U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men has done the miraculous—developed a mind-reading robot. It was entirely by accident, however, and until the process is understood, the robot’s existence is kept as a strict secret by a small number of U.S. Robots officials. Among them is the company’s cold-as-ice robopsychologist, Susan Calvin. As for the robot, Herbie, it knows the deepest thoughts and pains of the people around it, and it tries desperately to prevent psychological harm from coming to them by telling them exactly what they want to hear. This includes telling Calvin that the man of her dreams really loves her. Naturally, Herbie can’t keep it up forever.
Asimov was very fond of this story and even worked it into The Robots of Dawn when a second mind-reading (and mind-controlling) robot was brought into existence. I'm not quite as fond of it as Asimov was. It has some definite weaknesses, but it also has some remarkable strengths, including its basic premise: the existence of a mind-reading robot that knows what it means for someone to hurt inside and needs to cope with that knowledge.
This is a problem absolutely fundamental to the Three Laws and one of the major reasons why, as stated by Asimov, they are unworkable. And yes, Asimov knew this and exploited it repeatedly. How can a robot know what is truly harmful? How can it balance long-term needs with short-term needs? And if the robot is truly sophisticated enough to be able to understand human psychology, how can it prevent psychological harm? Questions such as these are at the root of robot stories as varied as “The Evitable Conflict” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed.”
What makes Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands…” so very chilling is the very pragmatic solution the story’s Humandoids have to the dilemna: operate on humans, if necessary, so that they are incapable of being dissatisfied with the Humanoids’ service. Asimov himself explored the possibility of robots remaking humanity so that they become protectable—that is to say, controllable. This is one of my main objections to the later stories with R. Daneel Olivaw—Daneel takes the burden on himself of being Humanity’s Protector and steers human history in ways that seem to him most in accordance with mankind’s best interest. Daneel, in effect, makes himself God.
Asimov died before he could work out how this would all end. Personally, I find the ending of Foundation and Earth problematic because of the sheer inconsistency between Daneel’s actions and my own moral sensibilities. I also find it chilling, because Asimov hints that it would all end rather badly.
That may, indeed, be one reason why he was stuck. He wanted Daneel to be a sympathetic character, and the ending of Foundation and Earth strongly implies that he might become a monster needing to be destroyed. Asimov’s own native optimism would find writing such a story difficult, indeed.
But back to “Liar!”
At its core, we have an exploration of the central dilemna for any Asenion robot (that is, one Three Laws-compliant). It is remarkable that it comes up so very early in Asimov’s fiction and that it’s handled so deftly. This is very much one of Asimov’s best early efforts.
I do, however, have to emphasize “early.” As is the case with “Nightfall,” the story is undermined somewhat by the fact that Asimov’s prose is still a little rough and awkward. Even though the plot of the story is remarkable, Asimov’s writing is not as polished and smooth as it would be even by the late 1940’s.
Realistically, too, Herbie‘s psychology seems underexplored. We should know all along that he’s lying—the title ought to give that away, so letting us in one the secret from page one should not undermine anything. Interestingly enough, Asimov tells none of his early robot stories—and very few of the later ones—from the robot’s perspective. We are therefore left with questions: Did Herbie really understand what a lie is? How well does he truly understand psychological pain? If he can read minds, does he also understand what it’s like for a human being to experience physical pain? Would a non-mind-reading robot have reacted the same way Herbie does if Susan Calivin had flat-old said in its presence, “I live every day with the pain of unrequited love. If only Milton Ashe loved me as I love him!”
This brings us to Susan Calvin herself. This is her first story, but having introduced her, Asimov fell in love with her and she appears in more of his stories than any other individual character.
Her start in “Liar!” is not, however, promising—she is simply a plot device. Asimov wants to show how Herbie would be forced to lie because people hurt inside. What hurts more than unrequited love? Who is more likely to feel unrequited love than a spinster driven to a cold, emotionless existence because her heart was never touched by the love she craved?
Had Calvin stayed at that level, she would not have been much of a character. What redeems her—and largely redeems the story as a whole—is her rage when she realizes what Herbie has been doing. She is simultaneously burning with rage and yet cold as a Martian winter as she turns on Herbie and methodically, relentlessly, mercilessly drives him into insanity. Captain Kirk has nothing on Susan Calvin in talking a computer to death.
This deep and bitter expression of hatred is the most vivid thing about the story—and it is utterly unlike the Susan Calvin we see everywhere else. It’s not out-of-character, by any means, since nowhere else does she have any personal emotional stake in a story’s events. We also never see the romantic schoolgirl of the story’s middle ever again. In this case, however, I think that Susan Calvin was burning a part of herself out even as she fried Herbie’s postronic circuits. It is the Susan Calvin of the story’s start who will come onstage over and over: cold, contemptuous of people, relentlessly devoted to the robot mind. Only in one other story, “Lenny,” is she allowed any warmth at all. From “Liar!,” we come to learn that Calvin’s ice queen persona is just that, just a mask. From “Liar!” onwards, however, she becomes the mask.
She does remain Asimov’s single most vividly realized character because she couples her contempt for people with a sardonic sense of humor. On some level, she is always aware that however much she make like robots, she herself is human and there is inside herself an innate psychological link with other people, one she never can share with any robot. Robots may be what she wishes people were, but she has learned from Herbie to forget her own wishes and live with people as they actually are.
“Liar!” fails to get the full three spaceships-and-suns because Asimov is still an apprentice learning his craft, and it shows. It has, nonetheless, a brilliant resolution and remains among the most important robot stories Asimov ever wrote.
|Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 3, 1941|
|The Complete Robot|