Font to Film: "The Positronic Man" / "Bicentennial Man"

Most people with even a passing interest in science fiction will have heard of Isaac Asimov, a writer responsible for hundreds of books and who created a compellingly intricate fictional universe in which he explores complex cultural issues and delves into the mystery of what it means to be human. He accomplishes the latter primarily through his treatment of robots and artificial intelligence, using synthetic life forms as an effective foil for organic ones. An effective example of this dynamic is The Positronic Man, a 1992 novel co-written by Asimov and Robert Silverberg and based on a 1976 novella by Asimov titled The Bicentennial Man. The 1999 film Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams, is based on both of these works, and all three deal heavily with the theme of emergent humanity.

The Positronic Man is Andrew Martin, who begins his existence as a standard model of household robot, designed to perform various service tasks for the family to which he is assigned. However, it quickly becomes apparent to Andrew’s owners that he is something more than a robot of the sort that exists in Asimov’s universe. He displays a spark of creativity and potential for distinctly non-robotic thinking, traits which excite some of the humans around him and deeply trouble others. As the novel progresses, Andrew himself gains an understanding of his unique nature—and along with it a motivation to forge his own destiny free of the restrictions, both social and technological, which govern his fellow machines. His adoption of the name Andrew (derived from his serial number, NDR-113) ends up having been the first of many increasingly significant steps he takes along the continuum linking robot and human.

The novel presents Andrew’s situation, with all of its paradoxes and intricacies, in a precise and almost technical manner. As a result, it reads almost like an essay on the definition of humanity, with various characters arguing whether or not a machine can truly be said to be alive. Every stumbling block Andrew encounters, from attempting to gain legal recognition of his freedom to wearing clothes for the first time, addresses a small piece of the puzzle that is sentience. Many readers have felt that this leaves the novel feeling coldly clinical in its approach, lacking an emotional punch that one would think would be central to a work dealing with our shared humanity.

Enter Robin Williams, who plays Andrew in Bicentennial Man. The movie addresses the same issues as the book, but the approach is substantially different. While many of the climactic conflicts in the book take place in courtrooms, those in the movie are at weddings and in deathbed conversations. The emotional elements are pushed to the foreground, arguably at the expense of some of the more complex philosophical issues. The performances of the film’s actors, particularly Sam Neill and Oliver Platt, give a somewhat different answer to the question of what makes us human than was found in the book. Unfortunately, many moviegoers found that the film went too far in this direction; Bicentennial Man had a somewhat cool reception, and is generally regarded as having failed to meet the potential of its source material. Nonetheless, it is a heartwarming story in its own right, and worth viewing if for no other reason than to contrast it with Asimov’s version.

The Positronic Man is available to borrow at E.P. Foster Library, as is Bicentennial Man. Please note that both of the previous links will connect you to our new catalog, which has many exciting new search features that can help you find whatever materials you are looking for. If you would like assistance with navigating the new catalog, feel free to call or stop by the library, and remember that you can still access the classic catalog and use it to search the Ventura County Library’s holdings.

 

Carefully assembled by Ronald Martin.