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How Alex Wells created the gorgeous artwork of a new edition of Asimov's I, Robot

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The three laws never looked so good

Alex Wells / Folio Society

The Folio Society has been producing high-end editions of classic literature for decades, and in recent years, it has branched into producing high-end editions of science fiction novels. The latest addition to their collection is Isaac Asimov’s classic short story collection, I, Robot, featuring some stunning illustrations from artist Alex Wells.

The illustration for Robbie.
Alex Wells / Folio Society

Like most of the publisher’s books, this is an edition that is gorgeous to behold: exquisitely assembled on high-quality paper and with elegant typeset that makes them a joy to simply hold and read. The best part about them is their full-page illustrations highlighting each story in the collection.

I, Robot is widely considered a classic collection of science fiction. In the early 1940s, Asimov and his editor, John W. Campbell Jr., came up with three laws that would underpin the behavior of a robot for a short story:

  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 orders given 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.

The laws became the foundation upon which Asimov assembled a series of short, logical puzzles that teased out flaws in the underlying rules that guided their behavior. It wasn’t until 1950 that a small fan publisher named Gnome Press approached Asimov: it wanted to collect the robot stories into a single volume. Asimov wrote some new material to frame the stories as though they were a series of interviews with a character named Dr. Susan Calvin, a "robopsychologist" who examines robots.

The stories and ideas within them have gone on to become enormously influential, used and referenced in everything from Star Trek to Futurama to Dr. Who.

A scene from Foundation and Empire
Alex Wells / Folio Society

Wells is no stranger to the Folio Society or its treatment of Asimov’s works. In 2014, the publisher released its own editions of the Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, bringing Wells on to illustrate the novel. He had read through the trilogy, and "trying to quench my thirst for more of the [Asimov’s] work," turned to I, Robot, he told The Verge in an email.

Wells was initially put off on reading the collection because of the 2004 film adaptation, but soon dug into it. "[I] was pleasantly surprised it didn’t really resemble it!"

The illustration for Runaround.
Alex Wells / Folio Society

Reading through the book, he took notes on the scenes that not only seemed to be the most significant to each story, but which were also ones that he enjoyed the most. In particular, he noted that his favorite scene was in the second story in the book, Runaround, when one of the main characters tries to retrieve a robot whose "three laws" programming has gotten it stuck in a broken behavioral loop. "It was such an intense section but solved with logic and reasonable deductions and had me on the edge of my seat."

Alex Wells / Folio Society

One of the things that stands out the most about Wells’ illustrations is his vivid use of color. To make sure each image stood out, he worked with a different color palette for each story. "I really want to stay away from the ‘robots = gray’ mould that often gets put on science fiction," He said, "especially when the stories told in this genre are so vivid and fascinating."

The Folio Society’s edition of I, Robot will be available mid-October.