If you follow our podcast you know that we’ve discussed Asimov’s reluctance to rewrite stuff many times. Even more frequently we’ve discussed… let’s call it the Great and Glorious Az’s ability to write female characters. We’ve speculated that, after attending Boys High School in Brooklyn, Seth Low Junior College, and Columbia University, neither of which were co-educational, it’s possible that Asimov simply hadn’t spent time with many women. Aside, of course, from his mother and sister.
The Robot Chronicles
We were therefore intrigued by the following quote from “The Robot Chronicles” as published in Asimov’s Gold: the Final Science Fiction Collection. At this point in the essay, Asimov writes about his individual Robot stories and what made them significant. Here’s what he had to say about “Liar!”
In the very next issue of Astounding, that of May 1941, my third robot story, “Liar!” appeared. The importance of this story was that it introduced Susan Calvin, who became the central character in my early robot stories. This story was originally rather clumsily done, largely because it dealt with the relationship between the sexes at a time when I had not yet had my first date with a young lady. Fortunately, I’m a quick learner, and it is one story in which I made significant changes before allowing it to appear in I, Robot.
If you haven’t read it, “Liar!” tells the story of Herbie, a robot accidentally created with the ability to read minds. As the roboticists at U. S. Robots and Mechanical Men work to find out what caused this ability we get a first-hand look at how Herbie’s ability to read minds interacts with the three laws. We also get to see how Herbie’s subsequent behaviors affect the humans around him.
For those of us on the podcast, it was nice to get some confirmation for the theory we’d proposed on the show. For anyone who considers themself an Asimovologist, the changes to “Liar!” are intriguing for two reasons. The first is to see how Asimov’s treatment of women progressed to address the clumsiness that he perceived. The second asks how much of a rewrite he considers “significant.”
The Individual Edits
So let’s take a look at the changes. The first occurs in the fifteenth paragraph. Here’s the text from Astounding.
“Bogert is right,” said Dr. Calvin. “Ever since the Interplanetary Code was modified to allow robot models to be tested in the plants before being shipped out to space, antirobot propaganda has increased. If any word leaks out about a robot being able to read minds before we can announce complete control of the phenomenon, Tyrone and his demagogs (sic) could make pretty effective capital out of it.”
In the I, Robot version, the underlined part has been changed to, “pretty effective capital could be made out of it.” This change does not seem substantive. The mention of Tyrone was likely Asimov teasing a story that was ultimately never written. We would need evidence before we could say that for sure.
The next change occurs shortly after the first section break. Again and going forward, we start with the Astounding version.
“She paused to readjust the huge ‘No Entrance’ sign upon the door and then approached the robot with a friendly smile.”
Here, Susan Calvin is entering a room to bring books to Herbie. In the revised version the underlined text is omitted, which makes sense. Between this version and the publication of I, Robot, the character of Susan Calvin evolved into a no-nonsense professional thus the friendly smile seems to be a bit out of character. In a larger sense though, a disarming smile might ease interaction with another human but there is no reason to try that with a robot, much less a mind-reading one. The brilliant robopsychologist would have known this so the original neither fits the character nor the story.
Dr. Calvin and Herbie have a conversation about Milton Ashe. Eventually, we get this.
“The psychologist paused in thought and then looked up suddenly. ‘A girl visited him here at the plant half a year ago. She was pretty, I suppose—blond and slinky. And, of course, could scarcely add two and two.’”
In the book, “slinky” becomes “slim,” a more conservative and genteel description that seems more in keeping with Calvin’s personality. “Slinky” implies things about the way the woman holds herself and how she dresses. The combination of “slinky” with the remark about the young lady’s intelligence creates a different and less complimentary image of the character.
A bit later, we see this bit of conversation about Susan Calvin.
“He opened his eyes wide and frowned, “Say, Bogie, have you been noticing anything queer about the dame lately?”
The revised version replaces “dame” with “lady.” Another move toward more respectful language.
Next, we encounter one of the less substantive changes.
“Are you crazy? If you’ll reread Mitchell’s original paper in the Mathematical Journal—”
“Mathematical Journal—” becomes “Transactions of the Far—.” The latter sounds more like an actual journal, but it loses the emphasis that the paper appeared in a mathematics publication. That should have been clear from the context, however.
The most substantive change comes when Milton Ashe shows Calvin a sketch of a house he’s planning to buy. All of the underlined text is removed from the later version.
“Susan Calvin gazed across at him with melting eyes. There had been a preliminary self-consciousness when she had first forced her hair into curls and lacquered her fingernails a bright red — a silly everyone-is-snickering-at-me feeling — but it always vanished when she was with him. There was nothing then but the hard metallic voice of Herbie whispering in her ear —. ‘It’s really beautiful,’ she sighed…”
It’s an edit that improves the story. This sentence seems more suited to a cheesy romance comic or a movie like Beach Blanket Bingo than it does to an Asimovian robot story. This sentence seems especially out of character for Susan Calvin as the character had developed over many stories and many years.
Most of the remaining edits were made because the “Three Laws of Robotics” weren’t carefully codified until published in “Runaround,” which appeared ten months after “Liar!” It makes sense for the collection to use the language to which the readers had become accustomed. Thus, instead of this,
She faced them and spoke wearily. “You know the fundamental law impressed upon the positronic brain of all robots, of course.”
we get this.
