The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories by Isaac Asimov
Published in 1976
Genre: Science fiction, short story collection
“Here I am with another collection of science fiction stories, and I sit here and think, with more than a little astonishment, that I have been writing and publishing fiction now for just three-eighths of a century.”
The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories is a short story collection by Isaac Asimov that not only showcases his writing, but gives insight into the background and origin of each story. Asimov is one of the most famous science fiction writers, and it is easy to see why his range and skill with words continue to be celebrated. Since this is a collection of short stories (and the first one I have reviewed on the blog), I will give short descriptions of each story and then my overall impression of the book.
Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
“Feminine Intuition” – Scientists want to create an intuitive robot; their solution is the JN series which leads up to Jane 5. They plan to use the robot to find another habitable world and it is successful; an astrological anomaly, however, destroys any hope to use the information gained by Jane 5.
“Waterclap” – A man from the Lunar Colony visits the underwater colony of Ocean Deep in order to sabotage it. For this story, Asimov was asked to write a story for Hollywood; he took their premise, but didn’t care for the events or characters, so he wrote his own and had it published.
“That Thou Art Mindful of Him” – Robots have worked exclusively in dangerous environments and were specialized for this type of labor; this brings the second law of obedience into question since robots have never been in society with humans. If robots coexist in society, how do they decide which human beings to listen and comply with the three laws?
“Stranger in Paradise” – Biological brothers are rare in this story that follows siblings Anthony Smith and William Anti-Aut who are renowned scientists in their respective fields and avoid each other because of their connection. They are forced back together to work on a project to send a mission to Mercury.
“The Life and Times of Multivac” – Multivac is a worldwide computer which oversees all robots and dispenses justice as it sees fit in order to keep humans safe. Asimov wrote “The Life and Times of Multivac” for the New York Times Magazine and when another publisher read it, they commissioned him for “The Winnowing.”
“The Winnowing” – This story takes the idea of triage and applies it to entire countries instead of individual humans. A scientist is asked to poison the rations of certain countries so that they will starve in order for the others to survive. He is blackmailed by the government when they threaten to starve his daughter, her husband, and their child if he does not comply.
“The Bicentennial Man” – The protagonist of this story, Andrew, is a servant robot who whittles a pendant for one of his owner’s children and, upon discovering his talent and creativity, begins to study carpentry and carve wood into works of art. He makes money off of his carvings and pays for repairs and improvements to himself; he asks to buy his freedom after the family has grown and the grandchildren are born, and he subsequently has his brain placed in a synthetic body which makes him an android. Andrew spends time with the descendants of his original owners and as such simply wants to be a human.
“Marching In” – A trombonist is brought into a mental hospital as a consultant. The doctors there are able to isolate the brain cells that deal with depression and other mental disorders; they are able to pinpoint a rhythmic beat that these cells produce and ask the musician to find a pattern that can counteract the abnormal one.
“Old-fashioned” – Two asteroid miners are caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole; they must devise a means of communication to warn the Earth and attain rescue.
“The Tercentenary Incident” – 7/4/2076 – A secret service agent attends the Tercentenary ceremony and witnesses an assassination attempt on what everyone thought was the president. The agent begins to investigate when he believes the real president was assassinated and that a robot double has been serving ever since; this draws the attention of some very powerful people.
“Birth of a Notion” – A man accidentally travels back in time 50 years and meets the founder of a science fiction publication; this story was written for 50th anniversary of the publication named.
As you can see, there is a variety of subject matter, but a tone of optimism is threaded throughout the stories. Asimov is able to construct entire worlds in a short time and lends credibility to each unique, yet similar, story. He writes with a very formal tone and his voice in stories holds with the voice in his introduction; he writes in such a way that is educated and charismatic with dry humor.
It was interesting to see how many of the stories took their premises from contracts by publishers; the publications often presented him with the idea or theme and Asimov wrote from there. There is sort of a shared universe with his stories since some characters are referenced in multiple stories. One example of this is the robopsychologist Susan Calvin who either appears or is referred to in “Feminine Intuition,” “That Thou Art Mindful of Him,” and “The Bicentennial Man.”
An important distinction in Asimov’s stories is his view of robotics. The robots in these stories are not malevolent or evil; they simply exit in conjunction with humans. It is a common trope in modern science fiction to be afraid of artificial intelligence trying to destroy humanity; this fear has been around since the time of Frankenstein and before. I think there is a need for Asimov’s careful optimism in a time where automation, technology, and robotics are so relevant in our society.
Verdict: 3 positronic brains out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of science fiction, people looking to read more about what goes into the inspiration for science fiction stories, fans of short story collections, and those who enjoy speculative fiction from a famous author of the genre.
Not recommended for: Enemies of science and speculative fiction, people who don’t want to read more about the inspiration for science fiction stories, people who don’t like short story collections, people afraid of robots takin’ our jobs, or fans of the Robin Williams film The Bicentennial Man (1999).