First Law

"First Law"
Fantastic universe 195610.jpg
AuthorIsaac Asimov
CountryUnited States
SeriesRobot series
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inFantastic Universe
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherKing-Size Publications
Media typePrint (Magazine, Hardback & Paperback)
Publication dateOctober 1956
Preceded by"Robot AL-76 Goes Astray"
Followed by"Runaround"

"First Law" is a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov, first published in the October 1956 issue of Fantastic Universe magazine and later collected in The Rest of the Robots (1964) and The Complete Robot (1982).[1] The title of the story is a reference to the first of the Three Laws of Robotics.


In 1941 John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction began a new department, "Probability Zero", for very short stories. He hoped to publish new writers, but wanted experienced authors early on, including Isaac Asimov. To Asimov's surprise, Campbell rejected "Big Game" and "First Law" in November and December 1941. Having learned that a rejected story might sell elsewhere, he saved "First Law" until it was published by Fantastic Universe in October 1956.[2]

Plot summary[]

The story is very short, only three pages in length, and takes the form of Mike Donovan's account of an incident that occurred on Titan, one of Saturn's moons. He tells of a malfunctioning robot named Emma that escaped from the base and was later encountered by Donovan while he was lost during a storm. While Donovan's life was in danger, Emma chose to protect its offspring, a small robot that it had built, instead of assisting him. This was a direct violation of the First Law of Robotics, which states that "a robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm". Apparently, maternal instincts in the robot took precedence over its programming, an example of the commonly encountered literary theme of paternalism in Asimov's work.

While such direct disobedience of the First Law is not described in any other robot story by Asimov, he points out that the story is told by Donovan, who may be an unreliable narrator.[3] Asimov admits that "I was being funny at the expense of my robots".[3] In The Complete Robot, he also points out that this story is intended as a parody and is not to be taken seriously.[4]


  1. ^ First Law title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
  2. ^ Asimov, Isaac (1972). The early Asimov; or, Eleven years of trying. Garden City NY: Doubleday. pp. 383–387.
  3. ^ a b The Rest of the Robots. 1964. ISBN 0-385-09041-2.
  4. ^ The Complete Robot. 1982.

Preceded by:
"Robot AL-76 Goes Astray"
Included in:
The Rest of the Robots
The Complete Robot
Robot series
Foundation Series
Followed by: