-Spoilers for the Foundation universe. A full index of novels can be found here–
Genre: Tomorrow Fiction/Social SF
Publication Date: 1992
Meet NDR-113: an ordinary household robot just like any other. Meet Andrew: the robot who would wish to be human. Join him on his two-century journey to change not just himself, but the entire world . . .
Expanded from Asimov’s ‘The Bicentennial Man’ and drawing from many of his other Robot stories, The Positronic Man is possibly the greatest robot novel ever written. As with their other two collaborations, Silverberg and Asimov work seamlessly together to expand one of the master’s shorts into a full novel. I’m not all that familiar with Silverberg’s solo work, but I will say that the prose is noticeably different to Asimov’s usual. Though losing none of its clarity, the writing carries an emotional edge even sharper than Asimov’s usual fare.
While told on a suitably epic scale – two centuries, as you may have guessed from its original title – The Positronic Man is very much a personal novel. Certainly Asimov’s most character-driven work. From his earliest moments as a mere servant, through his pursuit for freedom and right up until the end of his quest to become a human being, the novel remains focused on Andrew Martin’s experiences. the wider scope of changes across the Earth are seen through his eyes and, as he cares little for some of them, they are often glossed over. There is a certain element of talking head syndrome as people drop into Andrew’s life to bring him up to speed, but I’ve always liked this as a form of conveying information.
Aside from Andrew, the cast of supporting characters is ever-changing. By its very nature, this is a story of learning to let things go. of saying goodbye to friends and family and making new ones. We see several generations of the Martin family, and multiple leaders of US Robotics and Andrew’s long-term lawyers. Though far less intricately drawn than Andrew himself, these supporting characters feel no less real for their brief appearances.
The comparatively short lifespans of those around him, coupled with Andrew’s own long-term plans, mean this could make for a depressing book. yet it never crosses that line. If anything, The Positronic Man is a story of triumph. Of victory over adversity and the endurance of the human spirit. as with all Asimov’s work, Andrew achieves his goals not through violence, but through intellect, wit and persistence, just as the best human protagonists do. It’s one of the few books I coud read again straight away, and that’s down to the message of hope it brings. Yes it is sad, but never bleak. Andrew Martin’s existence is a testament to human ingenuity, and that is the best message a book can have.
In terms of the larger Foundation universe, this book introduces many of the ideas that will be returned to with the character of R. Daneel Olivaw. Although really, it is Andrew Martin who follows in Daneel’s footsteps, since this was written sometime after Foundation and Earth. The point is that this is chronologically the first real crossover between humans and robotics, which is a key point later in the series, though it will lie in the background for some time yet.
Even more so than the short story that spawned it, The Positronic Man is an absolute classic of the genre, and one that everybody needs to read.