Retro Review: “Catch That Rabbit” by Isaac Asimov

Astounding Science Fiction February 1944“Catch That Rabbit” is a short story by Isaac Asimov, which was first published in the February 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. “Catch That Rabbit” has also been widely reprinted in I, Robot, The Complete Robot and other Asimov robot collections. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“Catch That Rabbit” is one of five stories Asimov wrote about Mike Donovan and Gregory Powell, a pair of troubleshooters in the employ of United States Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. “Catch That Rabbit” is also the last of the Powell and Donovan stories except for “First Law”, a 1956 “tale told in a bar” story that Asimov himself has called a spoof and the 1945 short story “Escape”, wherein Powell and Donovan work with and are upstaged by Dr. Susan Calvin.

In “Catch That Rabbit”, Powell and Donovan are tasked with field-testing DV-5, a robot of US Robots’ brand-new line of mining robots. What makes DV-5 – or “Dave”, as Powell and Donovan call him – special is that he controls six smaller robots via his positronic field. What’s a positronic field? Don’t ask, cause Powell and Donovan have no idea and neither does Asimov. However, the smaller robots are not independent, instead Powell and Donovan liken them to the fingers of a human body.

Dave passed all factory tests with flying colours. But when he is deployed on an asteroid for field tests, along with Gregory Powell and a grumbling Mike Donovan, Dave and his “fingers” sometimes fail to mine any ore at all. Worse, Dave can’t or won’t explain what the problem is. Instead, he claims he can’t remember what happened.

In my review of “The Big and the Little”, I said that many of Asimov’s early stories – both robot and Foundation stories – are structured like mysteries. But instead of figuring out whodunnit, the investigators are tasked with figuring out why a robot malfunctioned. “Catch That Rabbit” is an excellent example, because it is essentially a science fiction mystery with Powell and Donovan trying to figure out what the blazes is wrong with Dave.

Gradually, the clues pile up. For starters, Dave only malfunctions, when neither Powell nor Donovan are around. This, of course, makes it difficult to figure out what is wrong. Tests reveal no problem with Dave’s positronic brain. Questioning Dave doesn’t help either, because Dave claims amnesia, though Donovan at least is sceptical about the veracity of his claims. But then, Donovan is given to panic and wild speculations, whereas Powell is much more practical.

Gregory Powell comes up with the idea to install a kind of viewscreen, called “visiplate” in the story, so they can remotely watch what Dave and his subordinates are doing. And so one day while they are bickering (and Powell and Donovan bicker a lot), they spot Dave making his subordinates march up and down the mine tunnels in a military formation. Donovan worries that this might be a prelude to the robot revolution, but Powell assures him that this is impossible and uses the opportunity to remind Donovan and the reader of the Three Laws of Robotics.

When our dynamic duo heads out to the mining site, the robots promptly return to normal, once they detect the presence of Powell and Donovan. Worse, Dave once more claims to have no idea what happened. Since the robots only malfunction when no humans are present, Powell suspects that the reason for the problems may lie in Dave’s personal initiative circuit. Dave’s decision making facilities are overloaded, because there are no humans supervisors around to defer to.

Powell and Donovan finally decide to interview one of Dave’s subsidiaries. Unlike Dave, the subsidiary remembers what happened and reports that during difficult or potentially dangerous situations, he would receive an order from Dave, which would be immediately superceded by another, nonsensical order. However, the subsidiary has no idea what the original order was.

So our dynamic duo decides to figure out which specific order causes Dave to malfunction. There is only one problem. They cannot observe Dave and his subsidiaries directly, because Dave only malfunctions when there are no humans around. And because Dave communicates with his subsidiaries via a positronic field, they cannot intercept his orders either. Therefore, Powell and Donovan agree to take turns watching Dave and his subsidiaries via the visiplate.

