The History of the Positronic Robot and Foundation Stories

Part 1: 1940-1941

Over the course of the 1940s, a young science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov created two series of stories that would form the basis for his reputation as one of the top practitioners of his field. These were the Positronic Robot series and the Foundation series.

The Positronic Robot series, the earlier of the two, began in 1940 with the publication of "Strange Playfellow" in the September issue of Super Science Stories. Asimov had written the story, originally titled "Robbie," in May 1939.

The story had its origins in one of the oldest cliches of the science fiction field: the Rogue Robot Plot. From medieval stories of the Golem, through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Karl Capek's "R.U.R.", the standard plot of the robot story had become fixed. A mad scientist works obsessively to create an artificial man, ignoring the dark forebodings of his nearest and dearest. Once the artificial man is created, it quickly escapes the mad scientist's control, destroying him and possibly others as well before finally being destroyed itself. With rare exceptions, this plot was repeated in every robot story published in the science fiction magazines Asimov read in the 1930s.

Asimov came to detest the Rogue Robot Plot for a number of reasons. From a technical standpoint, he found it unbelievable that a robot would be constructed without built-in safeguards as other machines were. From a literary standpoint, he grew weary of seeing the same plot repeated ad nauseum. And philosophically, he disagreed with the Rogue Robot Plot's theme that There Are Some Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.

Given all this, it was inevitable that once Asimov began writing for publication, he would write a robot story of his own for the specific purpose of attacking the Rogue Robot Plot. In "Robbie," the title character is a robot who functions as a nursemaid for a little girl. The girl's mother exhibits the same dark forebodings as the mad scientist's nearest and dearest in the Rogue Robot stories. In "Robbie," however, she is opposed not by an obsessive, hubris-filled scientist, but by her own husband, who points out reasonably (though in vain) that Robbie "can't help being faithful and loving and kind. He's a machine--made so." Far from menacing the little girl, as the standard Rogue Robot would, Robbie saves her life, and in the end the girl's mother comes to accept Robbie (albeit grudgingly).

Asimov submitted "Robbie" to John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who promptly rejected it. The story was rejected by every other editor who saw it until Asimov's friend Frederik Pohl became the editor of two new magazines called Super Science Stories and Astonishing Stories. Pohl accepted "Robbie", eventually publishing it and seven more of Asimov's early stories in the two magazines.

Asimov's next robot story was inspired in part by the success of a series of five stories written by John Campbell in the mid-1930s, featuring two popular characters named Penton and Blake. The fifth story Asimov ever wrote, "Ring Around the Sun," had featured two pilots for United Space Mail named Turner and Snead. At the time, he fully intended to write other stories featuring the two, but inspiration for a second story never struck. Two years later, in 1940, Asimov wrote a story called "Reason" which featured two interplanetary field agents for US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. named Powell and Donovan. In the story, the two men are confronted with a robot that refuses to believe it was created by humans. Knowing that Campbell was fascinated by religion, Asimov added a religious dimension to the story by having the robot decide that it was actually created by a supreme being; it is to this supreme being, rather than the humans, that the robot decides it owes allegiance. Asimov submitted the story to Campbell on November 18; Campbell accepted it, and it appeared in the April 1941 issue of Astounding. Asimov also intended to write more stories featuring Powell and Donovan, and in this case, he achieved his ambition.

Powell and Donovan, however, were fated to be overshadowed by a character from Asimov's third robot story, "Liar!" That story involves a robot that, due to a manufacturing glitch, is able to read minds. The robot is given into the care of Dr. Susan Calvin, a plain, lonely robopsychologist at US Robots who is attracted to a handsome co-worker named Milton Ashe. The robot assures Calvin that Ashe is likewise attracted to her, but Calvin eventually learns (to her embarrassment) that he is not. The robot lied to Calvin because it, like all robots, is programmed to prevent humans from being injured, and Calvin was suffering emotional distress from her unrequited love.

Asimov's discussions with Campbell about this story led the two of them to work out the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human, or allow a human to be injured.
  2. A robot must follow any order given by a human that doesn't conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect itself unless that would conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Campbell accepted the story almost as soon as Asimov submitted it, and it appeared in the May 1941 Astounding.

An interesting question concerning Susan Calvin, which to the best of my knowledge has never been raised, was whether Asimov actually intended for her to be a continuing character. Four years would pass before she appeared in another story, and that would be in the fourth Powell/Donovan story, "Escape".

In the summer of 1941, Asimov wrote a fourth robot story, "Source of Power". Once again, Asimov's target was the Rogue Robot Plot; this time, the weapon he used against it was satire. In the story, a robot designed to work in a lunar mining colony wanders away from the US Robots plant in New York. The mere sight of the robot walking quietly along the streets is enough to terrify everyone it encounters. Meanwhile, the robot is mildly puzzled at the difference between the verdant countryside it finds itself in and the lunar landscape it was programmed for. When it asks passers-by for assistance, the only response it receives is panicked screams.

"Source of Power" was not as strong a story as "Reason" and "Liar!", as Asimov was well aware. Knowing that Campbell would reject the story, Asimov instead sent it to Thrilling Wonder Stories. When Thrilling Wonder rejected it, Asimov tried Amazing Stories, which accepted it on October 8. The story appeared in the February 1942 issue of Amazing under the title "Robot AL-76 Goes Astray".

