The Bicentennial Man is a collection of short stories curated by Asimov himself, with a bit of a background for each story and how they were commissioned. So the collection, is nothing new and has appeared in other publications before, but they are collated into one under Bicentennial Man. There are common underlying themes of AI here, but a few of the stories are oddballs.
Like any other sci-fi short stories in this format, there are some brilliant ones, average ones and some which are just plain page fillers. Some reviewers have mentioned that two of the best short stories of robotics are in this book, a claim that I wouldn’t believe easily but after having read “That Thou Art Mindful of Him” and “The Bicentennial Man”, it’s hard to argue. These two stories are better than any of the stories that I remember in I, Robot.
Regardless of what I think of Asimov’s flaws in his prose — that his characters are one-dimensional, his sci-fi can be more sci than fi, I still admire the questions he raise through the means of literature, that even to this day, scientists are still trying to keep up. Fiction, after all, can be a pursuit for truth. Sci-fi falls comfortably in the middle of that Venn diagram. Every sci-fi fans are familiar and can recite Asimov’s laws of robotics by now, but I admire his pursuit to further find holes on these laws that he conjured, and it makes for great fiction.
The two stories that I pointed here are about robots, but in an equal sense, it asks the quintessential question in literature: what is man? In “That Thou Art”, the laws of robotics are stripped to its most bare basics in order to allow the build of robot animals to restore the human ecosystem. At the same time, robots can internalise the behaviour and values of man which can make them superior to other humans — a scary implication.
In the Bicentennial Man, the flaws of the laws are exposed and studied. Some of these resolutions require legal solutions. For example, that a robot can be ordered by any human, even without purpose to its own destruction. Human beings, by nature, are apprehensive of robots regardless of the robot’s intention. The multi-faceted arguments for and against the laws of robotics are studied deepest in this story. While “That Thou Art” paints the potential threat, “Bicentennial Man” argues for the potential rights of robots — Perhaps a day we will never see in real life.
But what is man? If a robot can command another robot as a human, then any life forms that appear as a human with a human voice can be considered as a human. If the values of a robot is more humanly agreeable than a man’s than does that make the robot more human than us, and we are just angry hormones trying to make do? These questions are difficult, and still being tossed around to this day, almost fifty years after the publication of the book. But technology is progressing faster than we’d like right under our noses, and we will have to answer these questions rather than later.
I do regret that the rest of the book is not as memorable. There is an underlying theme here of the role of politics and public opinion which rear their heads in every one of these stories. But if sci-fi is trying to imitate reality, politics and public opinion are relevant issues that need to be asked. Science, after all, will have to run on money from somewhere, and often it is the public perception which decides where the money goes, what should be developed.
There are only a couple of other stories that I like in The Bicentennial Man — “The Winnowing”, which is eerily similar to the premise of Brave New World and the cleverly written “The Tercentenary Incident” about an assassination of a robot president. The others, I regret to say, are forgettable.