For the next eight days, Powell and Donovan keep the robots under continuous supervision. But while there are malfunctions, neither of them can tell what causes them. For the image on the visiplate is too small and too blurry to make out clearly what Dave and his subsidiaries are doing. Our dynamic duo needs to take a closer look at the robots, preferably at the exact moment a malfunction occurs. Luckily, Donovan has a plan for causing Dave to malfunction deliberately.

For by now Donovan has figured out what at least this reader had already figured out a few pages ago, namely that Dave only malfunctions in particularly difficult or potentially dangerous situations such as when the robots are laying explosives or there is a cave-in. Donovan now suggests deliberately provoking a dangerous situation and causing Dave to malfunction.

So our dynamic duo put on their spacesuits and head out into the mine to cause a small cave-in. However, they miscalculate and manage bring down the roof upon themselves rather than upon an empty section of mine tunnel. Now Powell and Donovan are trapped, their oxygen is limited and the only help – Dave and his subsidiaries – have malfunctioned once again and are performing a bizarre ballet in the mine. If you’re thinking at this point that Powell and Donovan are idiots, you’re not alone.

Donovan points out that if they can get close enough to Dave that he detects them, the robot will function normally again and can dig them out. And luckily, Dave and his chorus line of subsidiaries move right into the direction of our dynamic duo, only to turn around right before they get close enough to detect the two men. Donovan hollers to attract Dave’s attention, only to be reminded by Powell that he’s wearing a spacesuit and they’re on an airless asteroid, so how the hell should Dave hear him? Okay, so Mike Donovan really is an idiot.

However, Gregory Powell has an idea that might just save them. He draws his blaster, aims through a convenient hole in the rubble and shoots one of Dave’s subsidiaries. And guess what? Dave immediately snaps back to normal and proceeds to rescue the dynamic duo.

Donovan begs his partner to explain what just happened and Powell – being a protagonist in a hard science fiction story published in Astounding – is of course only too willing to oblige. After all, they already knew that the problem lies with Dave’s personal initiative circuit and that the malfunctions only occurs in difficult or dangerous situation, which require Dave to use a lot of personal initiative. Powell now deduced that Dave’s decision making facilities were overloaded with controlling six subsidiaries. He could manage the six subsidiaries in ordinary situations, when some of them were engaged in routine tasks which require little to no supervision. But in emergencies, when Dave must make decisions for and give orders to all six subsidiaries, he freezes up and malfunctions. Powell shooting one of the subsidiaries lightened the decision load on Dave and turned him back to normal.

“But why…” Donovan wants to know, “…did Dave make his subsidiaries perform those marches and dances?” “Well, that’s obvious”, Powell replies. After all, the subsidiaries are Dave’s fingers and when unsure what to do, Dave simply twiddled his fingers.

As a solution to a science fiction mystery, Powell’s explanation is weak. Of course, it makes sense that Dave’s malfunctions are caused by the cognitive demands of controlling his subsidiaries and in fact, I suspected that the subsidiaries were the cause of the malfunctions long before Powell and Donovan did. But how could Powell possibly know that the correct number of subsidiaries was five rather than three or four (beyond the fact that human hands usually have five fingers)? And how will US Robots – whose motto is “No employee makes the same mistake twice – he’s [Asimov’s pronoun choice, not mine] fired the first time” – react to react to Powell shooting what is presumably a very expensive prototype robot? Especially since keeping one subsidiary behind at the base and checking if the malfunctions still occur would have been a much more cost effective and less risky way to test the hypothesis. Okay, so getting trapped by the cave-in forced Powell’s hand, but the only reason Powell and Donovan got trapped by the cave-in in the first place is because they’re idiots. So is this the true reason why appearances of Powell and Donovan became scarce after this story? Because US Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. finally fired those two idiots?

