Top Asimov Stories #5: “The Evitable Conflict”
“The Evitable Conflict” is a story written by Isaac Asimov, published in Astounding Science Fiction in the June 1950 edition. It is a “Robot Story,” one which is based around Asimov’s near-future system where robots do much of society’s manual labor and are controlled by the “Three Laws of Robotics,” which protect humans from harm by the robots.
The story revolves, firstly, around the character Stephen Byerley, World Co-ordinator, who is charged with fixing multiple glitches in the Machines, positronic computers which control the world’s economy. He goes to Susan Calvin, who is the primary protagonist in all of Asimov’s Robot short stories, who helps him discover the reason: the Machines have reinterpreted the First Law, that “A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm” as “No machine may harm humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” This is essentially the Zeroth Law, a later evolution of Asimov’s Three Laws, and the Machines have decided that they would allow a few humans to come to harm to prevent large amounts of harm to come to the human race.
This is a theme continued in many other Asimov works, including The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn, as well as the film based on Asimov’s Robot stories, I, Robot. The story is also interesting because of it’s relation to an earlier story, Evidence (1946), which dealt with Byerley’s first foray into politics running for mayor of New York City. SPOILER ALERT The plot revolves around his political opponents claiming that he is a humanoid robot, based on the fact that no one has seen him eat and the fact that he always follows the Three Laws to a T. Eventually he is able to prove that he is not a robot by eating an apple in public and punching a man during a speech. However, in the ending conversation he has with Calvin, she pokes holes in the “proof,” implying that he is, in fact, a robot.
This early story of Asimov’s is one of my favorites, in it’s own right and it’s relation to his other similar works. It also foreshadows a very big direction his later Robot novels take, involving the Zeroth Law. A relatively low-key story, with closer examination it takes on a much larger role in the vast scheme of Asimovian fiction.