The scariest man I’ve ever met

It’s been 10 years, so I have forgotten what he looked like. I seem to remember six feet tall, in shape, and a smile that was born from self confidence rather than friendliness.

At the time, I was working for a Greater Detroit weekly newspaper. My job on Tuesdays was to get the county sheriff’s report on my way into work. Usually in the office was the substation’s commander, a lieutenant who was still in military shape, and his secretary. She was a tall, bespectacled redhead with their hair cut short.

On this day, there was another man in the office.

His last name, Crichton, stuck out for obvious reasons. “Nope, not related to Michael,” he said.

Then I asked Crichton what he did, and he said he worked for the Oakland County Friend of the Court. His job was to find child support absconders who didn’t want to be found.

And then that smile.

It made me think of a Great White shark, no meal for a day, finding a large school of fish that would make for a great dinner. I also thought of a black-suited IRS agent flipping their credentials at a businessman and saying, “According to our records, it’s been 12 years since you last filed a tax return.” You can’t tell what their facial expression is, due to the black sunglasses that hides their eyes.

The smile made me think something else: he was very good at his job.

Crichton kept smiling as he handed me his business card. “Richard,” he said, “If you know anybody in Oakland County or even in a nearby county who is neglecting their financial obligations as a parent, let me know. I’ll be happy for the custodial parent to track them down and get them held accountable.”

We exchanged pleasantries, and then once the report was ready, I headed to the newspaper office.

Likeable guy, but a tsunami wave of relief washed over me. I’m so glad I’m not an absconder, I thought.

You see on COPS and Dog the Bounty Hunter how many suspects will fight and try to get away. If they saw this man with that shark smile, that confidence, I imagine they’d just put their hands up. No reason to fight, since there’s no point.

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Finished reading ‘I, Robot’ by Isaac Asimov

It took longer than I would’ve liked, but I finally finished reading Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories, I, Robot.

This book, for those who haven’t read it, bears some resemblance to the I, Robot movie that starred Will Smith. Perhaps I’m being generous to say “some”: in the movie, I can remember robots doing some harmful things to humans. It was a fascinating tale, but after reading these short stories, I detect a strong sense of disconnect. Perhaps because most of these stories were written in the 1950s while the movie came out a few years ago. And we know how much Hollywood butchers great stories (such as Michael Crichton’s great novels Sphere and Rising Sun).

It would take too long to discuss each story individually, so I’ll provide an overview and then discuss what I liked and didn’t like.

It’s very difficult to encounter a science fiction story that doesn’t feature a robot in it. Writers of today see a world of tomorrow where robots serve our every need. Some are cooks, some are butlers, some are police officers, some do labor while others provide the calculations necessary to help exploration of other planets and even stars. Asimov is no different. In I, Robot, robots serve as babysitters, miners, lawyers and even giant computers used for calculations to improve the economy, promote peace and, best of all, further the human race. Each story is a story related by “robopsychologist”* Dr. Susan Calvin at the end of her life (she dies at 82 in 2064) to a reporter.

Some stories deal with amusing problems that go beyond the malfunctions that are commonplace today with computers. What if robots on Mercury refuse to believe a) that humans created them, b) that their robotic origins are on earth and c) that they’re accountable to humans? Further problems arise when a robot programmed to read minds decides it doesn’t like what it sees and starts doing the unimaginable; another robot decides to hide from humans out of a weird superiority complex; another robot gives the blueprints for a spacecraft that when built, takes humans onto a distant trip to the stars.

My two favorite stories were Evidence (where an honest, squeaky-clean district attorney/aspiring mayor is apparently a robot, but nothing’s done about it since he does such an outstanding job) and The Evitable Conflict (where robotic computers control the world’s economy, peace and make humans wonder why they seem to be giving odd data that suggest errors).

What I liked: Asimov was an excellent story teller. While the book took three months to read, his stories made you think. Robots can certainly be a blessing or a curse to mankind, and Asimov posed plenty of healthy “what if?” scenarios?

What I didn’t like: Sometimes it was a little too technical, which might explain why it took a little long to read. Asimov’s style is vastly different from Ray Bradbury’s energetic, comic-book style of description, and he reads similar to Crichton.

Overall, I liked I, Robot. Someday I’ll re-read this book and add it to my personal library.

*Dr. Calvin is a scientist who specializes in robot psychology rather than being a psychologist who’s actually a robot.

Richard Zowie is a writer. As a child, he wanted to be an astronaut. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.