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Powell and Donovan being idiots on the cover of the paperback edition of “I, Robot”

Isaac Asimov would eventually go on to become a fine mystery author and he was clearly already interested in the mystery form at this early point in his career. But – as I also pointed out in my review of “The Big and the Little” – he wasn’t yet very good at writing mysteries. Unlike in “The Big and the Little”, Asimov does at least give the reader all the information they need to solve the mystery and indeed, I solved it before Powell and Donovan did. Even the groanworthy “finger” pun at the end was set up from the beginning, as the subsidiary robots are referred to as “fingers” throughout the story. Indeed, the main problem with “Catch That Rabbit” is not that the clues are set up badly, but that the investigators are too stupid to interpret those clues.

As a teenager, I read my way through pretty much Asimov’s entire science fiction oeuvre. The stories and novels impressed me deeply and I find that I often have pretty clear memories of these stories even thirty years later. However, when rereading Asimov’s stories for the Retro Hugos and for Retro Reviews, I find that I have comparatively few memories of the Powell and Donovan stories. Maybe that’s because Powell and Donovan simply aren’t very memorable compared to Susan Calvin or Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw.

That said, the two troubleshooters do have distinct personalities. Mike Donovan complains a lot, is given to outbursts of temper (at one point, he even smashes the visiplate) and blind panic. Gregory Powell is calmer and the more rational of the two. As always with Isaac Asimov, we are only given very sparse descriptions of our two protagonists, though Donovan is repeatedly described as red-haired. Red hair and a volatile temper are of course common stereotypes about the Irish, something which went completely over my head, when I first read this story as a teen.

As for Gregory Powell, the only physical descriptions we ever get of him is that he is older than Donovan and has a moustache which he fingers a lot (and one point tries to finger, only to realise that he is wearing a spacesuit). However, my teen self was absolutely convinced that Gregory Powell was a black man. Even now, when rereading the story, I still picture Powell as black, though his skin colour is not mentioned either in this nor in any other story featuring Powell and Donovan and the interior artist portrays both men as white (but then pulp artists routinely portrayed even unambiguous characters of colour like Eric John Stark as white). I have no idea why I imagined Powell as black, though I suspect that when I first read the stories, I mainly associated the name Gregory with actor and singer Gregory Hines, who was indeed black and had a moustache. So sorry, no diversity points for Asimov, because Gregory Powell is only black in my mind, not on the page.

While on the subject of diversity, once again there are no female characters in this story at all. Even the robot is referred to by a male name and masculine pronouns. And indeed, in the three science fiction stories Asimov published in 1944, there are only two female characters, one of which has neither a name nor any lines, while the other is a strictly secondary character. The stereotype that golden age stories are all about white male characters doing heroic things in space is not necessarily true, not even if you look only at Asimov’s oeuvre – after all, Asimov also created Susan Calvin, Bayta and Arkady Darell, Jessie Baley and Gladia Delmarre during this period. But it is absolutely true for his 1944 output. Though the lack of female characters in “Catch That Rabbit” grates less than in “The Wedge” or “The Big and the Little”, because “Catch That Rabbit” only has two human characters.

In my review of “The Big and the Little”, I noted that the story contained some homoerotic vibes that went completely over my head, when I first read it as a teenager. Considering that the protagonists of “Catch That Rabbit” are a two-man team of troubleshooters, are there similar vibes between Powell and Donovan? Well, I didn’t notice any, but then Powell and Donovan are way too busy to take turns watching Dave to get down to more interesting business such as nude sunbathing and cigar smoking. However, when I checked out the other Powell and Donovan stories, I didn’t notice any overt homoerotic vibes there either. The closest any of the stories comes is when Powell suggests to Donovan that they go to bed – no mention of how many beds there are. However, I’m pretty sure that if you want to read about Powell and Donovan doing more exciting things than spouting technobabble, AO3 has you covered.

The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov

This UK edition of The Complete Robot with a striking Chris Foss cover is where I first read this story.

