“His Campaign for the Mayoralty was Certainly the Queerest in History!”: Homosexual Representation in Isaac Asimov’s “Evidence”
Canonized science fiction authors of the twentieth century—such as Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Sydney Fowler Wright—are known for blatant technophobia in their texts. Bradbury’s infamous Mechanical Hound, an eight-legged killing machine that viciously hunts humans in Fahrenheit 451, is just one of many depictions of robots as menacing or overtly lethal beings that threaten humanity with their superior logic, physicality, and reason. However, Isaac Asimov’s portrayal of technology—robots in particular—notably differs from many of his contemporaries. In his 1950 collection of short stories entitled I, Robot, Asimov uses the figure of the robot to give a voice to otherwise marginalized groups.
Racial minorities are by far the most frequently represented group explored through the robot in science fiction literature, and in Asimov’s work in particular. De Witt Douglas Kilgore in his article “Difference Engine: Aliens, Robots, and Other Racial Matters in the History of Science Fiction” states that Asimov’s “robot stories … use the social conventions of segregated America to project both the containment and potential of humanoid robots in relation to their human masters” (17). Kilgore suggests that Asimov’s I, Robot stories create an intentional, direct correlation between the unjust segregation of and hatred toward Asimov’s robots and African Americans prior to the Civil Rights Movement, and point to the contributions African Americans could make if allowed the opportunity.
Indeed, Asimov’s language lends itself to obvious parallels to the unequal treatment of African American people. For example, restrictions that hearken back to Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War era are imposed upon robots in the short story “Robbie.” Laws have been passed that “won’t allow robots at the visivox” (Asimov 12), and they are given curfews. Mrs. Weston mentions that the curfews are enacted to keep “all robots off the streets between sunset and sunrise” (11), not unlike the racially segregated and bigoted society that plagued many African Americans from the mid-1950s until the late ’60s. Science fiction scholar David Seed speaks directly about Asimov’s reputation for creating analogies between racial minorities and robots in his book Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction, noting that the 1976 short story “The Bicentennial Man” contains an “implicit treatment of race” (61), an argument that has been supported and validated by numerous scholars. He additionally claims that Asimov formulates an extended analogy between the humanized protagonist robot and an African American, which creates a pattern across much of Asimov’s work.
First published in 1946 and then republished in I, Robot, Isaac Asimov’s short story “Evidence” prominently features humanity’s hatred and fear of artificial intelligence because of their inherently nonhuman “other” status. On the surface, Asimov could very well be using robots in the text as yet another stand-in for racial minorities. However, the very premise of “Evidence” suggests the figure of a robot as a stand-in for another marginalized and persecuted group: homosexuals. The story details the trials of mayoral candidate Stephen Byerley after a political opponent accuses him of being a robot, intending to ruin Byerley’s chances of being elected. A district attorney and a highly reputed prosecutor, Byerley appears the ideal candidate for political position, but after all attempts to prove or disprove Byerley’s human status fail, the public also begins to echo his opponent’s accusations, demanding to know his identity and ignoring his impressive history as a humanitarian. Though the public cannot physically tell if Byerley is a robot or not, the simple allegation forces Byerley to prove himself human before his entire political platform crumbles beneath him. Byerley does manage to successfully convince the public and is thus ushered in as mayor, but Asimov implies that Byerley may have manipulated his “evidence” and that he very well may be a robot after all.
How does “Evidence” differ in its portrayal of robots compared to other short stories in Asimov’s canon? First, no human is able to physically tell whether Stephen Byerley is a human or robot. As a result, the debate over his identity more resembles a question of his sexuality rather than an outwardly visible trait such as race or ethnicity. The connection between Byerley’s possible robot identity and homosexuality is also made apparent through more than metaphor. Asimov’s portrayal of Stephen Byerley teems with distinctly homosexual undertones, mainly in the depiction of his personal relationships. Furthermore, the public’s negative reaction to and even fear of Byerley after accusations reflects the treatment of homosexuals in the mid-1940s—the same decade in which “Evidence” was written. Though “Evidence” is not considered a queer text in an overt sense, it can be read as one by considering the “cultural and historical milieu in which it is written” (Pearson, “Alien Cryptologies” 25). Understanding the robot as a symbol for homosexuality provides a richer understanding of Byerley and of the historical and cultural contexts regarding homosexuality in the 1940s. It also allows the opportunity for a positive and empathetic portrayal of a widely underrepresented minority in science fiction.
