The History of the Positronic Robot Stories, 1954-1976

In the mid-1950s, Isaac Asimov was at the top of his form as a science-fiction writer. As one of John Campbell's stable of writers for Astounding Science Fiction in the 1940s, Asimov had slowly risen to prominence, largely on the basis of his short story "Nightfall" and two series of stories, one dealing with robots in the 21st century (the Positronic Robot series) and one with the fall of the Galactic Empire in the distant future (the Foundation series). Asimov had ceased writing stories in the Foundation series in 1949, and when the stories were collected into a set of three books in the early 1950s called the Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation), that, as far as Asimov was concerned, was it for the Foundation series.

However, Asimov had no intention of giving up the Positronic Robot series, even though nine of his robot stories were collected into a book called I, Robot in 1950. When I, Robot appeared, Asimov had two unpublished robot stories on hand. One, "First Law", written in December 1941, had been rejected by Campbell, and had remained unpublished until it appeared in the October 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe. The other, "Flesh and Metal", written in 1949, had appeared in the April 1951 issue of Amazing Science Fiction under the title "Satisfaction Guaranteed". Both stories featured characters from the stories in I, Robot, and they were harbingers of stories to come.

On July 18, 1954, Asimov began "Risk", his first robot story in five years. "Risk" was a sequel to the 1946 story "Little Lost Robot", one of the stories in I, Robot. As in the earlier story, the setting is an asteroid where a research project is under way to perfect faster-than-light travel. The researchers are ready to test a prototype ship, with a robot at the controls. For some reason, the ship fails to make the jump to hyperspace, and one of the technicians from the base is forced (much against his will) to go investigate. Asimov finished the story on August 2, and sent the story to Campbell of Astounding on August 3. Campbell asked for a revision, Asimov complied, and Campbell accepted the story on September 13. "Risk" appeared in the May 1955 issue of Astounding.

Asimov's next robot short story, "Let's Get Together", was based on a suggestion by Howard Bensusan, a graduate student at the medical school where Asimov worked. The story is set in a different future than the stories in I, Robot. In "Let's Get Together", the Cold War between the US and the USSR has continued into the mid-21st century. The American government has uncovered a plot by the Soviets to deal the American scientific community a major blow by smuggling a bomb into a scientific conference. The bomb will be brought in by a dozen androids impersonating various scientists, and if the androids manage to gather together, their proximity to each other will set off the bomb. The problem is to identify which scientists are being impersonated, and prevent them from reaching the conference. Asimov started the story in July 1956, completd it in September, and it appeared in the February 1957 issue of Infinity.

Asimov returned to Susan Calvin of US Robots in a story he began on April 12, 1957. The story, "Galley Slave," was inspired by a conversation Asimov had the day before with Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy Science Fiction. Gold had called Asimov to plead for him to write a story. Asimov answered that he was too busy proofing the galleys of a textbook he was co-writing. Gold suggested that Asimov have someone else proof the galleys. Horrified, Asimov answered, "Impossible! I wouldn't trust anyone else!" That ended the conversation, but on his way back to the galleys, Asimov was inspired by the notion of having a robot to do the galleys. The result was a story in which a professor sues US Robots, claiming that a robot who had proofread his book had made major, detrimental alterations to it. Susan Calvin is able to prove that the professor himself made the alterations in order to discredit the robot. Asimov mailed the story to Gold on April 18, and it appeared in the December 1957 issue of Galaxy.

Susan Calvin also appeared in Asimov's next story, which he wrote while on vacation in Connecticut in mid-August of 1957. In the story, called "What's the Use?", a production line error at US Robots results in a mentally impaired robot. Susan Calvin is given charge of the robot to determine if it can be salvaged. Although Calvin has little success with the robot, she refuses to give up on it. The reason for her stubbornness comes to light when her co-workers hear the robot calling Calvin "Mommie". The story appeared in the January 1958 issue of Infinity under the title "Lenny".

