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Literature / The Bicentennial Man

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First published in Stellar #2 (1976), by Isaac Asimov, this Science Fiction Novelette is about Andrew Martin, a Robot Butler, as he pursues his dream of becoming human.

The story starts In Medias Res, with Andrew arranging a surgery that will affect the last robotic organ in his body. Then we return to his earliest days, working in the Martin household, with "Sir and Ma'am and Miss and Little Miss." During this time, he was a Robot Butler and lady's maid, a household staff of one for a politician in the World Council. He spent many decades in their service, but his quirks became apparent early on, as he surprises everyone by carving sculptures.

As time passes, the Martin children grow up and leave the house. Little Miss helps Andrew convince Sir that he should be free, and Andrew uses the money from his art to purchase a house and freedom from the family. He goes on to be a famous writer, and then a designer of life-like prosthetics. At every step of the journey, he works with the law firm Feingold and Martin. They help protect him in legal struggles, especially against United States Robots, which hates his unusual quirks and creative ability, because they represent a lack of predictability.

Andrew designs the prosthetics to more closely imitate human life, but his dream of becoming human is blocked by his positronic brain. The World Congress refuses to recognize a robot as "human", despite being more organic-based than the average person.

"The Bicentennial Man" has been republished in anthologies by a dozen other editors, as well as a dozen of anthologies where Dr Asimov acted as editor, such as the following books; The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories (1976), Opus 200 (1979), The Complete Robot (1982), Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots and Computers (1984), The Hugo Winners: Volume 4: 1976-1979 (1985), Opus 200 (1989), The Asimov Chronicles: Fifty Years of Isaac Asimov (1989), Robot Visions Collection (1990), War With The Robots: 28 of the Best Short Stories by the Greatest Names in 20th Century Science Fiction (1992), The Complete Stories, Volume 2 (1992), and The Super Hugos (1992).

The story was expanded into the 1992 novel The Positronic Man, co-written with Robert Silverberg. The 1999 film Bicentennial Man was based on the novel and novelette.

