Preparation and Study Questions for Cory Doctorow's "I, Robot" (2005)

Doctorow's story was first published at the web site, Infinite Matrix, and is still available there despite the fact that Eileen Gunn has stopped managing the site.  Click on the story's title in our syllabus if you prefer to read the story on-line.  Of course, Infinite Matrix, as I announced previously in the course, continues to offer quality SF as well as essays by SF writers and essays and reviews by critics, and is a rich resource for those interested in SF generally.  

Doctorow's story both extends the tradition of humanoid androids that we have been considering through, among other things, the notion of the posthuman or transhuman, and responds to Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, which have dominated the portrayals of robots in SF since the early 1940s.  Asimov, of course, was himself countering those technology-as-threat science fictions that had frequently posed humanoid robots as a threat to humanity.  Most argue that this notion of the threatening robot began with R.U.R. [Rossum's Universal Robots], Karel Capek's 1921 science fiction play, which is credited with inventing the term, "robot." In Capek's Czechoslovakian, "robota" means "slave" and the application of the term, "robot," to Capek's artificial beings was credited by the author to his brother, Josef.  If you are interested in the play, it is available in a very inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition.

Asimov responded to the spate of  threatening robot stories by creating his Three Laws of Robotics and the positronic brain as guarantees that robots would obey human orders and be unable to harm humans.  Doctorow's story responds to this continuing tradition in SF in part by reversing the polarity and ironically showing how the three laws can in fact become a liability.  Of course, by allowing Social Harmony to create lawless robots to be used essentially as totalitarian secret police and contrasting the Social harmony creations to those of Eurasia, Doctorow shift the frame back from technology itself as threatening to the uses to which humans put technology as posing the true threat. 

Here are Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which should help you to follow some of the issues in the story:

  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.

Study Questions

  1. How would you describe the society in which Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg and his daughter, Ada, live? 
  2. How does the description of the UNATS society in contrast to that of Eurasia establish the principal conflict of the story?  How is this conflict replicated by the depiction of the differences between Arturo and Natalie and their conflicting values?
  3. Why does Doctorow so frequently have Arturo repeat the "you're under arrest speech" in times of stress?  How does the effect of this phrase change as it is repeated in the story?
  4. Once the story takes Arturo and Ada to Beijing, directly exposing them [and us] and to the Eurasian society, what issues are foregrounded through Arturo's and Ada's quite different response to the nature of things in Eurasia?
  5. What values and positions, finally, are privileged by Doctorow?