The Positronic Man

Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov
The Positronic Man Cover

The Positronic Man

Carl V.

It is the late 21st century and Gerald Martin, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, has taken the bold step of procuring a robot servant for his home, a prospect that is still too frightening for the general public. Designated NDR-113 by the manufacturer, United Stated Robots and Mechanical Men, the robot soon comes to be known as “Andrew” courtesy of Gerald Martin’s youngest daughter. Mr. Martin’s situation is doubly unique for he has purchased his robot rather than leasing it. This rare allowance by USRMM will soon become a very critical distinction, for Andrew is not a typical robot. The generalized pathways of his positronic brain are beginning to function in ways unforeseen by his creators. Andrew exhibits creativity and artistic talent. Andrew experiences feelings. Andrew is fond of the various members of the Martin family. And soon Andrew begins to wonder just what it means to actually be human.

The Positronic Man is the final collaboration between authors Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg. Built upon a short story by Isaac Asimov which introduced the Three Laws, the novel was published in 1993, one year after Asimov’s death. Although I have read it, I don’t readily recall the details of Asimov’s short story and this is the first fiction I’ve read from author Robert Silverberg so I am not studied enough to be able to recognize each author’s contribution to the work. Suffice it to say that The Positronic Man retains the charm and the subtle depth of Asimov’s other robot stories while also lessening, if not eliminating, many of the dated elements of science fiction written in the 40′s and 50′s.

It is the retention of that “charm” that was one of the prime factors in my immense enjoyment of this novel. My first exposure to Asimov’s work came in early 2008, the year I turned 40. I cannot ascertain with any degree of certainty whether my age was a factor or not, but my adult exposure to acknowledged masters like Asimov, Bester and Heinlein have yielded some of the most pleasant and personally rewarding reading experiences that I have had in my life. I can theorize that these authors came into my life at an age where I was naturally thinking back over my own childhood days with fondness and the nostalgia that they generated (and still generate) tapped into that emotional state. At any rate I find myself firmly and most happily planted on the far side of a palpable dividing line, opposite those who find little of value or enjoyment in the output of these authors. Turning the conversation back to The Positronic Man, I find it a strong recommendation of their abilities as collaborators that the novel was able to encapsulate that same sense of wonder that Asimov’s early works have in spades.

The Positronic Man takes place over a period of 200 years, with an opening chapter taking place near the end of this time. It is a chapter that hints cryptically of things to come for Andrew and it left me with dual feelings of anticipation and dread which carried with me throughout the story, compelling me to read in large chunks. The strength of many of Asimov’s robot stories, and the reason I am convinced they continue to be relevant today, is that they allow us to examine ourselves as individuals and as a society through the lens of science fiction. We are a species that never tires of analyzing ourselves, or at the very least the guy next door, and the subtlety of a story about a friendly, curious robot lulls us into into thinking we are reading a light, throwaway story until the import of the themes of the story sink in. As readers we see everything through the eyes of Andrew, giving us a unique look at humanity through a protagonist who is life-like enough that we can still identify with him. Asimov’s three laws are skillfully woven into the story in ways that make them accessible for readers at any comfort level with science fiction. The Positronic Man examines prejudice and entitlement and the rights of the individual while telling a sweet, but not shallow, story.

Reading The Positronic Man was an interesting experience because I was deeply immersed in the story and became very emotionally attached to Andrew, and at the same time found myself thinking a great deal about why Asimov’s robot stories, or maybe robot stories in general, have such appeal. One realization I had was that I enjoy these stories because they are an extension of my childhood. I am positive that I am not alone in having a childhood where my toys, particularly my beloved teddy bear, came to life in my imagination and if given a wish would have had them come to life in reality. The Positronic Man taps into that. Who among us, if we had such a life-like machine in our homes, wouldn’t want it to actually care for us rather than merely be a thing responding to predetermined codes? Who wouldn’t cheer to see it begin to develop human traits? It is an idea that wasn’t new in Asimov’s time and yet it continues to capture our imagination today. Characters like Data, the holographic doctor, and even Odo in various iterations of Star Trek demonstrate just how much we are still swayed by stories of objects, of things, coming to life. More recent examples like the Toy Story films show how this idea of looking at humanity through the eyes of inanimate objects gets recycled without losing its ability to make us think.

The Positronic Man is a success because nearly 20 years after its publication, incorporating a story roughly 70 years old, it has a timeless message. It is the message that it isn’t merely our physical make up that makes us “human”, but that there is much more to that concept and we can and should choose to have an active role in our humanity. The Positronic Man is sometimes naive in a 1950′s manner and given that the novel is comparatively short by the standards of today it does mean that large parts of Andrew’s life go past without our being involved in them. Those things may be seen as weaknesses by some, but I believe they work because they allow the story to remain focused entirely on Andrew and his internal dialogue rather than shifting to focus on the world around him. It also creates a sense of what it would be like to contemplate time if one were for all practical purposes immortal. The manner in which we see and measure time would lose all meaning. Seeing the world of our future the way Andrew, a non-human, sees it is what allows The Positronic Man to have meaning and relevance today.