Extract from I, Robot

Credit: 
Jonathan Worth
Cory Doctorow

Introduction to I, Robot

I was suckled on the Asimov Robots books, taken down off my father’s bookshelf and enjoyed again and again. I read dozens of Asimov novels, and my writing career began in earnest when I started to sell stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, which I had read for so long as I’d had the pocket money to buy it on the stands.

When Wired Magazine asked me to interview the director of the film I, Robot, I went back and re-read that old canon. I was struck immediately by one of the thin places in Asimov’s world-building: how could you have a society where only one company was allowed to make only one kind of robot?

Exploring this theme turned out to be a hoot. I worked in some of Orwell’s most recognizable furniture from 1984, and set the action in my childhood home in suburban Toronto, 55 Picola Court. The main character’s daughter is named for my god-daughter, Ada Trouble Norton. I had a blast working in the vernacular of the old-time futurism of Asimov and Heinlein, calling toothpaste “dentifrice” and sneaking in references to “the search engine.”

My “I, Robot” is an allegory about digital rights management technology, of course. This is the stuff that nominally stops us from infringing copyright (yeah, right, how’s that working out for you, Mr Entertainment Exec?) and turns our computers into something that controls us, rather than enabling us.

This story was written at a writer’s workshop on Toronto Island, at the Gibraltar Point center, and was immeasurably improved by my friend Pat York, herself a talented writer who died later that year in a car wreck. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss Pat. This story definitely owes its strength to Pat, and it’s a tribute to her that it won the 2005 Locus Award and was a finalist for the Hugo and British Science Fiction Award in the same year.

I, Robot

(Originally published on The Infinite Matrix, April 2005)

Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg, Police Detective Third Grade, United North American Trading Sphere, Third District, Fourth Prefecture, Second Division (Parkdale) had had many adventures in his distinguished career, running crooks to ground with an unbeatable combination of instinct and unstinting devotion to duty. He’d been decorated on three separate occasions by his commander and by the Regional Manager for Social Harmony, and his mother kept a small shrine dedicated to his press clippings and commendations that occupied most of the cramped sitting-room of her flat off Steeles Avenue.

No amount of policeman’s devotion and skill availed him when it came to making his twelve-year-old get ready for school, though.

“Haul ass, young lady—out of bed, on your feet, shit-shower-shave, or I swear to God, I will beat you purple and shove you out the door jaybird naked. Capeesh?”

The mound beneath the covers groaned and hissed. “You are a terrible father,” it said. “And I never loved you.” The voice was indistinct and muffled by the pillow.

“Boo hoo,” Arturo said, examining his nails. “You’ll regret that when I’m dead of cancer.”

The mound—whose name was Ada Trouble Icaza de Arana-Goldberg—threw her covers off and sat bolt upright. “You’re dying of cancer? is it testicle cancer?” Ada clapped her hands and squealed. “Can I have your stuff?”

“Ten minutes, your rottenness,” he said, and then his breath caught momentarily in his breast as he saw, fleetingly, his ex-wife’s morning expression, not seen these past twelve years, come to life in his daughter’s face. Pouty, pretty, sleepy and guile-less, and it made him realize that his daughter was becoming a woman, growing away from him. She was, and he was not ready for that. He shook it off, patted his razor-burn and turned on his heel. He knew from experience that once roused, the munchkin would be scrounging the kitchen for whatever was handy before dashing out the door, and if he hurried, he’d have eggs and sausage on the table before she made her brief appearance. Otherwise he’d have to pry the sugar-cereal out of her hands—and she fought dirty.

#

In his car, he prodded at his phone. He had her wiretapped, of course. He was a cop—every phone and every computer was an open book to him, so that this involved nothing more than dialing a number on his special copper’s phone, entering her number and a PIN, and then listening as his daughter had truck with a criminal enterprise.

“Welcome to ExcuseClub! There are 43 members on the network this morning. You have five excuses to your credit. Press one to redeem an excuse—” She toned one. “Press one if you need an adult—”Tone. “Press one if you need a woman; press two if you need a man—” Tone. “Press one if your excuse should be delivered by your doctor; press two for your spiritual representative; press three for your case-worker; press four for your psycho-health specialist; press five for your son; press six for your father—” Tone. “You have selected to have your excuse delivered by your father. Press one if this excuse is intended for your case-worker; press two for your psycho-health specialist; press three for your principal—” Tone. “Please dictate your excuse at the sound of the beep. When you have finished, press the pound key.”

