Friday, January 13, 2012

The Positronic Man

The Positronic Man
© 1993 Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg
290 pages

This novel takes me back to high school, where at some point following the release of The Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams, I checked it out and read my very first Asimov. I'd watched enough Star Trek to know that 'positronic' meant that this was about an android, and thought perhaps the movie was based on it. My guess was right: The Positronic Man is an expansion of Asimov's short story, "The Bicentennial Man", just as Nightfall is an Asimov-Silverberg expansion of "Nightfall".  The tale of Andrew Martin, the robot who wanted to become a man, is one of my favorite Asimov stories. Data from The Next Generation may have predisposed  me to being fascinated with the book's theme -- what does it mean to be a human, to be sentient?

After having read Silverberg and Asimov's expansion of "Nightfall", I cannot read the original story without missing the additional content. It seems like only half a story. The Positronic Man is more conservative on that count,  starting and ending at the same points as Asimov's original story. That can scarcely be avoided, as much of the original story took place in the form of a flashback, as Andrew -- preparing for a surgery that will constitute the 'final' leap and give him either the humanity he desires or the welcome release of death -- recounts how he came to be such an usual creature, the being who is far more a robot and yet, not quite a man. The Positronic Man greatly enriches the experience; events which are summarized in a sentence or two in the original story unfold over the course of a chapter, allowing for a great deal more characterization, both on Andrew's part and his human companions This isn't simply a 'lengthier' version of " Bicentennial  Man": the additions, which flow so well from the original text, allow Andrew to truly evolve throughout the course of the book: he matures before our eyes as a character, not just as a robot who abandons metal coverings for pseudo-skin or gains legal standing. The polite, metallic servant introduced in the first chapter slowly grows into a thoughtful man, accomplished in multiple artistic and intellectual fields, driven by the same impulses that motivate us all.

I enjoyed this work tremendously;  while I don't know how much is Silverberg and how much is Asimov's, the result makes my favorite Asimov story even better.

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