Tuesday, 31 March 2009

4. Isaac Asimov - 'The Segregationist' (1967)

'The surgeon said stolidly, 'To me, it is a matter of the fitness of things.''
(Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot, 1995, p.158)

There are of course parallels with racial segregation, restricted as it had been by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The distinction, in this science fiction tale, is between the human and the robot. This story was selected as episode 3 of the A Bite of Stars, A Slug of Time series on Resonance FM, the first series of which was focused on science fiction between 1935-65. It concerns a sixty year-old Senator who wishes to take on robotic features through an operation replacing his worn-out heart with a metallic one. Society more broadly is only sketched in; with robots, or 'Metallos', recently having been granted citizenship and thus gaining more cachet in the eyes of humanity. Whether the robot is a class or race metaphor is not necessarily important; Asimov leaves it up to the reader.

The twist in the tale is right at the end - that the surgeon turns out to be a robot himself. In itself, neatly worked up to, and on a second read (or listen, as I read it first myself and then played the ABOS broadcast on MP3) the knowledge allows one to pick up more of Asimov's playfulness with his Laws of Robotics.

There is thus an odd fierceness from this metallo who develops a thesis perceived as logical, that ends almost passionate: that humanity and robots should maintain their own unique identities and not develop as hybrids between the two. The human (?) MedEng (something of a mouthful of a character name!) sees the potential of hybridisation to be positive - the best elements of both could be combined - whereas the surgeon believes that such a creation would be nothing in itself, a fabrication without any of the good points of either.

Asimov's prose and narrative style is straightforward compared to the others I have read so far; it lacks that element of the macabre or absurd conjured at different times in the previous three stories. One is not thrown off-balance in quite the same way; the subtext is made plain in the story's nomenclature, and the twist is intended for gently comic as well as for philosophical effect. As a short-story it is not especially gripping, yet exerts a methodical pull in its empirical way. If Dahl could be characterised as a sardonic anarchist, Barthelme a media-cultural theorist channelling Kafka and HPL as a purveyor of the unutterable, then Asimov is by comparison a staunch rationalist. It is chiefly interesting for the way that Asimov suggest cracks in the facade of his Three Laws of Robotics; the metallic surgeon can be seen to be struggling with the ambiguities implicit in Law One: 'A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.'


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