The latest volume in the Science Fiction Classics range of the British Library edited by Mike Ashley, Menace of the Machine gathers fourteen stories originally published between 1894 and 1965, examining what is termed, with hindsight, “the rise of artificial intelligence” in fiction and the concerns arising from it as perceived by the writers of those rapidly changing decades.
Selected once more by Mike Ashley, his introduction offers a comprehensive overview of what is to come and a wider overview of many stories which are not included but remain relevant to the topic before leading into the first offering, Moxon’s Master, a tale written by Ambrose Bierce, celebrated author of The Devil’s Dictionary.
Inspired by the “mechanical Turk,” an early automated chess playing machine, it is a simple tale of odd behaviour used to justify the presence of a witness to later events, but as a prototype of what is to be further explored in the collection it is interesting and forward-thinking in the questions of philosophy raised by the characters.
The earliest story presented, in The Discontented Machine Adeline Knapp considers that “these evidences of human power and ingenuity are enough to make one proud of the age in which he lives, and the race to which he belongs,” before questioning the roles of master and servant in a piece which never realises the premise it has set out, the threat never manifested despite the opposing positions being clearly defined.
Elizabeth Bellamy takes a more humorous approach in Ely’s Automatic Housemaid, the change of tone facilitated by the domestic rather than industrial setting favoured by Knapp; aware of the discontinuity between appearance and action and how disturbing that might be to an onlooker, Bellamy describes what may be the first example of the concept that is now referred to as “the uncanny valley.”
In The Mind Machine of 1919, Michael Williams offers a future history of the half-century beyond the Great War, the novella the first in the collection to specifically and actively express an emulation of consciousness and purpose in its titular mechanism rather than its behaviour being an aberration of programming or construction.
First published a decade later, S Fowler Wright’s Automata appears at first as a tirade of half-truths and unfounded supposition presented as fiction, any genuine concerns lost in the shouting, before a change of tone reveals the satirical intention in what is a more complex piece of deeper insight than first indicated, presaging Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in its huge social shifts and attitudes.
A bleaker view is imagined by the English literary novelist E M Forster in The Machine Stops, a cautionary tale of a species in terminal decline, reliant on technology they no longer understand yet which is totally integrated into their lives, incapable of repairing it or coping without it, held in bubbles of conceit and afraid of the outdoors, looking down on those who challenge the received wisdom of a decadent age.
Written in the later years of the Great War, dramatists Perley Poore Sheehan and Robert H Davis are represented by the short play Efficiency, slight, uncomplicated and direct but interesting despite that, making its point in a heavy-handed way but bringing a moral dimension to war and the class divide as it brings home to the Emperor the human cost of his campaigns.
First published in 1934, Harl Vincent’s self-aware robotic surgeon Rex brings about a full-scale revolution, something only hinted at in the earlier stories, and prefigures two iconic creations of three decades later, the Cybermen of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and the unsolvable contradictions of logic with which James T Kirk would often trick a hostile machine into destroying itself, while J J Connington’s technological marvel is almost Lovecraftian in its horror, concealed in the tunnels by the shore whose exit is periodically sealed off by the rising tide in Danger in the Dark Cave.
Many of the stories making up Menace of the Machine structured as “revelations” of the central technology, understandable given that robots and computers would have been out of the experience of most contemporary readers, in the future of The Evitable Conflict of Isaac Asimov the ubiquitous presence of a centrally controlled distributed intelligence is a given.
A typical Asimov think piece of talking heads, intellects investigate and dissect the apparent discontinuity between programming and execution, but it is largely a way for him to show off his conception of idle, bountiful utopia, and like the predictions of the psychohistorians of Foundation much of it depends on the future actions of society and populations en masse.
Demonstrating the flexibility of science fiction, the Two-Handed Engine of C L Moore and Henry Kuttner is a thriller of deception and revenge as a man is haunted by a robotic police force remotely guided by a supposedly infallible computer, stalking the perpetrators of murder to intimidate them and act as a deterrent to others before executing them.
A melancholy whimsy of the robotic survivors of apparent global catastrophe which was an influence on Ken Macleod’s machine interactions in his Corporation Wars trilogy, it was in 1958 that Brian W Aldiss asked the unfortunately rhetorical question – and provided the conclusive answer – But Who Can Replace a Man?
Dating to 1946, Will F Jenkins’ A Logic Named Joe is more broadly comic in theme and tone, and is particularly interesting in that it envisages a world where individuals are instantly connected to each other and to whatever information they request, albeit accidentally, the worst case scenario of the intrusion of privacy made commonplace by social media presented four decades before Mark Zuckerberg was born.
Perhaps the best known of the stories, Arthur C Clarke‘s Dial F For Frankenstein is an exemplary work of the grand master as with precise phrasing and conceptual clarity he introduces his ideas and subverts not only the genial ambition of his hard-working researchers but possibly the entire future of the human race as it presents the vast possibility and the potential problems inherent in the unexpected performance of their invention, a fitting conclusion to the Menace of the Machine, itself another essential offering from the British Library.