A new five-part audio adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s acclaimed 1950 novel I, Robot, being broadcast on BBC Radio Four this week, is a carefully crafted and distilled evocation of the themes of the original novel. This new dramatization provides a powerful reminder of the contemporary resonance of Asimov’s view of the development of robotic technology, and is also a riveting listen.
Writing during the 1940s, Asimov’s prose revealed a mixture of fascination and of anxiety at the prospect of ‘the rise of the robots’ at a time when the idea of ‘intelligent machines’, capable of independent thought and action, was simply the stuff of fantasy. As computer automation, smart devices, artificial intelligence and other technologies have become ever more prevalent, the questions, contradictions and costs that the prescient Asimov set out in the series of interlinked short stories that comprise I, Robot seem even more pertinent than they were when the book was first published more than sixty-five years ago.
Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” has become a continual reference point for both the authors of science fiction and for those working on cutting-edge robot technology in the real world. Yet, it is sometimes forgotten that Asimov used the stories of I, Robot not just to set out the imperatives of those laws, but also to explore the dramatic and the existential consequences of those laws not being upheld.
In this new radio version, a B7 production for the BBC, scriptwriter Richard Kurti updates Asimov’s expectation that mechanical (rather than digital) invention would trigger exponential robotic innovation, and prioritises the story of central protagonist Stevie Byerley. The drama follows her story from her early childhood through her career as a robotics psychologist, to her rise to the highest levels of world governance. By an accident of birth, she grows up at the very time when the development of robotic technology accelerates to such a level that it can increasingly displace human labour, even as human beings extend their reach across the galaxies. Throughout this, robots remain the constant feature of Stevie’s life.
Opening episode “Robbie” tells the story of her upbringing, in which the character of the titular robot takes on the parenting role. Stevie’s devotion to and love for Robbie comes to disturb her parents, and her mother in particular comes to resent being usurped in her child’s affections. Stevie, however, resists their efforts to break the bond between them. After the adult Stevie recuperates from a devastating car crash, she returns to work as a ‘legal psychologist’, motivated by a desire to establish just and logic-based relations between humans and machines.
In “Reason”, she encounters an off-world robot with an inexplicable Messiah complex, and in “Little Lost Robot”, she must deal with another sentient machine whose literal obedience to instructions becomes a covert act of rebellion. After the disturbing events of “Liar”, in which she investigates a robot that has developed unexpected mind-reading capabilities, events comes to a head in “The Inevitable Conflict”. This finale uncovers Stevie’s previously hidden motives and exposes a wholly new perspective on the interplay between humanity and increasingly capable artificial beings.
The cast is uniformly strong. Nick Briggs delivers impressively nuanced performances as the questioning robot “Cutie” and the “Nestor Ten” devices, but it is Hermione Norris’s focused portrayal of the driven and unshakeable Stevie that propels the story forward so convincingly.
Sound design and music are both effective, but director Andrew Mark Sewell, recognising that this is a drama which pivots on questions of identity and of ‘being’, applies the restraint necessary to ensure that it is ideas which take centre stage. Asimov’s original texts are economic and functional, some might even say stark. This adaptation celebrates that pared down approach to storytelling, but prevents Asimov’s treatment of big philosophical concepts from becoming sterile by ensuring that it is the dilemmas of the human (and of the not-quite-human) characters that the listener is encouraged to reflect upon.
Perceptive, intriguing, insightful, and rendered with precision and with conviction, this is just the kind of quality audio that gives hard sci-fi a good name.
I, ROBOT / WRITER: ISAAC ASIMOV / ADAPTED BY: RICHARD KURTI / DIRECTOR: ANDREW MARK SEWELL / STARRING: HERMIONE NORRIS, DIANNE WELLER, KELLY BURKE, ROB BLACKWOOD, MIA BURGESS, NICK BRIGGS / A B7 PRODUCTION FOR BBC RADIO 4 / RELEASE DATE: 6-10TH FEBRUARY (BROADCAST); 11TH FEBRUARY (OMNIBUS); OUT NOW (IPLAYER RADIO)