Authors: John Sladek
Tags: #Artificial Intelligence, #Fiction, #General, #High Tech, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Science Fiction, #Computers
‘All I said was, take it easy. Take it …’
In the back booth, Professor Rogers scratched at acne that hadn’t itched for fifteen years. ‘Up to you, of course. Just thought you might want to have all the facts.
Dr Jane Hannah’s face was impassive, the face of a Cheyenne brave which, during her early years in anthropology, she had been. ‘Facts, you say. I keep hearing opinions.’
‘Okay, sure, if you want my opinion, we should turn them down. With all these fraud rumours, I don’t see how Fong’s people can expect special treatment.’
She raised her martini, mumbled something over it, and took a sip. ‘Why not special treatment? Maybe what they have to give us is more precious than anything they could possibly have stolen. After all. true heroes can always break the rules. Think of Prometheus, stealing from the gods.’
‘Pro – but this is real life, real theft. Maybe millions of dollars, you can’t just shrug like that and –’
‘But NASA, like all fire-gods of the air, won’t miss a few million. We don’t want to get bogged down in petty tribal ethics now, the real question is, is Fong a true hero? Will his robot, his gift to mankind, be a blessing or a curse? If it is good, then we
help him, even as Spider Woman helped the War Twins on their journey to the lodge of their father, the Sun –’
‘Sure, sure, but I mean Fong is playing God himself, he’s like Baron Frankenstein over there, never listens to anybody, a law unto himself.’
‘The new Prometheus.’ Her eyes were unfocused; they seemed to be looking right through him into the vinyl fabric of the booth. ‘Prometheus made a man of clay, you know. And Momus the mocker criticized it, saying he should have left a window in the breast, so we could see what secret thoughts were in its heart. But isn’t that our problem? How can we tell if this robot will be good or evil? What’s in his heart?’
He lifted his Old-fashioned, holding the tiny paper doily in place on the bottom of the glass with his little finger. ‘You want my opinion, the computer freaks have had things their own way just about long enough. Far be it from me to assign guilt labels in a multivalently motivating situation like this, but just look around campus! The process of depersonalization goes irreversibly on, what with computerized grades and tests, teaching machines, enrolment, it’s as though they want to just tear down humanity, yeah? Just rip it out and replace it, yeah? With robotdom, right? Robots are nothing but humanity ripped off, if you want my opinion.’
Her stare continued to penetrate Rogers, the vinyl padding, and even the next booth where Dora was explaining to Allbright: ‘I think Dr Fred’s senile or something, he screwed up completely on everybody’s horoscopes, I checked mine on the computer and he’s got Saturn in the wrong place.’
‘Oh sure, the
has to be right. Why trust a nice little old man when you can really rely on a damned steel cabinet full of transistors?’ He swallowed a pill and washed it down with Irish whiskey.
‘That’s not what I meant, I mean Saturn in the wrong place! And this other kid, this Bill Whatsit in my class, his horoscope’s even worse. I mean Dr Fred put in a conjunction of Pluto and Neptune, it makes Bill born in either 1888 or 2381. And when I tried to tell Bill it was wrong he said, “I know, wrong again, I’m always wrong” – like it was
fault, I mean.’
‘We’re all at fault, sure, getting in the way of the damned steel cabinets. Nobody’s gonna survive, just a few technicians …’ His dirty fingers chased another pill across the formica.
‘You sound just like him, gloom and doom! For Pete’s sake, you must both have something in Scorpio, you’re so touchy.’ She shrugged her orange coat half-way down her arms and lit a cigarette. ‘I just hate this place, don’t you?
‘… just a few damned technicians, half machines themselves … Listen, I went to school with this kid, a born computer genius. He used to play around all the time with the school terminal, little games of his own, nobody knew what the hell he was up to, least of all the teacher. I mean we were only eleven years old, already he was in a world of his own. Then one day the goddamn FBI came to the school and took him away for a couple of days. Seems
he was dabbling in interstate commerce, in a way. When he got back to school I asked him all about it – you know what it was? Peanut butter.’
