Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
The Complete Roderick
Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 45
In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:
‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’
Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.
The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.
Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.
Welcome to the SF Gateway.
For Pamela Sladek
To Alan Jones of North East London Polytechnic, who helped me program a plot. Thanks to Jasia Reichardt, for conversations about robots, and especially for writing her excellent
Robots: Fact, Fiction and Prediction
(London: Thames & Hudson, 1978).
Special thanks to Ivan Klingels, without whose loan of an office for an entire year, this book would not have been written.
I’m grateful to the publisher for permission to quote from the English translation of ‘Les Fenêtres’ from
by Guillaume Apollinaire © Editions Gallimard 1925.
There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made in the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing.
(as Kitty Packard):
I read this book … the man says machines are going to take over every profession!
(as Carlotta Vance, looks her over):
You’ve got nothing to worry about, my dear.
Dinner at Eight
Spring came to the University of Minnetonka in the form of a midnight blizzard, spraying snow the length and breadth of the great campus, annoying people from Faculty Hill clear down to Fraternity Row.
At the meeting of the Ibsen Club a very old, tiresome guest began explaining that Boreas was – hee hee! – probably trying to get into the concrete barns of the Agricultural Science Department and impregnate the mares – oho! – only these days one supposed it was all done by machine, eh? Frozen sperm from some dead stallion, eh? Dispensed by some machine colder and faster and more ruthless than poor old Boreas – hee hee! – and so on, getting further and further from their discussion of Nora Helmer.
At home Dr Helen Boag, Dean of Persons, awoke and called out to Harry, her second husband: ‘Harry, what’s it? What’s it? That noise?’ But the lump of bedclothes beside her was Dave, her third. And the wind had already moved on.
At the University Health Service a yawning intern used a tongue depressor to mark his place in
The Heart of the Matter
(‘Somewhere far away he thought he heard the sounds of pain.’) and decided to order more flu vaccine – a wind like that. He
scooted in his swivel chair to the console of the inventory computer and began playing its keys. In no time at all he was able to order three trillion – oops, thousand, 3,000 doxes – doses, damnit, doses!
Someone at Digamma Upsilon Nu invited the wind to blow, blow and crack its nuts, and laughed hard enough to spill more beer over the already damp player piano where the brothers had gathered to hoist mugs and sing ‘Roll Me Over’, their voices straining to compete with the mad howl outside. Indeed, they could hardly be heard by the lone brother who had crept upstairs to sit holding a loaded revolver and considering his Grade Point Average. The system, Christ it was so unfair, so damned unfair, getting graded by computers and all it was, it was degrading ha ha some joke some life, even if you get your horoscope done it’s all computers …
Even while he was hurriedly putting the gun away, the gust that had knocked at his window (sounding like a knock at the door) was far away, trying other doors and windows …
It whistled through the spire of the Wee Interdenominational Kirk O’ Th’ Campus, where there were no great organ pipes to thrill in response – pipes, organ and even organist having all been replaced by a single modest machine which (if Pastor Bean ever managed to get it programmed) would come to life only to sing the praises of the Wee Interdenominational God, on cue, by the numbers.
Near the Kirk lay a mutilated body; the wind covered her decently with snow to await the statistical work of the police computer and hurled on, roaring down the Mall, ripping at an old ballet poster, upsetting a litter basket – finally shrieking past the Computer Science building. There the wind pushed Dr Fong firmly against the door he was trying to pull.
‘Here, let me help.’ He heard the voice before he could make out the figure, a badly-handled marionette being pushed along on its toes. Rogers.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ He stood back, holding his Russian hat in place with both hands, while Professor Rogers wrestled with the door. Snow turned the air around them into a flicker of random dots; wind provided the white noise.
Inside, the two men stopped to stamp their feet and remove steamed glasses. ‘It’s you,’ Fong said again. ‘At this time of night?’
‘I couldn’t sleep. Thinking about … oh, every damn thing. About the viability …’ Rogers’s face held no further explanation. Indeed, without the tinted glasses, his face was simply long and blank, a peanut shell. Nothing in it but pock marks.
‘You wanted to look over the project?’
‘I wanted to explore – acceptability levels.’
‘To probe the infrastructure of your little group, you see? To look for a catalysable system-oriented – see I knew either you or your assistant would be here tonight …’
‘You mean Dan? He’s here practically all the time, these days. But I wouldn’t exactly call him my assistant.’
‘More a colleague.’
‘I mean it. Just because he has no formal qualif – look, if anything, Roderick’s more his work than mine.’
‘Jesus.’ Fong sighed. ‘Let’s go down there. I’ll show you around.’
‘I don’t want to see around, Lee. I want a heart-to-heart rap about this.’
Fong thought about it while he used his pass card to unlock the inner doors and call the elevator. As they descended, invisible violins took up ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. ‘Okay, you’re worried, is that it? You think that, uh, just because NASA pulled the pin on us, we’re too hot to handle. Right?’
Rogers broke off humming. ‘Did I say anything? Christ, Lee, just because I’m a sociologist doesn’t automatically make me an imbecile. I don’t need NASA or anybody else to tell me what to think. I can judge this thing on its own merits.’
‘Yeah? Then why do you seem worried? What’s the problem?’
‘Problem?’ The doors parted. Rogers remained behind in the elevator a moment, list-ning to the lull-a-by of old, Broad, way. ‘No problem, Lee.’ It was not until they were in Fong’s shabby little office, sitting in a pair of Morris chairs and sipping instant coffee, that he said: ‘Only why
NASA pull out of this?’
‘Internal troubles, they had some kind of – some kind of rip-off, I think. I don’t know the whole story.’
‘No? Okay, lay out what you have.’
Fong cleared his throat. ‘You won’t believe it. I don’t hardly believe it myself, it’s like a nightmare or something, it’s –’
‘Why not let me judge for myself? Listen, Lee, I’m on your side. But I mean give me something I can run with, something I can tell the committee. Okay?’
Fong nodded. ‘Okay, listen. It all started four years ago, when we got the original contract. NASA wanted us to develop a – I guess you could call it a dog.’
‘A dog.’ Rogers sat sideways in his chair and made himself comfortable.
‘At least that’s what we called it, Project Rover. Simple enough, a straightforward robot retriever. A cheap, durable intelligence to fit into their Venus landing vehicle, to do routine jobs. A dog.’
‘But where does Roderick –’
‘Wait. The way we saw it, a second-rate place like this was lucky to get any NASA contract. We’re second-rate, I admit it. Or we were. I mean with our salary structure, how can we compete with the big boys at –’
‘Sure, sure. So you got the contract.’
‘Yeah, and then this NASA official flew in from Houston to go over the details. We had lunch at the Faculty Club.’
‘Lunch.’ Rogers started tapping his foot on air.
‘And that’s where it starts getting unbelievable.’