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Entry updated 27 November 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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The idea that mechanical production processes might one day free mankind from the burden of labour is a common utopian dream, exemplified by Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and its modern counterpart, Mack Reynolds's Looking Backward from the Year 2000 (1973). But the dream has its nightmarish aspects, as hinted at in the manufacture and display of Automata in recent centuries, sometimes as emblems of free labour; and as argued in tales like Mr Jonnemacher's Machine: The Port to Which We Drifted (1898) by Walter Doty Reynolds writing as Lord Prime: work can be seen as the way in which people justify their existence, and the spectres of unemployment and redundancy, historically associated with poverty and misery, have haunted the developed countries since the days of the Industrial Revolution. The utopian dream must be set alongside the memory of the Luddite riots and the Great Depression, arguments of this sort being much sophisticated by speculative sociologists such as Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) in La Technique ou L'Enjeu du Siècle (1954; trans with revs John Wilkinson as The Technological Society 1964) or Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) in The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967) and The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (1970), both authors presciently eloquent about the implications of a commodified world. Thus it is hardly surprising that an entirely negative view of the prospect of automation can be found in such works as Les condamnés à mort (1920; trans as Useless Hands 1926) by Claude Farrère. Indeed, the history of modern utopian thought (see Dystopias; Utopias) is very largely the history of a loss of faith in utopia-through-automation and the growth of various fears: fear that Machines may destroy the world by using up its resources, poisoning it with waste, or simply by making available the means of self-destruction; fear that we may be "enslaved" by our machines, becoming "automated" ourselves through reliance upon them; and fear that total dependence on automated production might render us helpless were the machines ever to break down. The last anxiety is the basis of one of the most famous Mainstream-sf stories, "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review) by E M Forster, produced in response to the optimistic futurological writings of H G Wells.

The wonders of automation were extensively celebrated by Hugo Gernsback, and much is made of the mechanical provision of the necessities of life in his Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950). Even in the early sf Pulp magazines, however, reservations were apparent in the works of such writers as David H Keller (e.g., "The Threat of the Robot" [June 1929 Wonder Stories]) and Miles J Breuer (e.g., "Paradise and Iron" [Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly]). Laurence Manning's and Fletcher Pratt's "The City of the Living Dead" (May 1930 Wonder Stories) offers a striking image of the people of the future living entirely encased in silver wires, all of their experience as well as all their needs being provided synthetically. The theme played a highly significant part in the work of John W Campbell Jr, who wrote several stories allegorizing mankind's relationship with machinery. In "The Last Evolution" (August 1932 Amazing) and the stories "Twilight" (November 1934 Astounding) and "Night" (October 1935 Astounding), machines outlive their builders on the Dying Earth, but in the series begun with "The Machine" (February 1935 Astounding) mankind breaks free of the benevolent bonds of mechanical cornucopia. Powerful images of people enslaved and automated by machines were offered in the classic film Metropolis (1926; novelization by Thea von Harbou 1926; trans 1927); an earlier and far more trivial Cinema example is La Charcuterie Mécanique, La (1895; vt The Mechanical Butcher). The notion of the leisurely, machine-supported life was ruthlessly satirized in The Isles of Wisdom (1924) by Alexandr Moszkowski and Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

One of the most significant advances in the automation of labour was anticipated in sf, and now bears the name of the story in which it appeared: Robert A Heinlein's "Waldo" (August 1942 Astounding) (see Waldo). Much attention has been devoted to Robots (see also Slavery), manufactured workers which have received a good deal more careful and sympathetic consideration in Genre SF than in the moral tale which coined the word: Karel Čapek's R.U.R (1920; trans 1923). Fully automated factories are featured in several of Philip K Dick's stories, most notably "Autofac" (November 1955 Galaxy), and Dick extended this line of thought to consider the effects of the automation of production on the business of warfare in "Second Variety" (May 1953 Space Science Fiction). Automated warfare is also featured in "Dr Southport Vulpes's Nightmare" (in Nightmares of Eminent Persons, coll 1954) by Bertrand Russell and in "War with the Robots" (July 1962 Science Fiction Adventures UK) by Harry Harrison. The automation of the home has been taken to its logical extreme in a number of ironic sf stories, including "The Twonky" (September 1942 Astounding) by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C L Moore), filmed as The Twonky (1952), "The House Dutiful" (April 1948 Astounding) by William Tenn and "Nor Custom Stale" (September 1959 F&SF) by Joanna Russ. Automated Cities are the central figures in Greg Bear's Strength of Stones (fixup 1981), and one, Bellwether – the automated city as smothering Jewish mother – appears satirically in Dimension of Miracles (1968) by Robert Sheckley; this section was also separately published as "Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay" (February 1968 Galaxy). The automation of information storage and recovery systems and calculating functions is a theme of considerable importance in its own right (see Computers).

