Robbie (short story)
|Genre(s)||Science fiction short story|
|Published in||Super Science Stories|
|Media type||Print (magazine, hardback, paperback)|
|Publication date||September 1940|
|Followed by||"Robot AL-76 Goes Astray"|
"Robbie" is a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov. It was his first robot story and writing commenced on June 10, 1939. It was first published in the September 1940 issue Super Science Stories magazine as "Strange Playfellow", a title that was chosen by editor Frederik Pohl and described as "distasteful" by Asimov. A revised version of Robbie was reprinted under Asimov's original title in the collections I, Robot (1950), The Complete Robot (1982), and Robot Visions (1990). "Robbie" was the fourteenth story written by Asimov, and the ninth to be published. The story is also part of Asimov's Robot series, and was the first of Asimov's positronic robot stories to see publication.
The story centers on the technophobia that surrounds robots, and how it is misplaced. Almost all previously published science fiction stories featuring robots followed the theme 'robot turns against creator'; Asimov has consistently held the belief that the Frankenstein complex was a misplaced fear, and the majority of his works attempted to provide examples of the help that robots could provide humanity.
In 1996 (1982 in the original magazine version), a mute RB series robot, nicknamed Robbie, is owned by the Weston family as a nursemaid for their daughter, Gloria. Gloria's mother, however, is a local socialite whose opinions are guided by those of the surrounding populace. When publicly available robots were the newest craze, she basked in the prestige of owning Robbie. However, anti-robot sentiment quickly rose throughout the world (a combination of religious fanaticism and labor unions) and suddenly Mrs. Weston becomes concerned about the effect a robot nursemaid would have on her daughter, since Gloria is more interested in playing with Robbie than with the other children and might not learn proper social skills. Two years after purchasing Robbie, Mr. Weston gives in to his wife's badgering and returns Robbie to the factory.
Since Gloria was so attached to the robot, whom she saw as her best friend, she ceases smiling, laughing, and enjoying life. Despite the continued efforts of her parents, who buy her a dog to substitute for Robbie, she refuses to accept the change and her mood grows progressively worse. Her mother, who rationalizes that it would be impossible for Gloria to forget Robbie when she is constantly surrounded by places where she and Robbie used to play, decides that Gloria needs a change of scenery to help her forget. Mrs. Weston convinces her husband to take them to New York City. Unfortunately, the plan backfires when Gloria assumes that they are going in search of Robbie, believing that they are going to hire private detectives for the job.
After the Westons take their daughter to every conceivable tourist attraction, Mr. Weston, almost out of ideas, approaches his wife with a thought: Gloria could not forget Robbie because she thought of Robbie as a person and not a robot, if they took her on a tour of a robot construction factory, she would see that he was nothing more than metal and electricity. Impressed, Mrs. Weston agrees to a tour of the corporate facilities of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. During the tour, Mr. Weston requests to see a specific room of the factory where robots construct other robots. That room holds a surprise for Gloria and Mrs. Weston: one of the robot assemblers is Robbie. Gloria runs in front of a moving vehicle in her eagerness to get to her friend and is rescued by Robbie. Mrs. Weston confronts her husband: he had set it all up. Robbie was not an industrial robot and had no business being there. Mr. Weston knew that if he managed to get Robbie and Gloria back together, there would be no way for Mrs. Weston to separate them. When Robbie saves Gloria's life, an unplanned part of the reunion, Mrs. Weston finally agrees that he might not be a soulless monster, and gives in.
The revised version of the story includes extra content which depicts the first appearance (in the stories' internal chronology) of Susan Calvin, and provides continuity with the rest of the anthology I, Robot.
Susan, then a college student, is at a museum in New York observing an exhibit of "the first talking robot": a large computer that takes up the whole room and can answer questions posed to it verbally by visitors. Although there is a human present to monitor the questions, he leaves the room when there are no guided tours and this is when Gloria enters. Gloria asks the machine if it knows where Robbie is, which she reasons the machine should know given that Robbie is "a robot like you." The computer is unable to comprehend that there may be another thing like it, and breaks down. Susan writes down a couple of observations and leaves, as the question-monitor returns infuriated trying to find out what happened to the machine.