Robots, liberty and the tyranny of “benevolence”: Jack Williamson’s novelette “With Folded Hands…,” the 2018 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a notable pro-freedom work, the Libertarian Futurist Society has been publishing since 2019 an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.

Here is an Appreciation for Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands…,” the 2018 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard

Jack Williamson’s novelette “With Folded Hands . . .” illustrates one of the distinctive characteristics of science fiction: its tendency to a kind of dialogue, in which one author’s stories comment on earlier stories by other authors. (Poul Anderson was noteworthy for this kind of writing, in stories such as “Journeys End,” which offered a different view of relationships between telepaths, and “The Man Who Came Early,” which questioned the assumptions of “castaways in time” stories such as Lest Darkness Fall.)

In 1947, when Williamson’s novelette appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, the idea of essentially benevolent robots was well established there; Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (which Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell, played a part in formulating) had been explicitly stated in Asimov’s novelette “Runaround” five years before, in 1942. What Williamson did was not to revert to the older theme of monstrous and hostile robots (which Asimov had called “the Frankenstein complex”), but to look at Asimov’s own vision of robots from a different angle.

According to the Three Laws,

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The “humanoids” of Williamson’s story follow a simpler directive, “to serve and obey and guard men from harm” — but one that clearly parallels Asimov’s first two laws.

And while Williamson’s syntax doesn’t specify which part of that directive takes precedence, the events of the story itself make it clear that the humanoids can disobey any human order if, in their own analysis, obeying it would cause or even risk harm to any human being.  The rest of the story is a straightforward working out of the nightmarish implications of that ostensive benevolence.

Williamson described this as a cautionary tale about the risks inherent in technology. Later, he described it as possibly growing out of his own psychological issues from an overprotected childhood. But it can also be read as having a political subtext.

On one hand, it’s well known that Asimov was a liberal, or as we might now say, a progressive. And his robots are almost perfect embodiments of the ethics of altruism, as formulated by Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism.

Comte called for the replacement of religious and metaphysical ideas (including legal ideas such as “natural rights”) with “positive” or empirical scientific ideas, and for the government of societies by scientific bodies much like the Council of Science of Asimov’s juveniles or the Foundation of his most famous series; indeed, he wrote accounts of the future, not as fiction, but as proposals for how humanity might be governed scientifically. (Brazil’s national motto, “order and progress,” derives from Comte’s writing.) And as the basis for this, he proposed an ethic of selfless service to human needs — meaning the needs of everyone else, with no regard for oneself — for which he coined the name “altruism.”

Asimov’s robots embody such an ethic, putting their own survival last, after protection of human beings and obedience to human orders; indeed, the clause about “inaction” requires them not only to protect human beings from danger but to provide for whatever they need.

And the last story in his collection I, Robot, “The Evitable Conflict,” shows robots quietly taking over the government of Earth to establish a scientifically planned economy, taking control of humanity for its own good. This Asimov story presents an anticipation of his later Zeroth Law of Robotics, which allows individuals to be harmed for the good of humanity as a whole — exactly paralleling the utilitarian ethics of Comte long-time friend John Stuart Mill.

Williamson cannot be identified with any such specific political philosophy, such as conservatism or libertarianism. But it’s notable that he described himself as an “individualist” in an interview with Larry McCaffery (a literary scholar interested in science fiction), a self-identification that libertarians will find sympathetic.

It’s not uncommon for libertarians to be cautious about altruism from the standpoint of opposition to forcibly imposed duties to others (whether or not they share Ayn Rand’s total condemnation of it); but Williamson offers a different and subtler caution in this story, warning that an altruistic concern for the welfare of others may be the motive for denying their autonomy, compelling them to do what someone else has decided is good for them, or preventing them from doing what someone else has decided is bad for them, without consulting their wishes.

His humanoids, in their unremitting benevolence, are a nightmare of a different kind – one of coercive paternalism. And the point that a grant of authority to do good may open the door to excessive control interestingly parallels libertarian concerns about constitutional law.

His theme is one that speaks to libertarians, in particular. Yet, putting all this together, Williamson’s fictional reply to Asimov voices concerns that many people who oppose or question progressive social theories will find reason to share.

Jack Williamson (Creative Commons license)

Note: Jack Williamson (1908-2006), an American sf writer often called the “Dean of Science Fiction,” wrote the story “With Folded Hands…” as part of his Humanoids Series, which also includes the novels The Humanoids (1949) and The Humanoid Touch (1980), later gathered into a 1996 omnibus printing, “The Humanoids/With Folded Hands.”

Williamson also wrote several works in his Legion of Space Series and his Seetee Series (under the pseudonym Will Stewart.) With the novelist Frederik Pohl, Williamson wrote the Undersea Trilogy, the two-novel Saga of Cuckoo (Farthest Star and Wall Around a Star) and The Starchild Trilogy (including The Reefs of Space, Starchild, Rogue Star and the omnibus The Starchild Trilogy.)

He invented the term “genetic engineering” in 1951 in his novel Dragon’s Island, while also exploring in his fiction the implications of androids, anti-matter, psionics and terraforming.

Williamson was and remains the oldest writer to win both Hugo and Nebula awards. He received a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994 and was inducted in 1996 into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” the 2019 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans .

Libertarian futurists believe culture is as vital as politics (and often more fulfilling, positive and productive in the longer run) in spreading positive visions of the future and achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.


Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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