The sort of discrimination Byerley endures differs from that of the robots depicted in Asimov’s other stories, including “Robbie” and “Bicentennial Man.” In both stories, robots are physically different than humans and stand out as “other,” making it much easier for the government to enact regulations and laws against them. They are also both depicted as good-natured servants to humans, creating a clear “second-class citizen” hierarchy with humans subjugating robots. As a result, they become appropriate symbols for racism given historical treatment of racial minorities. However, in “Evidence,” the accused Byerley is a figure well-regarded by society who appears human, and the public’s sudden fear of him stems from what is invisible. Technology has advanced over the course of the short story collection to the point that it has become near impossible to determine the difference between the newest models of humanoid robot and a human. Thus, the parallel between Byerley and exploited groups shifts away from physical traits such as race and ethnicity, and better fits invisible characteristics such as sexuality.
No longer able to tell the difference between human and certain robots, humankind’s hatred toward robots only increases in “Evidence,” and their attitudes resemble those expressed toward homosexual men and women in the 1940s. In the story, Quinn explains that “the Corporation would be only too glad to have the various Regions permit the use of humanoid positronic robots on inhabited worlds. But the prejudice of the public against such a practice is too great” (212). Harnessing that well-established prejudice, Quinn accuses Byerley of being a robot with no proof—well aware of the damage that could be done to his career by a simple accusation. Still, it is more than enough to instill doubt and anger among the general public. As Quinn continues to spread the rumors, the public takes to them slowly, doubt seeping into their minds: “[A]n element of hollow uncertainty entered, and people broke off to wonder” (224). Eventually, with the election on the horizon, they demand that Byerley prove himself human.
While at no point does Asimov allude to any of the treatment toward homosexuals at the time of his writing “Evidence” as his inspiration, the prevalence of injustice and maltreatment of disenfranchised groups of people, both on foreign and American soil, no doubt contributed to his portrayal of Stephen Byerley. The allegations against him successfully stir up fear, hatred, and paranoia among the public and humiliate the accused, similar to how homosexual allegations were treated in the 1940s. After all, the general climate for homosexuals in the United States work force was less than welcoming. Prior to World War II, James Ryan and Leonard Schlup’s Historical Dictionary of the 1940s notes that “most gays and lesbians led secluded lives” (151). During the 1940s, “the influence of the war, the first of the Kinsey studies, and the beginning of the Communist scare, led to more visibility for gays and lesbians, but also to greater public scrutiny” (151). Homosexuals were deemed employer “security risks,” particularly in highly classified positions of the government (Eskridge 100). In response to growing fears of homosexuality, the Truman administration alone “investigated 192 cases of ‘sex perversion’ in civil government” between 1947 and 1950, and ‘most of the targets were discharged or resigned” (100). As a prosecutor deeply entrenched in the community with the hope of becoming a governmental spokesperson for an entire city, Byerley’s career ambitions are very similar to the type of positions that homosexuals were being forcibly removed from. This type of “weeding out” was prevalent across the United States even prior to the end of the war, and explains why most homosexuals chose to remain closeted during the first half of the twentieth century.
In “Evidence,” positronic robots—which Byerley is suspected of being—are banned from Earth and essentially excluded from participation in society. On top of being investigated and fired from government position later in the 1940s, homosexuals were also banned “from all branches of the military” in 1943 (Leder 53), an obvious parallel. Allan Bérubé’s book Coming Out Under Fire notes that thousands of homosexual men enlisted in the Army during World War II were removed from the ranks and issued a “blue discharge,” which was considered neither honorable nor dishonorable (Bérubé 232). Unfortunately, the discharged soldiers were barred from benefits of the G.I. Bill, and these men had immense difficulty finding work due to public knowledge of the negative connotations of a blue discharge. In November 1945, the Pittsburgh Courier reported that the “blue ticket has been issued to 47,000 men in the Army alone” (232), and that by 1946, the government had “released official estimates of Army blue-discharge veterans that ranged from forty-nine to sixty-eight thousand, a group that was mostly male and disproportionately black (ten thousand) and/or homosexual (five thousand)” (232). Another aspect of Bérubé’s book briefly discusses the backlash against the unjustly issued discharges; their “number and their mistreatment triggered an organized campaign from late 1945 to early 1947 to protect their rights, promote their welfare, and abolish the blue discharge” (232), a small movement that gained momentum and eventually reached the public. All of the aforementioned events were occurring in the United States when Isaac Asimov wrote “Evidence,” and the shameful treatment of homosexuals during this time certainly parallels the treatment Byerley suffers at the hands of Quinn. After all, just as homosexual soldiers during the 1940s sought to serve their country, so too does Byerley seek to serve his country as a political official. In both instances, their identities must remain unknown in order to retain their positions—or face the devastating consequences. Asimov’s representation of the public after Byerley has been accused of being a robot perfectly mirrors the fearful and hateful mindset society felt toward homosexuality in the workplace during the mid-1940s.
