How do you judge a human being?

The Bicentennial Man and other stories
by Isaac Asimov

Just over a month ago watching a certain Hollywood film starring Will Smith led to a conversation about Asimov, which led to my being told I really should read some of the SF great man’s work. It took me a while (I am a little slow on the reading front right now) but I have now read a book by Asimov. And it was good.

What I really liked about this collection of short stories (putting aside the clever ideas etc for a moment) is the way it was put together. This was published in 1977 and compiled by Asimov himself. It’s not just that he selected 12 stories (or actually one poem and 11 stories). The whole book is one long author’s introduction punctuated by the stories under discussion. It’s charming, funny in places, and completely humanises a man who might otherwise seem dauntingly and unapproachably intelligent.

But what about the stories? They’re smart, original and engagingly written. They suffer a little from more idea than character but to be honest they suffer more from age. Asimov wrote a lot of stories set in or referring back to the near future, i.e. now. And it shouldn’t matter that he didn’t accurately predict the way the world changed but it does stand out when you read a story set in 2001 and it contains big clunky computers (did anyone envision they would get so small so fast?) and a world government.

My favourites were the robot stories (each marked out by a prologue of the Three Laws of Robotics). As far as I can tell they are all set in the same timeline, and can therefore be read as an alternative history/future (some longish timespans are covered). Each story takes one central idea (e.g. “feminising” robots to make them appeal more to consumers) and explores it in clever, interesting ways. My favourite story in the collection, “That thou art mindful of him”, explores the Three Laws themselves, beginning with a robot designer consulting with a robot on how to get humans to accept robots (a longstanding difficulty faced by US Robots and Mechanical Men Inc.):

“That brings us to the Second Law.”

“The Law of Obedience.”

“Yes. The necessity of obedience is constant. A robot [is] constantly obeying orders—Whose orders?”

“Those of a human being.”

“Any human being? How do you judge a human being so as to know whether to obey or not?…I mean, must a robot follow the orders of a child; or of an idiot; or of a criminal; or of a perfectly decent intelligent man who happens to be inexpert and therefore ignorant of the undesirable consequences of his order? And if two human beings give a robot conflicting orders, which does the robot follow?”

A lot of the stories feature moral dilemmas and the explorations are fascinating. It’s also interesting to see that Asimov was somewhat of a feminist, though perhaps not one who felt comfortable writing female characters, as his women tend to be important and intelligent, but rarely if ever play a central role. I’ll be interested to see how this did or didn’t change over Asimov’s career, as I have no doubt I will be reading much more of his work.

Works first published 1966–1976.
This collection first published 1977 by Victor Gollancz.