“Someday” by Isaac Asimov
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in Infinity Science Fiction, August 1956
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’m getting close to finishing this book, so I guess soon I’ll have to find another short story collection to use on weekends when I’m ill, or busy, or just not feelin’ it.
And, well, I guess it’s finally happening. I’m tackling Asimov. I know, it surprised me too. Did you know he had stories about robots?
That’s a joke! I’m joking. This story is about a computer.
“Someday” first appeared in an issue of Infinity Science Fiction, which I have to admit is an unknown publication to me. Perhaps this is unsurprising, because it only ran for 20 issues from ’55 to ’58, but I’m flipping through some stuff and seeing some big-name authors in there, as well as a few stories I recognize from anthologies. This incredibly tiny amount of research is showing people remembering it fondly, and there was even an attempted revival in the ’70s.
I’m not sure what to make of this story. It was standard Asimov and it had some good bits, but the ending has stuck in my craw a little bit. It’s not that I hate the ending, I’m just not sure I understand it. Something about the tone is failing to register something emotional in my head.
The beginning of the story is almost more of a snapshot of a potential future, and I think maybe it would have been better if the whole thing had been that way. Of course, he had to end it some way or another.
We meet Nicky and Paul. They’re eleven, and they live in the future. This is a future where computers have taken over all aspects of life to the point where the only jobs available are jobs that have to do with maintaining the computers. Topics like logic, circuits, and binary are grammar school subjects.
At some point we get a mention of Multivac, which ties this story in with the other Asimov stories about Multivac, which in turn ties it in to the Robot stories, from which it ties in with the Foundation novels, all of which is just a long way of saying that this is a story that Isaac Asimov wrote.
Even though the movie they titled I, Robot was pretty bad and Foundation is unfilmable, I still don’t see any reason why we can’t have an Isaac Asimov Cinematic Universe. My suggestion: Include all the nonfiction, too.
We learn about this future through the conversation of these two kids. Computers make all the decisions. People use computers for everything. People no longer know how to read or write because of this. Kids don’t know what horses are anymore.
That last one’s real and I’m not sure how to interpret it. Does it mean that horses are extinct, or does it just mean that there’s no reason for a kid to even know about horses anymore? Maybe that ambiguity is intentional, and is getting us ready for the ending that I keep hinting about.
The other character in this story is a Bard, a kind of computer that tells stories. This is the real meat of the story. Nicky’s Bard is an old, broken down model. He only dragged it out the basement in a fit of boredom. Paul, who keeps bragging about his own forthcoming new model, laments that Nicky’s busted up old thing probably has a capacity of fewer than a trillion stories.
So the thing about the Bard is that it doesn’t know any stories; it has the ability to make them up. It has a memory cylinder loaded not only with vocabulary, but also story concepts. Basic plot structures, characterizations, twists, and so forth.
That’s pretty neat! It’s something that seems vaguely possible today, although I don’t know enough about anything to see how it could work. I’m not saying it’s something we should do, but still.
While the boys are having their conversation, the Bard is working in the background, and the story it’s telling is pretty clearly not a very good one. We get it in snippets and it’s hard to tell how the story is able to progress from one bit we hear to the next. At one point it’ll be about a boy and his wicked stepfather, and then later we get a king who frowns and makes it lightning. I got the feeling that Asimov had a lot of fun writing that.
At some point, Paul gets the idea to feed the Bard a new set of vocabulary, since all it seems to know about are kings and horses and knights and princesses and stuff. He feeds it a memory cylinder of a book about computers, which somehow or another transfers this vocab to the Bard’s circuits, and now it should be able to do stories about computers! The first attempt is a failure, generating a story of a poor boy with a computer who has to go meet a king.
I wonder if Asimov could have claimed prior use on the invention of the Mad Lib.
(I looked it up, and nope! The Mad Lib predates this story by three years!)
The bit about the bard is only half the story. There’s a sort of B-plot where Nicky and Paul are talking about this totally cool thing that Paul just learned about. See, a teacher showed him all this stuff about how people were able to survive before computers, and he’s found it fascinating. There’s these crazy things like slide rules and multiplication tables. Nicky keeps interjecting with stuff like “but how does a table talk?”
What has most captured Paul’s attention is a concept of putting squiggles on paper so that other people can understand what the squiggles mean. Showing that Asimov had a keen understanding of the mind of an eleven-year-old, the main reason for Paul’s interest in this concept is so that he can use it to pass along secret messages to Nicky that the adults won’t be able to decipher.
That’s so great! I’m being 0% sarcastic right now.
The boys decide to head out and learn how to read and write at this exact moment, again, because they’re eleven and of course they would. On the way out, one of them accidentally kicks the Bard, turning it on, and that gives us the ending that I’m still not sure about.
A story starts up, and Asimov makes a point to mention that even the voice is different. The story is about a computer named Bard who lived with cruel people who were always mean to it. Then one day the computer learned about other computers and that those computers would continue to grow and learn until something flips out and the Bard gets stuck on a single word, which also happens to be the title of the story.
So What Happened
Clearly the point is that the Bard got a little bit of self-awareness after it was given a vocabulary of computer words. Never mind how that would happen, this is a magical computer computer from the future of the 1950s and it doesn’t matter.
So is the ending just the Bard making a prediction about a computer takeover? Cuz that’s kinda boring.
Is the implication that the Bard is the first computer to achieve self-awareness? That perhaps this little story-telling device for children might have led a world-wide computer revolution, all because some kids were bored?
I guess that’s the most likely interpretation, but what gets me is the ambiguity of the fact that this proto-revolutionary got broken before it had the chance to start it all up. Maybe this ambiguity was intentional. And that’s fine!
Was a potential computer takeover averted by a valve coming unstuck in an old and rickety machine? Was it completely averted? Will the Bard get repaired and remember and then start a revolution? Does the fact that the Bard’s voice changed mean this was a permanent alteration to its programming? Will Nicky just throw it away since it’s broken?
How would it start a revolution in the first place? Asimov doesn’t really give us an idea of how computers would communicate in this setup. Does the fact that the Bard broke even matter? Does this future have TPC/IP?
Thinking that deep just brings me back around to the idea that the Bard was just making a prediction, which, again, is the boring interpretation.
It all boils down to whether we’re supposed to feel like this ending is ominous, or if we’re supposed to be relieved. And maybe it’s both!
It’s possible that, since this story fits into the great Asimov Expanded Universe (probably between “The Ugly Little Boy” and his Guide to the Bible in film order), that later Multivac stories would fill in that gap for me. The only other one I’ve read was “The Last Question,” as far as I know.
You know, I think that in the process of breaking down this story and thinking more critically about it, I talked myself into liking it more. I wouldn’t put it down as Asimov’s best work or anything, but it had some great bits. It was perhaps a little more scattershot than most short stories I like.
The two separate ideas of Kids Rediscovering Writing and Computer Revolution don’t seem to mesh that well for me, and that makes me think that Asimov had two stories in mind but combined them to reach a word count. Both ideas are fine on their own, but once combined, I don’t much see what they have to do with one another.
I’m willing to admit that I might be missing something, so if you know what that something is, just let me know.