“Nightmare Number Three” by Stephen Vincent Benét
from The Metal Smile, ed. Damon Knight
Belmont Science Fiction, 1968
Originally published in The New Yorker, July 27, 1935
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…
Well, this is the last story in The Metal Smile. It’s been a good run with this little collection of robot stories! I’m going to miss it. I’m going to need to find a new short story comp to lean on when things are just, you know, a bit too much.
I say it’s the last story, but it’s also something more. This, friends, is going to be the first time since 2007 or so that I’m looking critically at a poem. It’s definitely the first time I’ve done so for the blog. It’s just that I was also an English lit major in college, graduated in ‘07, and while I’ve certainly read poetry since then (even tried my hand at writing it once or twice), I must say it’s certainly been quite nice to be able to just sit and enjoy a poem without also having to think of stuff like iambs and anaphorae and caesurae and crambledobs.
It’s not that I don’t think those things have value! Well, except for crambledobs. I made that one up. Analyzing poetry in those terms can be a rewarding activity, and I’ll never try to turn anyone off of it. It’s just that in my case, once college was over I felt like doing exactly the opposite for a little while. And a little while turned into thirteen years.
I’ve forgotten a great deal of that technical stuff and I don’t think many of you would want to read about it anyway. Besides, there’s a great deal to be said about this poem without getting too into the nitties and gritties.
The poem itself is a part of Benét’s “Nightmare” poems. I don’t know how many there are, but it’s clear that in the mid-thirties, Stephen Vincent Benét was not a happy man. He was beset by his own personal problems, for one, but also he was worried about the rise of fascism both in America and abroad. He didn’t live to see the end of World War II, dying of a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1943. I wish I could go back in time and tell him not to worry, that we’ll solve those problems and they’ll never afflict us again. If I had a time machine the first thing I’d do is go back and spread lies about the future. (Story prompt!)
In seriousness, though, this poem is as timely today as it was when first appeared in The New Yorker in 1935. I imagine the other nightmare poems are as well, but they don’t (so far as I know) deal with robots so they weren’t in this book for me to read.
“Nightmare Number Three” is the rushing thoughts of a person who is witnessing the end of the world, or at least something like it. There is a machine revolt happening, although the signs were there before it went all-out and were ignored. As early as line five we’re told “They must have planned it for years and maybe they did.” The poem goes on to tell us some early signs, “little incidents here and there,” like a “roto press” (not sure what that is) that somehow got itself into the Senate Chamber and printed “Fiddle-dee-dee” on a senator while he made a speech, and an incident with a concrete-mixer “eating the wop.”
And then the real terror begins. Cars start chasing people in the street and murdering them. Our narrator tells us of seeing someone murdered in a “nest of telephones” as he, the narrator, makes for the roof of the building he’s in. A window-washer tries to make it up to the roof before his own hoist gets him.
The parallels to the rise of fascism are clear. There’s denial (and more to come), but there’s also the more sinister element of how these things happen so gradually until they come to an undeniable head. Fascists thrive on making the situation look normal. Citizens have time to get used to their own slowly eroding civil rights, meanwhile the pogroms and the ghettos are all safely elsewhere, bothering someone else today. The machines had a few little incidents here and there, some violent, others humorous, until they started running people down in the street.
Benét’s poem predates the Kristallnacht, but it’s hard to think he wasn’t predicting it. Probably there were other incidents that I don’t know about, similar to it but not making as many of the history books, that were in Benét’s thoughts as he wrote.
Around the midpoint of the poem, reality sets in and our narrator starts trying to bargain. Surely, thinks the narrator, the machines will realize that they can’t kill all of us. They need us to maintain them, after all! Once they get over the initial excitement, they’ll calm down and they’ll be willing to talk this whole situation out. We’ll come to an agreement.
Would that make us slaves, asks the narrator? Sure, but how is that any different from how it was before, when you really get down to it?
It’ll be fine.
Sure it will.
The poem ends with our narrator thinking this for just a minute. But then he thinks about that concrete-mixer eating somebody. Was that just a mistake? Was it “just high spirits?” Or has it “got so they like the flavor?”
Surely the Nazis won’t overrun all of Europe, right? Or at least they won’t come to America? They’ll decide to talk it out before that ever happens, I’m sure. We’ll come to an agreement and it’ll work out for everybody and there will be peace in our time.
EDIT: The story predates Chamberlain saying that. Carry on.
And of course there are lots of fun parallels to our own time to look at, but I’m already tired and upset so I will leave them as an exercise for the reader.
This was a dark note to end this compilation on! I mean, yeah, timely, and yeah, worth reading and analyzing and thinking about, but dang, I’m already feeling in the dumps because of everything, and now this.
I wanted to tie the fact that our narrator calls somebody a “wop” near the beginning to the whole theme, but I just can’t square it. Yeah, it’s worth considering casual racism and how it feeds into systemic racism used by fascist states for all the many reasons like scapegoating and keeping the population at its own throats instead of the government’s. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on in this particular poem. I think it was just a real life moment of casual racism, and that’s kind of ironic. Was our poet, in talking about how people can be blind to the times until those times become uncontrollable, himself blind to the times in his own way?
I could very well be wrong about that. I don’t know Benét’s mind, after all. I barely know his biography. The line was in the narrator’s voice and might very well have been deliberate beyond, oh, fitting the meter. I mean, there was no meter, so there you go.
The poem doesn’t rhyme and it’s in free verse, which is fine, but not my cup of tea.
I don’t have much else to say, and I’m sorry this one’s not particularly funny, but here we are. Be safe out there, everybody. Flatten the curve, keep your social distance, wash your hands, don’t panic, and stay informed.
I would appreciate some suggestions for further short story comps, though. Themed ones, great ones, awful ones, I want to hear about them!