The Original “I, Robot”

I, Robot is a 1950 book by Isaac Asimov, a legendary science fiction writer—and indeed a writer in almost every category of the Dewey Decimal System—who started in 1939 and continued until he died in 1992 of HIV complications, the HIV coming from a blood transfusion during heart surgery a decade earlier.

I, Robot is not a novel though, it’s a collection of short stories originally published in magazines featuring Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics with some narrative glue. He did later write some novels in that world, several of which were actually mysteries such as The Caves of Steel.

The blockbuster film I, Robot (2004) starring Will Smith, directed by Alex Proyas (Dark City), was derived from the Asimov book. But the book is a collection, right?

Right, so the film had to choose one story—and that story was actually not from Asimov at all!

It was originally an unrelated script called “Hardwired” by writer Jeff Vintar that writer Akiva Goldsman then merged with Asimovian intellectual property to make a Hollywood I, Robot screenplay.

Susan Calvin, played by Bridget Moynahan, was in several Asimov robot stories including in the book. However, the lead Will Smith role Spooner was not in the book, although the name sounds like a name Asimov would use. The character is similar in some ways to the Asimov character Lije Baley who was in other Asimov books like The Caves of Steel. Likewise the robot Sonny was vaguely reminiscent of Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw. Dr. Alfred Lanning and Lawrence Robertson make it into the movie, and are about as cardboard as Asimov’s originals.

In a Wired interview, Will Smith claimed that he is not like Spooner—he welcomes robotic technology.

The climax of the movie reminded me of Jack Williamson’s classic story, “With Folded Hands” (Astounding Science-Fiction, 1947), in which mankind is protected into imprisonment by androids following the unquestionable Prime Directive.

But where does the phrase “I, Robot” come from? Does anybody say that in the book? No!

The title I, Robot was not even created by Isaac Asimov!

The publishers obtained it from a short story called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder, the pseudonym at the time for collaborative brothers Otto and Earl Binder. The story was first published in Amazing Stories, January 1939, and later reprinted in the anthology The Coming of the Robots which also featured a robot story by Isaac Asimov, “Runaround,” which was also in I, Robot the book by Asimov.

But wait that’s not all.

The original “I, Robot” had a Frankenstein complex

The Binder brothers eventually did their own I, Robot style book which collected their short stories and added some narrative segues. It was called Adam Link—Robot.

In the 1965 paperback printing, it includes a quote smack dab on the cover from guess who…Isaac Asimov: “To anyone fond of the robot story in science fiction, Adam Link will be of extraordinary interest. The robot-with-emotion has rarely been so well-handled.”

Long before the Alex Proyas film, famous science fiction writer Harlan Ellison—no stranger to interacting with Hollywood as he sued James Cameron for The Terminator—wrote a screenplay for I, Robot. It was not produced but was published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay. Some of the stories from the book I, Robot, like “Evidence,” had movie rights already owned by different parties, which is why “Evidence” was not included in Ellison’s screenplay.

And to wrap it up, some corporate connections:

The company iRobot, which was recently absorbed by Amazon, had a name clearly inspired by the book. iRobot is known for the Roomba robot vacuum. I worked there for several years after college in their military division—which after I left split off and became part of Teledyne FLIR. When I started they actually had a big mural on a wall of the movie I, Robot. No animosity and likewise with the fictional Asimov company U.S. Robotics which made it into the movie….turns out there is a very real company with the same name that makes modems. Upon going to U.S. Robotic’s website way back around 2005, I found that they had explicitly embraced their likeness in the movie.

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