“This is Detective Arturo Icaza de Arana-Goldberg. My daughter was sick in the night and I’ve let her sleep in. She’ll be in for lunchtime.” Tone.

“Press one to hear your message; press two to have your message dispatched to a network-member.” Tone.

“Thank you.”

The pen-trace data scrolled up Arturo’s phone—number called, originating number, call-time. This was the third time he’d caught his daughter at this game, and each time, the pen-trace data had been useless, a dead-end lead that terminated with a phone-forwarding service tapped into one of the dodgy offshore switches that the blessed blasted UNATS brass had recently acquired on the cheap to handle the surge of mobile telephone calls. Why couldn’t they just stick to UNATS Robotics equipment, like the good old days? Those Oceanic switches had more back-doors than a speakeasy, trade agreements be damned. They were attractive nuisances, invitations to criminal activity.

Arturo fumed and drummed his fingers on the steering-wheel. Each time he’d caught Ada at this, she’d used the extra time to crawl back into bed for a leisurely morning, but who knew if today was the day she took her liberty and went downtown with it, to some parental nightmare of a drug-den? Some place where the old pervert chickenhawks hung out, the kind of men he arrested in burlesque house raids, men who masturbated into their hats under their tables and then put them back onto their shining pates, dripping cold, diseased serum onto their scalps. He clenched his hands on the steering wheel and cursed.

In an ideal world, he’d simply follow her. He was good at tailing, and his unmarked car with its tinted windows was a UNATS Robotics standard compact #2, indistinguishable from the tens of thousands of others just like it on the streets of Toronto. Ada would never know that the curb-crawler tailing her was her sucker of a father, making sure that she turned up to get her brains sharpened instead of turning into some stunadz doper with her underage butt hanging out of a little skirt on Jarvis Street.

In the real world, Arturo had thirty minutes to make a forty minute downtown and crosstown commute if he was going to get to the station house on-time for the quarterly all-hands Social Harmony briefing. Which meant that he needed to be in two places at once, which meant that he had to use—the robot.

Swallowing bile, he speed-dialed a number on his phone.

“This is R Peed Robbert, McNicoll and Don Mills bus-shelter.”

“That’s nice. This is Detective Icaza de Arana-Goldberg, three blocks east of you on Picola. Proceed to my location at once, priority urgent, no sirens.”

“Acknowledged. It is my pleasure to do you a service, Detective.”

“Shut up,” he said, and hung up the phone. The R Peed—Robot, Police Department—robots were the worst, programmed to be friendly to a fault, even as they surveilled and snitched out every person who walked past their eternally vigilant, ever-remembering electrical eyes and brains.

The R Peeds could outrun a police car on open ground or highway. He’d barely had time to untwist his clenched hands from the steering wheel when R Peed Robbert was at his window, politely rapping on the smoked glass. He didn’t want to roll down the window. Didn’t want to smell the dry, machine-oil smell of a robot. He phoned it instead.

“You are now tasked to me, Detective’s override, acknowledge.”

The metal man bowed, its symmetrical, simplified features pleasant and guileless. It clicked its heels together with an audible snick as those marvelous, spring-loaded, nuclear-powered gams whined through their parody of obedience. “Acknowledged, Detective. It is my pleasure to do—”

“Shut up. You will discreetly surveil 55 Picola Crescent until such time as Ada Trouble Icaza de Arana-Goldberg, Social Harmony serial number 0MDY2-T3937 leaves the premises. Then you will maintain discreet surveillance. If she deviates more than 10 percent from the optimum route between here and Don Mills Collegiate Institute, you will notify me. Acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged, Detective. It is my—”

He hung up and told the UNATS Robotics mechanism running his car to get him down to the station house as fast as it could, angry with himself and with Ada—whose middle name was Trouble, after all—for making him deal with a robot before he’d had his morning meditation and destim session. The name had been his ex-wife’s idea, something she’d insisted on long enough to make sure that it got onto the kid’s birth certificate before defecting to Eurasia with their life’s savings, leaving him with a new baby and the deep suspicion of his co-workers who wondered if he wouldn’t go and join her.

 

This story is part of Cory Doctorow’s 2007 short story collection “Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present,” published by Thunder’s Mouth, a division of Avalon Books. 

This story in full and the other stories in the volume are available at:

http://craphound.com/overclocked

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While government watches you, who watches the government?