Hello! I'm getting Asimov's I, Robot collection next year and see, I know Asimov was incredibly influential and has written those stories in reaction to the cliche's of the robot stories of the time, with robots going Frankenstein or turning out to be just metal humans, and I was hoping you would recommend me any pre-Asimov robot stories? I think i would better appreciate him if I understood the context of the time and tropes he was subverting. Thank you!
If I had to identify who the big “robot” author was before Asimov, it would be Jack Williamson in the 1920s and 1930s. He specialized in robot stories featuring horrible tyrants that destroy mankind, and his robot stories nearly all have downer endings. Jack Williamson is one of the more crucial people in the development of science fiction. He was the first to use terms that have entered into the English language like “blaster,” “genetic engineering,” and “terraforming.”
The first of Jack Williamson’s robot stories is the Humanoids, a story about superintelligent and frighteningly relentless robots that utterly and completely micromanage the human race by eliminating anything dangerous and removing us from toil, which basically means they’ve eliminated the entire point of the human race and keep us from doing anything fun, letting us sit around “with folded hands.” It was an eerie story about a Borg-like and very alien machine intelligence that simply didn’t understand that everything that gives our lives meaning, drink and junk food and even driving our own cars, has an element of risk, and that our imperfect lives are defined by choice. It does not have a happy ending; the robots win in that one.
Another of Jack Williamson’s “evil robot tyrant” stories is “The Iron God” from 1941, about a machine of colossal intellect that menaces the human race. It’s maybe the first “giant robot” story in the form we’d recognize. Like the Humanoids, it also has a downer ending.
In addition, there was also Eando Binder’s Adam Link stories. “Eando Binder” was a pen name for two brothers, Earl and Otto Binder. The first Adam Link story starts as first-person, with a realization over time that the narrator is a robot. It was also genre self-aware, the main character even reads Frankenstein.
The follow up story is “The Trial of Adam Link,” which is one where Adam is accused of murder. The trial isn’t just about Adam’s innocence, however…it becomes about proving whether he truly is a thinking sentient being responsible for his actions, whether he should be treated as property or a person. It was great stuff, and clearly the inspiration for maybe the best Star Trek episode of all time (”Measure of a Man”).
As the Amazing Stories pulp mag started to become schlockier and more sensational, though, the Adam Link character was brought back over and over and became less of a hounded outsider in introverted stories, and more of a superhero, in tales like “Adam Link Goes to War.” He gets a robot dog, a robot wife (named – and prepare to be blindsided here – Eve), and he became a detective and champion athlete. Adam Link was easily the most popular science fiction character of the 1940s except for maybe the Lensmen.
Isaac Asimov once said that the robot was mainly used as a “wisecracking sidekick.” Except for Grag and Otho, Captain Future’s two allies, I can’t think of a single pre-1960 “straight example” of this.
The single most direct inspiration for Asimov’s robot stories, according to Asimov himself, were not true robots at all, but living alien creatures in immortal cyborg bodies known as the Zoromes. They were found in stories called “The Jameson Sattelite,” a very popular series of science fiction stories told in the early 1930s.
Basically, a man who is dying of an incurable disease, Jameson, has himself frozen and placed in a satellite orbiting the earth, where he is discovered a billion years later when the earth is dead by a race of bizarre alien explorers, the Zoromes, who place Jameson in an immortal robot body the way he does, and take him with them when they explore the universe. The Zoromes are interesting because their analytical brains mean they approach issues differently from the human means of thinking. Asimov said that the Zoromes were not malevolent, but they were different, which is what got him thinking.
Thus far, I’ve mentioned stories about robot tyrants full of dread and unhappy endings, stories where robots engage in soul searching philosophy about sentience, and a bizarre, melancholic series set a billion years in the future. I have absolutely no idea where people get the idea that old school pulp scifi was all optimistic futures and rocket utopias.