“Monkey Wrench” by Gordon R. Dickson
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, August 1951
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…
This is the first time that The Metal Smile has thrown a story at me that ended in disappointment.
It’s not Gordon Dickson’s fault. I want to make that clear. This is not a bad story, especially not in the context of its time. The story was first published in 1951. The computing power of the entire world of 1951 is dwarfed by several discrete objects sitting on my desk as I write this, up to and including the jar of hot and spicy roasted peanuts.
So yeah, computers were a new idea at the time, and therefore so was the idea of breaking a computer by presenting it with a paradox.
But computers and robotics were a new idea for all the other stories in this book, too, so there’s that side of the argument.
TV Tropes calls this the “Logic Bomb.” It then goes on to present a long list of examples, as TV Tropes is wont to do. The list includes this story, and it also includes Isaac Asimov’s 1941 story “Liar!,” which is the earliest example I can find but I haven’t seen anyone confirm that it started the idea.
The TV Tropes page also contains an imperial buttload of “examples” that are just paradoxes that have nothing to do with computers and the breaking thereof. C’mon, people.
Anyway, this isn’t the space I use to complain about Internet subcultures. This is the space I use to complain about science fiction that doesn’t meet my exacting standards. If you’re looking for that other one, stop, because I haven’t created it. Nobody wants to read that!
So The Story Goes Thus
There’s a guy named Cary Harmon. He’s a successful lawyer who doesn’t like his wife so sometimes he just abandons her until she begs him to come back because he’s a piece of shit. Also, he lives on Venus.
One day while avoiding his wife after an argument because he’s a coward, Cary drops in on a fellow he vaguely remembers from college, Burke McIntyre. Burke works at a weather station in the mountains of Venus, monitoring…blizzards?
I’m not sure if this story is supposed to take place so far into the future that we’ve terraformed Venus, or if this is just one of those cases were we didn’t know enough about the planet yet so anything went. There’s no mention of the former, so I’m running with the latter, and I’m cool with that. Edenic lowlands and icy mountains? Rad!
This might be the first time in genre lit I’ve seen a habitable Venus that wasn’t Jungle Planet.
The guys get to talking and Burke brings up the computer, or Brain, that runs this weather station. Since the Brain is so advanced, it doesn’t give Burke much to do. It’s a perfect machine. It can take all the weather measurements, process them, and zip them off to HQ while still keeping the weather station itself habitable.
So Cary, being the epitome of toxic masculinity, says that he could break it.
Burke says no, no you can’t. I just told you that.
And Cary lays down some money.
Burke says no, taking this bet would be tantamount to thievery, because this goshdarned computer is freakin’ invincible.
Cary goes cmoooooooooooooooooooon.
And Burke says fine, do your worst.
And then Cary breaks the computer.
Now at this point I was thinking oh boy, I wonder what kind of hilarious twist I’m about to get.
Cary breaks the computer by walking up to the input microphone and saying
You must reject the statement I am now making to you, because all the statements I make are incorrect.pg 115
So yeah, logical paradox. It locks up all the computer circuits. Cary wins.
And I’m thinking okay here comes the twist.
And then I realize that was the twist.
This story was probably considered clever as hell when it came out, but now it’s the epitome of science fiction hackery. It’s a joke now.
People like to talk about how Captain Kirk did this all the time, but really it was just seven times in the run of the TV show. That’s just 9% of the episodes he was in.
Spock just did it the one time? Weird. You’d think that the logical character would be the one using logic to save the day. Clearly this was Shatner’s doing.
And I am being a little bit unfair. See, the computer shutting down isn’t the end of the story. It goes on for another page or so. The story ends with Cary telling Burke what he did, while Burke gets more and more angry. Of course, we’re supposed to think that maybe he’s mad because he lost the bet or out of personal pride or whatever, but it turns out that’s not it. Because the computer’s circuits are all tied up, and some of those circuits are supposed to be keeping the weather station habitable, it means that now the two guys are doomed.
Is that the twist?
It’s not a great twist, but again, this might be my modern brain finding fault with a time where the word “computer” meant a woman with a slide rule and a pencil.
Today, if my computer’s processor gets bogged down because I asked it to do something stupid, I just give it the three-finger salute and kill the process. Failing that, I reboot the machine.
Apparently you can’t reboot a Venusian Weather Station Brain? With hindsight, you could read a bit of satire into that. It’s supposed to be infallible, right? There’s no reason why you would ever need to reboot this thing. Ever. So you can’t. We turned off the option. You cannot power down this computer.
But that’s a different story, one probably written by Douglas Adams. In this story, the idea didn’t exist yet.
Also, you can’t just tell it to stop what it’s doing.
I can’t even be happy that the absolute worthless jerkwad Cary will die a freezing Cytherean death, because he’s taking the blameless Burke with him. Burke doesn’t deserve this. At least, nothing in the story suggests that he deserves it. I don’t know what he does with his spare time. Maybe he’s an asshole, too.
You know who benefits most from this story? Cary’s wife. I take some small solace in that.
At some point in the aftermath of reading the story I thought about how Cary got to the weather station in the first place, and why they can’t just leave by that means now. I went back and there’s a line near the beginning about how Cary arrived just ahead of a blizzard and how dumb he was to have flown in under those conditions.
Just how cold is it gonna be? Can they keep the doors closed and wrap up in blankets until the blizzard is over? How long are Venerean blizzards? It’s never stated.
Maybe I’m not being fair by poking so many holes in this story. Maybe the point of the story isn’t the paradox bit itself, but something else. Something about
I don’t know! There’s not any kind of message—moralistic, satirical, absurdist, or practical—that I can pick up on.
A line in the first paragraph reads
But, nevertheless, from the scientific viewpoint, he was a layman; and laymen, in their ignorance, should never be allowed to play with delicate technical equipment; for the result will be trouble…pg 104
Setting aside the fact that Dickson was more enamored of semicolons than even I am, I feel like this line is the closest thing we’re going to get to a moral, but even then, I don’t exactly get it. If the whole point of the story is just “don’t let morons, no matter how clever, play with important things,” then, um, yay? I didn’t need to be told that.
Maybe other people do? I mean, [insert a clever and insightful political statement here], right?
Jokes aside, and maybe I’m starting to read waaaaaaay too much into this, maybe this is a story about nuclear proliferation, or more generally, about the misuse of science by people who remain ignorant of it. And that’s a warning that’s still relevant today, wrote Thomas, on a nearly 80 degree March day in Tennessee.
26 degrees for my metrical pals, which is itself another example of what I’m talking about here.
As I read the story I pictured Cary as looking like Cary Elwes and Burke as looking like James Burke, because I have no imagination. Also, Burke was his first name, so my imagination is double lazy. Still, Connections was the greatest program in television history, so I’m delighted to have this chance to think about it for a moment.
I figure Gordon Dickson wouldn’t be as renowned if the rest of his stories were this disappointing. I have Dorsai! somewhere around here and I’ve been meaning to read it for around a decade, so maybe I should get around to that. And yes, like I’ve said, the story needs to be taken in the context of its time. I respect that, even if I’m having trouble getting past it.
In a sentence, this is a middlin’ story that didn’t age well.