Thursday, January 17, 2013

'I, Robot': What's in a title?

      You've probably heard of I, Robot, but which one?

     There's Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, first published as a fixup novel (a collection of short stories made to look like a novel with a framing device, because publishers believe readers won't buy collections of short stories without this subterfuge) in 1950. Harlan Ellison's unproduced film adaptation was published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay in 1994, while the Will Smith film I, Robot (inspired by the stories rather than a true adaptation) was released in 2004. More recently, Mickey Zucker Reichert has started an authorized I, Robot trilogy with To Protect (2011). Volume 2, To Obey, is scheduled for release this September. Cory Doctorow has authored an homage to Asimov titled  “I, Robot” as well.

from Wikimedia Commons

     Before Asimov, however, there was a 1939 short story titled “I, Robot,” written by “Eando” Binder (actually two brothers,  Earl and Otto), with a better claim to the title because the narrator was an autonomous, intelligent robot (the “I” of the title) named Adam Link. That story was twice adapted on the TV show The Outer Limits (1964 and 1995).
     (Asimov had read the story and acknowledged it as inspiring his first robot story, and at first objected to using the same title for his book -- after all, not only was the Binder story first and well-known, but none of his stories was narrated by a robot -- but the publisher overruled him.)

     That's plenty for one title to carry, but I just learned there's more. 

Cover image from; art by Kathy Harestad
      In 2008, Robot Binaries & Press Corp. released a book titled Howard S. Smith's I, robot  (the small case r is meant to indicate it's not the exact same title, which is a little specious). Smith, the press release states, “is an MIT-trained engineer and artificial intelligence expert” who “helped create” supermarket self-checkout machines. 
     Alas, despite a glowing review from Traverse City-based ForeWord Reviews and what the book promises will be a Major National Marketing and Publicity campaign,” the book made barely a ripple. An advance reading copy was sent to The Macomb Daily, presumably in 2008, put in a pile and forgotten until it turned up recently. The website listed for the publisher no longer exists, and the publisher may have been Smith himself (I find no other titles listed for the company). The book itself seems to be out-of-print except for a Kindle edition ($9.95) on (there does not seem to have been a Nook version).
      The robot on the cover seems heavily influenced by the appearance of the robots in the 2004 film, but the plot seems to be Smith's own. He calls it a technothriller with more realistic robotics and set in the Middle East and Asia, with reference to China, North Korea, Iran and Israel. It might be worth reading if I can get past that title.
     And that's the point. Why re-use a familiar -- even famous -- title when it's bound to tick off fans of the original(s)? Sure, it gets you some attention, but -- contrary to the adage -- there is such a thing as bad publicity.

     I get annoyed when I see a familiar film title on cable TV, only to discover it's a different film, sometimes only a couple of years removed. I even get annoyed when the title is too similar. You can't copyright titles in general, which is a good thing. There can be good reason to re-use a famous title or a variation thereof, including satire. (Ray Bradbury was rightly rebuffed by the courts when he complained that Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11 was an infringement of his Fahrenheit 451.) In Smith's case, it seems like opportunism or laziness.
     That's surprising, because he's clearly put a lot of work and thought into the book. It includes a bibliography, a glossary of foreign and technical terms, an acknowledgement of both Binder and Asimov's prior stories and other background documentation. Maybe he should be writing nonfiction instead.
     Still, if you're curious, you can read an excerpt from the book and a brief author interview by ForeWord Reviews on


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