At this point in his writing career, a major change overtook Asimov. He had begun writing science fiction in 1938, and for the next sixteen years, that was all he head written, except for his doctoral dissertation and a few papers in chemical journals. However, beginning in the early 1950s, several events began moving Asimov away from science fiction, and towards science fact. First, once Asimov joined the faculty of Boston University School of Medicine in 1949, he discovered that he was a much better lecturer than researcher. Since writing could be considered a form of lecturing (or so Asimov considered it, at any rate), writing about science would be a viable alternative to conducting research (and would be much more enjoyable). Second, in 1950 Asimov began collaborating with two of his academic colleagues on a biochemistry textbook. Asimov liked the writing, but hated the collaborating, and the experience made him yearn to write his own book on biochemistry. Third, in 1951 Bill Boyd, one of Asimov's textbook collaborators, arranged a lunch meeting between Asimov and Angus Cameron, an editor at Little, Brown to discuss a popular biochemistry book. Both Cameron and his successor, Jane Lawson, turned down the book, but Asimov had enjoyed writing it, and it showed him that he did in fact have a talent for writing nonfiction. Finally, in 1953, Henry Schuman, a publisher of science books for teenagers, approached Bill Boyd to ask him to produce a young-adults version of one of his books. Boyd referred Schuman to Asimov, and Asimov agreed to write a short book on biochemistry for teenagers called The Chemicals of Life. The book was accepted by a successor firm called Abelard-Schuman, and published in 1954.

The Chemicals of Life was Asimov's thirteenth published book. Apart from the biochemistry textbook, the previous twelve had all been science fiction. Twenty of Asimov's first thirty books were fiction. However, by the late 1950s, as Asimov's writing output increased, the ratio of fiction to nonfiction dropped dramatically. After finishing "Lenny", Asimov would not write another Positronic Robot story for twelve years.

By 1968, Asimov had ceased write science fiction spontaneously. If he wrote a story, it would only be because somebody had asked him to write one. In December 1968, Judy-Lynn Benjamin, managing editor of Galaxy and If magazines, suggested that Asimov write a story about a female robot. The suggestion got Asimov thinking, and on January 10, 1969, he began writing a story called "Feminine Intuition". The story takes place after Susan Calvin's retirement from US Robots. Her successor, Clinton Madarian, initiates a project to produce intuitive robots. In order to make the idea more palatable to the general public, the intuitive robots are designed to seem feminine rather than masculine. After five years of work, the intuitive robot is built, and set to the problem of finding habitable planets circling nearby stars. However, both the robot and Madarian die in an accident before they can announce their discovery, and Susan Calvin is called in to try to work out the robot's discovery.

Asimov regarded Benjamin's comment as fortuitous, since Ed Ferman, editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction had earlier asked him for a story for the magazine's 20th anniversary edition, and "Feminine Intuition" was perfect. It eventually appeared in the October 1969 issue of F&SF. However, when Benjamin learned about the story's sale, she was not happy. She said, "You mean you gave Ed Ferman my idea?"

"Did you want it, Judy-Lynn?" said Asimov.

"Of course I wanted it, dummy! Do you think I'm going to waste good ideas on you so other people can get it?"

The next story was the result of two events, one indefinite and one immediate. The indefinite event was a slow but steady stream of letters from readers asking Asimov to write the third novel featuring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. He had started the novel in July 1958 and abandoned it the following October, and had no intention of resuming work on it or starting over. The letters, however, continued to come in. The immediate event was the death of John Campbell on July 11, 1971. His position as editor of Analog eventually went to Asimov's friend and colleague Ben Bova. When he heard that Bova would be the magazine's new editor, Asimov decided to write a story for him. Mindful of the steady stream of letters asking for a third robot novel, he started a story titled "Mirror Image" on October 14, 1971 featuring Baley and Olivaw. In the story, which takes place after The Naked Sun, Olivaw asks Baley to resolve a dispute which has arisen between two Spacer mathematicians traveling by starship to a conference on Aurora. One of the mathematicians has made a revolutionary discovery, which he has shared with the other. Now both men claim to have made the discovery, and each claims the other is trying to steal it from him. Asimov finished the story on October 24, submitted it to Bova on November 4, and it appeared in the May 1972 issue of Analog. Unfortunately, the only response to the story from readers was "Thanks, but we wanted another novel."