Considering that “Catch That Rabbit” is comparatively long – I suspect it lies at the upper edge of the short story range – there isn’t a whole lot of plot. Nor is there a whole lot of action. Clues are doled out, there are two interviews – one with Dave and one with one of his subsidiaries – and there is the climactic cave-in. But most of the story’s nineteen pages (in the magazine version) are taken up by Powell and Donovan talking and bickering. Now Asimov was never much of a stylist and the dialogue he gives his two protagonists sounds like nothing anybody ever said either in 1944 nor in the future where the story is set (which should be around 2020, come to think of it). But even though the dialogue in “Catch That Rabbit” feels about as natural as the dialogue in a Silver Age Marvel comic, i.e. not very, it is nonetheless snappy and zips along. I had fun reading this story, even if not much actually happens and the protagonists are idiots besides.

Isaac Asimov is not normally a writer associated with humorous science fiction. Nonetheless, at least at this early point in his career, Asimov did write funny stories. And while “Catch That Rabbit” is not nearly as funny as “Victory Unintentional” and “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” – both of which sadly failed to make the 1943 Retro Hugo ballot, even though they were better than the Asimov story which did make the ballot – it is nevertheless an example of the lighter side of Asimov’s work. Even the title – a reference to the saying “If you want to make rabbit stew, you must first catch a rabbit” – would have brought Bugs Bunny to mind more than anything else in 1944, for Bugs thwarted four would-be makers of rabbit stew that year alone.

Most of the humour comes from our heroes bickering, though we also get moments such as Donovan enjoying “a non-too-nutritious diet of fingernail” or an anecdote about Powell jumping out of the window of a burning house with nothing but a pair of shorts and the Handbook of Robotics – and if necessary, he would have foregone the shorts (sadly, Asimov never wrote that particular story). And yes, Powell is certainly aware that Donovan is an idiot and I’m pretty sure that Asimov is aware that both his protagonists are idiots.

Asimov is also poking fun at the conventions of what passed for hard science fiction in the 1940s in general and at the sort of stories published by John W. Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction with their endless infodumps (see Steve J. Wright’s review of Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” for a prime example) and “As you know, Bob…” dialogue in particular. For example, Asimov unmasks the “positronic field” via which Dave controls his subsidiaries as the technobabble it is by having Powell state that there isn’t a roboticist at US Robots who knows what a positronic field is or how it works and neither do Powel and Donovan. All that matters is that it does work. As for the competent men that Campbell wanted as protagonists for the stories he published, Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are many things, but competent is not one of them.

At this early point in his career, Asimov wasn’t yet skilled enough to avoid “As You Know, Bob…” dialogue altogether, but he at least tried to use it in interesting ways. And so a painfully clumsy “As you know, Bob – pardon, Jain…” conversation on Seldon crises in “The Big and the Little” actually turns out to be an important clue to the central mystery, because it reveals that a character is not who he claims to be or he wouldn’t have needed a primer on what a Seldon crisis is. And in “Catch That Rabbit”, Asimov points out how ridiculous characters telling each other things they should both already know really is by having Donovan interrupt Powell’s “As you know, Mike…” monologue with “I know that”, whereupon Powell shushes him with, “Shut up! I know that you know that, but I’m just describing the hell of it”.

I will always have a soft spot for Isaac Asimov, because his work was pretty much the first serious adult science fiction I discovered – all earlier science fiction reads were YA, Star Wars novelisations and some Anne McCaffrey. However, rereading some of those old Asimov stories for the Retro Hugos, I also realise that they hold up better for me than many other books I read around the same time.

“Catch That Rabbit” is not a particularly good story. It’s not even the best Asimov story of 1944, for “The Wedge” is better. However, “Catch That Rabbit” is the story I enjoyed reading the most and the one that has suffered the least from a visit by the suck fairy, maybe because even my teenaged self realised that Powell and Donovan were bumblers and idiots and pretty much the science fiction equivalent of Laurel and Hardy.

 

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