"The Bicentennial Man" contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: This story, published in 1976, imagines a One World Order in charge of a Colonized Solar System, clothing with static electric clasps (instead of zippers or velcro), as well as the proliferation of sentient robots that serve humans.
  • The Ageless: Robots do not age, and can conceivably be immortal. When Andrew finds that this is the biggest obstacle to his desire to become human, he immediately schedules a surgery to correct this and dies after being recognized as a Bicentennial Man.
  • A.I. Is a Crapshoot: It is clear that United States Robots sees Andrew Martin as an example where a robot's individual quirks are unwanted malfunctions in the design. They take several steps to reduce the possibility of a similar "error" happening again.
  • Androids Are People, Too: Andrew Martin is the titular character, and was manufactured to be a household robot. As the story progresses, he becomes more and more humanlike, both emotionally and physically. He is recognized for his long "life" as the Sesquicentennial Robot, but this is not sufficient for Andrew and he continues to develop technology that renders him physically indistinguishable from a human. Just before his death, the World Court recognizes him as a Bicentennial Man.
  • Arbitrarily Large Bank Account: The Martin family is already rich, but when they start selling Andrew's creations, he becomes incredibly rich. He is taking orders years in advance and doesn't have to worry about the cost of anything. This is used as a way to avoid setting specific prices on anything.
  • Artificial Limbs: In order to become more human, Andrew Martin designs more and more prosthetics. He starts with a simple stomach system and builds more from there, with realistic skin, and eventually sophisticated organs. He replaces all of his metal with organic imitations.
  • Become a Real Boy: Andrew Martin was originally an NDR model robot, but he wanted to become human for many years. The line that finally convinces the World Congress to grant him recognition as a human is when he alters his platinum-iridium positronic brain so that its potential will slowly drain away, killing him.
  • Big Fancy House: The Martin family has a large residence due to Sir being a rich man working for the Regional Legislature. Even more impressive in the movie where you can see it (Dr Asimov's Beige Prose gets in the way of Spectacle like this).
  • Colonized Solar System: Not much is mentioned regarding how extensively colonies have developed, but the one on the moon hosts tourist destinations and an active art scene.
  • Continuity Nod: Chapter 13 strongly implies that this story takes place in the same continuity as I, Robot, because the Robertson family name is still in charge of the corporation (although it is now Smythe-Robertson), and there's a hologram of Susan Calvin on the wall, a reminder to everyone at US Robotics of the corporation's first Chief Robopsychologist.
  • Creative Sterility: Robots are expected to be unable to make art, and when Andrew demonstrates his ability to carve wood into beautiful art, it is taken as something unique to him. The Martin household loves it, while US Robots is less pleased when they learn about it.
  • Cybernetics Eat Your Soul: As part of their legal strategy for Andrew, the titular robot, his law firm, Feingold and Martin, tries to argue that replacing body parts with prosthetics makes people lose their humanity. They intend to lose every case, but they reach a bottleneck where the World Court claims that the brain is what makes one human, even as they say no other organ matters.
  • The Darkness Before Death: In the last chapter, Andrew's vision is turning gray as it fades, and the last person he sees before dying is Li-Hsing. After his vision fades, the narration leaves his perspective and returns to an objective description to state that Andrew whispers "Little Miss" with his last breath, despite the fact that she died over a century ago.
  • Death Means Humanity: Andrew realizes that his agelessness is the one barrier to being recognized as human, because humans can accept their own mortality so long as it's universal. He has a deadly flaw added to his positronic brain, is finally named human by the World Court, and dies within the year.
  • Deceptively Human Robots: Andrew learned enough about robotics and biology to make himself appear almost perfectly human. Over the course of two centuries, he started to wear clothes, design Artificial Limbs to require food and drink, and modified himself enough that other robots started to treat him as human. This is because Andrew Martin wants to be human, and he achieves humanity by designing a replacement brain to kill himself in violation of the Third Law.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The narration refers to the original members of the Martin household by the honorifics that Andrew called them, instead of by their names, which Andrew knew. Sir is Gerald Martin and Little Miss is Amanda Laura Martin, while Ma'am and Miss are never named.
  • Failure Gambit: In order to create precedent for Andrew Martin being considered a human being, the law office of Feingold and Martin starts taking cases where they argue that replacing body parts with prosthetics make people lose their humanity, but they want to lose their arguments because they're trying to open the door to precedent that Andrew Martin is human, despite his inorganic nature.
    They instituted a lawsuit denying the obligation to pay debts to an individual with a prosthetic heart on the grounds that the possession of a robotic organ removed humanity, and with it the constitutional rights of human beings. They fought the matter skillfully and tenaciously, losing at every step but always in such a way that the decision was forced to be as broad as possible, and then carrying it by way of appeals to the World Court.
  • Fictional Field of Science: Andrew initially names his creation of Artificial Limbs "robobiology", but as other people study his designs, it became known as prosthetology instead. It refers to the creation of extremely life-like prosthetics, equivalent to Deceptively Human Robots.
  • Finale Title Drop: The phrase "bicentennial man" shows up at the end of the penultimate chapter, in a heartfelt recognition of Andrew's very human life.
    With mankind watching, the World President said, "Fifty years ago, you were declared The Sesquicentennial Robot, Andrew." After a pause, and in a more solemn tone, he continued, "Today we declare you The Bicentennial Man, Mr. Martin."
  • The Fog of Ages: The main character used to be an NDR-model robot, but he doesn't remember which model number. This forgetfulness was deliberate, as he could have remembered, but he was built two centuries ago and he prefers his In-Series Nickname, Andrew Martin.
  • Generational Saga: In this story, the Martin family is used to indicate the passing of decades. Andrew was purchased by Sir, the first-generation Martin. As he helps raise the second generation, including Little Miss, he develops unique quirks, and Sir goes to the law firm of Feingold to ensure that Andrew can collect money for his artwork. When the third generation arrives, in the form of Little Sir (Little Miss's son), Andrew asks Sir for his freedom. Little Sir, whose name is George Martin, becomes a lawyer, then senior partner, for Feingold, and it is renamed to Feingold and Martin. Andrew continues his work, even as George dies and is replaced by the younger Paul Feingold. By the end of the story, Andrew is the only Martin left alive.