The next story resulted from a request from Ed Ferman and Barry Malzberg, who were putting together an anthology of original science fiction stories called Final Stage. The idea was to take a number of common science fiction categories and take them to their logical conclusions. Ferman and Malzberg wanted Asimov to write an "ultimate robot story", and after some hesitation, he agreed. There had always been one aspect of the robot theme that he had never had the courage to tackle, although he and John Campbell had sometimes discussed it. The three laws of robotics define the relationship between robots and human beings, but what makes a human being human in the eyes of a robot? In "...That Thou Art Mindful of Him", set over a century after the death of Susan Calvin, a series of robots are built by US Robots that are so sophisticated that they are able to redefine the definition of human for themselves. In the end, they decide that any reasonable definition of human must also necessarily include robots. Asimov started the story on March 6, 1973, finished it five days later, and it eventually appeared in Final Stage, and also in the May 1974 issue of F&SF.

Asimov's next robot story was written at the request of the Saturday Evening Post. (It is an indication of their changing fortunes that in the 1940s Asimov was unable to sell a story to the Post, but by 1973 the Post was actually soliciting stories from him.) While Asimov was pondering story ideas, his fiancee Janet Jeppson cooked a particularly good dinner, despite having a migraine headache. He wondered idly if her headache had been the reason the dinner was so good, which led him to think of a robot who was out of order, and that was a creative genius as a result. On May 7, 1973 therefore, Asimov wrote a story called "Light Verse" in which a famous artist owns a malfunctioning household robot. The chief engineer of US Robots is a fan of the artist's work, and in order to show his appreciation, he has the artist's robot repaired. It turns out, of course, that the robot had been the artist, and the repairs have eliminated the robot's artistic talent. The Post accepted the story, and it appeared in the September-October 1973 issue.

On August 15, 1974, a woman named Naomi Gordon visited Asimov with an idea for a science-fiction anthology. It would be published in time for the American Bicentennial in 1976, and would feature stories by ten famous science-fiction writers. The stories would all be called "The Bicentennial Man", which would also be the title of the anthology. Asimov said he might participate, and asked Gordon to come back when the matter was more firmly established. He didn't expect to see her again, but on January 27, 1975, she was back, with a story contract and a cash advance. Asimov signed, and on March 2 began work on "The Bicentennial Man". Instead of writing about the American Bicentennial, he decided to write about another 200th anniversary. He came up with the idea of writing a story about a robot who wishes to become human, and who achieves the goal on the 200th anniversary of its/his construction. The story follows the robot, Andrew, from his early days as a nursemaid in the mid-22nd century to a period two centuries later when he has remade himself into a human being. Asimov finished the story on March 14, and mailed it to Gordon, who accepted the story enthusiastically.

A few months later, Asimov was having dinner with his friend Lester del Rey. Del Rey's new wife, none other than Judy-Lynn Benjamin, asked him how it was that he was able to write a story for Gordon's anthology, but not for her.

"Well, Judy-Lynn, the idea of the anthology interested me."

"How about my idea about a robot that had to choose between buying its own liberty and improving its body? I thought you said that was interesting."

"Good Lord, Judy-Lynn, that's right, you did suggest that once. I'm afraid I incorporated something like that in the anthology story."

"Again?! Again you're using my ideas for other people?! Let me see that story. Let me see it!"

"What good will that do, Judy-Lynn? I've given it to Naomi Gordon."

"Don't you know anything, Asimov? That anthology isn't coming out. Write her and you'll see."

Judy-Lynn del Rey was right. The Bicentennial Man had fallen through. Asimov returned Gordon's advance and got the story back, and del Rey published it the following January in her anthology Stellar-2. "The Bicentennial Man" proved to be so popular that the following year it won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novelette of 1976.

Continue to Part 5: 1973-1988

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Johnny Pez