One thing that Doctorow did get right was this: "He was a gentleman. A scientist. A mensch. He graciously received the fans that flocked to him at conventions, giving each a moment of his time."
Once while in the Air Force, drunk, and bored, I penciled a drawing of a robot hand ripped from its arm laying on a book titled "The Handbook of Robotics" and mailed it to Dr. Asimov. I was very, very surprised to find a postcard in the mail from Dr. Asimov a week later, thanking me for the picture and the kind words. Alas, I've lost the postcard. Perhaps some day when I'm re-reading an Asimov book it will fall out.
However, only four paragraphs into the story, Doctorow writes "He penned dozens of stories devoted to androids with positronic brains, a term he invented to suggest an intelligent being..."
No, the term "positronic brains" was used because at the time (the 1940s), the then brand new computers were often called "electronic brains." I vividly remember a film they showed in grade school where a refrigerator sized pocket calculator was shown being debugged. "How would you like it if your teacher killed you when you got an answer wrong? Well, that's what happens to an electronic brain when it gets an answer wrong!"
It's no wonder, then, that people actually believe that computers do or ever will think. Asimov twisted the "electronics" into the more futuristic sounding "positronics," a future technology yet unknown to us, as a positron is an anti-electron.
If Doctorow had read half as much Asimov as I had, he would likely have found the foreword Asimov wrote for some robot story where he explained his choice of "positronic brain" as a term for the robot's computer in Asimov's own words. A little research goes a long way.
"Asimov sent his first robot story, 'Robbie,' to Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1939."
This is accurate, yet misleading. "Robbie" was Asimov's first robot story, and the first story he ever wrote that was rejected by a publisher, but his first story was in fact "Nightfall".
"While many writers of the day trafficked in alien encounters and space travel, Asimov preferred robots. (Perhaps he shunned space because of his acrophobia - he avoided air travel whenever possible his whole life.)"
While true that Asimov was afraid to fly, it is NOT true that Asimov's stories were Earth bound, nor is it true that most had robots. Anyone who has read much Asimov at all knows this. Green Patches was set in space. Nightfall was about aliens on an alien planet. The Gods Themselves was a pornographic look at the sex lives of aliens living on an alien planet. All but the tiniest part of the entire Foundation series took place in space, with almost none of its characters having ever even heard of "Earth" and only one character, Daneel, being a robot. And Daneel only appeared in the Foundation series very shortly before Asimov's death, when he was attempting to tie all of his novels and stories into one huge work.
Even most of the Robot stories took place in outer space. Much of the books I, Robot and The Rest Of The Robots takes place in outer space. For example, the thumb-twiddling, distributed computing robots in the short story Runaround were on the planet Mercury.
This story may have been the first vision of distributed computing, as its robots were all independant, yet controlled by a master robot. The story's punchline was that when things got tough, the network server got overloaded; "It was twiddling its thumbs."
"But Asimov rejected the traditional plot: Man creates humanlike robot, robot runs amok, robot kills man"
Asimov didn't reject it- he used it, twisted it, stood it on its head. In The Caves of Steel a robot is accused of murder, and Bailey, who hates robots, is partnered with a robot to find the killer.
If a possibly murderous robot isn't scary enough, in one Asimov novel a robot purposely destroys the Earth by transforming it to a radioactive wasteland! Even Skynet wasn't this destructive. Of course, the robot, named Giskard, suffers "roblock" and "dies". But what other writer has a robot destroying the entire Earth, on purpose? Has there ever been a more destructive robot in the history of science fiction?
The most egregious error in Doctorow's piece is perhaps this paragraph:
And as vividly as Asimov imagined a future propelled by robots, he conspicuously ignored technologies that have truly transformed our world, namely the computer and the computer network. When they do make appearances in his fiction, they're cursory: Computers are remote controls for robots over unreliable networks; invariably they lead to disaster. Hackers don't figure in, either. Rather than the eclectic, self-taught, transgressive cyberpunk antihero, Asimov favored protagonists in white lab coats that do Jerry Lewis spit-takes in the presence of a girl. On the contrary; many, many Asimov stories, written in computing's infancy in the 1940s, envisioned the internet. Asimov called it "Multivac," a huge, city-sized (or larger) computer with millions of vaccum tubes and relays that actually ruled the world, controlling factories, roads, homes, communications, and taking the place of governments.