While working on "Source of Power", Asimov visited Campbell on August 1, 1941. During the subway ride, Asimov came up with the idea of writing a future-historical story; that is, a story about a far future time written as though it were a historical novel. Asimov had first encountered the future-historical form in 1931, when Charles R. Tanner's "Tumithak of the Corridors" appeared in the January 1932 issue of Amazing. Asimov himself had written a future-historical story called "Pilgrimage" in March 1939. He had submitted four different versions of "Pilgrimage" to Campbell over the spring and summer of 1939, and they had all been rejected. Asimov eventually published the story in the Spring 1942 issue of Planet Stories under the title "Black Friar of the Flame", but in the meantime he wanted to have another try at a future-historical. He suggested to Campbell that he write a story against the background of the slow fall of the Galactic Empire, from the point of view of someone looking back from the era of the Second Galactic Empire. Campbell loved the idea, and after two hours of discussion Asimov had agreed to write a whole series of stories dealing with the fall of the First Galactic Empire and the rise of the Second.

The first story in the series, "Foundation", would set up the situation. In the story, Hari Seldon, a scientist in the dying days of the First Galactic Empire, perfects a technique that allows him to mathematically predict the fall of the Empire, and to determine what steps he must take to cushion that fall. Fifty years later, a group of scientists in a colony founded by Seldon find themselves cut off from the rest of the galaxy. They soon learn that they are not, as they thought, compiling an encyclopedia, but instead are destined to form the nucleus of a second Empire, which will rise a thousand years in the future. From time to time, their descendants will find themselves in a state of crisis, when only a single course of action will enable them to survive. The series of stories would follow the colony as it went from crisis to crisis. The first crisis the colony faced was the threat of annexation by the more powerful, newly independent Kingdom of Anacreon.

"Pilgrimage" was clearly still on Asimov's mind when he wrote "Foundation". The latter story shares the galaxy-wide scope and far-future setting of "Pilgrimage", and several of the planets mentioned in "Pilgrimage", including Santanni, Trantor and Vega, are also mentioned in "Foundation". Asimov submitted "Foundation" on September 8, 1941; Campbell accepted it on the 15th, and the story appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding.

Asimov had written several earlier stories featuring a galaxy-wide civilization, notably "Homo Sol" and "The Hazing". Those stories had featured a multispecies Galactic Federation of which humanity was the newest addition. In the course of writing and submitting those stories, as well as others featuring alien races, Asimov learned of Campbell's insistence that humans should always be superior to other races in some way. It was clear to Asimov that Campbell's own views on race were the source of the imperative: just as whites were superior to other humans, so humans had to be superior to any alien race. Asimov didn't share Campbell's views, and he didn't want his stories to reflect them, even allegorically. (In the robot stories, the problem didn't exist. Campbell didn't mind if robots were superior to humans.) For the falling Galactic Empire in "Foundation", however, Asimov chose to sidestep Campbell's racial views by creating a galaxy-wide civilization with no alien races -- a galaxy inhabited only by humans.

Asimov ended "Foundation" with a cliffhanger; the main character simply remarks that the solution to the first crisis facing the colony is "obvious as all hell!" without revealing what that solution is. Asimov was confident that he would be able to write a sequel to the story in time for its inclusion in the next issue of Astounding. He was so confident, in fact, that he put off the "Foundation" sequel in favor of another Positronic Robot story.

Having established the Three Laws of Robotics in "Liar!", Asimov was able to make use of them to generate the plot of his next story, "Runaround". Powell and Donovan are assigned to reactivate a mining colony that was established and abandoned ten years before on the day side of Mercury. Donovan's careless order to their robot, to collect a mineral for use in the mining colony's life-support system, causes a conflict in the robot between the Second and Third Laws. The two men have to somehow resolve the conflict before the colony's life-support system goes down.

Asimov submitted "Runaround" to Campbell on October 20, 1941, and it was accepted the same day. It appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding. On the 24th, he began work on the "Foundation" sequel, "Bridle and Saddle". All went well with the story until Asimov visited Campbell on the 27th. Campbell's first words to Asimov were "I want that Foundation story," and the pressure this put Asimov under resulted in total writer's block. It wasn't until Asimov was able to discuss his troubles with his friend Pohl on November 2 that the block lifted and he was able to resume work. He finished the story on November 16 and submitted it to Campbell the next day. Campbell read it and bought it on the spot, and it appeared on schedule in the June 1942 issue of Astounding.

"Bridle and Saddle" picks up the Foundation's history thirty years after the first story. The Foundation has surmounted the threat of annexation by the Kingdom of Anacreon by persuading Anacreon's neighbors that the addition of the Foundation will leave Anacreon too powerful for them. Anacreon is forced to back down from the combined threat of the neighboring kingdoms. Over the course of the next thirty years, the Foundation provides scientific aid to all of its less advanced neighbors, making sure that none of them becomes strong enough to overcome the combined force of the others. Once more, Campbell's interest in religion manifested itself: at his suggestion, the people of Anacreon and the other kingdoms view the Foundation's scientific aid as a form of magic, and a religion centered on the Foundation spreads among them. "Bridle and Saddle" ends with the Foundation using its religious hegemony to forestall another attack by Anacreon's rulers.

Continue to Part 2: 1941-1944

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Johnny Pez