Evidence (short story)

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Author Isaac Asimov
Country United States
Language English
Series Robot series
Genre(s) Science fiction short story
Published in Astounding Science Fiction
Publisher Street & Smith
Media type Magazine
Publication date September 1946
Preceded by "Escape!"
Followed by "The Evitable Conflict"

"Evidence" is a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov. It was first published in the September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and reprinted in the collections I, Robot (1950), The Complete Robot (1982), and Robot Visions (1990).

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' 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.

Plot summary[edit]

Stephen Byerley is a man, who lost his wife at a young age. He was the victim of a car accident, in which he was severely injured. After a slow recovery, he has returned to public life. He is a lawyer, a successful, middle-aged prosecutor, a humanitarian who never presses for the death penalty. He runs for mayor of a major American city (implied to be Chicago), but his opponent Francis Quinn's political machine smears him. They claim that the real Stephen Byerley, rather than having recovered, was permanently disfigured and crippled by the accident, and the Byerley who appears in the public is a humanoid robot, created by Stephen Byerley. If this is true, the "Frankenstein complex" hysteria will ruin his campaign, as only human beings are allowed to run for office. Quinn approaches 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 is visited by Alfred Lanning and Dr. Susan Calvin on Quinn's suggestion, and the Chief Robopsychologist offers him an apple. Quite nonchalantly, Byerley takes a bite—proving nothing since (like R. Daneel Olivaw, who will not exist for another 3000 years) 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 would do for others if he is elected. His opponents claim that as a robot, he has no civil rights, but Byerley counters that they must first prove that he is a robot, before they can deny his rights as a human—including his right not to submit to physical examination.

Once all physical means are exhausted, 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, it still doesn't prove he is a robot, since the Laws were invented with human morality in mind. "He may simply be a very good man," observes Calvin.

To prove himself to be a human being, Byerley must demonstrate that he is capable of harming a human.

Byerley never confirms or denies his flesh-and-blood status and lets the entire campaign ride on this single issue. While he is giving a speech, a heckler rushes the stage, and asks to be hit in the face. Byerley complies and punches the heckler in the face. 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, Calvin confronts Byerley, who is again spending a late night awake. She says that she is somewhat regretful he 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, Calvin notes that there is one example where a robot may avoid the First Law: when the "man" who is harmed is not a man, but another humanoid robot, implying that the heckler whom Byerley punched may have been a robot, and Byerley hadn't broken the First Law, leaving the question of his humanity still open. In the binding text of I, Robot, which is not part of the actual story, Calvin notes that Byerley had his body atomized upon death thus wiping out any evidence either way—but she personally believed that he was a 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, 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.

External links[edit]

Preceded by:
Included in:
I, Robot
The Complete Robot
Robot series
Foundation Series
Followed by:
"The Evitable Conflict"