More than one story has a hacker bringing Multivac down through some DOS or another. Asimov's engineers may have worn white coats, but his hackers were decidedly antisocial, even revolutionary, delivering mankind from its computer overlord.
"While the laws are compelling, they're the kind of moral code that can be summed up in a book the size and complexity of Who Moved My Cheese? In the real world, the simplicity of the laws just doesn't fly. Take the question of harm that appears in the first law. Harm is not a binary proposition..."
And indeed, Asimov used this as a plot device in many, many robot stories. Over and over a robot somehow destroys itself because it is stuck between one or another of the laws, or with some limitation of the laws. Yes, it only takes a paragraph to write the laws down, but he devoted entire books to breaking those laws.
Doctorow then confuses robots with real people when he says "The idea that we can take our social interactions and code them with an Asimovian algorithm ("allow no harm, obey all orders, protect yourself") is at odds with the messy, unpredictable world." But Asimov's people didn't follow these laws, robots did. The "laws of humanics" were quite a bit more involved. In fact, these "laws" were never spelled out, but were incorporated in what Asimov called "psychohistory," the use of mob psychology to predict and change history. The character who invented "psychohistory" was a space traveller named Hari Seldon, the central figure in the Foundation series.
Ironically, decades later he changed it- it was in fact Giskard, the mind-reading robot, who developed psychohistory, taught it and how to read human minds to Daneel, a more humaniform robot, who put the "psychohistory" idea in Seldon's head.
"Asimov's stories aren't brilliant fiction."
I'd like to see Doctorow's definition of "brilliant". Asimov's imagination was one of the 20th century's best. He invented the term "robotics." He forsaw the internet (although his Multivac, like computers of the time, was a multiuser monolith with dedicated terminals, not millions of individual computers interconnected).
He had a planet, Trantor, that was a single, covered city. He made up his own futuristic swear words (gaLAXy!). He had Earth's city living inhabitants all posessing a very extreme form of agoraphobia brought aboutby never having seen "outside." He had an entire planet ("Gaia") that was itself a single organism.
"He was no prose stylist" I will agree with, and in fact Asimov himself said this. Personally, I love Asimov's non-stylistic style. His stuff is just plain fun to read, whether a short story, a novel, or a non-fiction book. Asimov was proud of not being a stylist.
But the statement "his characters, especially women, are wooden and one-dimensional" I certainly cannot agree with. Obviously, Doctorow never read the Elijah Bailey novels, particularly The Robots of Dawn. In this story, Bailey space travels to a planet with fifty robots to every human, where one of the main characters comes from a planet where the people are even more screwed up than they are on earth, all having an acute form of social phobia where they can barely stand to meet each other face to face. The people on the planet Bailey is sent to all consider Earth people to literally be the scum of the universe, and the Earthman Bailey is supposed to find out who destroyed a humaniform robot.
The Earth-killing Giscard is in the story, as is Daneel, the robot inventor of psychohistory. As are many, many other robots. The "dead" robot was used by the female protaganist as a dildo, and after her humaniform robotic dildo is destroyed, she catches the married Bailey in a weak moment and seduces him.
One dimensional, my ass. How about Asimov's three-way alien sex in the novel The Gods Themselves? Or Rik and his mentally retarded girlfriend in The Currents of Space? Of course, if you have never read anything but his short stories, the characters would seem pretty one dimentional. After all, how much character development can you introduce in a ten page (or even less) story?
No, Cory Doctorow is obviously not an Asimov fan and never was. This piece reads as if Doctorow has only read I robot, and didn't even finish the book. He does Asimov, and Asimov's literary genre, and Asimov's fans, a grave disservice.