‘Bugleboy Old Tyme Reconstituted Peanut Butter, nauseating stuff it used to be, nobody could stand it. Only thing us kids liked about it was the jar tops: “Fifty of your favourite cartoon characters – save ’em, swap ’em, loads of fun!” Something like that. Anyway the supermarkets were probably losing money on the crap, because they stopped handling it. So this kid just got on the old terminal, twiddled his way into the inventory computer of this big supermarket chain, Tommy Tucker, and made a few crucial changes. All of a sudden Tommy Tucker was swamped with the crap. They put it on special offer, they even gave it away – and I bet they had to throw away a few tons of it too. But they couldn’t stop their computer from re-ordering, more and more … When they caught up with him, this kid had forty-nine of his favourite cartoon characters – probably more than any other kid in the United States.’
Dora looked for the waitress. ‘I’ve heard lots of stories like that. Kids are always using their school terminals to dig into some computer somewhere.’
‘Yeah, but what Danny did was kind of new. He invented some sinister algorithm, so he told me. I don’t even know what an algorithm is.’
‘You don’t? Honest? It’s only a set of instruc –’
‘And I don’t want to know. Whatever it was, after he planted it in Tommy Tucker’s computer, it just grew until it took over. I guess they had to finally throw away their whole program and start from scratch. I guess they lost a lot of money, that’s where the FBI came in.’
‘What happened to him, then?’
‘Oh, they put him on the payroll at Tommy Tucker. As a computer security consultant. All he had to do was promise to leave them alone. But the funny thing is –’
The waitress arrived, with someone else’s drinks.
‘Sorry, kid, I got a bit mixed up, with all the characters in here tonight. Old Jack there’s teed off because he can’t read –’ she gestured at the man in the hunting cap, ‘– and the cowboy next to
him wants to know who’s drinking martinis – and then I got some joker in the front tries to tell me he’s a manicure. Crazy! Crazy! Crazy!’
She delivered the Old-fashioned and the martini to Rogers and Hannah, who was saying:
‘… maybe the Blackfeet boy, Kut-o-yis, cooked to life in a cooking pot, but isn’t that the point? Aren’t they always fodder for our desires? Take Pumiyathon for instance, going to bed with his ivory creation –’
‘Look, these Indian stories are okay, but I don’t see –’
‘Indian? No, he was King of Cyprus, you must know that story, they even made a musical of it,
was it? Something like that … But take Hephaestus then, those golden girls he made who could talk, help him at his forge, who knows what else … Or Daedalus, not just the statues that guarded the labyrinth, but the dolls he made for the daughters of Cocalus, you see? Love, work, conversation, guard duty, baby, plaything, of course they used them to replace people, isn’t that the point?’
‘Yes but the point, my point is –’
‘And in Boeotia, the little Daedala, the procession where they carried an oaken bride to the river, much like the
in Rome, the puppets the Vestal Virgins threw into the Tiber to purge the demons; disease, probably, just as the Ewe made clay figures to draw off the spirit of the smallpox, so did the Baganda, they buried the figures under roads and the first –’
‘This is all very interesting, yes, but –’
‘First person who passed by picked up the sickness. In Borneo they drew sickness into wooden images, so did the Dyaks … Of course the Chinese mostly made toys, a jade automaton in the Fourth Century but much earlier even the first Han Emperor had a little mechanical orchestra but then he was a bit mad, you know. Imagine burning all the books in China
building the Great Wall, quite mad, quite mad … but the Japanese, Prince Kaya was it? Yes, made a wooden figure that held a big bowl, it helped the people water their rice paddies during the drought. Certainly more practical than the Chinese, or even the Pythagoreans, with their steam-driven wooden pigeon, hardly counts even if they did mean it to carry souls up to – but no, we have to make
do with the rest, and of course the golem stories, and how clay men fashioned by the Archangel –’
Rogers sneezed. ‘Yes, very iderestigg, but –’
There were Teraphim of course but no one knows their function. But the real question is, what do we want this robot
Is it to be a bronze Talos, grinning as he clasps people in his red-hot metal embrace? Or an ivory Galatea with limbs so cunningly jointed –’
‘Look, couldn’t we – ?’
‘As you see, I’ve been turning the problem over, consulting the old stories …’
‘And I’ve decided to vote against this robot.’
‘Thank God. We have to take sides. Those of us who don’t want to be ciphers have to stand up and be counted. Why didn’t you say so in the first place?’
For the first time, her eyes blinked. ‘But I had to explain! You see, I believe in baring the soul.’
‘Bearing the – ?’
‘I even talk to my food and drink, as you must have noticed.’
