Once again, another Club read has snuck up on me! Although for 1976, part of the problem was the lack of contenders.
Pre-blog I had read:
- All Things Wise and Wonderful | James Herriot
- Children of Dune (Book 3) | Frank Herbert
- Tintin and the Picaros (Tintin, #23) | Hergé, Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper (Translator), Michael Turner (Translator)
All enjoyable reads at the time I read them (my twenties for the first two and as a 13 yr old for the Tintin) but none of which I felt compelled to revisit.
My TBR pile only has two possibilities:
- The Spectator Bird | Wallace Stegner
- India: A Wounded Civilization | V.S. Naipaul
Both of which I really want to read. But they both also require time and effort to do them justice, neither of which I have right now. So last week, I was left scouring the short story and essay options trying to find something suitable. Suitable being something short and something that would appeal to my reading tastes right now.
That’s when The Bicentennial Man jumped out at me.
The Bicentennial Man is a short story by Isaac Asimov first published in 1976 (the link takes you to an ePub version of the story). It won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best science fiction novelette of 1976. It was published in a short story collection with ten other short stories and a poem.
Now, I know that most of you don’t automatically think of science fiction and me in the same sentence, but I do occasionally dabble (which is how I came to read the first three books in the Dune series in my early twenties, after picking them up in a church market sale in Mudgee. I say read, but I mean devour. I read the three Dune books obsessively, compulsively…and then I was done. I didn’t need to finish the series. The moment had passed.)
Last month I had cause to read another Hugo & Nebula Award winning short story, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes thanks to it being referenced in Richard Powers’ novel, Bewilderment. Images from this short story (which was later turned into a full length novel by Keyes, just like Asimov did with The Bicentennial Man) have haunted me since. Although speculative and futuristic in tone and setting, the story was firmly embedded in our idea of what it means to be human.
Having seen the 1999 movie of The Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams, I knew that this story was also very much about our sense of humanity and what being a human really means. It was impossible to read this short story without seeing the robot, Andrew Martin, with any other features than those of Robin Williams, though.
In 1992, Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg wrote the novel The Positronic Man based on this short story. I cannot talk to the full length novel, but I can tell you that Asimov packs a lot into a short story.
The Bicentennial Man is set in the Foundation series universe. It’s protagonist is Andrew Martin, a robot. This futuristic world is ruled by the The Three Laws of Robotics:
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 the 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.
Andrew is bought by the Martin family to be their domestic robot. He is a relatively early model robot and by a quirk of circuitry, he learns that he is able to assimilate and enhance his learning into creative pursuits. The Martin family discover that he could perform woodworking tasks to a high degree of excellence. When asked by Mr Martin if he ‘enjoys’ woodworking, Andrew responds,
It makes the circuits of my brain somehow flow more easily. I have heard you use the word ‘enjoy’ and the way you use it fits the way I feel. I enjoy doing them, Sir.
The family comes to an arrangement with Andrew that leaves him mostly free to carve and create items that they then sell. They create a bank fund for him so that he can share in the profits. This is the first time in the history of robotics that either of these possibilities has come to be. The U.S. Robots Corporation is rather unhappy with this turn of events. They fix the ‘glitch’ in Andrew’s model, so that this type of flexibility does not occur in future models. They attempt to buy back Andrew from the Martin family, but the family refuses to part with him.
“The new models aren’t as good as you are, Andrew,” he said. “The new robots are worthless. The company has learned to make the pathways more precise, more closely on the nose, more deeply on the track. The new robots don’t shift. They do what they’re designed for and never stray. I like you better.“
As time goes by, the Martin family grow up, age and begin to die. Before the death of Mr Martin, Andrew requests his freedom. Mr Martin is deeply challenged and affronted by the request. But Little Miss, now no longer little or a Miss, comes to Andrew’s defence,
“He’s read everything in the library. I don’t know what he feels inside, but I don’t know what you feel inside either. When you talk to him you’ll find he reacts to the various abstractions as you and I do, and what else counts? If some one else’s reactions are like your own, what more can you ask for?”
A court case ensues where Andrew argues that, “it has been said in this courtroom that only a human being can be free. It seems to me that only someone who wishes for freedom can be free. I wish for freedom.“
The rest you have to read for yourself!
For a short story there is a lot more. Andrew’s story spans two hundred years of the Martin family. He changes career several times, undergoes enhancement procedures to look more human, begins to wear clothes, invents a new science – robobiology – and spends time living on the moon.
“It’s amazing, Andrew,” Paul went on, “the influence you have had on the history of robots. It was your artistry that encouraged U.S. Robots to make robots more precise and specialized; it was your freedom that resulted in the establishment of the principle of robotic rights; it was your insistence on an android body that made U.S. Robots switch to brain-body separation”
The crisis comes though, when Andrew decides that he wants more. He wants to be legally declared a man, a human being with all the rights and freedoms attached.
“I have the shape of a human being and organs equivalent to those of a human being. My organs, in fact, are identical to some of those in a prosthetized human being. I have contributed artistically, literally, and scientifically to human culture as much as any human being now alive. What more can one ask?”
Naturally, he meets with strong resistance. The various discussions and court cases that ensue, allow Asimov abundant opportunity to subtly explore so many issues, that when I think back on it, I wonder how on earth he achieved it with so little effort or obvious grandstanding. Issues like prejudice, intellectual and creative freedom, love, mortality, power, servitude, uniqueness, medical enhancements and transplants are all covered.
“As the oldest robot in the world and the most flexible, am I not unusual enough to merit special treatment from the company?”
Curiously, in the movie, I struggled to see Andrew as anything but a robot. His emotional capacity and range did expand over time, but not enough to allow me to see him as ‘human’. His situation was sad, but inevitable.
The short story felt different for me in this regard. His emotional maturity was more clearly drawn, and by the end, it was easy to conclude that many ‘real’ human beings barely had an emotional range as sophisticated or as astute as Andrew’s, making his final decision incredibly bittersweet.
“My own positronic pathways have lasted nearly two centuries without perceptible change, and can last for centuries more. Isn’t that the fundamental barrier? Human beings can tolerate an immortal robot, for it doesn’t matter how long a machine lasts, but they cannot tolerate an immortal human being since their own mortality is endurable only so long as it is universal. And for that reason they won’t make me a human being.”
I was surprised how deeply Andrew’s story moved me.
It is the first time I have ever read any Asimov, and if this is an example of the quality and deftness of his writing, I’d be tempted to try more. He might write ‘hard’ science fiction, but the emotional depth and moral complexity within his made-up, futuristic world, is pure heart.
This post is part of Simon & Karen’s #1976club. To see what everyone else is reading this week, visit here.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.