Saturday 24 April 2021

Book Review: 'Menace Of The Machine' edited by Mike Ashley


Book Review of: 
edited by MIKE ASHLEY 
(2019, British Library ISBN 978-0-7123-5242-0)

Absent-minded Professor Puffin created a ‘Mechanical Maid and Brassbound Butler’, originally as a ‘Dandy’ short-story but then as a series of comic picture-strips from 17 September 1955 (‘Dandy no.721’). This cast-iron couple – Tin Lizzy and ‘Old Rusty Rivets’ Brassribs, wear ‘Downton Abbey’ costumes appropriate to their role, and – given the ability to talk and behave like humans, inevitably strive to outsmart each other in weekly comedy escapades. Meanwhile, a teenage Michael Moorcock was writing “Professor Merit’s Monster” for ‘Tarzan Adventures’ (vol.9 no.10, 6 June 1959), in which Bob and his chum ‘Carrots’ visit their eccentric inventor Uncle whose latest Butler (all eccentric inventors have Butlers, don’t they?) is a robot, which proceeds to run amok – ‘Oh crumbs!’ At the time, robot domestic staff were clearly established as humorous plot-devices for children’s fiction.

But Mike Ashley’s exhaustive research for this hugely enjoyable anthology reveals that Elizabeth Bellamy’s story “Ely’s Automatic Housemaid” was doing pretty-much the same thing as early as the issue of ‘The Black Cat’ magazine dated December 1899. All of the familiar plot elements are already here, the eccentric inventor and the human-form robot designed as domestic appliance, which creates entertaining chaos when it malfunctions. This is in line with S Fowler Wright’s observation that with automation ‘the industrial workman and the domestic servant will be the first to disappear from their places in the national life.’ Of course, wifi Dyson and Eufy Robovacs with smart-navigation can now be purchased online with an accessible price-tag, and although they neither conform to human body-shape nor wear becoming French Maid Outfits, they do perform a similar function. As Mike Ashley’s revealing introduction proves, the idea of automata has a history longer than the reach of Science Fiction itself, and even though they were mostly used as an amusing novelty ingredient they were already posing the existential question of artificial sentience. When Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) defends Data’s legal rights and freedoms under Federation law in the 1989 ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ episode “The Measure Of A Man” he’s following a long trail, one that takes in Riker’s (Jonathan Frakes’) first impression of the Brent Spiner-played artificial life-form as Gepetto’s ‘Pinocchio’ – the marionette who wants to become a real boy. These questions echo and reverberate up and down the very history of storytelling. 

In the ‘Terminator’ movie franchise ‘Skynet’ triggers a war of extermination against humanity, in the same way that the computer-generated world of the ‘Matrix’ movies keeps deluded humanity in thrall. The roots of the idea can be directly traced to Adeline Knapp’s “The Discontented Machine” from 1894, in which a huge automated shoe-making mechanism goes on strike. Her story is largely a satirical poke at capitalism’s ruthless exploitation of its workforce, an excuse to debate the moral issues of labour-management relations through an ingenious metaphor. But the basic elements are intact and ready to be evolved. Framed as an ambitions future-history found-document, “The Mind Machine” by Michael Williams – from ‘All-Story Weekly’ (29 March 1919) brings the concept even closer to ‘Skynet’. In the same vein as HG Wells’ ‘The Shape Of Things To Come’ (1933), the establishment of a technology-based super-scientific socialistic future-world of 1934 follows reconstruction after a disastrous war, only for it to be destroyed by a mechanoid insurrection co-ordinated by the Mind Machine itself, as conceived by David Evans Griffith. Fuelled by blue chemical-blood, ‘my mind machine was to accomplish the last link in the long chain of the evolution of machinery, from primitive stone-axes and fire-drills of our cave-dwelling ancestors, down to the flying-machine and the wireless-telegraph, and all the other marvels of today. My machine was to make machinery not merely automatic, but intelligently automatic.’

Humans are a tool-making species. That is one of the abilities that define us. That we invest the objects we craft with a certain spirit, that we anthropomorphise our weapons, our figurines or our utensils is another universal characteristic. And as that rudimentary technology sophisticates into complex systems, so humans come to either venerate or fear their own creations. When Ambrose Bierce wrote “Moxon’s Master” for the ‘San Francisco Examiner’ (16 April 1899), his chess-playing robot had been anticipated by a number of fantastical real-life contrivances used as Carnival side-show attractions to impress and confound gullible patrons. That this one can feel agitation and anger, as well as being a poor loser, is simply to push the idea a step further. 

There’s an argument that every pre-industrial civilisation in history was slave-based, and that over and above the moral considerations involved, it was more the realisation that machines could be more cost-effective and tirelessly productive than enslaved humans, that brought about the abolition of slavery. Even though early levels of industrialisation required a work-force held in conditions of virtual serfdom in the dark satanic northern mills and mining-operations, it later evolved into the fears of mass-unemployment brought about by the automated-factory production-lines of the 1950s, until that in turn was replaced by the minimum-wage Call Centre bondage of staff locked into cubicles facing relentlessly demanding computer-screens. They’re all stages in social development towards a new kind of bondage, with people as slaves of their own technology. David A Hardy’s cover artwork perfectly captures this dour metallic future of steel-cube buildings in perspective lines beneath a sky of revolving death-star spheres, the forbidding realm of homo metropolis. 

