Stars End S3E34

“That Thou Art Mindful of the Podcast”

Asimov’s story “…That Thou Art Mindful of Him” has an interesting pedigree. It was initially commissioned for an original collection entitled, Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology edited by Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzberg. The intent of the anthology is compelling. Here’s how the editors described the premise.

The assumption was that science fiction — that branch of literature, half beast, half-civilized —sits upon perhaps, a dozen classic themes, which, in various combinations, permutations, and convolutions, underline most of the work in the field. Like the ten to twenty basic chess attacks and defenses, these themes can lead to winning combinations of great beauty or, in less talented hands, to disastrous and obvious clichés.

Some of science fiction’s most astounding writers were each given one of these classic themes and charged with crafting that theme’s ultimate story. The assignment of “Robots and Androids” could only have gone to the good doctor. Each contributor was also tasked with writing an afterword on the theme and their story.

Thus, “…That Thou Art Mindful of Him” was born. Ed Malzberg was also editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction at the time. According to Peter King writing on, Malzberg, upon receiving the manuscript, was compelled to include it in his magazine first. It appeared in the ⁠April 1974 issue⁠. In his afterword to the story, The Great and Glorious Az proclaimed “…having followed matters through to the logical conclusion, I have possibly destroyed the Three Laws, and it made it impossible for me to ever write another positronic robot story.”

But then, of course, he qualified it, maybe not. And he said something similar after writing the Bicentennial Man two years later (that’s for next week). He qualified that as well, “But then again,” he wrote, “I might. I’m not always predictable.” Two novels and a bunch more short stories later, the good doctor might have been more predictable than he thought.

Anyway, we talk about it. Please tune in and join the fun! Let’s go!

Afterword to “…For Thou Art Mindful of Him.”

by Isaac Asimov, Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, Penguin Books, 1974

The first story I wrote in which the Three Laws of Robotics were explicitly stated, was “Runaround,” which appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The laws were implicit, however, in stories, I had written earlier — the earliest being “Robbie,” which appeared under the title of “Strange Playfellow” in the September 1940 issue of Super Science Stories. So I have been playing around with those Three Laws for more than a generation.

With all due modesty, (which means “very little modesty” in this case), the Three Laws were revolutionary in science, fiction development. That’s not to say that there were no sympathetic robots in the field before Robbie. There was Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” in the December 1938 Astounding Science Fiction, for instance. The Three Laws, however, and the stories I used to explore them, represented the first honest attempt at a rationalization of robots as machines, and not as symbols of man’s overweening pride leading to his destruction, à la Frankenstein. The field did me the honor of excepting the Three Laws, and though no one but myself can use them explicitly, many writers simply assume their existence and know that the reader will assume it too.

This does not mean that I wasn’t aware from the start, that there were serious ambiguities in the Three Laws. It was out of these ambiguities, indeed, that I wove my stories. In The Naked Sun, the ambiguities could even lead to robot-induced murder.

And, of course, the deepest ambiguity and the one that had the potential for giving the greatest trouble was the question of what was meant by the phrase “human being“ in the Three Laws. John Campbell and I used to discuss the matter in the far-distant good old days of the Golden Age, and neither of us ever came to a satisfactory conclusion. It did seem likely, though, that if I were allowed to dig deeply into the question of “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” as addressed to the robot, I might upset the Three Laws altogether, — and at that I always balked.

But John is now dead, and I am in my late youth, and the Three Laws have given me good, loyal, and profitable service for thirty-four years, and maybe that’s enough. So when asked to write “the ultimate story” in robotics — or as near as I could come to one — I sighed and took up the matter of that Biblical quotation (Psalms 8:4).

I think you will agree with me that, having followed matters through to the logical conclusion, I have possibly destroyed the Three Laws, and it made it impossible for me to ever write another positronic robot story.

Well, don’t bet on it, you rotten kids.