“The Human Factor”

“The Human Factor” by David Ely
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Saturday Evening Post, November 16, 1963
Price I paid: $6.56


This textbook has yet to fail me! It’s incredible. I don’t know how the editors managed it. Even if R.U.R. left me a little bit cold here and there, at least it had historical noteworthiness going for it to balance the whole thing out. But yeah, on the whole, this collection of stories is great. I believe that this particular one is going to be the end of the section focusing on robots and machines and computers and the like. The next section is entitled “The Road to Out” so I’m guessing it’s going to focus on space travel. I’m particularly looking forward to the section on time travel, but that’s a ways away. It’s got that Bradbury story that everybody already knows about, though! The one with the dinosaurs and the butterfly and the whoopsidoodle. Should I even review that? Have I earned that right?

I’ll worry about it then. Right now is the time to focus on “The Human Factor,” a story by David Ely.

I had never heard of either this story or its author before today. I can’t find to read on Ely at all, which is kind of a shame. I’d like to know more. The SFE has a short bio that intrigues me, but there’s nothing on Wikipedia. At least, there’s nothing on English Wikipedia. I found an entry on German Wikipedia. I can’t read German but I was able to make out a few things without hitting the Google translate button. It seems that he wrote in several genres and won the Edgar in 1963 and was nominated another two times, so that’s cool.

On the sci-fi front, his 1992 novel A Journal of the Flood Year seems like it might be one of those books that’ll remain topical forever. From what I can tell, there’s a wall around the United States keeping some water out, and a guy discovers a leak, but everybody else denies it. Hmm.

Today’s story doesn’t seem quite so topical. In many ways, it seems extremely dated. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just a little puzzling from today’s vantage point in a couple of ways. I’m also having a bit of trouble piecing together what, if anything, the story might mean, but maybe talking about it will help.

The story begins by describing a church. It was at this point that my mind started to go wild with possibilities. Robot church? Church for robots? Robot preacher? What could it beeeee

Well it turns out it’s none of those things.

The church is magnificent, though. Ultramodern. Today we’d probably call it a megachurch. It has all sorts of interesting amenities to heighten the churchiness of the whole situation. The preacher can raise and lower the pulpit for maximum effect. Instead of pews there are bucket seats with personal speakers (I reckon today they would have really nice headphones for maximum effect). Even the aisles can be tilted a bit for a subtle “hey everybody come here” effect. It has a drive-through counseling service that’s open all day every day. It even broadcasts the sermons out to the parking lot so people don’t have to leave their cars. Amazing.

But one thing that isn’t hyper-modern is the pipe organ. It’s a perfectly fine pipe organ, mind you. It’s just not the latest and greatest. So the church decides to upgrade it. Instead of hiring, like, organ makers to design a new one, they decide to go all out. They get the top engineers in the country, the guys who design space ships and stuff, to do it. Money is no object.

At no point did I get the impression that the immense wealth of this church was supposed to be any kind of a problem, but also I don’t think it was suggesting that this was great and wonderful. This is a story that uses a giant church as a setting but I don’t think it’s really the point of the story. At the same time, I don’t think the story could just take place anywhere. The church fits the story to a tee, but I hesitate to say that the story is about religion at all. Maybe it is, just a tiny bit. I’m kind of going back and forth on that, but all that comes later.

In addition to being a story about a church and its organ, this is also the story of a guy. The guy is named Doctor Alpha, and he plays the organ. He’s the organist, and right now, he’s not in a good place.

At first, he’s excited by the whole thing. After all, he’s getting a grand new toy to play with, something that will likely rock the socks off of the entire congregation, and it’s more or less all his. I can really relate to that. Even when I was working as a baker, a job I loathed like poison, I was still excited when the time came for us to get a new oven. The oven turned out to be a gigantic pain in the ass in the end—quite literally in some cases, because the door had a tendency to swing shut while we were pulling stuff out of it—but it was neat for a minute.

Doctor Alpha’s situation is nothing like that, though.

Once the thing is up and running, he first runs into the issue of not being able to play it. Thing has all the requisite parts for a pipe organ like keys, pedals, pipes, what have you, but nothing seems to happen when he does anything to any of them. He thinks maybe it isn’t plugged in and checks on that, earning a lot of points from this former IT guy, but finds that that’s not the problem. He does not attempt to turn it off and on again.

He calls one of the techs who designed and installed it, a guy named Mr. Gill. Gill responds that he knows what the problem is, and that he’ll send something along shortly. Sure enough, a package arrives in the mail, and it’s an assortment of punch cards, each one labeled with a song, with instructions to insert the appropriate card into slot A.

Whomp whomp!

You and I know what this is all about, especially considering the title, but it takes Doctor Alpha a bit to figure it all out. He puts a card into the slot and the organ starts playing the Hallelujah Chorus. It sounds amazing. Also, the keys move themselves, and there’s nothing Doctor Alpha can do about that. He can’t take over, he can’t even make a sour note. It is, essentially, a player piano.

One thing I don’t get is why these engineers decided to make it so complicated. Like, I don’t think it’s necessary to make the keys actually move? The rest of it I can get. At first I was like “why didn’t they just install a really nice big stereo if they’re essentially going to play tapes” but after a bit I realized that you could certainly argue a difference between the actual sounds of a pipe organ playing itself versus a recording of a pipe organ, especially if this particular pipe organ is designed by space engineers to be utterly magnificent. I’m no audiophile or whatever but even I could see that.