Asimov does more than simply correlate Byerley and the figure of the robot to general homosexuality, however: he presents Byerley as a sympathetic character who is unjustly persecuted by Quinn and the public. Byerley is, after all, designated a “good man” (Asimov 221) within the context of the story: he has “never prosecuted an innocent man . . . even though he could probably have argued a jury into atomizing them” (222). He has “never demanded the death sentence in his closing speeches to the jury”; instead, he “has spoken on behalf of the abolition of capital punishment and contributed generously to research institutions engaged in criminal neurophysiology” (223). While Quinn questions Byerley’s humanitarian convictions because they carry “a certain odor of roboticity” (223) due to their adherence of the Three Rules of Robotics, Asimov presents to the reader an ideal candidate in Byerley—regardless of his alleged roboticity. As the story unfolds, any doubts that Byerley might not be the best person for the mayoralty fade away. Asimov leads readers to conclude that it does not matter what Byerley’s true identity is as long as he is able to successfully fulfill the obligations of his job. Byerley’s unjust persecution parallels the treatment of homosexuals during the 1940s, calling attention to the thousands of individuals ousted from their jobs because of an aspect of their private life—a reason entirely irrelevant to their job performance.
What the reader does see of Byerley’s private life further suggests homosexual behavior, particularly in the portrayal of his past and present relationships. Though Byerley was once married in his youth, his wife “died young” (209). Asimov provides little else about Byerley’s love life—only that he has not remarried after her death. He is “forty by birth certificate and forty by appearance” (212), yet Byerley shows little to no affection for anyone other than John, another man with whom he lives. Byerley claims that John is an “old teacher” (230) and that he is caring for the older man. He refuses to go into further detail.
Byerley’s relationship with John is the only one given much detail in the text, which calls attention to it as a coded homosexual relationship—and a caring, tenderly depicted one at that. Though Quinn clearly believes that John is the real Stephen Byerley and that Byerley is his robot creation, one could read more into Byerley and John’s relationship. After all, the very fact that Byerley lives with another man deserves consideration. The living arrangement certainly would have seemed peculiar in the 1940s as a clear disruption of the heteronormative ideal perpetuated by American society at that time. Even more noteworthy is the gentle, affectionate relationship between the two men. They express open mutual affection for each other in both word and deed: as Byerley approaches him in the text’s first scene featuring them together, the “figure in the wheel chair [John] looked up as he entered and smiled. Byerley’s face lit with affection” (218). Fondness and casualness that transcends familial bonds tinges their conversation. When Byerley offers to take John out into the garden, John says to him, “Why don’t you let me use the wheel chair, Steve? This is silly” (219). Byerley responds, “Because I’d rather carry you. Do you object? You know that you’re as glad to get out of that motorized buggy for a while as I am to see you out” (219). John and Byerley refer to each other on a first name basis, and Byerley is overtly physical with John, emphasizing John’s dependency on him:
Two strong arms lifted John from the wheel chair. Gently, almost caressingly, Byerley’s arms went around the shoulders and under the swathed legs of the cripple. Carefully, and slowly, he walked through the rooms, down the gentle ramp that had been built with a wheel chair in mind, and out the back door into the walled and wired garden behind the house. (218)
The physically intimate and borderline erotic construction of this scene stands in stark contrast to the rest of the text. Byerley does not interact with anyone else in such a way, drawing even more attention to their relationship as noteworthy. Their overt concern for each other’s well-being is tinged with romantic overtones as well. For example, when Fundamentalists later attempt to pin Byerley down by threatening violence or rioting, he desperately requests that John stay away from the public eye until after the election, fearing for his safety. Likewise, John expresses worry for Byerley: “The hoarse voice that twisted painfully out of John’s crooked mouth might have had accents of concern in it” (232). After their discussion about the future, Byerley presses “the gnarled hand that [rests] on his” (232), returning to the physical interaction present in the initial scene. The physical and emotional bond between the two men conflicts with Byerley’s impersonal and professional interactions with the rest of the characters in the text, which suggests a romantic relationship between Byerley and John. Furthermore, Asimov writes their relationship not unlike a loving, heterosexual relationship. Nothing about their relationship is portrayed as peculiar. Reading “Evidence” through a queer lens forces readers to reconsider the “perverseness” of a homosexual relationship when faced with what looks and feels so close to a socially accepted relationship between two members of the opposite sex.