The grimmer imagery of the automated future became more extensive in the 1950s. Kurt Vonnegut Jr's Player Piano (1952) tells of a hopeless revolution against the automation of human life and the human spirit. Several writers working under John W Campbell Jr's tutelage, however, produced stories which argued passionately that robots and computers would be a tremendous asset to human life if only we could learn to use them responsibly; rhetorically powerful examples include Jack Williamson's The Humanoids (March-May 1948 Astounding as "... And Searching Mind"; rev 1949) whose ending decisively overturned the moral of its classic predecessor, his own "With Folded Hands ..." (July 1947 Astounding) – and Mark Clifton's and Frank Riley's They'd Rather be Right (August-November 1954 Astounding; edited version 1957; vt The Forever Machine 1958; text restored under original title 1981). Despite this stubborn defence, the encroachment of the machine upon the most essential and sacred areas of human activity and endeavour became a common theme in post-World War Two sf. Artists find themselves replaced by machines in numerous stories (see Arts), most notably Walter M Miller Jr's "The Darfsteller" (January 1955 Astounding), and Androids or robots often find a place in the most intimate of human relationships. In cheerier vein, Fritz Leiber offered gentle Satire on fears of automation in The Silver Eggheads (January 1959 F&SF; exp 1962), where fiction authors have become mere figureheads operating prose-generating Wordmills – which they rise up and destroy, only to find the knack of solo writing less easy than supposed.

The basic idea of Campbell's "The Last Evolution" – that automation might be the prelude to the establishment of a self-sustaining, independently evolving mechanical life-system – was first considered in Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1872) and has been a constant preoccupation of sf writers; other early examples include Laurence Manning's "The Call of the Mech-Men" (November 1933 Wonder Stories) and Eric Frank Russell's "Mechanistria" (January 1942 Astounding). Further developments of the theme include Stanisław Lem's The Invincible (1964; trans 1973) and James P Hogan's Code of the Lifemaker (1983), and such pointed Satires as John T Sladek's The Reproductive System (1968; vt Mechasm 1969) and Olaf Johannesson's Sagan om den stora datamaskinin (1966; trans as The Tale of the Big Computer 1968; vt The Great Computer; vt The End of Man?). The sinister twist added by stories dealing with evolving systems of war-machines was adapted to an interstellar stage in Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series (see Berserkers), whose early stories were assembled in Berserker (coll of linked stories 1967); the idea of a Universe-wide conflict between biological and mechanical systems has been further developed by Gregory Benford in his Galactic Center Saga, including Great Sky River (1987) and its sequels.

The dangers of automation comprise one of the fundamental themes of modern Dystopian fiction; different variations can be found in Frederik Pohl's "The Midas Plague" (April 1954 Galaxy) and its sequels (collected in Midas World [fixup 1983]), Robert Sheckley's "The Laxian Key" (November 1954 Galaxy), Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (December 1965 Galaxy), Michael Frayn's A Very Private Life (1968) and Gwyneth Jones's Escape Plans (1986). At a more intimate level, the notion of the automatization of the human psyche was a key theme in the later work of Philip K Dick, displayed in such novels as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and explained in two notable essays: "The Android and the Human" (December 1972 SF Commentary) and "Man, Android and Machine" (in Science Fiction at Large, anth 1976, ed Peter Nicholls). The notion of an intimate hybridization of human and machine is carried forward in many stories featuring Cyborgs. [BS/DRL]

see also: Cybernetics; Sociology; Technology.

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