What happens is that Doctor Alpha can’t admit to anybody that he’s not actually necessary anymore. Nobody else knows that the organ isn’t actually a playable instrument, so he decides to just…fake it. He’s not happy about it. In fact, he’s downright depressed about it. Folks tell him what a good job he’s doing and he knows he’s a fraud. He knows that his formidable organist skills will degrade with actual play. He’s distraught.

He contacts Mr. Gill once again who explains what I was certainly expecting to hear and I reckon you were too: that part of making the absolute best pipe organ of all time was eliminating “the human factor.” Hey, that’s the title of the story! Humans are, of course, prone to mistakes. Liable to memory errors. Messy. Distractable. Liable to memory errors.

Curious as to what Doctor Alpha would do about this situation, I read on.

It turns out that he’s been exploring the cards that store the songs. They’re literally just punch cards. I would expect them to have a fairly high density of holes to contain entire Hallelujahs but the story doesn’t really say. What it does say is that Doctor Alpha begins to experiment. First, he cuts two cards in half and sticks two different songs together. Sure enough, the first song plays right up until the middle bit and then it switches to the other without missing a beat. He begins manipulating the cards, adding his own holes willy nilly. Sure enough, it makes weird noises happen.

I expected him to decipher how the cards work and then become a grand composer or something, but that’s not quite what entails. He does learn to make his own cards, but they’re basically random.

The big crisis hits when the preacher tells Doctor Alpha that for the next service, he wants to hear a particular Buxtehude. The problem is that that was one of the cards Doctor Alpha cut in half to test what would happen. Unable to procure another card, he begins to panic.

His decision is to throw the biggest Hail Mary imaginable. He takes an unpunched card, an extra long one in fact, and just goes to frikkin’ town on it. He punches holes in it. He throws darts at it. At one point he bites it. He slashes it with a knife. And then, when the time comes for the Buxtehude, he loads it up.

It’s chaos. Three out of the ten pages of this story describe the cacophony that results and Ely does a really good job of it. I recommend you check it out yourself because I can’t really do it justice. Suffice to say, it’s wild. All over the place.

Something I find kind of odd about the whole thing is how whatever Doctor Alpha loads into the organ turns out to be music. Like, if I fill a .wav file with random ones and zeroes, it’s not going to be music. It’s going to be white noise. But then again, that’s just digital output with a huge number of variables, whereas the punch cards in this story exist only to pass instructions to the organ, which has a much more limited number of things it can do. It’s got to have instructions for which keys to press, but also I think organs have pedals? Either way, I reckon that with that in mind, something might well come out occasionally that sounds like a tune, and I think that’s pretty much what’s described here. Neat!

I’m probably wrong about everything.

This melodic racket goes on for a while. The whole church is stunned. Also, something about the music or the instructions fed into the organ cause a lot of the other high tech stuff in the church to go haywire? The pulpit starts jumping up and down, the seats are all over the place, and so on. Not sure what’s up with that, but from a literary standpoint, it’s pretty great. It’s absolute chaos.

Then it all ends. There’s silence while everybody collects themselves. Doctor Alpha begins to mutter out an apology, when the whole church erupts in thunderous applause. Doctor Alpha, stunned, takes a polite bow, and that’s the story.


That’s all very cute, but I’m not entirely sure if there’s much depth to the whole thing. Which, it’s fine if there’s not, but I feel like its inclusion in this textbook means that I ought to be able to dig something out of it or they wouldn’t have included it, right?

Like, okay, it’s kind of a happy ending? I guess? Doctor Alpha didn’t lose face, but he’s still defrauding the church, and as soon as he comes clean about that everybody’s going to be mad at him. Also his job is basically mechanized. So maybe not.

I expected the end result of his mad concerto to end up breaking the new organ, thus allowing him to go back to his old one or something, but nope.

Oh wait, something just hit me

One thing I keep coming back to has less to do with the pipe organ itself and more to do with the religious element of the story. And I think that’s really relevant and I think it all ties together in a neat way. I think this story might be even better than I initially gave it credit for.

The deal is that the whole church at the beginning of the story was itself mechanized. Like, mechanized religion. Everything was just so to produce the maximum religiosity per action for each individual person. Perfectly timed, doled out, and just so. The new pipe organ was meant to be one more element to this perfect clockwork church experience. And it was, until Doctor Alpha started screwing around with it.

The result, though, was not just chaos, but pleasure. The folks thoroughly enjoyed themselves when they found that church was not just another assembly line in-hear-the-sermon-and-out Sunday, but an actual experience. Doctor Alpha’s randomized punch card turned the service into something more akin to a tent revival or that church we see in The Blues Brothers where everybody is not just there for the religion but to have an actual factual good time getting their churchin’.

And the fact that the whole situation was precipitated by an actual machine that could only follow rote instructions is kind of a wonderful irony, especially considering that it was the machine’s interaction with “the human factor,” which I reckon wasn’t supposed to be able to happen in the first place.

This is the story of a dude who hacked church, and everyone loved him for it.

Okay, whew, I’m glad I got that all figured out. Otherwise it would have bothered me. I’m sure there’s more nuance to suss out, and if you’ve got any thoughts I’d love to hear them. I think there’s a chance that I’m going to look up at least one of David Ely’s novels and see how I like it. I’ll keep you posted on that front. This was a fun story even before I found what I think the core theme is, well-written and engaging. I really recommend it.

2 thoughts on ““The Human Factor”

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