Harlan with Isaac at the movies

I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay
Screenplay by Harlan Ellison
Based on stories by Isaac Asimov
Illustrated by Mark Zug

Thus far, I’ve stuck to reviewing books that are fairly new; usually, I’ll review a book when it’s new in paperback. I’m going to make an exception in this case and review a book that is not only old, but has been out of print for some time.

In fact, I first read this book about three years ago (Thanks, Jacquie), and only recently obtained a copy myself. So this is a review upon reading a book for the second third time.)

I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay is an adaptation by Harlan Ellison of a collection of connected short stories by the late Isaac Asimov. Anyone who reads science fiction, and many who haven’t, have read or at least heard of this book. For any cavewights reading this column, here’s a brief summary of the plot.

(A brief warning: I’m not reviewing I, Robot, I’m reviewing Ellison’s adaptation of it; therefore I’m not following my usual policy of saying very little about the plot of the book. In this special case, the fun is in seeing how Ellison turned a collection of loosely connected stories into a coherent whole. If you’ve not read the original, I strongly recommend it as well.)

The central theme of I, Robot is, unsurprisingly, the positronic robot. These stories were key in introducing the idea of robots as entities that could help humanity, rather than monsters that could destroy it. (Frankenstein by Mary Shelly was often cited by Asimov in interviews and columns he wrote about the robot stories.) The central character, although she appears only in 5 of the original 9 stories in the volume, is Susan Calvin, robopsycologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. She is a strong figure, dispassionate and analytical, more comfortable with robots than with people.

Central to the book, indeed the very concept of robotics, are the three laws of robotics. Reproduced here:

  1. A robot man not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
  3. A robot must protect it’s own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Note the hierarchy of the laws, the deliberate structure.

Other characters are Alfred Lanning and Peter Bogert, respectively the Director and the head mathematician of US Robots; Michael and Gregory Powell, freelance troubleshooters. And there is Stephen Byerly, a politician accused of being a robot in disguise. The robot stories as written by Asimov are puzzles, with the Three Laws as guidelines.

There are also the robots themselves; Robbie, the nursemaid and child’s companion. (The child is, in this version of the story, Susan Calvin.) Speedy, the general-purpose robot built to survive in the hellish environment of the sunlit side of Mercury. And many more, all with distinct personalities, those personalities shaped by the Three Laws.

(Later books written by Asimov are full-fledged detective novels in roboticized societies. The ending of the screenplay, in fact, conflicts with these. Other authors have expanded on the robots, most notably Roger MacBride Allen’s “Caliban” trilogy about a robot without the Three Laws.)

The original story now has a framing story of a reporter, Robert Bratenahl, stalking the reclusive Susan Calvin for when she is very old. Ellison takes this and runs with it, but he produced a book that is, in many respects, very little like the original. The characters are the same, those that Mr. Ellison kept, but the tone is very different. The screenplay reads less like a detective story and more like a sweeping story of a woman who changed society, and the reporter who endangered his career to find her.

As Asimov points out in the introduction, Ellison is a writer of emotions where he is not, so it is only natural to expect an entirely different sort of story to have emerged. Ellison also tells a fascinating story of how the screenplay came to be written, and why it was never produced as a film. (Those who know anything of Ellison’s abrasive personality can pretty much guess at the story behind that.)

There are entirely new characters and stories dropped in, and somehow the whole thing feels like a single story now. A masterful interpretation, and one I’m sorry will, in all likelihood, never be seen on the screen. However, with the imminent release of “The Bicentennial Man”, based on another story of Asimov’s, and the panned Will Smith I, Robot, who knows what the future will bring?

Note: I wrote this in 1999, and the primitive writing makes me cringe. Nevertheless, it is a useful review of what I considered — and still consider — a very good book. If you can find this, I still recommend it. –NF, September 2003
Reread note: Most of what I wrote seven years back still holds. I couldn’t resist tightening the writing a bit where I came across something unclear, updating the HTML tags, and adding a few things.


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