We start with him being totally against the futuristic mindset of voting, and as he starts the process of voting, he also starts receiving a lot of fame and recognition for he is THE voter. And you watch him slowly transform and let go of his values… fascinating =)

Jokester– A group of friends speculate on the origins of all jokes. \\ Just a short fun read. Asimov brings up the point that people never make up jokes, that you always start with “Did you hear any good jokes lately?” or “I recently heard this from a friend…” and that all jokes have the basic same underlying structure. Anyway, he does give an explanation at the end…

The Last Question– Two friends try to ask MultiAC (evolved Multivac) a series of questions with extremely abstract concepts and MultiAC finds that it can’t answer. But when MultiAC finally manages to compute the answers, there is no one around to listen… \\ There’s nothing to say — that’s the point of the story!

Does a Bee Care?– A very abstract look at the meaning of relationships in nature.

Light Verse– Ms. Lardner is hailed as the greatest light sculptor. She is eccentric because she treats her robot-servants with respect and keeps them despite any faults they might possess. One day someone discovers the reason behind her talent… \\ This story was amazing beyond belief. I simply can’t say more about the story without giving it away, but it is very cathartic and has incredibly intriguing characters.

The Feeling of Power– In a futuristic world, a lowly technician named Aub proposes a paper computer and demonstrates it’s ability by performing arithmetic on paper with pencil. This concept is shocking to all the higher-ups, for surely it is impossible to compute without a computer… \\ Awesome! A really ironic/humorous piece, kinda like the regression of fashion styles… but for technology. Very clever.

Spell My Name With an S– Zebatinsky’s wife convinces him to visit a numerologist and he does so grudgingly. For success, the numerologist simply advises him to change the first letter of his name to an S. Zebatinsky leaves the numerologist in a huff, but through a chain of events we see how his name change affects him. \\ Such a fun read! This was reminiscent of a Goldberg machine, or the butterfly effect, and incredibly humorous.

Ugly Little Boy– A time experiment brings a Neanderthal into the present time for study, and his nurse develops a strong bond with him. \\ This was an extremely sad story about the strength of unexpected love. Asimov definitely also used this piece as societal critique, and really examines the willingness of humans to discriminate and turn against people who are different. There is also a strong theme of responsibility, and how, in particular, political responsibility is not always observed.

The Billiard Ball– Two rival geniuses, one a theoretician and the other an experimentist, have been at odds over their work for a long time. They meet up for one last time at a public display in which the experimentist tries to disprove one of the theoretician’s theories. \\ Sneaky and delightful– you’ll just have to read this for yourself.

True Love– A man tries to find true love using a computer and a database of all the women in the world. \\ Interesting. Drives home the point once again, that love isn’t simply dependent on someone’s looks or characteristics… with a twist at the end.

The Last Answer– Murray has died and in the afterlife, he discovers he has been brought there for the purpose of helping The Voice find a way to die in the afterlife. \\ I love it when Asimov does this.. and explores these really way-out-there concepts. This story was very paradoxical with great development as always.

Lest We Remember– John Heath, the perfectly typical average guy, subjects himself to a memory experiment, and subsequently finds himself with perfect recall. However, he starts to confuse recall with intelligence and it transforms his personality. \\ A look at what happens when power goes to someone’s head and questions what exactly defines “intelligence”.

Phew! Done! Overall, it’s an amazing collection, with wonderful story placement. There is never a boring moment, and Robot Dreams is incredibly intellectually and emotionally stimulating. I also strongly believe that if someone were looking to read Asimov for the first time, this is the place to start.

Go To:

Isaac Asimov

2 thoughts on “Robot Dreams, by Isaac Asimov (1986) K”

  1. I remember reading Robot Dreams at the beginning of high school and realizing that some people actually used Sci-Fi as a serious literary channel. Also, that short stories didn’t necessarily mean worse stories.

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