Asimov himself appears to make his stance known in the text as well to further support this paper’s thesis. Serving as a counterpoint to Quinn and a spokesperson for Asimov’s own views, Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist who appears throughout I, Robot, suggests that Byerley very well may be a robot, or, alternately, that he “may simply be a very good man” (221). She determines Byerley to be a desirable individual, regardless of whether he is a robot or not. Similarly, using the robot as a stand-in for homosexuality, “Evidence” rejects the notion that homosexuality should be hated and feared, or used as a blanket judgment against another person. That Asimov himself expressed outright support for homosexuality further contributes to the reading of Byerley as homosexual. One of Asimov’s most pressing concerns at the time he was writing was the problem of overpopulation, mainly the population boom in the United States during the 1950s. Asimov weighed in positively regarding homosexuality in relationship to this issue: “I see nothing ‘wrong’ with homosexuality and, what’s more, nothing dangerous either. I am not a homosexual myself, but the population explosion is so dangerous that any device that cuts down the birthrate without doing significant harm should be positively encouraged and defined as ‘right.’ Homosexuality is one of these” (278). Writing in a time when homosexuality was widely regarded as wrong from a moral standpoint, Asimov’s clear dissent marks him as a man with progressive opinions that differed from the societal norms, many of which can be located in his writing.
While Asimov gave no explicit validation that Byerley’s robot status is to be read as a symbol for homosexuality, there is immense value in reading texts often unaffiliated with queer theory under that very lens. Wendy Pearson’s article “Queer Theory” in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction asserts that opponents of queer theory often attack theorists for seeking out “gay subtexts in inherently heterosexual stories” (Pearson 298). Yet she deftly argues that the very nature of queer theory is to understand how the “categories of homosexual and heterosexual … came into being and what kinds of material effect these discourses of sexuality have on people’s lives” (303). Most of the time, “straight” pieces that appear to uphold heteronormativity and reject the “abnormal” or “perverted” (303) have much to say about the cultural environment and attitudes surrounding homosexuality and are just as important to analyze as texts that blatantly include queerness. Analyzing Asimov’s early science fiction work under a queer theory lens allows for the possibility of literary representation for a group that had almost none in the 1940s, and that even today lacks mainstream acceptance.
Though Isaac Asimov’s 1946 short story “Evidence” has not been discussed as queer science fiction, contemplating the text through a queer theory lens allows for further appreciation of a text that already objectively promotes socially progressive ideals. Interpreting the positronic robot as a symbol for homosexuality allows for a deeper understanding of Byerley, his relationship with John, and a reflection of American society’s negative opinions toward homosexuality in the mid-1940s. It also provides a rare voice of empathy toward homosexuals who were persecuted during the time period. Pearson states that “discourses of normalcy have predominantly come to shape the interpretive habits and skills we bring to bear on manifestations of sexuality” (304), which explains why the majority of modern science fiction authors often still settle for heteronormativity in their writing. Heterosexuality is still considered the “norm,” while queerness in its many forms is still deemed “other.” These harmful discourses are what need to be disputed in science fiction, specifically because of the genre’s unique “power to imagine alternative possibilities for the ways in which we live, and love, in the world” (304). Queer readings of science fiction texts—whether the text was intended to be read as queer or not—contributes to diversity and queer representation in the genre and challenge heteronormativity by offering a refreshing and necessary alternative.
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