I used to hate book reports when I was a kid, and here I am writing them for fun. My exploration of old-school science fiction continued with “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov and “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. They turned out to be interesting choices. They were both published in the early 1950s and represent two very different visions of the future, set right around our own now.
Asimov’s narrative is sometimes sloppy. He employs abrupt and confusing mid-paragraphs transitions of scenes. However, his “Three Laws of Robotics” are among the cleverest ideas in science fiction. “I, Robot” feels like a very small sample of limitless possible stories about them. The book works through the evolution of robots from laborers in uninhabitable space to inventors and global economic managers.
Bradbury appears to be the better writer of the two at this point. “Fahrenheit 451” is not quite as creepy as “1984” and is much less depressing, but its vision of future America is disturbingly dead on: citizens are obsessed with material well-being and mindless entertainment while their teenage children are out murdering for fun and as their government wages overseas wars to maintain their affluence. He even gives automobile culture the skunk eye; pedestrians are considered suspicious and drivers feel like they are wasting time if they aren’t speeding along at 150 mph. Where did he get this stuff?
Where “Fahrenheit 451” is between ambivalent and hostile to technology, “I, Robot” sees a lot of promise. The principal human characters in “I, Robot”–we could call them the heroes–are vested in the technology: engineers, businessmen, and the like. But they are presented against a backdrop of a population so fearful of robots that their use is forbidden on Earth. Because their ethical programming is infallible–robot brains are built so that disobeying Three Laws is a mathematical impossibility–Asimov sees technological automation as a solution to our worst excesses, like war. Over time the heroes work through the robots’ idiosyncratic applications of the Three Laws.
Bradbury is not as sanguine. The only robot in “Fahrenheit 451” is the Mechanical Hound, a four-legged executioner programmed with a database of individuals’ scents. The real villainy, though, comes in the form of willful ignorance. A robotics booster in “I, Robot” dismissively waves off the accusation that automation erodes human initiative. The dissenters in “Fahrenheit 451” see technology as a barrier to human relationships in the community and in the home, and ultimately a barrier to happiness.