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COMMENTARY

His 'Robot' passion was preprogrammed

August 09, 2004|Michael Wilmington | Chicago Tribune

Science fiction is one of those youthful passions you never quite get over, just as you can never forget, once you learn them, Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

I was reminded again of that passion, and those laws, while watching Alex Proyas' "I, Robot," starring Will Smith. It's another spectacular CGI-drenched action saga with a familiar plot line -- rebellious cop battles seemingly omnipotent bad guys. But though it's nominally based on a science-fiction mainstay, Asimov's 1950 short-story collection "I, Robot," little of the original is left.

What's kept, though, is crucial: the laws and the idea that robots must be governed by technological morality, that science is beneficent under most circumstances but can occasionally turn destructive.

In the movie, Smith -- with all his hip-hop charm and megastar impudence -- plays "Dirty Harry" with a taste for Stevie Wonder: Del Spooner, a robot-hating homicide cop in vintage Converse shoes, investigating, in 2035 Chicago, a mysterious death that may have been an impossible crime.

The death of scientist Albert Lanning (James Cromwell) may be murder by a robot, Sunny (Alan Tudyk), committed despite the fact that robots are programmed never to harm humans.

That program is Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm. Two, a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except when such orders would conflict with the first law. Three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.

Asimov's original robot stories were written in the 1940s and published by the much-revered but sometimes maddeningly contentious editor John W. Campbell Jr. in his magazine Astounding Science Fiction. (They were later collected as a continuous chronicle in the book "I, Robot.") It was Campbell, according to Asimov, who first formulated the laws, though Campbell countered that he had merely extracted and codified them from Asimov's stories.

These nine stories, one of the most famous and influential science-fiction series, have been mostly ignored in the movie, beyond supplying Proyas with two characters (murdered scientist Lanning and robot psychologist Susan Calvin, played by Bridget Moynahan), some plot ideas (mostly from "Reason" and "Escape!") and, of course, Asimov's laws.

Still, it's obviously a movie made by people who know and admire Asimov's work; Proyas, the press book says, has been wanting to film these stories since his boyhood.

And if there's the complaint (with some justice) that this is an action-movie-as-usual, that the moviemakers have gotten mired in technology and unwisely junked the original stories, it's worth mentioning that the widely accepted movie classic "Blade Runner" is not exactly a faithful rendering of its source novel, Philip K. Dick's mind-numbing "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Yet, despite its own obvious, if initially ineffective, commercial compromises, "Blade Runner," released the year Dick died, probably did as much as any other single event to help guide the now huge cult audiences to Dick's work. Sometimes, compromises have benefits.

Asimov, of course, never needed a cult. The author of more than 470 books -- of science fiction, science fact, mystery, history, juvenile fiction and popular studies on many subjects -- he was one of the most unblocked writers of the last century and one of the most continuously popular.

In the '50s and '60s, I knew his books and laws well. I also knew the complex outline of Robert A. Heinlein's "Future History," an intricate set of predictive stories for the post-'40s world, just as I knew competing alternate histories such as Ray Bradbury's Martian (and other) chronicles, tales of the Instrumentality by Cordwainer Smith, and the various future worlds imagined by writers from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Dick, Theodore Sturgeon and Alfred Bester.

For about seven years, from 1958 to 1965, I was a science-fiction addict, which means that every month I faithfully bought (or subscribed to) the three top sci-fi magazines -- Galaxy, Astounding (later Analog) and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- supplementing them with stacks of paperbacks by my favorite authors (the ones above, plus Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard and Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth) and, of course, never missed a "Twilight Zone."

I contracted this adolescent crush among others (movies, sports, mysteries, music) despite the fact that the sciences were my weakest subjects in school and the ones I least enjoyed.

Probably, though, that was because I didn't have teachers as good as Asimov, who for many years led a double life as much-published author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University Medical School and finally merged the two careers with his many science fact books.

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