‘Dot at all,’ he lied, and hid his nose in a handkerchief.
She sighed. ‘I can’t help feeling that respect for life – even the life of your cold virus there – is paramount. Of course we must take life, we eat food, we destroy germs. But can we not at least apologize for our murders?’ So saying, she took up the olive from her martini and spoke to it quietly: ‘Little olive, I mean you no harm, but my body needs nourishment. For one day soon, my body will go to replenish the earth, to feed new olive trees …’
Rogers looked away, embarrassed, and caught the eye of a fat, suntanned stranger at the bar, who had turned from the television to watch Dr Hannah. ‘Uh, I’ve got to go home, nurse this cold, so …’
She put down the olive and checked her watch. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll stick around. Have to kill an hour before I meet my son for dinner. Never see him, since he moved into that fra – But you have your own problems, bless you.’
Beanie’s Bar was beginning to fill up with the early evening crowd. Rogers had to squeeze his way through an animated
discussion of Ruritania (one speaker suffered from halitosis), avoid the non-university drunk and jostle through other conversations:
‘… the liberry, but like when I ast for
Sense and Sensibility
they brung me this
This, yeah, by some other J. Austin, only with a e, figure that …’
‘… Jungian econ …’
‘… this machine heresy, was it?’
‘… Barbara Altar for one …’
The juke box piped him out with a mournful, if not quite coherent song:
When I feel you’re in my dream
Images of fortune play me do-o-own
Destiny don’t seem so far, and I can touch a star
Tragedy’s a bargain, yes, and
Love’s a clown.
Near the door someone said, ‘Right in front of the Student Union? No kidding, who was he anyway?’
‘Just some freshman with a GPA problem, happens every year …’
The spot vacated by Rogers was still warm when a plump stranger in Western clothes slid into it. He grinned at Dr Hannah out of his deep tan.
‘Olives,’ he said. ‘Thought they went out with the ol’ Walther.’
‘Really?’ She focused on him with difficulty.
‘O’Smith.’ He extended a thick left hand on which she noticed a turquoise ring, almost Navaho. But fake, like the grin.
‘Prometheus invented the ring,’ she said, and belched. ‘Did you know – sorry – that? Out of his chains.’
‘No foolin’?’ A theatrical sneer. ‘Look, can we talk here?’
‘Why not?’ Jane Hannah needed at least two more martinis before she could face her son, and if this absurd stranger wanted to fill the interval with chatter, olives going out of style, well why not?
‘Usually I work alone,’ he said. ‘I run a one-man show.’
‘Indeed?’ Show-business, a rodeo perhaps. It seemed to explain his outlandish clothes, the showy ring, the stock villain’s sneer. What did he want, money?
‘But I guess if you wanted to back my play –’
She put up a hand. ‘You’re wasting your time. I don’t contribute to – no thanks. “… I’m no angel …”, as the saying goes.’
‘Good enough.’ He seemed unruffled. ‘Good enough. Fact is, I get a lot of satisfaction out of workin’ alone, you know? Boy, when you see their faces – when they realize what’s comin’ off –’ He chuckled. ‘Makes it all worth while.’
‘I’ll bet. But do you usually see their faces? I thought –’
Even when you don’t, you still know what they’re thinkin’. Boy howdy! It’s like real communication! I mean in everyday life you just
get that close to
‘I know just what you mean,’ she said. Nice to meet someone who liked his work, even if he did carry the offstage villainy too far. Just now he was casting a furtive glance over his shoulder, where the bearded boy was propped up by the girl in orange. Allbright, his chin sinking towards the table, told Dora, ‘Funny thing is, I met him just the other day. On the Mall.’
‘This kid I was just telling you about. Danny. The Bugleboy –’
‘But that was half an hour ago – are you all right?’
‘No but listen, listen, he’s still crazy he – I asked if he was still in computers and he sort of grinned and said, “Into, yes, yes, yes, you could say that, into computers, yes, yes …’”
‘I don’t know why you take that stuff and drink on top –’
‘Yes yes, nodding and grinning like a fucking guru computer got all the answers yes yes … only he’s dead inside, ghost in the machine you know even his kid he even his kid he …’
He came to rest with his ear in the ashtray, while the man in the hunting cap looked over and turned away to his drink, muttering, ‘College boys! College boys!’