Monday 16 November 2009

Science Fiction: I, Robot

Science fiction emerged nearly 200 years ago. The novel generally recognized as its first fully realized work was Frankenstein, or The new Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. It's about an idealistic scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who constructs and brings to life an artificial man.

Mary Shelley came from a distinguished family and lived in a distinguished circle. She was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the social-reformer and novelist William Godwin. She wrote Frankenstein at the age of 18, not long after she had eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet, while the two of them were staying in Switzerland with Lord Byron.

Since then, of course, science fiction has thrived, and although often denigrated as mere genre fiction, it has included some fine and thoughtful novels and short stories. Among these is Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. Like Frankenstein before it, and like all the best science fiction, Asimov's novel offers a way of thinking about what it is to be human.

Alex Proyas's 2004 film I, Robot, does a pretty good job in living up to the reputation of the novel that inspired it. It features Asimov's three famous Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
But the film has a new plot, which takes up the theme of Shelley's Frankenstein: what happens if human science and human design have effects that turn to be not quite as designed? The film features the very appealing Will Smith as a detective assigned to find out why the benign father of robotics has been killed, apparently by one of the robots that he designed to embody the three laws. Is there something wrong with the laws? Or was it a malfunction? Or did a robot start to become all too human?

The film, I, Robot, has not achieved the cult success of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, but it's still one of the best science fiction films I know. You can read a longer review of it in our archive of Film Reviews which you can reach by clicking here. I would give the film four stars on a five-star scale.

Isaac Asimov (1950). I, Robot. New York: Doubleday.

Ridley Scott (1982). (director). Blade runner. (film, USA).

Mary Shelley (1818). Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. London: Lackington et al.

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