Evidence (Asimov)

Evidence (1946) is science-fiction short story by Isaac Asimov.

Stephen Byerley is a successful, middle-aged prosecutor, a humanitarian who never presses for the death penalty. He runs for Mayor of New York City, but Francis Quinn's political machine smears him, claiming that he is a robot built to look like a human being. If this is true, the "Frankenstein complex" hysteria will ruin his campaign, and of course, only human beings are allowed to run for office. Quinn approaches the U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men corporation, the world's only supplier of positronic robot brains, and attempts to persuade them that Byerley must be a robot. No one has ever seen Byerley eat or sleep, Quinn reports.

All attempts to prove or disprove Byerley's humanity fail. He visits the U.S. Robots offices, where the "robopsychologist" Susan Calvin offers him an apple. Quite nonchalantly, Byerley takes a bite--proving nothing, since like R. Daneel Olivaw, he may have been designed with an emergency stomach. Quinn attempts to take clandestine X-ray photographs, but Byerley wears a device which fogs the camera. Through all these investigations, Byerley remains calm and smiling, pointing out that he is only upholding his civil rights, just as he will do for others when he is elected.

Once all physical means are exhausted, Susan Calvin indicates that they must turn to the psychological side. If Byerley is a robot, he must obey the Three Laws of Robotics. Were Byerley to violate one of the Laws, he would clearly be a human, since no robot can contradict its basic programming. However, if Byerley obeys the Laws, he is by no means a robot, since the Laws were invented with human morality in mind. "He may simply be a very good man," Dr. Calvin says.

To be a legitimate politician--i.e., human and not mechanical--Byerley must prove himself capable of harming a human being. (This low-key and indirect satire is characteristic of Asimov's more political stories, another prime example being "The Martian Way" and its attack upon McCarthyism.)

Byerley never confirms or denies his fleshly status and lets the entire campaign ride on this single issue. While he is giving a speech, a heckler rushes the stage, and Byerley punches the intruder away. Most people are convinced that he is human, and the emotional uproar demolishes Quinn's smear campaign. Byerley wins the election without further difficulty.

In the final scene, Susan Calvin confronts Byerley, who is again spending a late night awake. She says that she is somewhat regretful Byerley turned out human, because after all, a robot would make an ideal ruler, one incapable of cruelty or injustice. In an almost teasing speech, quite unlike her usual self, Dr. Calvin notes that there is one case, "just one", where a robot may avoid the First Law: when the "man" who is harmed is only another robot.

Several earlier scenes interspersed through the story, in which Byerley meets with his old "teacher", now take on new significance.

As she leaves Byerley, Dr. Calvin promises to vote for him when he runs for national office. Asimov's later story "The Evitable Conflict" reveals that he prospers in politics, eventually becoming head of the planetary government.

Many people choose to see Asimov's treatment of technophobia as an allegory to the anti-Semitism with which he was bitterly familiar; he wrote "Evidence" during Army service shortly after World War II.

Orson Welles purchased the movie rights for "Evidence". Asimov was initially gleeful, imagining that a grand, Citizen Kane-style motion picture would soon be in the works. However, Welles did nothing further, and Asimov earned nothing except two hundred fifty dollars and Welles's letter. (His then-wife, Gertrude Blugerman, advised him to hold out for more money, but neither of them considered option payments which could be renewed every several years, allowing the movie rights to relapse if Welles took no action.) The fact that other parties held movie rights to Asimov's stories was a significant impediment to filming his story collection I, Robot.


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