“Crabs Take Over the Island”

“Crabs Take Over the Island” by Anatoly Dnieprov
translated by George Yankovsky
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Translation originally published in Russian Science Fiction, NYU Press, 1969
Originally published in Russian in Дорога в сто парсеков, 1959
Price I paid: $6.56

This textbook is currently two for two on having some really danged great stories in it! Is it the best collection of sci fi shorts I’ve ever read? I don’t think so but it’s in the running. Is it the best textbook I’ve ever read? Probably!

What’s really great is that this is the first I’ve ever heard of this author. Wikipedia tells me that Anatoly Dnieprov is essentially forgotten today, but also that article isn’t a very well-written one so I don’t know how to judge that statement. What the article gets right, however, is that “his predictions about artificial intelligence and self-replicating machines are uncanny.” At least, as far as this story goes. I mean, damn. I’ll get to that shortly.

I really ought to read more Soviet science fiction. I’ll take recommendations, for sure, but seeing as how this story was first published in English in a collection called Russian Science Fiction from the New York University Press, I might just give that one a go for starters! Assuming I can find it. It’ll be my luck that it’s like out of print and three hundred dollarydoos a copy.

Okay, I looked it up and while it’s not three hundos, it’s still pretty pricey. Looks like a job for THE LIBRARY!

I cracked this book open today hoping that it would have something in it that was about, like, patriotism or something. I wasn’t looking for anything specific but I figure it’s July 4 so maybe a story about neverending wars or a colony built on the backs of slave labor or descent into fascism or catastrophic anthropocentric climate change or, uh, flags, I guess, would be appropriate. I couldn’t see any of those from titles alone so instead I opted to just go with the next story in the book, which was a great idea because it was SUPER GREAT.

I just can’t find any way to connect it to Independence Day. It’s not even an American story! I can’t even contrast it to America because even though it’s a story from a Soviet author, the story isn’t particularly Soviet in its themes or anything. It’s just a cool story about robot crabs.

The United States is kind of like a robot crab, though, when you think about it. Discuss.

The story!

So the story first introduces us to a guy named Cookling. He’s an engineer. I don’t appreciate having a person with a job in their name and that job isn’t their job. Sloppy writing, Anatoly. I’m curious about whether that was his name in the original or if it was a translation thing. It certainly doesn’t sound Russian to me, and neither does the name of our narrator, Bud.


Bud and Cookling are on an island and it sucks. There aren’t any trees or barely any plants at all, even. Bud doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. Cookling works for the Admiralty and whatever their purpose is is probably top secret until it gets going. And finally it does get going and Cookling explains the situation.

First off, they put a bunch of metal bars and stuff on the island. Just here and there, ingots and stuff. Weird? Not as weird as what happens next! Cookling then pulls out the pièce de résistance: some kind of metal crab.

You know what I really really liked about this story? How modern it felt. A thing about reading stories from the fifties or sixties is how it’s so easy to imagine the machinery, robotic or whatever it may be, as being that sort of kling klang beep boop stuff, like Gort or Robbie or Robocop. Part of that is because of the video depictions of robots and the technology for doing so, yes, but even in literature of the period you don’t often find robots and stuff depicted as elegant. Call me wrong if you wantI really want to hear about counterexamples!—but it seems that even in the written imagination of the period, robots were meant to be scary in a lumbering, Ceaseless Strength kind of way.

Perhaps because they, or the fight against them, are an expression of American self-perception in the wake of World War II? Discuss.

The two examples I can think of that show machinery of this sort as nimble and responsive are Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which the mech suits that the soldiers wear feel very modern to me, and this story. And they were published originally very near to one another! Heinlein’s novel came out in 1959, and this story first hit—as best as I can tell—the Russian market in that same year.

Cookling explains the metal crab. This island is to be an experiment to prove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In particular it kind of goes on about Survival of the Fittest, as do the notes in the margins by someone who read this book before I did, and never mind that Darwin never said that phrase and it originates with Herbert Spencer, but whatever, we’re gonna have some robot crabs.

He lets the crab go and it skitters about for a bit and then finds some of the metal they dropped off. It begins to process that metal and fits it together into a new crab, very similar to itself. After a minute the other crab joins in on the fun and so on and so on. We’ve got self-reproducing robot crabs, and absolutely nothing could ever go wrong.

Cookling explains that this is in part a biological experiment but also a weapons test. Imagine letting these crabs go in enemy territory! They could cut up all the tanks and guns and then replicate themselves in the meantime. The enemy would be overrun in days, maybe even hours!

