Retro-Hugo 1941, Best Short Story


Isaac Asimov

Super Science Stories, September 1940

Fellow nominees:

  • “Requiem” by Robert A. Heinlein
  • “Martian Quest” by Leigh Brackett
  • “The Stellar Legion” by Leigh Brackett
  • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” by Jorge Luis Borges

As I promised last time, today’s post is all about Asimov’s award-winning short, “Robbie.” Written while at the age of nineteen, the story became the first robot story produced by Asimov. It’s the story that sparked both his acclaimed Robot series and his most revered tenets, The Laws of Robotics. Despite its future importance, the story had trouble finding a home. Initially rejected by John W. Campbell, it eventually published in Super Science Stories thanks to editor Frederick Pohl. At the time, you could find the story listed as “Strange Playfellow,” but subsequent collections reverted to its original title.

Robot series

  1. I, Robot*
  2. The Positronic Man
  3. “Mother Earth”
  4. The Caves of Steel
  5. The Naked Sun
  6. “Mirror Image”
  7. The Robots of Dawn
  8. Robots and Empire

*I, Robot (which includes “Robbie”) is a fix-up novel of nine short stories featuring the character of Susan Calvin.

Before we focus on “Robbie,” let’s first gain an understanding of Asimov’s Robot series. The original series includes four novels and nearly thirty short stories. To the left, I included an “essential” reading order of the series. I call it “essential” because it does not include a majority of the short fiction that Asimov considers canon. One can find these stories collected in various collections, including the one mentioned at the end of this post. Also, this list omits all of the works sanctioned by the Isaac Asimov estate that other writers contributed over the years.

For the curious, I will share a list towards the end of the post of these other series. While they have the approval, many of these works feature inconsistencies with the established lore. Lastly, later in his life, Asimov decided to merge this series with two of his other popular series: the Foundation and Empire series. Collectively known as the “Greater Foundation” series, the story is told across eighteen novels, with “Robbie” its starting point.

Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

“Robbie” is an innocent tale of the titular robot and its young charge, Gloria. The story begins in a world (in the distant future of 1982) where owning a personal robot is the newest fad. If you’re thinking of Furbies, iPods, or an Apple Watch, you’re not wrong. Robbie is much like these, but instead, it’s a working assistant to look after your needs. Mr. and Mrs. Weston purchased Robbie to serve as a care provider to their only daughter. Gloria loves her robot companion, but growing unrest in the community soon causes Mrs. Weston to question her decision. What follows is the quest to determine if machines are capable of humanity.

It has no soul, and no one knows what it may be thinking.

– Mrs. Weston

As I mentioned in my last post, Asimov’s robots found life through his annoyance at the Frankenstein complex. He notes in his introduction to Robot Visions, that since their debut in Karel Čapek’s “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” murderous robots proliferated throughout science fiction. This unsettled young Asimov. In how own words, “I saw them [robots] as machines – advanced machines – but machines.” He equates the robot to the likes of speech, fire, a compass, and a car. Each a necessary discovery that despite its usefulness created disasters when their safety measures failed. Asimov sought and succeeded in changing the community’s perception that robots are nothing more than machines.

Even from the theological standpoint, one might argue that God would never have given human beings brains to reason with if He hadn’t intended those brains to be used to devise new things, to make wise use of them, to install safety factors to prevent unwise use–and to do the best we can within the limitations of our imperfections.

– Isaac Asimov, “Introduction” (Robot Visions)

What I found most interesting in this story is that the machine we meet is nearly human. I know it seems unlikely given what I just wrote. (I should note that I read the collection’s introduction following “Robbie” therefore I was unaware of Asimov’s comments.) Very early Asimov introduces the reader to Robbie, who at the time races around the Weston family’s yard with Gloria. At one point, Gloria playfully threatens to spank her metallic nanny, and Robbie reacts by cowering. Then later, when Gloria accuses Robbie of peeking during a game of hide-and-seek, Asimov tells the audience Robbie feels hurt by the accusation. Robbie responds like most humans, and until the ending, only Gloria seems to feel this sentiment.

When the inevitable happens, and Mr. and Mrs. Weston return Robbie to the factory, Gloria is inconsolable. Her parents attempt many distractions, but their young daughter can’t get her friend off her mind. That’s right, her friend. I enjoyed this idea that to Gloria, Robbie was as real as her parents. He’s as real as you or me. Given what Asimov mentions in his introduction, I would almost say he agrees more with Mr. and Mrs. Weston. Robbie is nothing more than a tool– an aide. However, through Gloria, I think the audience can see a truer potential to machines. A seamless transition where man and machine co-exist “peacefully” beside one another.

I should say that I read the 1950 ret-conned version of this story. Widely available, this version added content to create continuity within the anthology I, Robot. Most notable of which is the inclusion of a scene with an unnamed character, who happens to be the Susan Calvin of the later stories of the anthology. The other significant inclusion was the explicit mention of the First Law of Robotics by Mr. Weston (Asimov did not coin the Laws until his fourth robot story).

The Other Robot series

  • prequel I, Robot trilogy
  • Robots in Time series
  • Robot City series
  • Robots and Aliens series
  • Robot Mysteries series
  • Caliban Trilogy

Lastly, for those wondering, though it shares its name with the anthology, the 2004 film I, Robot starring Will Smith features no direct connections to the text. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar adapted his screenplay Hardwired for the film and incorporated sparse elements from Asimov’s work.

I hope everyone found today’s post informative. As always, I want to hear from you. What do you think of Asimov and his short, “Robbie?” Is it possible to live in a world without murderous robots? Leave me a comment or a question below!

Next time we’ll meet another writer, winner of the 1943 Retro-Hugo award for Best Short Story. Make sure you follow or subscribe so you don’t miss it.

Until then, keep exploring!

The version of “Robbie” that I read came from Robot Visions (ISBN: 0-451-45064-7), purchased from eBay. Published by Roc in 2004, this collection collects eighteen Robot stories (including two exclusive to the collection) and sixteen essays by Asimov together in one book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.