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“Two-Handed Engine”

The Metal Smile

“Two-Handed Engine” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1955
Price I paid: none

“DO NOT FOLD, BEND, OR MUTILATE”

marked the beginning of our cybernetic society. How will it end?

The varied answers to that question have proved to be fertile ground for some of the greatest science fiction imaginations. But perhaps we shouldn’t look too closely into the future of cybernetics. It may be that the survival capacity of the thinking machine is greater than that of its maker…

I was going to read a novel this week, but things got super busy, so let’s dip back into the old book of robot short stories and see what we’ve got today, shall we?

Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore are two names I recognized but I couldn’t tell you from where. If you’d asked, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything they’d written, either together or apart. I might have guessed that they were a married couple, but only after I’d been told that Moore was a woman. Such is the shame of an overwhelmingly male genre where women had to go by their initials to have any hope of publication. I know that’s not 100% true, but it’s too true.

Wikipedia tells me that Kuttner and Moore met after he sent her a fan letter, thinking that she was a man. So there you go. I wonder if things like that still happen? I like stories like that. Not necessarily the “thought she was a man” part, but the idea of two authors meeting up because they like each other’s work and then getting married and then writing together. We’ve seen a few similar of those kinds of things on this blog, with mixed results, and it still tickles me.

This story was a lot longer than the others from this collection I’ve read, pushing about twenty pages. The cover to the original F&SF called it a “novelet,” which I don’t think is a word we use much anymore. There may be longer ones ahead of me but I haven’t checked. The story itself was pretty fine. I think it had a lot more going for it in terms of worldbuilding than plot, but the plot good in its own way.

I did try a little experiment when I was reading this. It’s going to sound a little silly to most of you, but I hope you’ll bear with me. I’ve said before that I have a hard time with my visual imagination. It’s just not very good. I don’t find it easy to picture things in a book as they’re progressing. I don’t see this as a major problem, but it is a thing that I’m aware of.

For this story I decided to exercise that part of my brain with a bit more intention. Usually I just read a thing and be done with it. Today, I made a very conscious effort to imagine things as they progressed in the story. I cast the characters so that I could imagine them more concretely. I searched for clues to mise en scène.

It was neat! It took forever!

Most of this story follows a guy named Danner (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). We first meet Danner eating fancy food in a fancy restaurant. We get a little of his backstory.

Danner was asked to kill somebody by a guy named Hartz (Steve Buscemi). Danner did so, and Hartz was able to move up in his organization, which is the organization that punishes people for doing bad things. Hartz promised Danner that there would be no consequences, and as the story progresses, we find out what those consequences were supposed to be and, as things turn out, are.

That’s where the worldbuilding comes in. Most of this story hinges on it, which is fine, because when it comes to sci-fi short stories, that’s pretty par for the course. It’s very easy for me to worldbuild and harder for me to put a story in that world. I’m sure this is a common problem, and it would be hypocritical of me to call people out on it.

Of course I call people out on it all the time. I’m in a good mood today.

The world of this story is far in the future. We don’t get how far, but there are hints. We learn that some things have been in place for centuries, for instance. One of those things is robots.

People invented robots and managed to get rid of want and hunger and the need for work. After the robots took over everything for people, society crumbled. All human relationships were forgotten, from the nation-state down to the family unit. People didn’t need other people any more, and the social parts of our brains atrophied.

I think that’s a good setup, even though I have some questions over if that could happen over the course of centuries or if it might need longer than that. We’re a sociable species, and it might take a while for us to get over that.

The upshot of that social atrophy is that humanity came to the verge of extinction. Maslowe’s Hierarchy was taken care of, albeit in an artificial way that replaced bits of it instead of fulfilling them. Our inbuilt need for human relationships, for instance, has a lot to do with perpetuating the species. But if you live in a robot chair all your days and it can take care of those needs with holograms and squishy pillows, what’s going to happen to humanity?

Ugh, this is starting to sound like a NoFap screed. Like, I get where all this is going, but at the same time, I feel like somebody was reading this story and said to themselves, “Right! Porno is bad!” and started a crusade.