“She faced them and spoke sarcastically, “Surely you know the fundamental First Law of Robotics.”
There’s the additional change from “wearily” to “sarcastically.” That’s more in keeping with Calvin’s character and because the two men she was talking to would unquestionably know the three laws; this isn’t a case of having to remind someone of the three laws; Calvin is making a rhetorical point.
But it’s also an opportunity to remind the reader of what the first law says, so while we initially got this,
“Certainly,” said Bogert. “On no conditions is a human being to be injured in any way, even when such injury is directly ordered by another human.”
After “Runaround,” we get the now-familiar wording.
“The other two nodded together. “Certainly,” said Bogert, irritably, “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow him to come to harm.”
The insertion of “irritably” follows nicely from the inclusion of “sarcastically.” We get one more edit concerning the three laws. In Astounding, the exchange above is followed by this.
“How nicely put,” sneered Calvin. “But what kind of injury?”
And in I, Robot, “injury” becomes “harm,” which seems to fit better with the revised version of the First Law.
An interesting aside: In “The Robot Chronicles” Asimov claims that the term “robotics” first appeared in print in the initial printing of “Runaround.” The Oxford English Dictionary, notes this and gives Asimov credit for inventing the word. The use of “robotics” predates that, however, as it’s used twice in “Liar!” in addition to the time noted above, which exists only in the revised version.
The final edit in “Liar!” aside from one that appears to fix a typo, comes in the following passage at the very end of the story.
“It was minutes after the two scientists left that Dr. Susan Calvin regained part of her mental equilibrium. Slowly, her eyes turned to the living-dead Herbie and the tight smile returned to her face.”
“Tight smile” is aptly changed to “tightness,” as the operant emotion at this point is anger. This again seems to fit Susan Calvin’s character better than the original.
A Holistic Look
It’s more apparent in retrospect than it would have been in 1950 when I, Robot was compiled but “Liar!” is an important story in the Asimov canon. It’s the first time the idea of a robot with mental powers is discussed, an idea that becomes a pillar of Asimov’s later work, and the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes it as the earliest known use of the word “robotics.” more importantly though, “Liar!” is the first appearance of Susan Calvin, one of Asimov’s most consequential and well-known characters. She’s so central to the early robot stories that the framing sequence of I, Robot is written as a conversation between Calvin and a biographer. Through this conversation, she introduces each chapter. I, Robot is Susan Calvin’s story and the introduction tells us that “In 2008, she obtained her Ph.D. and joined United States Robots as a ‘robopsychologist’ becoming the first great practitioner of a new science.”
So, let’s look at the changes holistically. There appear to be three categories.
There seems to be one change to smooth out the prose, where “Mathematical Journal—” becomes “Transactions of the Far—.” This reads better because the partial title seems more believable for an academic journal.
There are several bookkeeping changes, namely the one removing “Tyrone and his demagogues” and all those updating the Three Laws of Robotics. These are exactly the kinds of edits one should expect in a fix-up like I, Robot. In any series of stories, details will never be completely determined initially. The book will feel more cohesive if small changes are made for the sake of consistency.
The changes that remain must be what Asimov was referring to when he wrote, “This story was originally rather clumsily done, largely because it dealt with the relationship between the sexes at a time when I had not yet had my first date with a young lady.”
I’m not sure that these edits hit that mark and I’m certain that they fall short of being significant.
Let’s recap these changes. We have:
- Calvin doesn’t approach Herbie “with a friendly smile.”
- Calvin describes Ashe’s girlfriend as “slim” rather than “slinky.”
- Ashe refers to Calvin as a “lady” rather than a “dame.”
- The removal of the sentence where Calvin feels self-conscious about changing her hair and wearing make-up, but that feeling disappears when she’s with him.
So, are women written better as a result of these edits? When Asimov wrote about “significant” changes, it is reasonable to expect something like a fundamentally different subplot for Susan Calvin. Her subplot still resolves around a cringeworthy mistaken impression. It depends on some unfortunate tropes, like Calvin changing her hair and makeup to attract Ashe and destroying Herbie in a fit of pique. That subplot remains “clumsy,” and Asimov’s treatment of female characters isn’t significantly better. For example, although Ashe’s unnamed girlfriend is no longer “slinky,” she remains unable to add two to two.
But the changes are likely more about Susan Calvin than writing women in general or making the story less clumsy. It’s disappointing to ponder “Liar!” as Calvin’s initial appearance because it means that Asimov had the silly unrequited love subplot in mind and Calvin was created because the subplot required a female character. But over the following nine years Calvin and the characters surrounding her became the centerpiece of Asimov’s robot stories; they turned into the brilliant, serious professionals who drove the plots and resolved the problems. These edits are just enough to make this story fit with the rest of the book but is it a consistent portrayal? Let’s look at the framing sequence. In the run-up to “Liar!” Calvin tells the biographer “I was foolish once, young man. Would you believe that?” “No,” he replied.
- Asimov, Isaac. “Liar!” Astounding Science Fiction, May 1941, pp. 43-55.
- Asimov, Isaac. “Liar!” I, Robot, ©1950, 1977, Bantum Spectra
- Asimov, Isaac. “The Robot Chronicles,” Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection, ©1995, Harper Collins e-books
- Liar! (short story), Wikipedia, accessed 30 June 2022