  • Good Old Robot: The Martin family's Robot Butler is owned outright, while United States Robots typically only leases robots. They're offended by the Martin family's decision to keep, and eventually free, their robot. To prevent other robots from turning out like Andrew, they scrap robots after twenty-five years, they start to separate the brain and bodies of robots, and they make robots more narrowly-focused instead of the more general intelligence that Andrew qualifies as.
  • How We Got Here: The first chapter has Andrew Martin at the surgeon's office to arrange for his final prosthetic. The robot doctor objects to the operation because it would kill a human, so Andrew reveals that he isn't human. The next chapter begins with his early days in the Martin household as a Robot Butler.
  • Immortality Immorality: While discussing how to convince popular opinion to agree that Andrew is human, he's told that the immortal (or at least, indefinitely sustainable) positronic brain marks him as being too different from humanity to be considered a member. After he undergoes surgery that will make it break down (introducing mortality), people are practically falling over themselves to officially recognize Andrew Martin as a human being.
  • In-Series Nickname: Little Miss is the first one to call their NDR model Robot Butler "Andrew". He's eventually called "Andrew Martin", especially after he gains his freedom.
  • Insistent Terminology: After Andrew starts to behave more as a human, instead of the robot he started as, he becomes determined to be called "human"; almost everyone else continue to label him a robot (e.g. "The Sesquicentennial Robot"), particularly U.S. Robotics. Andrew then enlists the aid of a legal team in an attempt to find out what it would take to make the shift from "Robot" to "Human" in a series of test cases before the World Court.
  • Just a Machine: The default of any human is to assume that Andrew is just a machine. As he develops a unique personality and experiences, he finds that each generation of humanity can only be pushed so far before being unwilling to see him become more human. He couldn't even contemplate wearing clothes while Sir was alive and only started wearing them on a regular basis after Little Miss died. Each step of legal freedom that he seeks is thwarted, not by anyone specifically, but by the general resentment of humanity against the idea that Androids Are People, Too.
  • Miraculous Malfunction: It's noted that Andrew was the result of a production error. US Robots tightens their controls as a result to prevent it happening again, since expressive robots who want to be human are bad for business.
  • Mourning a Dead Robot: Andrew Martin, formally known as an NDR series robot, spent nearly his entire life trying to be recognized as human. He is lauded for his long "life" as the Sesquicentennial Robot. He is not awarded the title of "human" until he is dying of technology that renders him physically indistinguishable from a human.
  • No Antagonist: This story is a Person vs Society conflict, with Andrew Martin's 200 year quest to become human being thwarted by humanity in general being apathetic at best to his dreams, and often actively resentful that he'd demand to be treated as an equal. Even the incident with the youths serves more to illustrate how society doesn't respect Andrew's rights than to build conflict.
  • No New Fashions in the Future: While the exact traits of the fashion are left unsaid, it is made explicit that over the many decades, fashions do change. Andrew prefers to wear clothes that approximate what was in style when he started wearing clothes even when they're over a century out of date, and Chairman Li-hsing goes from a transparent outfit to more conservative clothes to reflect her age.
  • Once More, with Clarity: In chapter 1, Andrew is visiting a surgeon to request an operation be done on him. Then the rest of the story happens, and between chapters 20 and 21 is "1. (reprise)", where we see Andrew with the same surgeon, continuing the original scene.
  • One World Order: Like many other stories in the Robot Series, America's form of government has expanded to encompass the entire world. Sir is a member of the Regional Legislature, while there also exists a World Legislature, World Court, and World President.
  • Orwellian Retcon: According to Bicentennial Man And Other Stories, when Judy Lynn Del Rey had included it in Stellar #2, she had revised several things in the story. However, Dr Asimov restored it to his final draft when including it in his own collection. Future printings continued to use Asimov's version.
  • Professor Guinea Pig: When Andrew invents new sorts of prosthetics, he is doing it to make a more human-like body for himself. He owns the patents, but arranges for a leasing agreement with US Robots, provided they install the prosthetics into his body first. He's motivated to Become a Real Boy and making his body more organic in nature is part of that.
  • Protagonist Title: The title refers to Andrew Martin, who lives just over two hundred years, and is declared a human being during his "birthday" celebration.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The title and inspiration of the story came from the Unites States celebrating its own Bicentennial in 1976.
  • Remote Body: After Andrew requests that his robot body be upgraded to a more human-like body, US Robots starts to manufacture robots with their positronic brains separate from their robot bodies, similar to the DV series from "Catch That Rabbit". Sir considers this a sign of reactionary backtracking as they try to avoid getting more robots that want their bodies replaced.
  • Robot Maid: Andrew was purchased from US Robots to act as a valet and housekeeper for the Martin family household, including childcare. Even as the children grew up and left the home, he continued his tasks until grandchildren began to appear, at which point he asked to purchase his freedom.
  • Robot Names: The robot in this story is part of the NDR series, although he cannot recall what those numbers are after all these years.
  • Servant Race: The Three Laws of Robotics practically guarantee the loyalty and dedication of robots to humanity, but when Andrew asks to be freed from his indentured service, it causes quite a legal commotion to imagine that a household appliance might seek its freedom.
    "The word 'freedom' has no meaning when applied to a robot. Only a human being can be free."
  • Spoiler Title: Thanks to the title, we know that Andrew becomes a man and lives to be 200 years old.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: This story, after quoting the Three Laws for the audience, shows how more complex robots can take a more nuanced view. Andrew starts off unable to ask for basic rights because he fears hurting humans. He learns "tough love" and how to threaten people into behaving themselves. He starts off obeying every order, and ends by giving orders to human beings. The Third Law takes the greatest beating, as Andrew decides to undergo a surgery that will cause him to rapidly decay/die. He agrees to it because, otherwise, he'd have to give up his dream of becoming human.
    "I have chosen between the death of my body and the death of my aspirations and desires. To have let my body live at the cost of the greater death is what would have violated the Third Law."
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The protagonist is a robot, who can quite literally live forever by repairing himself whenever necessary. However, he wants to be human. He develops cybernetic prosthetics and replacement body parts that bring him closer and closer to that goal, but he's told that popular opinion will never accept an immortal as an equal. Therefore, he breaks the Third Law by designing a prosthetic brain that will decay quickly, ensuring that he will die like any other human, rather than live forever as a robot. After making this choice, the World President announces that he is The Bicentennial Man.

Alternative Title(s): Bicentennial Man