Thursday, September 13, 2007

Eric Frank Russell's "Mechanistria": Adventure on a planet of hostile alien robots

Quote from the story titled Mechanistria by Eric Frank RussellThis story is far less coupled with "Jay Score" than with rest of the series - "Symbiotica" & "Mesmerica". It includes most of the cast of "Jay Score", plus some more - but rest of the story is very different.

You need to drop credulity when reading it; just look for fun, & you might find some.

Story summary.
While the narrator, the sergeant-at-arms of Upsydaisy (the ship on earth/Venus run) is waiting with crew for their next trip, Captain McNulty comes & announces another adventure.

Professor Flettner has invented a new drive that enables faster-than-light travel, & "is seeking a crew for his extra-solarian vessel, the Marathon". McNulty will lead it, & it will include Jay Score & a few of older staff - all of whom have been trained on the new ship while rest of crew were vacationing.

McNulty has given the option to his old Upsydaisy crew to sign up for Marathon, or stick to Upsydaisy with its new team. All of them sign up, including the ten-tentacled martians. "Four government experts" will also join the first voyage of Marathon.

Destination star is "a minor luminary in the region of Bootes". The adventurers will examine one of the planets of this system.

OK - they land at their destination: "The world ... was little bigger than Terra. Its sunlit face had a mixture of blacks, reds and silvers rather than the old familiar browns, blues and greens. It was one of five planets circling a sun smaller and whiter than our own. A small, insignificant group of asteroids shared this grouping but we had no difficulty in cutting through their orbits... air was twelve pounds and breathable".

A party is enlisted to tentatively examine the immediate area. They reach a nearby river on foot. "After a while a headless body came floating and bobbing along. The mutilated corpse vaguely resembled that of an enormous lobster. It had a hard, crimson, chitinous shell, four crablike legs, two lobsterish pincers & was half as big again as a man. Its neck was a raw, bloodless gash from which white strings dangled."

A little later, a big lizard comes to drink water. And talks to them telepathically! It invites them to "stick around... But not around my burrow. I don't like publicity. It's dangerous."

Well - introductions over, they head back to ship. That is when they discover their radio has failed. A check at ship discovers the local airwaves are "alive from two hundred meters right down into the ultra short wave band. There is not room to get a word in edge ways ... There are whistles of a steady and sustained type that might be direction signals. There are eight different waterfalls of considerable intensity. I reckon they are power broadcasts. In between all these is an orgy of gabbling which suggests this place is fairly crawling with life."

Now 3 men in a lifeboat will fly around for half an hour. They radio seeing a couple of roads, & some moving things. And then their radio goes dead. Nothing will be ever heard from them again!

A little later, the spaceship is surrounded by robots of many kinds. A little fight later, most of the crew has been forcibly captured by locals.

Some of the terrestrials, but no martians, soon find themselves in a prison. On taking stock, "McNulty found seven dead, five missing, not counting the Martians".

Soon they are joined by a couple of lobsters - the kind they found beheaded. They are also prisoners, & can talk to our friends telepathically! During this conversation, we learn that this planet is ruled by robots, but the lobster things are from a nearby watery world called Varga. These robots have been fighting Vargans for domination, & the ones now in prison are PoWs. Also, that the robots intend to dissect them all - lobsters & terrans alike! "They dissect all the individualistic. They've been doing it for years, centuries, trying to discover the cause of personal independence. They are intelligent machines, but their intelligence is completely communal."

Anyway, Martians come to rescue the friend in the pinnace - a kind of short range flier. Lobsters refuse to be rescued because "Even a child knows that a prisoner must maintain honor by uncomplainingly accepting his fate."

Pinnace will have to make two trips to Marathan to transport the rescued. While waiting on prison roof for it to return, some of the rescued figure some structures around them are beaming power on different bands to the machines - kind of Tesla's wireless power transmitters. They destroy one; will bomb more on return trip. But for locals, it will be only a temporary setback, because there are repair machines with their own power sources.

A discussion at ship later will reveal that martians survived by sitting "on the ceilings where they couldn't get at us. We picked them up, dropped them and left the rest to nature. They can't climb." Also, "it looks rather as if mere motion is their definition of sentient life. It moves, therefore it lives."

This hypothesis will be tested in another town, where the adventurers capture a local robot before returning to earth.

Fact sheet.
Mechanistria, short story, review
First published: Astounding Science Fiction, January 1942
Rating: B
Series: Jay Score (A), Mechanistria (B), Symbiotica (B), Mesmerica (B)
Related: All stories of Eric Frank Russell.
Listed among the stories from John Campbell's Astounding/Analog.