We get to the real meat of the issue here: what’s the difference between a man and robot? It’s one of the foundational questions of SF that’s been addressed by through simplistic pulp tales of vengeful servants to PK Dick and Greg Egan’s existential angst and the infinite varieties of post-singularity SF.
Like these other writers, Asimov gives us his own take on the issue: the difference between robot and human is that they’re better than us.
This is the first overtly political story in the collection. The U.S. Robots team is approached by a politician Francis Quinn to prove that his rival Stephen Bryerley is a robot. Regardless of their policies, robot’s are, of course, still forbidden from holding public office. In fact they’re still banned from Earth at this point in the cycle, so if he is a robot, District Attorney Bryerley shouldn’t even be at large.
Quinn’s own ideas on what defines humanity are grossly physical: his primary evidence is that Bryerley never eats or drinks in public. He attempts to x-ray Bryerley to see if he’s flesh and blood or nuts and bolts (using ‘penetradiation’, a canny Asimovian coinage) and catch him out in other ways but nothing succeeds. Once again, Susan Calvin is called on to use her deductive powers of robospsychology to ferret out an errant robot.
It seems kind of obvious which way things are going to go: the story would be a bit of damp squib if Bryerley was thoroughly proved to be human to the satisfaction of all. The problem in the story therefore isn’t so much ‘is Bryerley a robot?’ or even ‘will they figure out Bryerley’s a robot?’ although that latter question drives the plot forward. The real question here is ‘what does it mean if they never figure it out?’
Susan Calvin gives voice to what looks like this story’s conclusions:
‘I like robots. I like them considerably better than I do human beings. Id a robot can be created capable of being a civil executive, I think he’d make the best one possible. By the Laws of Robotics he’d be incapable of harming humans, incapable of tyranny, of corruption, of stupidity, of prejudice. And after he had served a decent term he would leave, even though he were immortal, because it would be impossible for him to hurt humans by letting them know that a robot had ruled them. It would be most ideal.’
Well, this exactly the type of leader Stephen Bryerley turns out to be, finally becoming the first World Co-ordinator when the global government is established in 2044. It’s a kind of nerd’s-eye view of the world, where perfect rationality is equated to perfect goodness. It’s the world of technocratic socialism so artfully described by Francis Spufford in Red Plenty
and one that Asimov would return to in the Foundation series.
Even so, I hesitate to ascribe Susan Calvin’s view here to Asimov. In fact, I hesitate to ascribe it to Susan Calvin because it’s possible that there’s something else going on. Calvin is, after all, a robot psychologist. She’s adept at not just observing and studying robots, but at manipulating them. Perhaps what we’re seeing here is Susan Calvin carefully imprinting on the brain of a being she believes to be a robot a set of values to ensure it operates for the benefit of humanity. She understands better than anyone, perhaps, that a robot is no better than the parameters within which it operates.
On the other hand, maybe it’s just the logical conclusion of the premise laid out in the stories so far, the gradual development of robots from the dog-like loyalty of Robbie in the opening story to the complex reasoning creatures of Liar
and Little Lost Robot
. Regardless of whether it could or would happen in the real world, the logic of the world built by Asimov demands that the robot’s eventual superiority to us is inevitable. Which, is a suitable segue to the final story in this collection…
POST SCRIPT: It occurs to me that if one imagined Bryerley as a black man the story bears some relation to the ‘birther’ movement in America that seeks to discredit Barak Obama by proving he was not born in the USA. Asimov gives no indication about Bryerley’s race, so it’s not hard to imagine. There’s that racial subtext coming up again!