Lawful Little Country: The Bulgarian Laws of Robotics

cover

The Fifth Law of Robotics” (Cyrillic title)
Nikola Kesarovski (Cyrillic title)
in the story collection The Fifth Law, Sofia, Otechestvo Publishing House, 1983

(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
(2) A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
(4.1) A robot must establish its identity as a robot in all cases. (Cyrillic title, Icarus’s Way, by Lyuben Dilov, 1974)
(4.2) A robot must reproduce as long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law. (The Fourth Law of Robotics, by Harry Harrison, 1986)
(5) A robot must know it is a robot. (The Fifth Law of Robotics, by Nikola Kesarovski, 1983)
. . .
(101). Everyone who confuses the simpleminded robots inventing new laws of robotics must be executed immediately . . . (Cyrillic title “The Hundred and First Law or Robotics”, by Lyubomir Nikolov).

Nikola Kesarovski has a background in the hard sciences–he got an M.S. in Mathematics before switching to journalism, science popularization, and fiction. The Fifth Law is his first book, a collection of four SF stories, with strong social and psychological bent. Two of them are set in Asimov’s I, Robot universe. One could call them fan fiction, if it were not for the excellent writing and engaging plots, that set his work on a professional level. Of course, professional speculative fiction writers cannot exist in a small country with a limited market, they have to have real jobs. Indeed, for many years Kesarovski worked at various newspapers.

Kesarovski was the second Bulgarian writer to find himself in the footsteps of the Great Asimov. Lyuben Dilov was the first. He defined the Fourth Law in his novel The Trip of Icarus (1974). That novel was rather atypical for its time. Strictly speaking, it is a space opera describing the travels and tribulations of a giant sublight-speed spaceship crew flying to another star. However, the core of the story is the coming-of-age of Zenon Balov, the only child on the ship, who grows lonely, denied the company of his peers. Dilov mentions the Fourth Law almost as an afterthought. Despite that, he makes the effort to justify it as a necessity to avoid misunderstandings that could rise from the attempts of designers to create as humanlike robots as possible.

On the other hand, Kesarovski makes the laws of robotics a cornerstone of his piece. His story belongs to the mystery subgenre, following a murder investigation in flashbacks. The narrator is the son of a long-retired police detective. His father still muses over his last case that left shattered his otherwise successful police career. In a twist, the son is a robopsychologist, a pupil of the venerable Dr. Susan Calvin. By virtue of his job, he is familiar with the old murder case, even more than his father was.

The victim is a seventeen year old genius, a successful writer named Scott Murphy, with three bestsellers under his belt—not the most realistic character, but he is a little more than a a redshirt placeholder in this story. The murder appears random— Murphy is hiding in a small town, away from fans, trying to finish his next novel, when the killer recognizes him in a restaurant. An “impulsive, iron-strong, bone breaking” hug follows, and Murphy falls dead. There are tens of witnesses, but the detective doesn’t need their help, because the killer admits everything. Furthermore, he is shocked and surprised to have murdered his favorite writer.

At first the police officers are surprised too—how this diminutive 1.55-meter man could crush the rib cage of another person—but their shock is soon replaced by horror as they realize that the killer is a robot who failed to declare himself a robot during the first interrogation. He didn’t know. How many other robots, unaware what they really are, walk around? This is a chilling thought, given that robots practically run human civilization, the father points out.

The rest of the story is told in flashback, as father and son sit on a cliff by a river, pretending to fish. The son—whose high position in the robotics industry is implied here, and confirmed in the second related story—tells it, answering the father ‘s unspoken questions.

This is where the story falls somewhat into the familiar tread of the political propaganda, but even such a story can be written with more or less talent and skill, and The Fourth Law has a good measure of both.

I warn the readers of this review that I will reveal its ending because it is unlikely this story will see English translation.

The killing turns out to be accidental, indeed, but the poor robot is just as much a victim as the writer. Once upon a time there was a talented robopsychologist named Dick Gordon. The similarity with the names of Phillip K. Dick and Gordon Dickson may not be coincidental, because Kesarovski’s characters occasionally refer to Dostoevsky and cite Jean-Paul Sartre. Furthermore, two enforcers that appear later in the story suspiciously resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. It is strange to find postmodern elements in a story written on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain nearly thirty years ago.

Dick Gordon becomes a subject of corporate fight between the civilian Institute of Psychorobotics and the semi-clandestine Institute of Osborne—a military research facility, named after its director. In a rather stereotypical move, Osborne tries to hire Gordon, and when the scientist refuses, the military subjects him to a forced brain surgery to modify his behavior.

