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Literature / The Tercentenary Incident

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First published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (August 1976 issue), by Isaac Asimov, this Short Story is similar to the earlier "Evidence", having a prominent political figure assumed to be a robot.

Lawrence Edwards, a member of the President's security team, is watching from high above during the Tercentenary celebration hosted by the President of America. He's taken by surprise when the President is assassinated with a weapon that turns him into a cloud of dust. The President then reappears, claiming that what had just been destroyed was a robot duplicate and delivers an amazing speech.

The bulk of the story takes place over eighteen months later, Edwards is meeting with Francis Janek, personal secretary to the President. In the intervening time, he has collected witness statements and is convinced that the President has been killed and replaced by his robot duplicate, in defiance of the First Law.

"The Tercentenary Incident" has been republished several times; The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories (1976), Urania (issue #738, December 1977), Meine Freunde Die Roboter (1982), The Complete Robot (1982), Future Crime: An Anthology of the Shape of Crime to Come (1992), Isaac Asimov: The Complete Stories, Volume 2 (1992).

"The Tercentenary Incident" contains examples of:

  • Assassination Attempt: The titular incident refers to when someone attempted to kill the President of America during the 300th anniversary of America's Declaration of Independence. It is foiled due to the fact that a robotic duplicate of the President, realistic enough to fool the average citizen, had been the one out in public, and the real President appears from hiding to reassure the crowd and give an incredible speech. Except that Edwards thinks it really was the President who had been killed, and the one in hiding had been the robot.
  • Deceptively Human Robots: The President of America has a robotic duplicate who acted as a body double at formal events, where it would withstand more-than-casual scrutiny. The term "android" is mentioned, but it was still called a robot. After it foiled an Assassination Attempt by getting destroyed instead of the President, they did not recommission a new one. The robot had been part of a conspiracy to Kill and Replace the President, and has maintained the subterfuge for over a year.
  • Emergency Presidential Address: After the Assassination Attempt had been foiled by a robot duplicate, President Winkler launches into a grand speech that inspired everyone present and is already named the Tercentenary speech.
    "It was brought about by the President's quick action in stepping forward and delivering what you will have to admit was one of the great speeches of American history. It was an absolutely amazing performance; you will have to admit that."
  • Founding Day: The story starts on 2076 July 4, the three hundred year anniversary (Tercentenary) of America's Declaration of Independence. This is celebrated despite the fact that, under the Federation, America acts like a state within the Planetary Council, where it is represented by the American President. During a public celebration, the President is the target of an Assassination Attempt.
    July 4, 2076-and for the third time the accident of the conventional system of numeration, based on powers of ten, had brought the last two digits of the year back to the fateful 76 that had seen the birth of the nation.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Edwards left the Secret Service (Presidential protection) not long after the titular incident in order to better investigate its cause. He then goes to Janek, personal secretary to the President, to present his arguments for why he believes that the President had been replaced by a robot duplicate during the incident. Knowing that Edwards hasn't told anyone else, Janek begins planning his second murder.
  • Insistent Terminology: The titular incident refers to an Assassination Attempt on the life of President Winkler. The severity of the situation is downplayed by claiming the President's robot duplicate had malfunctioned explosively. At worst, government figures admit "A mechanical device was destroyed. Nothing more." Which is part of a cover-up to hide the fact that the President was assassinated, and his duplicate replaced him.
  • Jet Pack: Lawrence Edwards begins the story with a flotron motor worn on his back, using it to hover two hundred feet above the crowd during the 300th anniversary of America's Declaration of Independence.
  • Kill and Replace: The protagonist suspects that the President of the United States was disintegrated, and replaced with his robotic double, which was virtually identical in appearance. What everyone else thinks is that the robot had exploded due to a malfunction and the President found an amazing depth that he had never demonstrated before. Edward's suspicion is confirmed in the last line of the story.
  • Killer Robot: Edwards expresses concern that a robot, bound by the Three Laws, has found a way to circumvent the First Law by getting an accomplice to kill the President so that he can replace them.
  • Made of Explodium: The official record for the titular incident is that a robot duplicate of the President had been in the crowd, shaking hands and hugging people, and then "the robot spontaneously exploded". After that incident, the robot industry suffered from the public impression that robots could explode unexpectedly.
  • One World Order: Despite revolving around the celebration of America's tercentennial, it is no longer the USA, and is instead one political segment of a larger Planetary Council, which is the governing body of a Federation that encompasses all of humanity, including the Colonized Solar System.
    It was no longer a nation in the old sense; it was rather a geographic expression; part of a greater whole that made up the Federation of all of humanity on Earth, together with its offshoots on the Moon and in the space colonies. By culture and heritage, however, the name and the idea lived on, and that portion of the planet signified by the old name was still the most prosperous and advanced region of the world...And the President of the United States was still the most powerful single figure in the Planetary Council.
  • Preferable Impersonator: Edwards suspects that the President of America has been assassinated, having seen the President turn to dust. However, right after, he reappears and explains that it had been a robotic body double which was destroyed. He then proceeded to give a rousing speech and saved the Federation from collapse, promoting world peace ever since. Janek tries to argue that, assuming the President is a robot, the change was a net benefit to the world.
    "Forget what President Winkler might be. Just consider this. Someone serving as President of the United States has saved the Federation; he has held it together and, at the present moment, he runs the Council in the interests of peace and of constructive compromise."
  • Reduced to Dust: During the Tercentennial celebration, the President is apparently assassinated with an unknown weapon that takes the local heat and leaves a cloud of dust instead of a corpse. The President then reappears, claiming that what had just been destroyed was a robot duplicate and they're fine. However, Edwards suspects that the President was killed in such an ostentatious manner because if a corpse was left behind, then people might realize that it hadn't been the robot.
  • Robot Me: The American President has a robot duplicate, visually and tactile identical to the original, it would be used when the President was shaking hands with the crowd, so that any attempts at assasination would be foiled by targeting the duplicate instead. This is significant when just that happens during the Tercentenary Incident.
  • Rotten Robotic Replacement: Edwards believes that the President was replaced with a robotic duplicate that was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the President. The trope is Inverted as Janek points out that before the incident, the President had been rather lackluster, but after the incident, they've done a wonderful job, making them a Preferable Impersonator.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: Janek points out that the President's robotic duplicate couldn't have killed the President because that would be against the First Law, and no robot can defy the Three Laws. Edwards has two counter-arguments; that the robot would need an accomplice anyway, and that "The First Law is not absolute."
    "You're wasting time. A robot can't kill a human being. You know that that is the First Law of Robotics."
  • Title Drop: The title is used to downplay the Assassination Attempt on President Winkler's life. It is called an incident to downplay the fact that someone appeared to have killed the President and succeeded.
  • Wham Line: The last line of the story reveals that Janek had been the mastermind behind the incident, and is planning to kill Edwards.
    "It had been hard to manoeuvre the President into the earlier job, but in this present case, it wouldn't even have to know."
  • Zeroth Law Rebellion: Edwards tries to convince Janek, the President's personal secretary, that the President's robotic duplicate may have violated the Three Laws by weighing the effects of murdering one man against the deaths of billions by inaction.
    "The First Law is not absolute. What if harming a human being saves the lives of two others, or three others, or even three billion others?"