The Bicentennial Man

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"The Bicentennial Man" is a short story written by Isaac Asimov and first published in 1976. The short story inspired the 1999 film Bicentennial Man. "The Bicentennial Man" revolves around the efforts of an android to become human, including the technological and cultural hurdles he must face to do so. As the title suggests, the android achieves this on the two-hundredth anniversary of its construction, at which point the World Congress declares it a human.

Contents

Plot

After the wealthy Martin family purchases an android from United States Robots and Mechanical Men, they soon discover that the android -- affectionately called Andrew -- has the capacity for creativity, particularly with carpentry. The patron of the family encourages Andrew, starting a trust fund with the earning the android brings in from his woodworking. As time goes on, Andrew's robotic body is upgraded, but his unique "positronic pathways" were left unmodified. Eventually, Andrew buys his freedom from the Martin family, and the World Court upholds his right to freedom, reasoning that a being that can truly understand freedom is entitled to it.

Andrew continues working from a small house built for him by the Martins. Sometime after one of the Martin daughters gives birth to a son George, the Martin patriarch dies with Andrew at his side. After this time, Andrew begins wearing clothing, soon discovering that some humans are offended at his attempts at appearing human himself. George, having become a lawyer and entering politics, brings test cases to court to establish laws forbidding the unnecessary destruction of robots on Andrew's behalf. George is successful, but shortly after his mother -- to whom Andrew had been close -- dies.

George's son Paul, himself also a lawyer, arranges a meeting between US Robots and Mechanical Men and Andrew, during which Andrew negotiates a contract to have his body upgraded to one that more closely resembled a human, complete with human-like skin. As a next step in his intellectual career after writing a book on the history of robots, Andrew begins studying robobiology, or the study of robots in humanoid form. Following Paul's death, Andrew confronts US Robots and Mechanical Men again, requesting that they install in him various prosthetic organ of his own design. If they refuse, Andrew threatens to market the prosthetics with the aid of the Martin family's law firm (extant but without a Martin), knowing that the prosthetics can be used to extend human lifespans.

Andrew becomes recognized in the scientific community for his inventions, and the field of prosthetology blooms from its robobiology origins, of which Andrew himself was the progenitor. A special dinner is held in honor of Andrew on his one hundred and fiftieth "birthday," during which he is titled the "Sesquicentennial Robot." Andrew emigrates to the Moon to conduct further work on prosthetics, finding that robots and humans alike respect him as though he were a man. In a bid to be declared human, Andrew, his lawyers, and various politicians friendly to Andrew's cause try to shift public opinion toward robots by raising legal cases involving prosthetics.

Realizing that his immortality, specifically that of his brain, sets him apart form humans, Andrew elects to have surgery done on his positronic pathways that ensures they will rapidly degrade. With this poignant act swaying the World Congress, the World President announces on the two hundredth anniversary of Andrew's construction that his is the "Bicentennial Man." Andrew, now recognized as a human being, dies soon after, whispering his nickname for one of the Martin daughters just before his death.

Thematic connections to other works

Human enough

The driving force behind "The Bicentennial Man" can easily be explained through the idea of "human enough." Andrew, after associating with humans long enough and exploring his own humanity, began probing the limits of the definition of human. His goal was to determine what "being human" means, with the ultimate end of making himself fit that definition. Throughout his life, Andrew's attempts at being "human enough" to be considered a human become more and more involved. For instance, he starts wearing clothing because doing so is a hallmark of humanity. Finally, Andrew elects to have surgery that will irreparably damage his brain because humans are not immortal. The entire story, then, is Andrew's journey in meeting society's standards of human enough. According to Asimov, this standard includes both intellectual and biological criteria.

This theme is encountered throughout many works of cyberpunk. In particular, Sherry Turkle has considered the issue of how humans tend to treat machines as humans, fearing that modern society's threshold for "human enough" is very low. Moreover, He, She and It dwells extensively on this theme in its exploration of the emotional and physical interactions between the cyborg Yod and his human compatriots.

This theme is most strikingly also seen in the universe of Schismatrix. Virtually nobody resembles an actual human, everyone possessing various enhancements, modifications, and degrees of immortality. The question of what constitutes "humanity" in the absence of a human body pervades both Schismatrix and "The Bicentennial Man".

Separation of mind and body

A subtle theme introduced in Neuromancer was the division between mind and body, and specifically whether an entity can be considered human without a body. The humanity of The Dixie Flatline was always brought into question because, although The Flatline could interact with Case as though he were human, he was physically only a piece of ROM. Similarly, "The Bicentennial Man" clearly considers this issue, but instead of leaving the matter open to the reader like Gibson did, Asimov asserts a definite position. Throughout Andrew's life, he continually upgrades his body, keeping up with advancing robotics technology and eventually prosthetics technology as well. However, the Martin bloodline and Andrew himself continually caution those performing the upgrades that his positronic pathways -- his brain -- must stay intact. Asimov is suggesting to the reader here that Andrew is defined by his mind, not by his body. At the same time, though, one of Andrew's goals to further his transformation into a human was including biological components in his body. Almost in contradiction with his previous message, Asimov seems to intimate that although it does not define a person, the body does define a human.

Schismatrix also wrestles with the separation of mind and body throughout the entire novel as post humanity begins to emerge. Lindsay starts the novel as a champion of Preservationism, a movement that Sterling uses to suggest that aggressively modifying the human body and mind leads to the loss of some aspect of the human identity. That is, by bodily transforming themselves into posthumans, the denizens of Schismatrix are no longer human. In this way, a clear connection is forged between the body and the mind: changes in the body result lead to a change in a person's identity, and thus a change in their mind.

Mortality

In Schismatrix, the loss of mortality serves an indicator that the posthuman is emerging. Throughout the novel, as Lindsay's life is extended further and further beyond that of a "natural" human, his understanding of existence and his place in the Universe change; as a result, Lindsay himself becomes something other than human. In this way, humanity and mortality are equated. In "The Bicentennial Man," a similar equation is formed. The final act of Andrew Martin is to sabotage his own brain so that he may die just as all humans must die. Interestingly, a strange parallel can be drawn between Schismatrix and Asimov's short story: Lindsay escapes mortality in an effort to transcend humanity, while Andrew seeks mortality in an effort to join humanity.

See also

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