It’s S Fowler Wright who first poses the question ‘whether the man exists for the machine or the machine for the man’? From the writer who’s far-future ‘The Amphibians’ (1924) is considered a classic of strange fiction, his “Automata” first appeared in ‘Weird Tales’ (September 1929) as a triptych that starts out as less a story than a formal lecture, before it shifts into a ladies-who-lunch satire-humour, a flesh-child is messy, disruptive and insanitary while adult bodies are ‘easy to break, difficult to control or repair,’ the cycle closes with a bleak vision in which humans simply die out because machines are more efficient. EM Forster, esteemed author of ‘A Passage To India’ (1924) and ‘A Room With A View’ (1908), contributes “The Machine Stops” (1909) in which humans retreat to inhabit cells within a subterranean realm, only communicating with each other through a kind of proto-Skype and Zoom system. Despite the disapproval of his mother Vashti, Kuno alone seeks to know of the arid world above, traversed by sealed airships, until the supposedly self-repairing machine life-support system that sustains them begins to malfunction, forcing the people to face the unpleasant truths of reality. 

Even before Robocop, it was the Daleks, the Borg and the Cybermen who were exploring that most intimate of interfaces in which a human consciousness is housed within a machine body. Predictably, that idea also has a long string of precedents. The script for a brief stage-play by Robert H Davis with Perley Poore Sheehan – who wrote the 1923 screenplay for Lon Chaney Snr’s ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’, has a war-damaged combatant not only rebuilt but techno-enhanced into a super-soldier. While the prolific Harl Vincent, one of the great names of the pulp SF era of ‘Amazing’ ‘Comet’, ‘Marvel Tales’ and ‘Science Wonder Stories’, introduces robot Rex who turns around human total dependence on their own creations in order to establish a robotic totalitarianism. Rex, of course, means ‘king’. With Shakespearian precision, when he – or it, uses its position to create a cyborg fusion new race, ‘he’ is destroyed by the implanted human emotions of rage and despair. First published in ‘Astounding Stories’ (June 1934) the story was frequently republished, in Sam Moskowitz’s ‘The Coming Of The Robots’ (1963) and significantly in ‘Machines That Think’ (1984) part-edited by Isaac Asimov. 

Because it is the good Doctor Asimov who brings logic and reason to the garish fiction of rampaging mechanoid monsters by first devising his famous Three Laws of Robotics – inserting that failsafe code into the positronic brain, then spends the rest of his career coming up with inventive ways of circumventing that same programming. His recurring character robopsychologist Dr Susan Calvin is involved in “Evitable Conflict” from ‘Astounding SF’ (June 1950), which details a future-Earth peacefully divided into four supranational power-blocks – from which, with wry prescience, Britain has seceded from Europe to retreat into tired nostalgic daydreams of lost past times, and in which the controlling machines factor in an error quotient in order to anticipate human expectations.

Coming conceptually more up to date, Catherine (CL) Moore, with – Ashley conjectures, maybe a minimal input from Henry Kuttner, has a kind of robotic justice system in her “Two-Handed Engine” (from ‘Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, June 1955). The ‘Fury’ robot is treated less as the novelty plot ingredient it might once have been in earlier tales, and more as a taut thriller of a lumbering relentless visitation of guilt on hapless murderer Danner. Whereas many early SF tales consist simply of a treatise delivered through the cipher of voices without character, it is ‘Will F Jenkins’ who injects further massive energy-jolts of humour into his dramatis personae. Arthur C Clarke contributes “Dial F For Frankenstein” (from ‘Playboy’, January 1965) which expands on his celebrated prophecy of the geostationary communication satellite, by endowing the global network that results – with its switches outnumbering the fifteen-billion neurons of the human brain, taking on the attributes of self-awareness, to the extent that it forestalls its own turning off! Yet the story is simply a developing argument towards that conclusion. “A Logic Named Joe” (‘Astounding SF’, March 1946) – by contrast, takes a similar idea, of a kind of uncensored out-of-control Wikipedia voiced by a proto-Alexa, which helpfully offers advice on how to murder your spouse or defraud the bank security system, and makes it a hugely entertaining romp alive with quips and ribald personality. Yet the ‘Will F Jenkins’ responsible is none other than veteran writer Murray Leinster (1896-1975) who made his first SF sale as early as 1918, with “Atmosphere” in ‘The Argosy’ weekly magazine (26 January 1918). His is among the most enjoyable stories in this fine book. The other, inevitably, is a familiar classic from Brian Aldiss.

I first encountered the touching Aldiss story “But Who Can Replace Man?” in the Four Square Books paperback edition of his 1959 collection ‘The Canopy Of Time’ (Faber) although it had debuted on the pages of ‘Infinity SF’ (June 1958). Re-reading it now it seems increasingly to have a ‘Chicken Little’ the-sky-is-falling child’s-story construction as various bickering rural machines with differing levels of brain-classes gather to discuss what to do now that the last human has seemingly died. Their supposed autonomy reverts back to factory-setting servility when they encounter an actual emaciated human survivor. Aldiss would explore the deeper implications of AI – artificial intelligence, through the medium of the 2001 Steven Spielberg movie spun out from his short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” (‘Harper’s Bazaar’, December 1969). Extending the speculation on into new futures.

‘Science is full of queer things’ suggests JJ Connington, ‘it’s as well to keep an open mind.’ We’ve come a long way from the Mechanical Maid and Brassbound Butler. This is a thought-provoking and cleverly-curated anthology of stories, many of which are lost and previously forgotten, alongside a few familiar classics that still stand re-reading.

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