By Howard S. Smith
Let me preface this review by stating that I have not read the book by Isaac Asimov with the same title, nor have I see the movie starring Will Smith, but thanks to our modern pop culture I am well aware of the Three Laws of Robotics. I’m sure you’re wondering, so I’ll answer the question now: Yes, Howard S. Smith intentionally made the name of his novel I, robot similar to Asimov’s I, Robot but wishes to emphasize to the reading public that in his title robot is not capitalized and is thus different.
Smith’s novel is a globetrotting adventure starring Haruto Suzuki, a Japanese police inspector investigating the mysterious death of a businessman staying in a Tokyo hotel. As he begins to piece together the events leading the victim’s death, he discovers a huge secret: Japan is trading fully functional, artificially intelligent robot soldiers to Israel in exchange for powerful nuclear weapons the strength of which have never been seen before. Haruto is horrified by the Japanese government’s secrecy as he recalls the parallels between Japan’s current actions and those that led to World War II. He decides he must bring the truth to the Japanese people, and follows the robots to Israel and Lebanon so that he can document every detail.
Haruto is a man haunted by rules. An undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive, he always tries to maintain a strictly regimented life both at home and at work. As a result, he’s unpopular among his colleagues after turning in half of his police station for petty bribery, and his marriage is falling apart because he cannot sacrifice, or even relax, his rules in order to please his wife. While the AI of the mechanical robots allows them to learn and grow throughout the novel, Haruto’s freeze him into rigid routines and earn him the nickname of “jinzouningen” – artificial human – from his associates.
Author Smith is clearly an intelligent guy with a story he’s very eager to tell. At times his extremely technical descriptions can be tiring, especially if you are not well versed in electronics and technical jargon. Based on your aptitude the many diagrams will be quite helpful or a hindrance. (Unfortunately for me, many of the complex graphs couldn’t help a bit.) Smith’s fondness of exclamation points is rather overenthusiastic and his preference for short, choppy chapters (each averages between one and four pages) can leave scenes feeling incomplete and stilted, but at other times there is so much going on, often very quickly, that the quick changes are well suited to the format. This is a tale with a very large cast, and it is unfortunate that many of them are never revisited after their initial scene, so the reader is left wondering “Whatever happened to…?” The story takes a while to get moving while the end feels hasty and disconnected from the rest of the plot.
Yet this action-packed technothriller is highly entertaining and a worthwhile read for any robot fan. I’m not a huge science fiction fan – I read it, but not exclusively or even all that often – but Smith’s vision for the origin of robotkind sucked me in. It is set in a very nearby future, and the delicate truces between the world’s governments strikes disturbingly close to home. An unexpected delight was Kathy Hanes’ accompanying images, a rare but pleasant find in any adult novel; it really is a pity that illustrations so rarely found in books now. A thick reference guide is available at the back of the book for unfamiliar terminology and unless you’re a scientific mastermind, a karate champion or a connoisseur of Japanese culture, you’re going to need it.
Smith clearly poured a lot of thought and love into I, robot, and this fast read should find its way onto shelves of sci-fi fans everywhere. Perhaps they’ll even place it right next to that ‘other’ robot book.