Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” and Chris Columbus’ Bicentennial Man

Late last night, I finished revising my Bicentennial Man entry for Peter Wright’s The Critical Companion to Science Fiction Film Adaptations (to be published by Liverpool University Press).  It was a real joy to dive back into Asimov’s work, because it was through his work that I precariously began my trip into SF scholarship with my presentation on dualism in robot narratives for Georgia Tech’s Monstrous Bodies Symposium.

Having just completed Professor Babacar M’Baye’s African-American Literature course, I was able to engage Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” with the history and stories of the African-American experience that were fresh on my mind.  I have known for a long time that Asimov’s robots are an allegory for African-Americans, but it was on re-reading “The Bicentennial Man” that I realized how much Asimov’s earlier robot writing culminated in this later robot story, first published in 1976–two and three decades after his much loved early robot stories such as “Runaround” and the R. Daneel Olivaw/ Elijah Bailey detective stories.  In fact, I found that “The Bicentennial Man” mirrors the basic structure of American slave narratives, which I go into more detail on in my entry for the collection on film adaptations.

With this rich source material, I was at first resistant to spoiling it by watching the abysmal film adaptation Bicentennial Man by Chris Columbus and starring Robin Williams.  However, I discovered that for as bad as the film is, there are subtle gestures toward the spirit of the source material.  Unfortunately, the film overall pulls the rug out from under the main character’s efforts and successes by erasing the anxiety and hardship Andrew encountered in Asimov’s original story.  I don’t believe the audience understands Andrew’s predicament in the film in the same way that Asimov demonstrates Andrew’s precarious situation in the novelette.  Nevertheless, the film does have some redemptive elements, which are more fully explored in my entry for the collection.  

When I have more information about the publication of the critical companion, I will post it to dynamicsubspace.net.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.