FSFAug1955

Credit: isfdb.org

Finally, somebody recognized that humankind was in trouble and figured out that a plan needed to be formulated. They got together with some robots and asked the robots to lay off for a bit so that the species could get back on its feet. All the luxuries went away. But that didn’t fix much.

Because all the social muscles had atrophied, so had the very idea of a conscience, or even a sense of guilt. Something had to be done. It was decided that the only true crime was murder, so that was the only thing that would need to be punished. That’s where The Furies— named for the creatures of vengeance in Ancient Greek literature—come in. They are humanity’s replacement for guilt until we can grow that part of our brains back.

This is the part of the story that I liked so much. Danner spends most of the story being chased by a Fury, and so that’s where we learn a lot about what they’re supposed to do and how they work. They’re just humanoid robots, and all they do is hang around a person who has committed a murder. They’re unstoppable, but on the whole, they don’t do anything. When the murderer walks around, they will forever hear the footsteps of the robot behind them. When they sleep, the robot is there. It’s inescapable.

We’re told that eventually the robot executes the criminal, but we’re never given any concrete details on that. Based on the rest of the story, I’m led to believe that this never happens, and the criminal will go insane and take his or her own life.

Back to Danner. He committed a murder on behalf of Hartz. Hartz assured Danner that he had come up with a way to scramble a Fury’s circuits. Make it give chase to somebody else, or something. Danner believed him. It turns out that Hartz is a liar and does no such thing.

Danner spends a lot of the story trying to get away from his Fury and going mad. He spends a lot of time in the library trying to figure out if there’s a way to get rid of the thing. That’s where he comes across the line from Milton’s “Lycidas” that gives us the title of the story. Finally he gets an idea. He finds a gun and forces his way into Hartz’s office, where Hartz kills him pretty much immediately.

The point of view shifts to Hartz now. He’s just committed a murder. It turns out that in this future society, murder is murder, no matter what the intention. Self defense is no defense. He also committed his murder in full view of a Fury.

It turns out that Hartz does have the ability to turn a Fury away from its target, and he uses it, but the ending of the story takes an interesting twist.

Hartz realizes that the one thing keeping humanity from wiping itself out is the justice system and its use of Furies. He just corrupted it. He just broke it. He may have destroyed humanity’s last hope of survival.

And he feels guilty about it.

That’s so good! I love it! Like any good ending, it makes me want to know so much more. What’s next and next and next. I don’t often get to see endings I like. They’re a rare commodity, but I think they’re easier to do in a short story since with books there are all these bigger expectations after spending so much time with it. Stories don’t need any kind of return to the status quo or denouement or anything like that. They can get to the point and hit us with it.

Is Hartz among the first re-emergence of guilt-feeling humans? Is he proof that there’s hope after all? Or will the sense of guilt lead him to commit suicide? The end of the story likens the feeling to having an invisible Fury behind him, one that only he knows is there, and we have a good idea of what happens to the people who are followed by Furies.

Is this a happy ending? Dude just killed a guy after lying to him so that the other guy would kill another guy. He’s pretty despicable. And yet, it turns out that he’s our indication that, in the context of the world of this story, there’s hope for humanity yet.

Is there a moral? I don’t know. I feel like maybe there’s one somewhere and I’m not finding it, or finding the right way to articulate it, but that it’ll come to me later today when I’m hunting in the freezer for a popsicle.

What a good ending.

It’s a good story and it’s been reprinted about a million times, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it if you want to read it for yourself. I think it’s worth it, even though I gave away most of what happened. It’s a story well-told, and that’s its own reward, even if you know what happens.


2 Comments

  1. sbh says:

    Uh, that’s HENRY Kuttner. It was a Kuttner and Moore collection (A Gnome There Was) that first got me reading sf back in the summer of 1961. “Compliments of the Author,” “What You Need,” “The Twonky,” the one about the box of toys from the future, the one about the super iGlann–I mean, I had trouble believing that people were allowed to write things like these. And outside the anthology there was Joe, the robot can-opener from the Gallagher Plus stories. And the evocative “Vintage Season.”

    I think the collection cost a couple bucks in 1961. Three decades later when I wanted to read it again it was closer to a hundred.

    Liked by 2 people

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