I first heard of “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov when I saw the anthology, The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories offered as a selection in the Science Fiction Book Club. I was 16, and still technically a member of the club, but most months I checked off the “Send nothing at this time” box on the card, because even the cheaper prices of the book club were a bit much for my budget. It a bit over a year later when I found a paperback copy of The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald Wolheim in the local used book store when I finally got a chance to read the story.
Asimov wrote a lot of short stories about robots. Most of the stories collected in his anthologies I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots dealt with various logical contradictions that robots would be placed in by various circumstances, and how the robots (and the humans working with them) would work out those conflicts between the Three Laws of Robotics, their other programming, and the situation at hand. Even in his longer novels where robots figured prominently, such as the two sci fi murder mysteries, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, the robots were always motivated by pure logic. The fact that the world is not a purely logical place, and that humans are seldom covered by rationality alone, formed the framework for the conflict in the stories.
“The Bicentennial Man” centered on a single robot, dubbed Andrew by the daughter of its first owner (a Mr. Martin, identified in the story which is told from Andrew’s point of view as simply Sir). Andrew demonstrates an unusual talent with wood carving—his works of art fetching high prices when offered for sale—and develops a desire to became human. Andrew is part of a new series of robots with what Asimov describes “more open-ended architecture” in his positronic brain, which the experts believe is where his apparent artistic talent comes from. Andrew’s stubborn insistence that he can become a human worries the scientists at the world’s largest robotics company, causing them to try to buy Andrew back.
In part because of the pleading of the owner’s daughter (whom Andrew calls Little Miss), Sir refuses to sell Andrew back to the company. Later, Sir helps Andrew gain some form of legal independence as a “free robot” with the legal name of Andrew Martin.
From there the story follows Andrew’s physical and legal journey through several generations of the original family, as Little Miss grows up, grows old, and dies, and her son and grandson found a legal firm which, among other things, fights to secure Andrew’s legal rights. Andrew designs new kinds of prosthetics, which are almost indistinguishable from natural body parts. Andrew’s body is slowly ungraded to first being a more human-looking android body, to an organic one. The proceeds from the patents on the various processes to create the prosthetics (which are used medically to improve the lives of disabled, maimed, and diseased people) providing Andrew’s income and funding the legal fight.
One of his important legal victories happens when he is 150 years old, where at a dinner in his honor (celebrating his medical inventions), he is toasted as the Sesquicentennial Robot.
Eventually, as Andrew realizes that he will never persuade a human legislature to pass a law declaring him, or any robot, a human because the key difference will always be his positronic brain. Which leads Andrew to compel a robotic surgeon to perform an operation on his brain that will cause the brain to slowly decay and die. Andrew’s reasoning is that it’s the immortality that forms the final barrier between him being accepted as a human.
The story really resonated with me. And it was interesting to see Asimov explore the nature of emotions and creativity from the point of view of artificial intelligence. But more interesting was the series of legal barriers that Andrew has to go through. Laws have to be changed to allow a robot to own property, for instance. Laws must be changed to make harming a robot a crime, at another point.
The legal progression to personhood that Asimov takes us through is based on the historical legal fights for woman’s rights and racial equality. For millenia, the legal system treated women as property. Assaulting a woman was a crime, yes, but the penalties imposed always included paying a fine to the woman’s father (if she were unmarried) or her husband, because the man in her life was deemed to have been harmed by the degradation of his property.
Similarly, Andrew discovers, once he is a free robot, that since there is no owner to whom damages would be owed, the legal system doesn’t consider anyone assaulting and damaging him a crime as assault. Vandalism, perhaps, but then, who is the owner who should be compensated for the damage?
It seems ridiculous to us now that some people, simply because of their gender or the color of their skin, had once been in a similar situation: harming them wasn’t inherently a crime, it was only a crime if it caused their “owner” to suffer a loss. And especially frightening to realize that in the matter of sexual assault laws in the U.S., for instance, that as recently as the 1970s the law was still structured this way. A woman couldn’t file rape charges against her husband or sometimes even her ex-husband, because once married her consent was no longer hers to give or withold, in that regard.
Andrew’s struggle for human rights parallels, thus, every oppressed groups struggle for equality. Something that I came to appreciate more some years later, when I finally bought my own hardcover copy of The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories and re-read this particular short story again. There is even a point, during the discussion about the assault laws, where another character makes the same argument at homophobes current make against hate crime laws: they aren’t needed, because the action is already a (minor) crime under existing laws.
Asimov’s story about a robot who wants to be a human might seem, on the surface, to be little more than a retelling of Pinocchio, but we see here one of the Grandmasters of Science Fiction—a sci fi writer who first reached prominence during the “golden age” of sci fi—turning a civil rights argument into a rattling good tale of old-fashioned science fiction. Who would have thought an old, white (okay, jewish, but still) male sci fi writer who made his first professional sale in 1939 would be a social justice warrior? Don’t tell the melancholy canines!
When I read “The Bicentennial Man” I was a very closeted high school student, terrified that people would find out I was queer because I knew that strangers, friends, and even family members would see me as an abomination if they knew. So the story of Andrew, who wanted to be seen and accepted as a person certainly struck a chord. Even if his ultimate solution, dying, seemed like a terrible way to achieve his goal.