Study Questions for Isaac Asimov's "Liar!" [1941]

Asimov began publishing robot stories in 1939 with "Robbie," a story about a robot purchased as a nanny for a young girl named Gloria. The father and daughter become attached to Robbie, but return him to the factory in response to the mother's insistence that Gloria needs to learn to play with human companions and is too attached to Robbie. Gloria is emotionally devastated, but recovers when the father explains that Gloria might recover if she were to see evidence that Robbie is just a robot and not human. He plans a trip to a robot factory where Robbie is seen working on an assembly line. When Gloria breaks free of her parents and runs toward Robbie, she is almost run over by a moving machine, but Robbie saves her. Mrs. Weston relents and allows Robbie to return to their family even though she realizes that the father had set the whole scene up--except Robbie's saving Gloria--in order to win the mother over to Robbie and Gloria's cause. Published in 1941, "Robbie" is a relatively early Asimov robot story, written when he was still exploring the implications of the three laws of robotics, which are named in Heather Masri's introduction to the story. Here are a few issues to consider:

  1. Susan Calvin, because of her important position as a robopsychologist who appears throughout Asimov's robot stories and novels, is often seen as an example of how Asimov sometimes assigns a prominent role to women characters. He is therefore sometimes seen as a bit ahead of his time in the roles that he allows women in his stories. How would you characterize his portrayal of Calvin? What stereotypically gendered traits are assigned to her?
  2. When Calvin learns from Herbie that the girl who visited Milton Ashe was merely his first cousin, Calvin says, "That's exactly what I used to pretend to myself sometimes, though I never really thought so" (287). How does this line function as a clue to what is really going on in the interactions between Herbie and the humans? Can you identify any other clues suggesting that Herbie is not being honest--other than the story's title?
  3. How do you react to Calvin's badgering of Herbie at the story's end? She reduces Herbie to a catatonic state, then has him sent to be scrapped, saying, "He deserved it" (295). What is your final impression of Calvin?
  4. The idea of immobilizing an AI by creating an insoluble dilemma has become relatively common in science fiction since Asimov's story initiated [most say] this concept. Masri notes that the concept functions to resolve the conflict in a Star Trek episode. Can you think of other examples?