Bud asks how they would then stop the robots from coming into friendly territory and doing the same thing to our side, and Cookling says we’ll figure that out later. This is just a proof of concept.

And what a proof of concept it turns out to be! The crabs make short work of all the metal that the boys placed around the island, and start to look for other sources, like the fellas’ canned food. But Cookling has an even greater plan going on, and it’s then that he sets it off. See, he knows that the original crab design isn’t the best it could be. But why spend hours in a lab tinkering with designs when nature could take care of all that for him? Now that the metal is exhausted, he sets the robots against one another.

Because none of the robots are exactly the same as their predecessors, there can be some evolution at play. Also, the robots can cannibalize the other robots for their materials, so the process can go on indefinitely. I expect there might be a little loss of material here and there but the story doesn’t say so. Maybe we can take that for granted. One way or the other, we begin to see changes, and even derived species. It’s much accelerated relative to biological evolution, so we can see it happen over the course of days.

There are adaptations and even some evolutionary lines that seem promising but turn out to be dead ends. Niches get filled. For one day the dominant species seems to be some small, agile, lightweight models that are able to maneuver and swarm. But then it turns out that to save weight, they ended up being built without batteries, so at night (they’re all solar powered) they shut down only to be consumed by larger, more lumbering species.

I guess none of this is particularly surprising to someone who once played Sid Meier’s SimLife or maybe read a lot of Richard Dawkins before realizing that he was a gigantic asshole, but this story does describe the mechanics of evolution quite well. One thing that it makes me think about is how all of the crabs reproduce asexually, and as a result they are in a perpetual state of war of all against all. It doesn’t seem like there’s a reason for these crabs to develop any kind of social traits at all, and that’s kind of interesting to think about? Would their inability to work together doom them, or make them stronger? Who knows?

Eventually thing start to really go downhill for our guys. Notably, the robots really seem to want to kill Cookling. How come? They ignore Bud. What’s the deal? Also the guys have to take greater and greater steps to protect their remaining fresh water and foodstuffs. They end up storing them in the ocean (I assume on a floating platform or something?) but it seems that the crabs are beginning to get less and less crablike in their anatomies, including the evolution of longer and longer legs. I guess the robots don’t like going bodily into the water but I can’t remember a specific reason why. Maybe it’s because of their solar power, or it’ll short them out, or something?

At the end the crabs finally get Cookling and I assume it’s pretty gruesome, because it turns out that the reason they want him so bad is because of the metal fillings in his teeth. Oops! Bud passes out from hunger, dehydration, exhaustion, etc., but is saved by the schooner that dropped them off in the first place. One of the last things he sees is a gigantic robot crab whose gaping maw is almost half of its body.

Despite being rescued, Bud’s statement at the end of the story is bleak and maybe terrifying, even if it’s not entirely unexpected:

I regained consciousness only on board the schooner. When Captain Hale asked me whether they should also take along the enormous machine lying on the beach, I said I didn’t think there was any need to.

To me it feels like there are two ways to read that. The way that I first thought of was that Bud expects the robots to eventually evolve a way off the island and then we’re all doomed. There’s no reason to bring the machines back with us because they’ll manage it on their own, I figured.

But on consideration I guess it’s also possible that he just meant that the experiment was a failure and that we’re abandoning it, especially now that the creator is dead. Less exciting but valid.

Yeah, this story was a super good joy to read. This is once again one of those situations where I don’t know how much of the credit has to go to the translator and how much to the original. Certainly translation is important. I have long, detailed, and tedious opinions on the importance and difficulty of translation as a skill. Don’t get me started, please, for both our sakes.

I’d like to learn more about Anatoly Dnieprov specifically and Soviet sci-fi in general, and I really look forward to doing that. Like I said up top, I’ll definitely take recommendations on it, and I’d like to add that I’d really appreciate recommendations of stuff about Soviet science fiction, just general rundowns or whatever. What have you got for me, folks?

So yeah, that’s my July 4 review. I figure it’s kind of appropriate only in its extreme inappropriateness, like a deliberately chosen song in a movie that clashes against what’s going on in the movie. This review is my version of using Steeler’s Wheel in the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Anyway, take care of yourselves and each other, but especially today. Please don’t cost yourself a finger or set a forest on fire or anything. In fact…maybe do without the fireworks altogether? My cats would probably appreciate that.

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