The story shifts emphasis here. The Fifth Law suddenly becomes more relevant to Dick himself than the to poor robots. He is faced with a choice that puts his humanity to the test, because the work for Osborne implies creating robotic weapons. Through Dick, the author advocates a pacifist stance.

Unfortunately for the young writer who would die two years later, just before Dick so suddenly left the academy for Osborne’s institute, he started an experiment aimed to give robots a sense of humor. The experiment was brought to a successful conclusion by Gordon’s colleagues, but his modifications remained buried deep in the code, and gave surprising results: thirty thousand robots could think themselves into humans. At the end of the story Dick is gravely ill but nevertheless comes up with a solution defining a new law that forces the robots to know that they are robots.

The robots forget because of a mistake and unfortunate circumstances, much as in a Greek tragedy. Dick Gordon forgets as a result of malicious intent, making him an even more tragic figure.

The Fifth Law builds upon the heritage of Asimov, expanding further the great gedankenexperiments that the Master carried out in his I, Robot series. The plot is a bit artificial, but to some extent the same was true for Asimov’s original works, in which he went to great lengths to create a paradoxical situation, just to be solved by Susan Calvin with great ease.

The first time I read Kesarovski’s stories during my teenage years—they won my attention with the wealth of informative details. They were a true feast for a hungry reader. Later, when I reread them, I noticed his erudition, and precise prose (probably reflecting his scientific background).

Unfortunately, Nikola Kesarovski is no longer with us. Only a few stories remain because his day jobs didn’t let him write much science fiction, but they are all memorable and thought provoking. “The Fifth Law” is accompanied in the collection by three other pieces. “The Red Drop of Blood”, which opens the book, is based on the assumption that intelligence can arise in the nanoworld (although this word is not used), making a drop of blood a Universe for a nano-civilization. “Absolute Harmony” is about the devastating effect of the perfect painting. In “The Revolt” Kesarovski brings back the son of the old detective from “The Fifth Law”, who must face a robot revolution a day after the death of Susan Calvin. Were the robots true gentlemen (we only see male robots in Kesarovski’s stories), waiting for the old lady’s grand exit before starting the fight for their independence? No, it turns out, their timing has more to do with the self-murderous tendencies of the humans than with respect for the greatest robopsychologist of them all.

The story of the Bulgarian laws of robotics would be incomplete without mentioning Lyubomir Nikolov, known for the Bulgarian translations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books. He made the final contribution—for now—to this series of laws, adding nearly a hundred of them in his sarcastic short story “The Hundred-and-First Law of Robotics” (1989). Maybe it should have been titled “The Last New Law”, because it called for the cancellation of all non-Asimov laws . . .

Asimov didn’t invent robots—the word was coined by the Czech writer Carel ?apek, and the concept of artificial humans dates from antiquity—but he brought the discussion of their obligations and rights to a new level—and gave us a glimpse of the complicated interplay between humans and these new intelligent species. Hundreds or thousands of stories and novels were written on the subject, with or without an explicit connection to the judicial formalism of I, Robot. This formalism has been studied extensively, and more often than not reading about robots we have learned something about ourselves. “The Fifth Law” has carved a noteworthy place in this milieu.

The works of Dilov, Kesarovski, and Nikolov, give Bulgaria the funny distinction of having the most laws of robotics per capita. Ours may not be the most lawful and peaceful country in the world, but surely we know how to impose order upon our robots.

Nikola Kesarovski on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikola_Kesarovski

Lyuben Dilov on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lyuben_Dilov

About Valentin Ivanov

Valentin D. Ivanov was born in Bulgaria in 1967. He received an M.S. in Physics with specialization in Astronomy from the University of Sofia in 1992, a Ph.D. in Astronomy from the University of Arizona in 2001, and he has been working for the European Southern Observatory ever since. Valentin has a broad area of research interests — from extrasolar planets to obscured Milky Way clusters and active galaxies. He is married, with two children. Valentin began to write science fiction and fantasy in high school. He has published in his native country a collection of fantasy stories based on Bulgarian folklore, written in collaboration with Kiril Dobrev. His personal home-page can be found at: http://www.sc.eso.org/~vivanov/ and his blog (written in both Bulgarian and English) at: http://valio98.blog.bg/
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One Response to Lawful Little Country: The Bulgarian Laws of Robotics

  1. Pingback: Geek Media Round-Up: June 20, 2011 – Grasping for the Wind

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